Meet the Glasscos: lesbian foster parents in America’s Bible Belt

In Alabama, religiously-affiliated private adoption agencies can
legally discriminate against
same-sex couples, but
the law may be having the opposite effect.

Chelsey and Bailey Glassco in front of their new home in Childersburg, Alabama, where they’re raising a foster son. Photo by the author.

This article was first published in Scalawag.

Childersburg is a typical river town in Alabama:
tackle shops, Waffle House, a Piggly Wiggly. Near the Glassco house, a Cajun
restaurant called Bigman’s serves grilled gator and BBQ.

But the Glasscos aren’t exactly the typical
Childersburg family, because, as they’d say, of the whole lesbian thing.

When I meet Chelsey and Bailey Glassco on a
Wednesday afternoon in their new home in a neighborhood called Pleasant Valley,
they’re a few weeks into the semester at the private Christian Academy where
they’re both teachers, and their foster son, Jay (that’s not his real name), is
in first grade. Bailey teaches high school English. Chelsey teaches music and
Spanish to the younger grades. They welcome me inside still buttoned-up from
the day, preppy: slacks, loafers, dress shirts.

The house is buzzing with new home-owner energy: Jay
is bouncing between his two dogs and us, asking if I’d like to see his room, if
I’d like to play, if I’d like to eat ice cream with him. Chelsey is apologizing
for the move-in mess and shuffling the dogs back into the yard. Bailey, who
grew up, as she says, “in the wilderness” near Sand Mountain, Alabama, is on
the phone giving directions to a social worker from their adoption agency,
Ashley Douthard, by offering local, posted road names instead of state-issued
monikers on maps. I get the feeling Bailey can rebuild engines while quoting
Eudora Welty. (On the way to their house, when I got lost, too, and called for
help, she told me, “Turn back and hang a right at the little pew-jumping
church.” When I laughed, she added, “That’s not a judgment. Just a
description.”)

They’re only the second owners of the property, a
midcentury fixer-upper on 3.7 acres. Signs of the couple who built the house
half a century ago are everywhere: a wheelchair ramp off the back deck, a glass
collection carefully stacked in the butler pantry. Everything is a little
worn-in from age but full of potential.

When I ask to go to the bathroom, Chelsey takes me
down the hall, following me to point out the ‘50s-era ceramic work. We’ve known
one another two minutes, and we’re admiring tiling around a toilet together. A
dentist’s daughter from Bonifay, Florida, who grew up singing in an Assembly of
God church, Chelsey speaks like the talky tracks of Loretta Lynn records,
sweetly Southern, bitingly witty. Back in the living room, Jay dashes outside
and we stand amid empty boxes, watching their boy through a bank of west-facing
windows.

Jay trots up the grassy slope of his new backyard in
boots and a yellow T-shirt, waving a stick toward the sky, two dogs trailing
behind. The whole scene is downright Norman Rockwell-ish.

The irony of being in a neighborhood called Pleasant
Valley hits me when Chelsey cuts the chitchat to tell me Jay has had a hard
week, and I remember why I’m here.

In May, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed HB24 into law, protecting adoption agencies when they deem
parents unfit on the basis of religious beliefs. I’m here because the law means
religious-affiliated private adoption agencies can now legally discriminate
against same-sex couples like the Glasscos.

Bailey Glassco and her dogs in the back plot of her
3.7-acre home. Glassco is trying to legally adopt her foster son with her wife,
Chelsey. Photo by the author.

Jay has a condition called Reactive Attachment
Disorder.

When the Glasscos met Jay, his family had been in
the system for two years, and he’d cycled through multiple placements. He was
underweight. He was balding. His skin itched nonstop from stress-induced
psoriasis and eczema. “He’s constantly telling us he’s afraid he’s not going to
be fed,” Bailey says.

Common in children raised in orphanages or
environments of neglect, Bailey describes RAD as a wiring malfunction that
happens when a young child is forced to self-soothe in moments when they need
to be cuddled or fed. The result can be a lifelong struggle with relationships.

The Glasscos work with Jay each day on understanding
boundaries and establishing appropriate trust. He sees a therapist. He takes
medicine. They receive weekly support from Douthard, the social worker. They’re
waiting on a special, weighted vest to arrive in the mail, a garment that’s
supposed to help comfort Jay when they physically can’t hold and calm him.

