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Monday, January 17, 2005

It's All about Love

Within this article is the message the fundies and Christian conservatives -- tragically -- just don't get.

Same-Sex Foster Care a Success

       
January 17 -- Like many of the neighboring homes along Massachusetts Avenue in Massapequa, the tan house with the front porch hints at the happy disarray within.

Two pink bicycle helmets lie, upturned, on the steps. Inside, a stack of folding chairs leans against the wall, the vestige of a neighborhood holiday party that drew 60 revelers. A kitchen counter is piled with groceries.

Before his kids arrived, Michael Medaglia prided himself on his spotless home. Now, he throws up his hands and recites recent advice from a neighbor. "If I have to neglect my household to go outside to throw a ball to my son, I'm going to," he said.

>From the cluttered kitchen to his insistence on saying grace before dinner, Medaglia takes pride in his family's average suburban lifestyle. But that "average," Medaglia acknowledges, comes with an asterisk.

Medaglia and his partner, Cliff Candida, are gay. Three of the four children who live in their home are in foster care. They have been raising the fourth -- a 6-year-old daughter whose birth family isn't able to care for her -- since infancy.

"We're an average household," said Medaglia, 41, who owns a local hair salon. "The only difference is that there's just not a woman here."

Candida, 40, who works as a custodian for a local school district, eagerly agrees. "What was instilled into us as children, we are giving to these children," he said.

The existence of same-sex foster parents has come under increased scrutiny following a court ruling in Arkansas last month that struck down that state's ban on gay foster parents. The state plans to appeal.

If that ruling stands, Utah will be the only state that bans same-sex couples from serving as foster parents, according to Paul Cates, of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. New York has no such restriction.

Officials with social service departments in Nassau and Suffolk say they don't keep track of how many same-sex couples participate in their foster programs, though they estimate that they make up only a small percentage of the more than 750 foster families on Long Island.

"That is not something that is asked during the interview process," said Karen Garber, a spokeswoman for Nassau County's Department of Social Services, which referred Medaglia and Candida to a reporter.

But even though the percentage of same-sex foster parents is small, anecdotal evidence suggests they are successful, said Dennis Nowak, spokesman for Suffolk's Department of Social Services. "Many of them understand the difficulties that our children face because of the difficulties they themselves have had," he said.

Medaglia and Candida became foster parents just over a year ago, when they took in two brothers and their sister, who range in age from 7 to 11, while their parents were going through marital troubles. Out of respect for the family's privacy, Medaglia and Clifford asked that the children's names and hometown not be published.

While Medaglia and Candida say they make no secret about their relationship and were upfront from the start with social services, they nevertheless have decided not to show too much affection in front of the kids. "We show affection to the kids," Medaglia said. "We don't show affection to each other."

Both said they were prepared to talk to the kids about their relationship, but the topic had yet to come up.

When the children first arrived, Candida said, he slept on the couch. But after several nights the children approached him, asking, "Why don't you go sleep with Mike? You'll be more comfortable."

The 10-year-old girl said she found the first few weeks a little uncomfortable. "I was kind of like, I don't know what to do here because there's all boys surrounding me," she recalled. "I was like, are they going to walk in on me when I'm in the bathtub or something?"

But once she was assured that the men respected her privacy, she said, she relaxed. Although their stay is only temporary, she and her two brothers call the pair "Daddy Mike" and "Daddy Cliff," and the men say that as long as the siblings are in their care they will treat them as their own.

The children have been equally welcomed by their neighbors and the couple's extended family. "Half the time we've got the block's kids in our house," said Medaglia. "So nobody is like, oh my god, there's a gay couple on the block. Don't send your kids there."

Candida and Medaglia speak with pride when they talk about the progress the kids have made. The 11-year-old, who was in special education when he arrived, is now in mainstream classes and has a B-plus average. The 7-year-old brother, who was shy and reserved, has come out of his shell, they said.

While none of the children say they mind that their foster parents are both men, what it actually means to be gay still seems ambiguous to them.

"People in my class say that you guys are gay," the 10-year-old told them last week, during a conversation with the couple, her siblings and a reporter. "And I told them that they're not. They're just two men together, but they're just best friends."

"Well, what if we were?" Candida asked her.

"Would it change anything the way you feel?" Medaglia asked.

"No, because you guys are both my foster parents," she answered, almost in a whisper. Medaglia said later that he planned to have a talk with her to explain.

The two men say they are beginning to prepare the children -- and themselves -- for their eventual return to their birth parents, now only a few months away. Medaglia says he has a good relationship with the children's father, who knows that the men are gay.

Candida has kept his distance from the birth parents. "I'm trying to deal with the fact that they're going to go back," he said. "When they're part of your life and you're basically living, eating and breathing with them every day and then all of a sudden they're not going to be in your house, it's a very difficult emotion."

Candida and Medaglia say they plan to visit the children regularly, taking them on picnics and doing some baby-sitting when the family needs it. They say there's no doubt they'll be foster parents again, and also hope to adopt children through the foster program.

"Just knowing what you can do for a child, it warms your heart," Medaglia said.

What seems to matter most to the children, the men say, is that they feel loved and supported. They shared a note the 10-year-old brought home from school around Thanksgiving.

In a child's careful cursive, the message reads: "I am very thankful for my mommy and my daddy and daddy Mike and daddy Cliff because they love me and never let anything bad happen to me." -- Katie Thomas, Newsday Staff Writer

Link --> http://www.newsday.com/news/local/longisland/ny-lifost0117,0,5741119,print.story?coll=ny-li-big-pix

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