Closely watched legal battle involves UCC family
My partner, Scott, and I have been the focus of an unusual, historic custody case. Living in a committed relationship for over eight years, we decided to enter Florida's foster care system with the intent to foster-to-adopt children. When we discovered Florida bans gay couples from adopting, we were told to "fudge" the documents. However, we're honest people and believe in living honest lives.
Even though adoption looked unlikely, we decided to go forward with our quest and we began to care for many foster children. Throughout the next year and a half, we welcomed 29 different children into our home.
One of these was God's unbelievable gift to us—a troubled, 4-year-old girl who had lived in at least 17 foster placements. Her behavior had been deemed uncontrollable. Although, initially, she only was supposed to stay for one long weekend, she ended up staying longer. We did so well with this child, the agency also moved in her 5-year-old sister.
These two girls seemed to have a special, spiritual bond with us. They had been introduced to a number of different couples wishing to adopt, but the would-be parents became disinterested once they were apprised of the girls' background.
Since the agency could not find a suitable match, caseworkers got together with the state attorney's office and found a way that the girls could stay permanently: We were to become their "non-relative custodians," meaning we would have "all rights and responsibilities of parents." And so, in time, the children were taken off Medicaid. The state provided no stipend to us, removed the customary guarantee of college tuition reimbursement and took away our coordinated child care. These girls were ours—in every respect, including financial. We didn't care. They were our girls for life.
When we first moved to Florida, we struggled for over two years to find a church home, because not only are we a same-sex couple, but also an interracial couple living in the South. So we were either shunned for being gay or for being biracial, or both. Plus, the array of children we paraded to church every Sunday just wasn't understood.
Then one day, we were watching television and a commercial came on about the UCC and its belief about all of us being children of God. We were intrigued and began looking at signs of churches in our community. We finally found Chapel on the Hill UCC in Seminole, Fla. We decided to give it a try, and we proceeded to parade into the church with six children in tow.
From the very minute we entered, we felt embraced by the love of a family and by the love of a God shown through the members of this church. We never felt pressured or felt their warm reception was staged or fake. Its pastor, the Rev. Angel Toro, was a very powerful preacher—almost in keeping with my gospel type of upbringing. We enjoyed the music and just felt so at peace. We attended every single Sunday and, in time, went forward to become members.
On Good Friday, April 9, we received disturbing news. Gov. Jeb Bush's office had received a call from a couple that had discovered these girls had been removed from the system and were in the home of two homosexual males. The state, therefore, was attempting to remove the children from our permanent custody and put them back into foster care.
Our new church family filled the courtroom to support us, and on Sept. 9, the judge rendered her order: The girls will remain our legal children.
We're the first gay couple in the history of Florida to have joint legal custody of our children—a gigantic precedent in our state and the country.
In Florida alone, there are 4,136 children eligible for adoption, and if the state's ban on gay adoption was removed, it is estimated that half of these children immediately would receive permanent homes.
It's an important issue to us because it's about God's children.
Curtis Watson is a member of Chapel on the Hill UCC in Seminole, Fla.