Today, Douthard is coming for an emergency visit. As
a therapeutic social worker for the foster and adoption agency working with the
Glasscos (they asked we not name the agency to protect Jay’s privacy), Douthard
offers weekly check-in sessions to families fostering children like Jay who are
undergoing medical treatment for psychological or behavioral disorders.

Going to school has been challenging for Jay,
navigating the social landscape, and to cope, he’s been hitting himself and his
classmates. Violence is common in RAD kids. As they begin to make attachments,
something in their brain fires off a warning, and they lash out. Without
treatment, this behavior can continue into adulthood with potentially horrific
results. To give a point of reference for the difference between a child who
does or doesn’t receive help, Chelsey names two famous examples of people with
RAD, “You could be Helen Keller or Ted Bundy.”

The frustrating part to Chelsey is that RAD is 100
percent preventable, but once kids have the disorder, they have it for life.
She says Jay’s biological family struggled to meet his basic needs. “It’s a
really sad situation,” Chelsey says. “Everybody and their mama, no pun
intended, had been abused in [Jay’s] family.” Because the Glasscos will be in
court soon, they can’t offer details publicly of Jay’s history.

I spoke to other foster parents for this story who
were also in the middle of court proceedings and didn’t want their names to be
public. Many of those foster kids came from families where no one has a job or
a car to get to a job, where multiple generations suffer from drug addiction,
and where state intervention is common. Finding family members to offer these
children safer homes can be difficult.

Jay has lived with the Glasscos for six months. It’s
the longest he’s lived anywhere. “When we hit the three-month mark,” Bailey
says, “he started to ask if he was staying with us. His internal clock knew it
was time to be moved to another foster home.”

Outside, Jay is running, hollering down to us that
he’s “supah fast.” His white athletic socks are poking out of the tops of his
boots, and it’s the sight of those socks that kills me. My own son is 16 months
old. I think about all the socks he’s tossed off in the car, the grocery store,
wherever. Hundreds of times a day he needs me or my husband to hold him, to
help him. I can’t even think about Jay when he was a baby.

When I ask if this is how the Glasscos envisioned
parenthood, Chelsey says they think about having a baby—“Bailey has always
wanted to be pregnant. I’d love to plan four hospital routes and be the one
going ‘you can do this!’”—but every time they’ve seriously considered it,
another kid has needed them. They met their first foster kid when she was in
high school and living in a group home. “[She] was going to have to be housed
back with her mother who was a drug dealer. And she didn’t have another option,”
Chelsey says. “So we got certified.”

But the Glasscos say they were denied by a dozen
adoption agencies before finding one willing to work with a same-sex couple—all
prior to the passing of HB24. Chelsey drops into a snooty voice, joking, “We
were like, ‘We don’t want to work with you guys anyways.’” Bailey says they
didn’t worry about the other agencies, and never considered legal action,
focusing instead on helping their foster teen transition to adulthood, figure
out how to get job, a car, an apartment. She lived with them until she turned
18 and got her own apartment.

“We have a soft spot for that age, because we were
so vulnerable during that time,” Chelsey says. When Chelsey and Bailey
themselves were entering adulthood, they were homeless.

They met at a small all-women’s Baptist College,
where Bailey was a star on the volleyball team and Chelsey sang in Sunday
services. (Even though Chelsey came out at 15, she wanted a challenging
academic environment where she could better explore religion. Her folks wanted
her to be a Christian singer. “Like Amy Grant?” I ask, half-kidding. “Exactly.
Actually, she was my first crush,” she says.)

When they made their relationship public, their
families launched campaigns to pray them straight. The congregation of
Chelsey’s church back in Bonifay began calling and sending letters. Bailey’s
family contacted teachers and administrators at their school. Certain
administrators at the university contacted ministers at churches where Chelsey
sang, worried she might have spread propaganda like rainbow flags.

“We’re some potent gay,” Bailey jokes.

By the time they graduated, they didn’t have
anywhere to go. They lost contact with nearly everyone, from youth group
buddies to their own brothers.

“Our families were basically like goodbye and good
luck,” Chelsey says. A handful of people they met—through churches—helped them
get on their feet but things still weren’t easy. They lost teaching jobs when a
board member at a school didn’t want lesbians on staff, so they moved to a new
town and took jobs at Olive Garden and Firehouse Subs until finding the school
where they now teach.

