Jennifer and Kandy Russell-Digilio were so determined to have a family, they moved nearly 3,000 miles to do just that. In this Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family®” series installment, contributing writer Eric Criswell tells their story.
If you were to travel to West Palm Beach, Florida, you might run into the picturesque family of Jennifer and Kandy Russell-Digilio with their two children Anthony and Ashleigh. Anthony, who just returned from one of his yearly mission trips, is active in ROTC, plays football and volleyball. Ashleigh loves science and, at 13 years old, is already determined to go to Stanford and study medicine.
They really could not be a more typical “All-American” family, yet their journey to becoming a family was anything but typical.
It all started when Jennifer was in college and went to a local concert and met Kandy. The two hit it off and started dating. As time passed they soon realized that they were meant for each other and shared the same goals and dreams to get married and have children. However, there was an obstacle in their way -- in Florida they were not permitted to get married or have children.
Jennifer explains, “Kandy was in a relationship prior to me and had adopted children with her previous partner, but because of the laws in Florida at that time they had to adopt as a single parent, which was Kandy’s partner. They separated and the ex took the children to New York, leaving Kandy devastated with no recourse for any legal rights to her children, or even the ability for visitation”.
Because of this, the two wanted to make sure they did everything to ensure that they were both legal and responsible parents. Since the laws in Florida were prohibitive, they made the painstaking decision to sell everything they had to uproot their lives and travel across country to California.
“The initial plan was for us to get married and for Jennifer to get pregnant,” Kandy recalls. “But life doesn’t always go as planned.”
After months of trying, Jennifer was not able to get pregnant and the two were contemplating other options. As they were sitting on the couch watching TV, a commercial caught their attention by asking, “Trying to conceive but having problems? Have you thought about adoption?” They took it as a sign and began the process of exploring the foster/adopt system.
Not knowing exactly where to begin, they contacted services in the nearest town of Fresno. They began taking classes and explained their situation.
Jennifer recalls their initial meeting: “They thought we were nuts because we got so emotional. Being from Florida where it was a problem for us being a lesbian couple and wanting to adopt children, we were a little over dramatic about our predicament. Luckily the social worker was able to calmly explain that none of that would be a problem in California.”
Once the paperwork and home visits were complete, Jennifer and Kandy went to their first adoption event, not knowing exactly what to expect. “Kandy was excited about meeting and playing with the children,” explains Jennifer, “but I was a little overwhelmed at first.”
The social worker convinced Jennifer to take it slow and get something to eat and ease into the experience. While in line to get lunch, a woman accidentally ran into Jennifer with a stroller and knocked her off balance. Turning around to catch herself, she saw the baby boy in the stroller and instantly knew, “this is my son.”
According to Jennifer, “We’re both very spiritual, and I often say if I ever doubted the presence of God, I didn’t doubt it then. I can’t explain, but we knew he was the child for us.”
There were some initial problems placing Anthony with the couple, because the women were living in a small town that lacked ethnic diversity, and Anthony is African-American. The social worker became their advocate in the system and within two weeks Anthony was part of their family. Although there were concerns that he may have some developmental issues, Jennifer and Kandy knew that this was their child and taking a chance based on love always works out.
Shortly after Anthony’s placement, they received a phone call at 2 a.m. The frantic voice on the phone explained that they had an African-American baby girl that had been removed by the state and was in need of a foster home. Jennifer told them they were not an emergency foster home, but were looking for another child to adopt. The response was quick that this little girl was a candidate for adoption if they could come and get her immediately, she could be theirs.
Jennifer sprinted into action, and jumped in her car and traveled three hours to pick up the little baby girl named Ashleigh.
Before their kids started school, Jennifer and Kandy moved back to Florida where they were supported by their family and friends. They became fierce advocates for overturning the laws in that state that prohibited LGBT adoptions and have remained an example in their community on what it means to be a typical family.
Jennifer sums it up; “We are very involved in our community and our church. We are just living our lives and raising our children, and I think that is the best way to gain the respect and acceptance of those around us.”
RaiseAChild.US is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adoption to meet the needs of the 400,000 children in the foster care system. RaiseAChild.US recruits, educates, and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. For information about how you can become a foster or adoptive parent, please visit www.RaiseAChild.US.