Fostering a family: Another new normal

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Paul Rummell (left) and Ben West have found their calling as foster parents — and fathers.
By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
No one can question these are momentous times. While the long slog toward equality can be occasionally challenging — especially when we hear some of the arguments hurled from the opposition — there are stories that give us heart and hope. Obviously we’ve been loving each other and making commitments for centuries, but having those stories out in the open acts as an important harbinger of things to come. Soon marriage and adoption and anything else that goes with it won’t be a matter of debate. Of late, we’ve been talking to same-sex couples who’ve been moved, one way or the other, to become foster parents. One of those couples, Paul Rummell and Ben West, talked to us about their experiences, their hearts, and where they’re headed. They’re committed “therapeutic foster parents,†which means providing the highest level of care to some of Oregon’s most traumatized and abused children. PQ: What was the impetus behind becoming foster parents? Paul: I knew becoming a parent as a gay man would not be easy. Ben and I had been considering many options. We’ve been looking at surrogacy, which we’re still pursuing. We also have a social awareness that there is a large population of underserved children who have little hope for adoption. We became aware of several agencies whose focus is working in a therapeutic environment with children who have been through life situations that needed particular and special care. We have the resources and time to provide some of the care these children need, but found that working with agencies also gives resources and training that enable children better chances at recovering fully. Ben: When Paul and I started dating, we both expressed the desire to be fathers. A couple of years ago, we decided to become therapeutic foster parents, who service the needs of children whose needs are too great to be placed in standard DHS care. We work with a private agency, and the benefit of working with the agency is the level of support we receive. We have support 24/7 if our child goes into crisis.
This past Veteran's Day, Paul Rummell and Ben Westtook their kids on a trip to teach them why they had the day off from school. This past Veteran's Day, Paul Rummell and Ben Westtook their kids on a trip to teach them why they had the day off from school.
PQ: Was the process of becoming foster parents particularly challenging for you as a same-sex couple? Tell me a little bit about that experience. Paul: Without revealing the agency we’re working for out of a non-disclosure obligation, I can say that we became aware of a network of agencies that collaborate to provide different levels of care for children who’ve been placed in Oregon’s foster care system. Our process began in the Oregon  Department of Human Services Foster Care training. In the DHS process, we felt unprepared to take on the complexities of foster care without a support network. We saw the value in a network of support an agency provides. We have felt stigma as gay foster parents, as it seems that there’s a large majority of participants in the agencies who are religious and have preconceived notions about homosexuality. DHS was less dogmatic, but with less support. The agencies are secular, but their participants are religious. We’ve had to overcome participants’ beliefs and expectations. PQ: What parenting philosophies guide you in your new roles? What has been particularly difficult? Rewarding? Ben: Growing up in a devout fundamentalist home, I was taught that gays and lesbians cannot be parents. If you’re gay, you’re not qualified. I was taught God only intended heterosexuals to create and build a family. But something within me knew I was supposed to be a parent, and I was lucky enough to find a partner who shared that desire. In the last year, I have learned that gays and lesbians are not only phenomenal parents, but it is not unusual for them to be better parents than their heterosexual counterparts. We have had to make a conscious decision to be parents. We decided to make a life-changing sacrifice. We didn’t ‘accidentally’ become parents. We have completely changed our lives to parent children heterosexuals could or would not. No child is unlovable, and every child, no matter their challenges, deserves a loving, safe home. Paul: Our philosophies are founded in our own spirituality. I have had a difficult time resolving my devout Catholic upbringing with my fundamental urge to be a father. I remember a moment in my 30s while attending a family gathering — I was surrounded by babies and played the doting uncle well, but all throughout I felt a profound sense of loss, as one baby after another was placed in my arms. I remember stepping away from the commotion to choke back tears, because I thought then there would never be a time in my life when I could be a doting father. PQ: Awhile back, I talked to Michael Kaplan and his partner about their experience being foster parents. They spoke of how their world was, in a word, upended. How has your world changed? Paul: Our lives have changed in so many ways, ways we couldn’t have predicted. As we began nesting with our foster home, we started to see fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with our friends. Our good friends have found time to see us and stay involved in our lives. Our acquaintances have been very supportive and encouraging. We continue to get invites, but have to politely decline. We anticipate a day will come when the invitations no longer arrive, but that hasn’t happened yet. I think that says a lot about our community. We all know the value in good parenting, and admire good parents when we see them. Our community shows the support they can and encourages good parents who are brave enough to make such a life-changing decision. As for life changes, there are too many to list. I can simply say this: when you become a parent, nothing else matters anymore. Ben: Sometimes being a foster parent is lonely — many of our friendships have drifted away, but we’re thankful for the ones who give their love and support. Children in therapeutic foster care have difficulty with social interaction, and often have aggression challenges. The simplest, most mundane thing can trigger an explosive, traumatic response. Even though this work is sometimes difficult and under-appreciated, it has made me a better man. There is no greater honor than seeing a child learn an essential life skill, and walking away with a little dignity and self-respect.
Plans are in the works for the couple to officially adopt one of their foster children, and their labor of love will continue for the foreseeable future. While Paul and Ben are bound by non-disclosure agreements for print and news stories, they are still willing and able to personally inform anyone with an interest in foster care. Email and we’ll put you in touch.