Jay pops in to ask for water. He pants like the dog
at his hip to show us how hard he’s been playing.

I realize I haven’t asked how old they are (Bailey’s
28, Chesley’s 27) or how long they’ve been married (seven years). “That’s our
numerical age,” Bailey says, “but we say it’s about the mileage.”

Now, Chelsey says they’re visiting an LGBT-affirming
church in Birmingham, where they’ve found a preacher willing to be a male
mentor for Jay, and where he can grow up in “a village” like they did. Even
though her old congregation no longer serves as her support system, Chelsey
says, growing up, there were “16 people I could have called if I needed
something. Foster kids don’t have that. That’s the reason they’re in foster
care.”

When Douthard arrives, I wander around a bit,
tagging along for a tour of the house before heading to the backyard to pet the
dogs and stay out of the way. Jay is telling the social worker about mowing the
lawn, how his moms are going to let him do it someday but first he has to
master picking up sticks, and I see Chelsey and Bailey reach for one another’s
hand. I know that reach, that moment you need to connect with your partner to
say, “Maybe we’re doing something right.”

I wonder how things would be different for the
Glasscos if they’d been embraced instead of excommunicated from their families.
Would they still have Jay? If not, where would he be?

Here’s the thing: Chelsey and Bailey didn’t choose
Jay. They signed up to be foster parents to any child in need. When things get
too difficult, as foster parents, the Glasscos have the option to ask for
respite or terminate their time with him. It happens. Families don’t click. A
child presents too great of challenges, or as with Jay, a foster child changes
the family’s option to have other children.

But next week, the Glasscos will have their first
meeting to begin the arduous legal process determining what is best for Jay’s
future, either reunification with a family member or adoption into the Glassco
home.

The cicadas start their nightly hum as the Glasscos
tell the social worker about their renovation plans, where the vegetable garden
will go next spring, how they’d met most of the neighbors already. I wonder how
people could see this—the Glassco home—as dangerous.

It’s not like people are fighting over foster
children. We have more children seeking homes in Alabama than families seeking
children. The latest report from Alabama Department of Human Resources showed 6,028
children were in custody of the department at the end of June 2017. One lawyer
I interviewed said 1,000 of those children are in need of new homes.

 So, what’s our hope, or responsibility, for kids
like Jay?

A portrait of the Glasscos by their son, Jay, gifted
to the author. Photo by the author.

There’s a narrative we’re asked to believe in the
discussion surrounding same-sex adoption: A great battle exists between
Christians and queers. If you are of the opinion that exposure to an LGBT
lifestyle might turn children queer and therefore land them in eternal
damnation then I’m not sure harm on earth has much argumentative power. But
everyone I spoke to for this story, most of whom identify as queer, made a
point to tell me they identify as Christian, too. Beyond a battle over the role
of religion as it pertains to government, in Alabama, a law like HB24 is a
battle over interpretations of Christianity.

As Reverend Jennifer Sanders put it, “The role of
the government is to prevent harm. Now, it’s all about how you define harm. I
think that’s what we’re arguing over.”

Sanders is one of 70 faith leaders who opposed HB24.
The week before I came to Childersburg, I met Sanders at a café next door to
Beloved Community Church in Birmingham, where she said she leads a congregation
as active in social justice efforts as they are in Sunday worship. Sanders is a
Christian liberation theologian, a lesbian, and a mom. She says she’s less
interested in the outcome of this particular law than she is the liberation of
the world from mankind’s harm. To her, the LGBT adoption battle matters only if
lost. If won, it’s just a step toward equality in an inherently unjust system.

When I asked her how she entered conversations with
conservative Christian ministers and policymakers, she said conversation
doesn’t go far. “There tends to be a fair amount of smug disregard because
people will treat you politely but that’s because they know they have the
power, and your own power is curtailed by the structure.”

I tell Sanders about a moment in Alabama Bound,
a film that follows lesbians in the state as they advocate for marriage
equality prior to Obergefell v. Hodges, when the U.S. Supreme Court made
same-sex marriage legal across the country. I’d seen the film’s premiere a few
weekends before at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham. There’s a scene where
openly gay Representative Patricia Todd is preparing for a pro-LGBT vote on the
Montgomery Capitol floor, and GOP Representative Barry Moore walks up to her,
gives her an awkward back-patting, side-hug and says something like: “You know
I love you, girl, got all the respect in the world for you, but this ain’t
gonna happen.”

