Mike McHugh, Adoption Supervisor with Children & Families First shares his powerful story as an adoptive caucasian gay father of two black sons – addressing misconceptions, biases, challenges overcome and how the words of Andew Vachss, “It’s the family you choose that counts,” has proven true for him.
Mike McHugh, Adoption Supervisor with Children & Families First (CFF), is a known and respected foster care and adoption expert. Holding a Human Services Masters and having trained with some of the most outstanding minds in the child welfare field, Mike is as an authority on adverse childhood experiences, and trauma-informed care practices to support foster and adoptive families. Yet he defines his most powerful wisdom for those considering foster care and adoption as coming from his own experience.
“I have always credited my children for being my greatest teachers, ”he said, “As a professional, I know there are 117,000 children in the foster care system awaiting adoption. As a dad, I see 117,000 opportunities to gain the immeasurable lifetime rewards I have through my family.”
Telling his family’s story, Mike describes walking the aisles of a local bookstore, his mind going back and forth between the multitude of titles he saw before him and a deep emotional calling. At the time, Mike and his partner Peter were helping care for his sister’s newborn daughter. The trip to the store was meant to be a distraction because being his niece’s caregiver had wound his biological clock to full force ticking - but in the 80s and 90s, gay people were not allowed to adopt. It was then that he came across ““The Gay and Lesbian Parenting Handbook: Creating and Raising Our Families" (1994) by April Martin.
While current Delaware law grants equal parental rights to same sex couples in a civil union or marriage, Mike and Peter’s family, with the support of CFF, were the catalyst for this positive equality achievement. Understanding from his reading he should not reveal his sexual orientation unless directly asked, and working with CFF social worker Merrijane Pierce, who knew not to ask, Mike gained approval as a foster parent, which eventually led to him becoming the legal parent of both his sons through adoption from foster care. But Mike fostered and adopted as a single parent, meaning Peter had no legal standing with their sons. After an arduous, year-long legal battle involving attorneys from NY, DE, and with the support of CFF, they were victorious in having Peter recognized as their son’s second legal parent becoming the first second-parent adoption involving a same-sex couple. (Link)
“Children & Families First has always welcomed and encouraged all individuals and couples interested in foster care and adoption,” said Mike, “The support we provide is a source of great pride for me because I know first-hand the difference it makes and I promise anyone interested in becoming a foster or adoptive parent, we will be with you every step of the way.”
When asked if he had any fears making the decision to adopt Mike answers honestly, “I was too naïve to have fears. I think the better question would be what misconceptions I had.” Previously believing his and Peter’s love for their sons would melt away the effects of trauma and prenatal exposure is what he now attributes to a much-needed compassion that helps him guide and support the children and families he works with today. “I foolishly thought I could magically erase the etch-a-sketch of my sons’ lives from before I came into the picture,” he said, “what I learned is that I must always be dependable.”
Being dependable has helped his family face and overcome landlords who refuse to rent to them because of his sexual orientation, neighbors who openly made clear through their actions that their family was not welcome in that neighborhood, and people asking insensitive questions like “Where did you get them?”, “How can that white man be your dad?”, and “If your parents are gay, you must be gay too.” It also led to what Mike defines as his most significant success as a parent. Likely due to prenatal alcohol exposure, Mike’s eldest son had a severe, intractable seizure disorder that would not respond to medication. Putting aside the paralyzing fears and emotions that come along every time something does not work, Mike focused on being dependable – researching and seeking alternative treatments, implementing one at a time, and continuing until he located a study at Johns Hopkins, helped his son implement a specialized diet for two years, and watched as his son became seizure free to this day. “If I held myself accountable every time one of the treatments did not succeed, the responsibility would have crushed me and we may never have gotten to where we did.”
Being dependable is what Mike defines as the greatest advice he has been given – and it is his first thought when asked what advice he would give to someone interested in fostering or adopting, saying, “There are so many unforeseeable things that our children will encounter, good and bad. If you can be dependable, not perfect, not saintly, not a hero – dependable, then you will always be on the helping side of a child’s life. Better yet, you will be on the helping side of your own because becoming a foster and adoptive parent has been the greatest achievement of my life.”
For more information on CFF’s Foster Care and Adoption programs please visit www.cffde.org/fca