Fred A. Bernstein

Married or Not, It's a Full House

The lives of Steven Lofton, Roger Croteau, and their foster children

Published in The New York Times, November 19, 2003

Steven Lofton, Roger Croteau and Mr. Lofton's five foster children - who were born to H.I.V.-positive mothers - will prepare Thanksgiving dinner in a kitchen in Portland, Ore., with cobalt blue walls and fire-engine-red Formica cabinets. Then they will join more than 20 guests in a dining room with an orange tabletop, yellow carpeting and a silver ceiling.

"Some of us are people of color," Mr. Lofton, 46, said, referring to his interracial family. "And some of us are people who love color."

Mr. Lofton's sense of humor is one of the things that has sustained him through 16 years of raising children under laws that can be hostile to gay parents. This week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in ruling that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, noted that children of such couples deserve the stability that marriage brings. The court wrote that children should not be penalized "because the state disapproves of their parents' sexual orientation."

But not every state shares that view. Mr. Lofton has been entangled in a legal dispute with Florida (where the family used to live) since the mid-1990's. That's when Bert Sanchez, one of Mr. Lofton's foster sons, tested negative for H.I.V. - great news, except that it made him eligible for adoption under Florida rules. Mr. Lofton and Mr. Croteau, 48, both pediatric nurses, had taken Bert in when he was 9 weeks old. Mr. Lofton applied to adopt him, so that the boy could remain in their home.

"Moving Bert would be child abuse," Mr. Lofton said flatly.

But Florida refused to allow Mr. Lofton to adopt Bert, now 12 - because since 1977 it has been illegal for gay men or women to adopt children there. The state hoped to place Bert with a heterosexual couple.

Mr. Lofton and Mr. Croteau, feeling beleaguered by Florida's Department of Children and Families, moved to Oregon in 1998, and eventually took in more foster children: two young H.I.V.-positive brothers.

Lynn Jenkins, a social services specialist for the Oregon Department of Child Welfare, said, "I saw the wonderful work they were doing with the children they already had."

Although the three older children - Bert, Frank Alexander, 16, and Tracey Frederick, also 16 - are still under the jurisdiction of Florida, things are calmer for the family now that they are three time zones away, Mr. Lofton said.

In 1999, with the American Civil Liberties Union representing him, Mr. Lofton sued the State of Florida over the refusal to let him become Bert's legal parent. (Ironically, one of Florida's rationales, according to its briefs, is that two men or two women cannot offer children the "stable home environment" that results from heterosexual marriage.) The case, which was taken up by Rosie O'Donnell, is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, and could be decided at any time.
If Mr. Lofton and Mr. Croteau were to marry, it would have no direct effect on the Florida case, said Leslie Cooper, a lawyer from the A.C.L.U., even though same-sex marriage would deprive the state of one of its rationales for banning gay adoption.

"Florida law is clear on the subject," Bill Spann, a spokesman for the state's children and families agency, said by telephone. "Cohabitating same-sex couples are not permitted to adopt. We feel strongly that children's interests are best served by being raised in a home with both a mother and a father present."

Mr. Croteau was born in Bellingham, Mass., on the Rhode Island border. He and Mr. Lofton have not yet discussed returning to Massachusetts to wed. In fact, Mr. Lofton said he is more concerned about making time for school plays, swim meets and camping trips. (He recently chaperoned 95 seventh and eighth graders on a weeklong science trip to the Oregon coast.)

"With five children, especially this time of year, you're totally focused on school," he said.
Mr. Lofton added, "Roger and I are already more married than most people." The couple have been together for 20 years and have, by their estimate, changed 20,000 diapers.

When Mr. Lofton and Mr. Croteau began taking in babies with AIDS in the late 1980's, nobody expected the children to reach kindergarten. "There were no AIDS drugs at all," Mr. Croteau said.

One of the foster children, Ginger, died from complications of AIDS in 1995, when she was 6. Three years later, when the couple decided to move, they chose Portland because Mr. Lofton's parents, brother and a sister live there, and, he said, "this way the kids would get to see my family all the time." Mr. Lofton made several scouting trips to Oregon to find a house the couple could afford. (Mr. Lofton, a full-time foster parent, receives payments from Florida for the three older children, and from Oregon for Wayne and Ernie Bethancourt. Mr. Croteau works with pediatric H.I.V. researchers at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital.)

While house hunting, he said, he saw nothing but beige. "That's the predominant color in the Northwest."

Eventually, he found a 1929 Craftsman-style bungalow with leaded-glass windows, brass heating vents, glass doorknobs and lots of original woodwork for $255,000. It is in a neighborhood, Arbor Lodge, that Mr. Lofton calls "Mayberry with S.U.V.'s."

Soon after they arrived, the couple painted their house blue and green. Then they tore their lawn out.
"Lawns are not only boring, but environmentally wasteful," Mr. Lofton said. Instead he has a jungle of windmill palms, New Zealand flax and 18 varieties of ivy.

Four other families on the block - perhaps inspired by their "queer eye for the straight suburb" attitude - have also replaced their lawns, he said.

Gretchen Corbett, a neighbor who raised a daughter (now grown) in Arbor Lodge, said, "Sometimes, I wish they'd come over and do my house."

Mr. Lofton and Mr. Croteau spent six months renovating their three-bedroom home with some help from Mr. Lofton's family. His brother, a welder, made a four-foot aluminum Gumby for the stairwell. Mr. Lofton's father, a glass blower, created colorful glass legs for a new mailbox.

To save money, they lived in the house throughout the renovation, closing off one room at a time. (The one requirement was that there always be working washer and dryer. Mr. Lofton said he does 15 loads a week.)

A leather mantelpiece in the living room was an economy measure, Mr. Lofton said - an easy way to hide wood that had split after the previous owners overwatered their houseplants. When he wanted a colorful fabric for the walls of the master bedroom, he ordered Sunbrella, an acrylic awning fabric. He made a stair rail out of a faux-leather rope - the idea, he said, came to him while waiting in line at a movie theater.

The State of Oregon supervises the Lofton foster home, under contract with Florida's Department of Children and Families. Three years ago, Oregon's child welfare agency asked Mr. Lofton and Mr. Croteau to take over the care of Ernie, now 7, and Wayne, now 10.

Mr. Lofton was initially resistant. "I was ready to rejoin the work force," he said. "The last thing we were looking to do was expand our family."

But they made room for the two towheaded boys, who share a room with Frank and Bert. Mr. Lofton said having four boys in one bedroom "frees up more of the house for everyone to play in."
He added: "The last thing I want is to have my teens alone in their bedrooms with the computer on and the door closed."

Despite the riotous decor, the house is impossibly tidy. "We're not in a rut, but we believe in routine," Mr. Croteau said. All five children have chores. Ernie, the youngest, "makes his bed, puts away his toys and is responsible for organizing the shoe rack in the basement," Mr. Croteau said.
"At 7, there's plenty he can do, and he wants to do it."

All five children attend the Metropolitan Learning Center, a K-12 magnet school known for its open-minded attitude. "It's the kind of school that has a float in the gay pride parade," Mr. Lofton said.

With college approaching for Tracey and Frank, Mr. Lofton is looking to earn more money. He said that his Florida foster parent contract allows him to work from home, so he is setting up business as an interior designer.

Mr. Lofton's decorating skills include finding ways to defend surfaces from active children. And not just by using washable fabrics and eggshell-finish paint. To keep metal chair legs from scratching wood floors, Mr. Lofton used lime-green tennis balls as feet.

Some days are not easy. But "being frustrated with teenagers is normal," Mr. Lofton said. "And my job is to provide a normal family."