 The scene sums up the dynamic when it comes to
marginalized groups gaining rights: Love ya. Ain’t happening.

Rev. Jennifer Sanders believes the fight for LGBT
adoption only matters if it’s lost. Photo by the author.

In Alabama, White, evangelical, Republican men hold
the power.

Alabama lawmakers pushed hard for HB24, placing
duplicates in the House and Senate, sponsored by Representative Rich Wingo and
State Senator Bill Hightower, respectively. Neither agreed to an interview for
this story. Even though both have told the press the law isn’t about denying
LGBT couples the right to adopt, Wingo told NPRthat other states have seen religious organizations
close their doors instead of working with same-sex couples. The burden on the
state, he said, would be overwhelming if Alabama’s private, religious agencies
shuttered. But no Alabama agency has publicly announced it would shutter. I
attempted to contact Wingo multiple times over several months for this story,
and didn’t hear back from his office.

Even though Wingo is credited for the law’s success,
the reality is this law is one of many in a recent batch of so-called
“religious freedom” bills strategically popping up all over the country, backed by well-funded
right wing groups. By passing HB24, Alabama joined Michigan, Virginia, and the
Dakotas, where Republicans have approved related religious freedom bills. Even
the name of the law—the Alabama Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act—is
strategic. (Still, Conservative news outlets celebrated the law as a victory
in efforts to discriminate against LGBT couples.)

The law is particularly problematic, according to
Eva Kendrick, the Human Rights Campaign Alabama State Director, when you
consider LGBT minors are more likely to be in the foster system than their
hetero or cisgendered peers, and LGBT couples are four times more likely to
raise adopted kids and six times more likely to raise foster children than
hetero couples, according to nonpartisan studies, like the 2014 report released
by the Williams Institute.

Kendrick, who fosters a baby with her wife, says
only two adoption agencies supported the bill while nearly 70 faith leaders
signed a letter in opposition. Because you have to be legally married for one
year before you can adopt in Alabama, and adoption only recently became legal
for gay and lesbian couples in the state, she says the law is mostly just
causing confusion over who will or won’t work with them.

I tried to contact religious adoption agencies all
over the state to ask about their policies on same-sex adoption. No one has
returned my calls or emails. But Kendrick works with agencies statewide, and
she said the attention the law is receiving has actually been a boon for
same-sex adoption training. HRC has seen a spike in collaborative requests, and
Kendrick said she’s trained more than 250 social workers in LGBT adoption
courses. So the law may be having the opposite effect of Wingo’s intentions.

But even though same-sex couples have agencies to
choose from when adopting, problems with the law still arise during family
reunification for foster kids, according to Kendrick. Here’s an example: I
spoke to Tony Christon-Walker, the Director of Prevention and Community
Partnerships at AIDS Alabama, who worried he’d be denied parental rights when
his half-sister lost custody of her son, Maurice. His sister asked
Christon-Walker to adopt the boy. Christon-Walker, 50, is gay and HIV positive.
A judge in Birmingham granted him parental rights, but if Maurice had been under
the care of a private religious organization in Alabama instead, then under
this new law, Christon-Walker could have been denied and would have no legal
action to keep Maurice in the family.

The reality is, right now, no one really knows
how this law will or won’t play out in court. I read the bill and its
amendments
 a dozen times until I began to feel the way you do when you
repeat a word aloud until it loses meaning.

Tony Christon-Walker with his husband and their
adopted son, Maurice. Under new Alabama law, same-sex couples like the
Christon-Walkers might not be able to adopt children from their own families.
Photo courtesy of the author.

As written, HB24 protects privately-funded adoption
agencies in Alabama when they turn away parents based on “closely held
religious beliefs.” That vernacular vagueness is confusing even to
practitioners in the legal system; several lawyers told me they weren’t
comfortable offering a definitive explication of the law’s application for this
story. One lawyer, Shane T. Smith, cut to the core of what’s so confusing:
“While I respect everyone’s closely held religious beliefs,” he said, “I know a
lot of Christians who are fine with people who are divorced. I know some
Christians who won’t associate with people who are divorced. It’s not just a
lesbian or gay thing; it’s whatever they deem to be sinful or wrong in their
doctrine.”

