By Liz Massey, March 2016 Issue.
Sharicka and Donna McHenry have started 2016 in a household that looks quite different than their living situation did in years past.
Throughout the past 24 months, they became a licensed foster family, provided a stable home for two, and then four, siblings who had been separated into different homes, and, finally, adopted the quartet on Dec. 18, 2015.
Today, their modest South Phoenix home bustles with activity. During a visit to the house shortly after Christmas, Donna discussed the meaning of the butterfly-shaped tree topper with their children. The decoration is a metaphor for their new life together.
“What does the butterfly stand for?” Donna asked, looking at Julio, 6, and Angel, 9. She continued, “It stands for new beginnings and a fresh start.”
In many ways, the story of how the McHenry family came together exemplifies the fresh start that the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling provided for same-sex couples that wish to create a family by jointly adopting children. It also represents a new era for foster/adoption agencies like Devereux Arizona, the agency that Donna and Sharicka went through. In the wake of the ruling, such agencies not only will work with same-sex couples, but are actively seeking them out as partners in resolving Arizona’s foster care crisis.
Becoming a Family
Donna, a Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative coordinator in Maricopa County, and Sharicka, a licensing and marketing compliance specialist with AmeriFirst Financial Inc., became a couple in late 2000. The women say they always wanted to have children, but focused on each of their careers for a while before attempting to become pregnant. After it became clear neither of them would be able to carry a child, they began investigating how to create a family through adoption.
The couple attended an open house event for Devereux Arizona at Halle Heart Children’s Museum in late 2013, and received their foster license on Valentine’s Day 2014. They received their first foster placement less than two months later, though it wasn’t until late July of that year that they said hello to Gracie, 12, and Catalina, 7, the female half of their now-adopted family.
When Donna and Sharicka started their application to be a foster family, state and federal laws did not validate same-sex
couples’ rights to adopt children jointly. Even after same-sex marriage became legal in Arizona (Oct. 17, 2014), Donna noted that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery refused to assist same-sex couples in second-parent adoption cases.
“When we attended the open house, we knew it was going to be a battle for both of us to have rights to the kids,” Donna said.
However, even with nationwide marriage equality more than 18 months off, the moms did have at least one factor in their favor as they applied for their foster parent license – Arizona’s overwhelming number of children in need of foster homes.
It Takes A Village
According to Lane Barker, executive director of Devereux Arizona, the number of children in foster care in Arizona has skyrocketed from 9,000 in 2009 to 19,000 currently. The vast majority have been removed from their homes because of reports of neglect, something Barker said had increased in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
This sudden jump in the number of children who need placement means that a significant proportion of them are cared for in shelters or group homes, although family settings are regarded as the best in the long term. Barker explained that these trends were part of the reason Devereux Arizona began taking steps to become LGBTQ inclusive in 2011.
“As we watched the number of kids in the system go up, we felt it was our obligation to [explore] every corner of the community to find people to foster and adopt,” Barker said. “Shame on us if we don’t find families for those kids. What we found was that many times, it was the same-sex couples who would step up for the kids no one else is interested in.”
The Flip of a Switch
Gracie and Catalina’s little brother Julio joined the McHenry household in April of last year; he was followed by Angel in May. Once the judge moved to sever the parental rights for the boys, the moms explained, they could think about adopting their foster children. Of the three homes that had cared for the siblings, only the McHenrys were willing and able to take all four children simultaneously.
“The children’s case worker told us to take our time with the decision to care for all four,” Sharicka said. “But for us it was the right thing to do.”
Just about a month after Angel came to live with the family, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted same-sex couples in all 50 states the right to marry. That single decision shifted the momentum in the McHenrys’ quest to adopt from preparing for combat to accepting the fruits of victory.
“Everything flipped after the ruling,” Donna recalled. “We had a long list of things we were going to have to attend to in order to be equal before that, but afterward, even Sharicka’s name change with Social Security was easy.”
With all the joy surrounding the marriage equality ruling, the couple said it wasn’t until their caseworker noted they’d be drawing up the adoption papers in both Sharicka’s and Donna’s names that the real impact of the legal changes hit home for them.
The Ingredients of a Happy Home
The McHenry home is dotted with visual reminders about how they intend to operate as a family. There are whiteboards with lists of vocabulary words and chores for the kids, and calendars that tally days in which each child has displayed good behavior. Donna said this system was carefully designed to help their adopted sons and daughters thrive.
“The top protective factors in a child’s life are structure, expectations and the opportunity to excel,” Donna said.
The moms say their system has provided the children with stability, something that was previously lacking in their lives. Angel, who experienced putting up a Christmas tree with his family for the first time in his life this year, is excited about the cooking kit he received as a present, since he dreams of becoming a chef. Gracie went from failing grades and a fear of the police to straight A’s and aspirations to become a detective. By Donna’s estimation, all four children are thriving, and the reason, she added, is simple: they’re each receiving the focus and attention they need.
“With any kid, if you can tap into what they love, they’ll grow,” she asserted, adding that if foster parents want to provide the best possible environment for the children who come under their care, they need to be prepared to advocate assertively for them.
“In foster care, you are the advocate for that child – don’t stop until you’re satisfied,” Donna added. “The system is broken. If we don’t act as the system should be, nothing will change.”
Love Makes a Family
The McHenrys have a full house, quite literally, for now. Their modest four-bedroom dwelling bulges with toys, beds, furniture and all the other accessories of family life. But Donna and Sharicka haven’t ruled out expanding their tribe to include more adopted kids once they find larger living quarters.
“We discussed (adding more children) after we move,” Sharicka said. “Our kids liked the idea. They want every kid to have what they have – and we’d save every kid if we could.”
Since their birth family included a lesbian aunt, the McHenry children have never questioned the idea that two women could be parents together.
“They are just happy to be safe, loved and able to do fun stuff,” Sharika said.
To which Donna added, “I was raised by a single mother, and my grandmother always taught us that a child with a parent is blessed, and a child who has two parents is doubly blessed.”