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My two dads: David Austin (left) and Bob Guinto (far right) with sons Ryan (second from left) and Justin.
Photo: Marilyn Humphries

 

LGBT Families in the News

"Love Makes a Family"
Originally published by BayWindows, March 8, 2007
Laura Kiritsy, lkiritsy@baywindows.com

Bob Guinto was just a 7-year-old boy when he became a ward of the state. His mother, a 23-year-old single parent who suffered from schizophrenia was unable to care for him or his four siblings. When he was 16, one of his foster parents broke the news to him that his mother had committed suicide; it was her sixth attempt. By the time he aged out of the state's Department of Social Services (DSS) system at age 22, Guinto, a Boston native, had lived in nine foster homes in 11 different communities from Peabody to Scituate. "It wasn't a fun ride," Guinto recalls of his childhood.

Life has changed a lot for Guinto, who is now in his forties. He and David Austin, his spouse, are the proud parents of 8-year-old Ryan, an outgoing young man whose extracurricular interests range from snowboarding to acoustic guitar lessons to dance classes, and Justin, a chatty guy who enjoys playing outside - even in bad weather - and whose culinary tastes encompass those of the average 5-year-old: "I like to eat macaroni and cheese," he declares minutes into an interview at the family's West Roxbury home.

"I have succeeded in everything I ever wanted to do now. I have a loving partner; I have two children. Everything else is gravy now," says Guinto, known around the house as "Papa." "I'm not worried about the past anymore. ... I had to first get in my mind that I only could help so many kids," adds Guinto, who has spent most of his professional career in human services. "There are two children that every day I look at them, they make me happy."

Austin and Guinto adopted Ryan from Cambodia five years ago. Justin joined the family two years ago after spending two years in DSS foster care; his adoption was finalized last year. The couple, who have been together for 19 years - the last three as legally married spouses -  decided to become foster parents nearly 10 years ago. They completed the first Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP) training - an intensive training program required of all prospective foster or adoptive parents - geared specifically towards creating foster and adoptive homes for LGBT youth. They also completed a required home study. Austin and Guinto foster parented some LGBT teens on a short-term basis, but decided they wanted to create a permanent family. "We wanted kids added to our family that were going to grow up with [us] and be a part of our family," says Austin, who grew up the youngest of seven siblings in close-knit family in New York. "So that's when we decided to do adoption." When their collaboration with DSS failed to result in a match, they pursued international adoption. Austin and Guinto adopted Ryan five years ago, when he was 3 1/2-years old.

When they decided they wanted a second child three years later, they returned to DSS, which matched them with Justin, who at the time was also 3 1/2. Austin has high praise for DSS's handling of Justin's placement with them and for the state's LGBT-friendly laws and policies on the whole. "It was just a great experience to be accepted and viewed as one unit, one family, one set of paperwork, one home study, one court date, it was great," says Austin, who is known as "Daddy" at home. "It was a great experience, very positive."

That's because DSS and many of the social service agencies with which it works to find foster and adoptive homes for children in state custody actively seek LGBT people to be foster or adoptive parents. On March 13 and 21, two such agencies, the Home for Little Wanderers - the agency that facilitated Justin's adoption - and the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE), an agency that specializes in placing older children, children of color, sibling groups and those with special needs, will co-host adoptive and foster parenting informational meetings aimed specifically at the LGBT community. The meetings are for "anybody who is at all considering foster parenting or adoption," says Colby Berger, The Home's director of LGBTQ services.

"Whether that's in the distant future or the more immediate future, it's really a chance to hear first hand [from LGBT foster/adoptive parents]. What we know is people don't want to hear generic conversations about adoption or foster care ... they want to hear first hand from folks who have gone through it."  The March 13 meeting will be held at Jordan's Furniture in Reading, and the second meeting will take place at The Home's Roslindale facility.