Hypotheticals run rampant: Could Catholics deny an
adoptive parent who was previously divorced? Could Baptists deny the
unbaptized? Could Wiccans deny worshippers of Sun Ra? If these religious groups
meet the criteria for protection—owning and operating a privately-funded,
state-licensed adoption agency in Alabama—then, in theory, they sure could.

But in all the confusion over what HB24 means for
gay families, who can and cannot adopt and from which agencies, it can feel
like the kids themselves get lost in the mix. And what are the consequences if
kids like Jay spend more time, possibly their entire childhoods, in group homes
or transitional housing?

For a lot of kids, that life leads to higher
instances of traumatic childhood events, which psychological studies show can
affect everything from earning power to emotional well-being. Christon-Walker
and his son serve as an example here, too. He said Maurice was believed to have
an IQ of 69 while in foster care. He’s thankful the judge in Birmingham
“believes in family,” because today, Maurice is a well-adjusted kid thriving at
a Birmingham private school. He likes to joke with other kids by asking them
where their second daddies are.

When I asked Christon-Walker where Maurice would be
if he hadn’t been able to adopt him, he started to cry. “I don’t even want to
think about it.”

At the Glasscos, we’re all out back with Jay now,
the sun setting over the hills.

The social worker has wrapped up her visit, and I
finally ask them about the law.

“This law is a protection for the majority, for a
group who doesn’t need protection,” Bailey says. I tell her about what I’d
heard from people in Birmingham, about progressive change, open-minded judges,
and welcoming adoption agencies. I tell them what Eva Kendrick of HRC (who
introduced me to the Glasscos) said about the increase in training for LGBT
adoption.

“It’s easy to say the law is not going to change
anything for the worse. But how can you predict that?” Bailey wonders. “This
month, they’re feeling gay friendly. Let’s say Mr. So and So, who usually puts
foster care in the homes of gay couples, goes home and his wife just read an article
about some pedophile and how he had boyfriends or whatever, and he says we’re
not dealing with gay people anymore. Things won’t change immediately, but it
just takes one person.”

They’re worried groups that have been quietly
working with LGBT couples will suddenly have board members wondering what their
same-sex policies are. Chelsey does an imitation of an evangelical adoption
director: “Hey, y’all! Welcome! Thanks for coming to the back door!”

“Now they might close the back door,” Bailey says.

Chelsey says right now, they’re more interested in
making inroads with their families than lawmakers. A few years back, they
reconciled with Bailey’s brother’s family. Since Jay came into their lives,
Chelsey says her parents are more receptive to a relationship with Chelsey and
Bailey (before they were only comfortable seeing their daughter without her
wife).

Jay is on the deck below, out of earshot, playing
with the dog who licks him chin to forehead.

“Ugh. He’s so stinking cute,” Chelsey says. “It
makes me want to shake his parents. We see all the potential.”

“Sometimes we think he’s a baby, then he’ll sweep
the floor,” Bailey says. “I mean, where the heck did that come from? You can’t
button your daggum britches, son.”

The Glasscos are hopeful they will be able to adopt
Jay. “The guardian ad litem, social workers, psychiatrist are working
tirelessly to assure he ends up in a safe and healthy home,” Chelsey says.

“There’s always a chance the parents wake up, have
an epiphany, go out and get a job and start making good choices.” If that does
happen, and his parents are able to offer Jay a healthy environment, the
Glasscos say they’ll be heartbroken but also unburdened. Chelsey says they have
to trust the doctors who tell them long-term care will bring Jay healing. “We
keep thinking… about when he’s 18, and he’s an amazing young man going to be a
teacher or a doctor or joining the military,” Chelsey says.

“Or going to be a plumber! Or an electrician or
anything that contributes to society,” Bailey says. “Or a football player, a
third string kicker who rides the bench and sets us up for life!” They laugh.
Jay offers a not-so-subtle hint it’s time we wrap up our conversation and his
moms get dinner going: “I smell pizza!”

As I’m leaving, Jay pulls a drawing from his pocket
and offers it to me as a gift. I ask him to describe the scene, and he tells me
it’s him and his moms cleaning up the yard while the dogs play.

One side of the house in bathed in light. The other
in darkness. Jay says he’s afraid to go in the dark, but his moms are brave.

They aren’t afraid, he says, and someday, he won’t
be either.

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