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State should know that 2 dads are better than none

By SUE CARLTON
Published June 21, 2006


They're a busy family this summer, the girls off to horse camp and gymnastics camp, to family field trips at the botanical gardens and the aquarium, to the beach.

They have loud laughing dinners around the table. Sometimes, the girls fight like the sisters they are: She's looking at me. Make her stop. Sundays it's church.

"Who?'' Dad asks when I mention Ronda Storms.

Storms is the Hillsborough commissioner who made political hay out of her crusade to keep the county from recognizing gay pride events. Most recently, she said if she's elected to the state Senate, she'll try to ban gays and lesbians from being foster parents.

That would exclude people like Dad - Scott Elsass, who works for a health care company - and his partner of 11 years, Curtis Watson, a child and family therapist who is Daddy to their two girls. Over the years, their Seminole home has sheltered 30 kids in need.

Maybe you remember them. Two years ago, Watson and Elsass went to court for the right to raise two little girls, foster children the state had placed in their permanent custody.

Things didn't exactly start out sitcom sweet. After stints in a string of foster homes, the youngest girl arrived and greeted them with an extended middle finger.

"Excuse me?'' Elsass said, shocked. She thought he didn't understand, so she supplied the words. "F--- you,'' she said. She was all of 4.

"Curtis says, 'She's so real and honest,' " Elsass told me. "I said, 'She's real all right.' "

The girls flourished, and the state gave the men what's called long-term nonrelative custody. But then officials wanted to take it back, not because Watson or Elsass had done anything wrong, but because they said caseworkers hadn't tried hard enough to find an adoptive home.

Catch-22: In Florida, gay people can't adopt.

In court, even the state's own witnesses said how well the girls were doing. The judge thanked "Dad and Daddy," said the state owed them a debt of gratitude and ruled that the girls could live permanently with them.

"We can't change their last name, but they're ours,'' Elsass says.

Last year, the girls wanted a big birthday party. Okay, the dads said, but don't be shocked if some people don't show. The invitations made it clear there was no mommy involved.

Turnout was huge.

"We don't define ourselves as gay men,'' Elsass says. "We define ourselves as family men and workers.'' They work, play, raise their kids. They're not especially political. He says they're lucky enough to have lots of friends, gay and not.

The girls have just finished first and second grades. The one they were told was probably mentally retarded is their scholar. Her sister is the social butterfly, crazy for horses.

Elsass has stayed in touch with their birth mother. He admires her for knowing she was losing control and calling for help. He hopes she can one day have some part in their lives.

Photos of foster children who have come and gone spread across a wall of their den: the boy who came kicking and screaming, the one the neighbors called "the Taliban.'' Turned out he was so sweet members of their church cried when he left.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families said she couldn't tell me how many of the state's foster parents are gay because they don't ask. Thirty-seven percent are single, if that's any clue.

The objection to gays as foster (or adoptive) parents seems rooted in the notion that they'll "turn" children gay, or that they'll hurt them. But when you read about abuse in a foster home, isn't it usually straight people doing the damage?

And the argument that it's morally wrong? Well, what's so morally right about letting kids in need go without capable and qualified parents who are willing to take them on?

The foster care system is overburdened. A state audit released Monday said a higher percentage of children in foster care are being repeatedly abused.

Imagine if bias without basis were to take away a segment of decent foster parents. The system can't afford it. The kids can't afford it.

Elsass tells a story he still finds funny. On a family camping trip, his youngest kept bringing people over to meet them.

"See?'' she would say. "I do have two dads."

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 21, 2006, 06:27:31]


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