Berger notes that LGBT prospective parents often come to the process with a unique set of questions. For instance, many express concern about being treated the same as their straight counterparts during the home study, an intensive process in which applicants are queried on a range of personal issues. Because LGBT people haven't always been treated well by the system, says Berger, "I think we can be particularly concerned about, why am I being asked these questions? Am I being asked the same questions that a straight couple would be asked? And it's so great that we can prepare people for that but also we want them to know that when they're going through with the foster care and adoptive process with The Home they will be treated equally." The Home believes that LGBT people "bring unique strengths and talents to parenting," says Berger.

Austin acknowledges that the home study was akin to putting his life "under a microscope" but says that overall, it's a supportive process. "It's to help you and support you and to make you a resource in the Commonwealth to hopefully be a foster parent or adoptive parent for these kids who are in need, and there's a lot of them," says Austin, an environmental consultant. "So I felt like they were really looking at our dirty laundry at some points, but you know that's part of the process and ultimately it allows the agency or whoever to make a better match between child - or children - and parents. And it shouldn't be something that's considered a roadblock."

Austin and Guinto also point out that though children who have suffered abuse and neglect in their early years often have complex medical and emotional needs, those should not be considered roadblocks, either. "Children do not go into DSS care because everything's hunky dory," says Guinto, who now owns and operates a company that does outsourcing for nonprofits. "But at the same time they're not damaged goods either. With the right nurturing any child can be successful."

Indeed, as Justin props his feet up on Ryan's guitar - while he's playing it - or rolls across the living room on a giant Spider Man ball and otherwise competes with his brother for attention, there's no trace of the challenges of his earlier years, such as his birth to a drug-addicted mother, which necessitated his being treated with phenobarbital for withdrawal symptoms. Gone are the orthopedic devices required to treat his chronic toe-walking and his rigid, atrophied muscles, along with the weighted vest aimed at curbing his tendency to flap his arms when overexcited. The difficulty of toilet training a pre-schooler who was terrified to go without a diaper for fear of making a mess is a distant memory. Where bath time once provoked tantrums so anguished that bathing pretty much wasn't an option, now the meltdown occurs because Justin doesn't want to get out of the tub.

"When you look at it on paper, those were big things," says Austin. "And once he was running around, playing like a normal boy with a brother, in and out [of the house], going up the steps, you know, the weighted vest went away, the stuff for his legs went away really quickly and then we potty trained him, which was actually the hardest thing I've ever done as a parent," he adds. "That was the worst." Likewise, as Ryan loudly strums his guitar and repeatedly sings the self-penned lyric, "Just let your fears go away from you," it's hard to imagine that when he joined the Austin/Guinto family he was a malnourished toddler from a distant country who didn't speak English.

The trials and tribulations Austin and Guinto deal with as parents have little to do with the challenges their children, both of whom attend local public schools, experienced pre-adoption. Thus far, they have little to do with sexual orientation either. "They know that they have two fathers and they know other children who have two mothers," explains Austin, holding up one of two bookmarks Ryan made at daycare for his parents on Father's Day. On Mother's Day, he adds, Ryan made two bookmarks "for his two parents."

"[T]he trials and tribulations of parenthood, I think that transcends everything. You know, we have great community here, we know a lot of neighbors because of other kids in the school; there's a whole community based around the school, what the kids do after school ... and that just transcends everything. We're parents and I think for a lot of people it's their first exposure to a two father-led family, and I think it's great for them." The couple takes an active role in their children's education, for example, by chaperoning school activities and through Guinto's leadership of the after-school sports program in which Ryan participates.

Does the couple feel an added pressure to be the perfect parents because of their somewhat unique status in the community as gay dads? "I would say that in the back of my mind occasionally I feel like there is a little bit more scrutiny and a need to succeed as parents because of our family," Austin acknowledges. "But it's so quickly overridden by the fact that you're a parent and this is a loving, supporting household and the people looking at me have all the same issues and we're all helping each other out. No one really has time to think about that or look too closely."

The pressure to be perfect is most likely not a concern for Austin as he holds his younger son in his arms as the interview wraps up and Justin is asked if he'd like to make a parting comment about his Dad. "Um, can I say I love him?" he asks.