By Lauren Means | Photos courtesy Ernie Ratliff
Family planning has always been a different experience for members of the LGBT+ community. There is sometimes a different set of legal, financial and societal hurdles we have to jump in order to start a family, especially adoption for LGBT+ families. It has played out in the news time and time again –– adoption agencies denying same-sex couples the right to adopt children who are in the system and desperately need a home.
It’s always nice to share a success story where children who need homes have a smooth transition to adoption. This has been the case for Ernie Ratliff and his husband George Fenner. Ernie and George have been together for 35 years. They met through work while they were both attending school in Florida where Ernie studied accounting and George became a registered nurse. After Hurricane Charley blew through where they lived in 2005, they decided to move to Murfreesboro where Ernie’s sister lives.
It Was Destiny
It was Ernie’s sister who introduced the idea of fostering. In 2009 they started classes for foster certification and took their first placement the day after Christmas that year. Since then, they’ve had 25 placements and in 2010 they decided they wanted a family of their own that would be permanent. “We reached out to our foster agency and asked for foster to adopt placements,” said Ernie. This was when they met 10-year-old Destiny. Ernie said, “she had interests similar to ours especially with animals and she moved in with us in May 2011 the day school ended for the year.” Seven months later, George and Ernie officially adopted her. She is now 20 and mother to their first grandchild.
They couldn’t stop with Destiny. “We continued to seek out foster to adopt children as well as children whose goal was family reunification. In 2014 we heard of a sibling pair — a boy and girl who were eight named James and Jessie. They moved in with us in August of 2014 and we were lucky enough to adopt them in June of 2015,” recalled Ernie. This happened just two weeks before the Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
“Up until that time, only one gay parent could adopt through the state,” Ernie explained referring to Tennessee, “and then you would have to do a second-parent adoption separately after finalization. In this case, a judge in Sumner county allowed us to adopt jointly without the benefit of marriage yet.” They were eventually wed August 29, 2015.
They went on to adopt three children at different times that were all around the age of 17. “Jay is our daughter who is almost 21 and now lives in Texas. We adopted Jay in June 2017. Cody is our son that came to live with us in May 2019 and we adopted him in May 2020 — two months before he turned 18. He is currently a senior in high school and graduates this May,” said Ernie.
Melody moved in with them when she was 13 and lived with them for three years before moving to another pre-adoptive home in 2019. “Through no fault of hers, the placement didn’t work out and she was moved to a foster home. She contacted us and asked if we could see if she could come back to us,” remembers Ernie. They contacted DCS and her guardian ad litem who, along with her entire foster care team, agreed to allow her to move back in with them in May 2020. Typically there is a six-month waiting period before one can adopt their foster child, but since Melody lived with them previously, the judge waived this requirement and they were able to adopt her in August 2020. She is also a senior in high school and will graduate this May.
Love, Guidance and Structure
When asked why they decided on adoption, Ernie said, “We realize the importance of family reunification when possible, but throughout our journey, we met and heard of so many children — especially the older ones — that needed a forever home. We were at the place in our lives where we had the means and maturity to offer our love and home to children forever.”
He acknowledged teenagers are hard to place and usually have trauma backgrounds that can be challenging but says with love and guidance and structure these children can flourish and have very successful lives. “They bring so much to us in so many ways. Our lives have been forever changed for the better,” said Ernie. They currently have a 13-year-old foster son who has been with them for a little over a year. Ernie said he will be available for adoption and they will decide if the fit is a good one for everyone.
Private vs State
Ernie and George have only fostered and adopted through state-licensed foster agencies. They never felt the need to use private or religious agencies but do take advantage of support groups and counseling through Catholic charities and similar programs. “I know that there has been talk that some of their divisions or branches can be non-family friendly. We have never experienced this in almost 10 years of contact. Everyone has been very supportive of us and our kiddos,” said Ernie.
He did reveal that during their first encounter with adoption during a Department of Child Services (DCS) Child and Family Team Meeting (CFTM), they were discussing adoption and the flow of events that would take place and a team member made a comment something like “I’m not entirely comfortable with a gay parent adopting.”
Ernie said their adoption specialist from the foster agency immediately spoke up and told them that this sort of talk was completely out of line and would not be continued or maybe some legal representation was needed. “Nothing ever was said again,” Ernie said with a smile.
Self-Evaluate Before Taking the Leap
Ernie said they’ve had quite a few allies in their journey and are forever grateful for all of the support and love. He does urge others to do their research and understand exactly what you are getting into. “It is a lifelong responsibility that not everyone can handle. We chose to foster first and see how we were as parents, a couple and a family,” explained Ernie.
You must know your rights, your child’s rights and the law. Ernie said the journey is very fulfilling but can be overwhelming — especially being LGBT+. “The schools, doctors, therapists, kids friends and parents can sometimes judge or have a preconceived thought of what my family is or should be. Being an advocate for yourself and your kids along with having a thick skin sometimes can be very helpful. Emotions can override the best interests and I guess picking and choosing your battles is the best way to put it,” according to Ernie.
Life in a New Light
“Adoption is such a wonderful thing. It made us see life and what’s important in a much different light,” Ernie said. While he admits parenting can be tiring, overwhelming and time-consuming, he said there is no greater reward than seeing a child grow and become themselves. “The progress we have seen in our kids both adoptive and foster is so satisfying and gives a sense of purpose every day.”