Loving mothers raising healthy boys 

Act 1 would put a stop to that.

click to enlarge THE RICKMAN-HUFFMAN FAMILY: On a trip to Disney World.
  • THE RICKMAN-HUFFMAN FAMILY: On a trip to Disney World.

In 2004, Stephanie Huffman adopted a 2-year-old born with hydrocephalus through the state Department of Human Services. He had to have a shunt to drain fluid around the brain into his spinal column. He was unable to eat; he was fed through a tube into his stomach. He was just learning to walk. He was hearing-impaired, suffered from seizures. His medical file, 7 inches thick, gave Huffman a fright.

But Huffman knew that this toddler, a mixed-race child who was only 3 pounds at birth and 7 pounds at eight months, needed a loving home, and she knew she could give him one. As a young girl, she'd raised her own two brothers while her mother worked and went to school. A devout Christian, Huffman believed that “God wouldn't give me more than I could handle,” and in saying that she laughed hard. She hadn't known just how much that would be.

Six months after Huffman brought Tyler home, he “didn't need that feeding tube,” she said. He'd learned to drink, and was learning to chew. With the help of physical, speech and occupational therapists and devoted mothering, Tyler embarked on a difficulty journey back to health. He still has problems with learning and speech, but, Huffman brags in the way that parents do, he's in the 97th percentile for his weight and 60th for height. For all his difficulties, Tyler, now 7, is one lucky kid.

How many people are willing to take on such a burden?

Not enough. The estimate at DHS' division of Children and Family Services is that on any one day, it has 3,700 kids in its care, but only 1,000 foster homes.

Under Act 1, the new law that says cohabiting adults can't foster or adopt, there will be even fewer. Tyler, for example.

Huffman, 39, lives with Wendy Rickman, 37, her partner of 10 years. Both hail from Brookland, a little town outside Jonesboro; both are professors at the University of Central Arkansas in the college of education, in the library, media and information technology program. In days past, they would have been called librarians. 

When Stephanie adopted Tyler, Rickman was 7 months pregnant, the sperm donor a close friend. Keegan wasn't so easy either — he was allergic to both milk and soy products and threw up all the time. Rickman said that at one point, Tyler was crying and Keegan projectile vomited into her face and all she and Huffman could do was laugh. “We asked for this!” Huffman said.

And after the first year with their boys, they asked for more: In 2005, the state approved the couple for another adoption. But while it took only three months for the state to place Tyler with Huffman and Rickman, three years passed with no success the second go-round. Huffman and Rickman don't think it was an accident; they believe an atmosphere of apprehension at the agency — engendered by political maneuvering that finally resulted in Initiated Act 1 on the 2008 ballot — stalled the process.

Did Arkansans, when they voted 57 to 43 percent to approve Act 1 in November, mean to exclude people like Huffman and Rickman from caring for or adopting children? Two women who have the support of their family, friends, neighbors and workplace? Who have, in their terms, “built a village” for their sons, one that includes strong male role models among uncles, cousins and grandfathers? The extended Huffman and Rickman families go to the beach together, camp up at Lake Norfork together. They boys have been to Disney World. They like Batman and Star Wars, and their bedroom is full of plastic characters. It's also full of books, thanks to their librarian moms. Their backyard has a soccer goal and a swing set and a fort. They go to church. Their behavior draws compliments from the other mothers that Rickman and Huffman know. They have advantages many families in Arkansas do not.



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