They thought they’d see if anyone would let them adopt one child. Now they have fourteen.
I admit I have an inordinate curiosity about big happy families. You might think that is because I am a lonely only child wishing for siblings, but quite the opposite; I am the second of eight children.
Complaining we weren’t a happy family seems unfair. We had a big Beaver Cleaver house and our parents never hit us. But the unconditional love concept I’ve heard so much about seems to have escaped us. In our family, you were loved until you transgressed, and then you were held up to your siblings as a shining example of failure. We were never encouraged to bond. We didn’t hug or kiss one another, or our parents. Still don’t. When I last saw my sister Mary Lou, who lives in California, her husband and I hugged, but Lou and I would never think of it.
So you see why I am a voyeur of big happy families. I’m always looking for that spark we were missing. The spark that seems to burn with the brightness of a welding torch in the home of Steven and Roger Ham, bonding them together.
“We built our family on the value that family is family.” Steven says.
I feel like there is a clue there, if I could just grasp it.
Roger and Steven met in a bar in Reno, Nevada in 1993. Roger was the bartender. Steven was his regular customer. They say they fell in love on their first date – to Cirque du Soleil.
Eight years later they were still together, living the good life together in Arizona, but their big 3,000 square foot house seemed empty. Both men had grown up in large families, Steven as the youngest of 14 children and Roger as the youngest of 12. Roger admits he was the driving force behind the idea to adopt, but rolls his eyes in when Steven says he never really wanted children.
“Steven has a knack with kids,” Roger says. “He’s like a pied piper.”
Roger was the first to look into adopting a baby through a private adoption, but Steven did his own research and decided a state agency was the way to go. So he began calling adoption agencies:
“Honestly, if I needed to lie and say I was a single parent, I would have.”
But he didn’t have to lie. Of the half-dozen agencies he contacted, only two showed any hesitation. Heather Shew-Plummer from Aid to the Adoption of Special Kids in Phoenix became Steven and Roger’s caseworker.
“I immediately fell in love with them. They never tried to hide it, (being gay) but they never made a big deal out of it either. They didn’t want to change the world. They just wanted to raise their kids.”
So Roger and Steven Ham took the classes, and went through the background checks, and were finally ready to welcome a child. The caseworker sent a five-year old boy named Michael for a “get acquainted” visit. During that meeting, Michael confided to Steven that in the group home where he was living, the other kids beat him because he was the smallest. Steven says his heart broke. And Michael never went back to that group home.
The men thought they were done. They had the child they’d hoped for. Their lives were complete. All they had ever really contemplated was one child. As gay men, they counted themselves lucky they had Michael. But as they got to know their new son, they discovered he had siblings in the foster system, siblings he missed every day. So they made an inquiry to their social worker. That’s how they came to adopt three-year-old Andrew and four-year-old Elizabeth, Michael’s brother and sister.
And then they were three.
But there were more siblings, and separating families didn’t sit well with the dads. So they opened their hearts and their home to Madison and Jackson, the twin two-year-old siblings of their three adopted kids.
And then they were five.
Besides the children they adopted, the Hams were also foster parents licensed to take in children in crisis situations. Shortly after the twins arrived, they were asked to foster fifteen-month-old Marcus. Then just two weeks after Marus moved in, they were asked to take in Vanessa, the eleven-year-old cousin of their first five children, in an emergency placement – the aunt she was living with had thrown her out.
Both Marcus and Vanessa stuck.
And then they were seven.
Next to arrive was six-month old Cooper, who was abandoned behind a Walmart and his sister Olivia, who was abandoned at a local hospital. They were followed by ten-month-old Ambrose.
And then they were ten.
Up until that time, all of their kids had been adopted from Arizona where the couple live. But in 2009 they were told about Logan, a special needs, hard-to-place four-year-old from Washington, who had an ear deformity. When they learned his sister Isabel was in the system, they adopted her too, so they wouldn’t be separated.
While watching the local news, the dads chanced to see a story about a four-year-old whose foster parents had been arrested for abuse when her teacher reported finding deep bruises on the little girl. Her two-year-old brother was also rescued. The dads thought they recognized some of the players in that horror story and felt compelled to make a call. Sure enough, Bella and Julian were their daughter Ambrose’s half-sister and half-brother. The Dads called a family meeting. “When can we get them?” Michael asked.
And now they are fourteen.
I don’t know how anyone, no matter how homophobic, could look at the Hams and not see family. Not see love. The idea that the Hams would be a better family if they only had a mother, flies in the face of observation and of my own experience. I had a mother, and seven brothers and sisters, but it didn’t make us family. Maybe what we needed was a couple of gay dads who understood:
“The value that family is family.”
This Father’s Day, I can think of no one more deserving of notice and admiration than Steven and Roger Ham, fathers to fourteen, and over the years, foster fathers to over forty. It escapes me how anyone could look at the children they have rescued and dismiss their raging success as fathers because for twenty monogamous years, they have shared a bed.
If Nobel had a million dollar Exceptional Fatherhood Prize, I would proudly nominate Roger and Steven Ham. But maybe what they already have is better: that big happy family thing.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.