When Alexandre Louzada and Francisco David decided that they wanted to adopt a child, they had only a small number of specific preferences.
The couple wanted a child no older than 6 years of age. They were willing to adopt a child with chronic, treatable diseases such as diabetes or fetal alcohol syndrome, but not one with untreatable conditions — such as blindness or paralysis — which they believed themselves financially and emotionally incapable of supporting.
And, unlike many prospective parents in Brazil — where a substantial portion of adopting parents only want a white child — they had no preferences when it came to race or gender. About 70 percent of the children eligible for adoption in Brazil are black or mixed race, which means that many parents who want to adopt are closed off to the possibility of taking most of the ones who need a home.
To the extent that Alexandre and Francisco, both 39 and together for 10 years, had any inflexible desire, it concerned the number of children they intended to adopt on the first go: just one. Indeed, after taking years of discussion and contemplation before finally pronouncing themselves ready, they never considered, let alone discussed, adopting more than one child at once. But as they navigated the adoption process, and learned that most Brazilian children eligible for adoption are together in shelters with siblings, they were eventually persuaded to be open to the possibility of adopting two siblings at the same time.
But in July 2015, roughly 1 1/2 years after they formally initiated the process, the couple ended up simultaneously adopting three children, all boys. Their sons are likely half brothers, sharing the same biological mother but, they speculate, with different biological fathers. At the time of the adoption, Gabriel, the youngest, was 6; the middle child, Pablo, was 9; and the oldest, Patrick, was 12. All three are black. Alexandre is white, and his husband, Francisco, is what Brazilians refer to as “moreno,” or mixed race.
Their adoption of three children, rather than one or two, happened because of an unexpected but very common quandary: After being told that adoption authorities had located a child who met their age and health preferences — the youngest, Gabriel — and that he had an older sibling, Pablo, whom they had decided they would also adopt, they learned soon thereafter that the two boys had another, older brother, 12-year-old Patrick, who had been lingering for years in adoption shelters. With Patrick, they faced a heavy dilemma: leave him in the shelter — where, given his age, he would be extremely unlikely ever to be adopted, then would be expelled at the age of 18 — or adopt him, as well as his two younger brothers, all at once.
Children over 6 have a very low likelihood of ever being adopted, which all but guarantees a grim future. According to the journalist Gilberto Scofield’s account in the magazine Piaui of his and his partner’s adoption, only 6 percent of adopting couples are open to adopting a child over the age of 6, while 85 percent of eligible children are in that age group.
Declining to adopt Gabriel’s brothers would almost certainly have consigned them to a life of heinous deprivation, or worse. Children in shelters who end up not being adopted face great hardships even in the best of circumstances. But in the poorest states of Brazil, itself a poor country, they have almost no societal support. Upon expulsion from the shelter at 18, boys commonly end up selling drugs and living on the streets, while girls turn to prostitution.
The choice this couple unexpectedly faced — adopt one or two children as intended while leaving their brother, or adopt the three siblings together despite uncertainty about how it could work — is a common one in Brazil. Because most Brazilian children eligible for adoption were removed from their biological parent due to serious abuse or neglect, siblings are often removed together.
As Scofield reported, 77 percent of the children in shelters are with siblings, while 79 percent of adoptive parents want to adopt only one child. In sum, the overwhelming majority of couples begin the process wanting only to adopt a purely healthy infant with no siblings, yet the reality of the eligible children is radically different. Adoption authorities have a strong preference to have siblings adopted together, and they apply a wide array of pressure tactics, from subtle to overt, to induce adopting couples to accept more than one child.
In the case of Alexandre and Francisco, such pressure was unnecessary. They rigorously scrutinized their income and budget and knew it would be extremely difficult to care for three children. But no matter: “From the start, it was unthinkable to leave one of the boys there,” Alexandre said. “We decided we would find a way to make it work. We felt we had no choice.”
The way the five of them have so quickly bonded into a loving and supportive family is a moving human story. It is also an illuminating and thought-provoking one, shedding light on a wide range of complex questions about human needs and relationships, psychology, race, class, gender, and behavioral influences — some of which are unique to Brazil, most of which are universal.
The couple decided to share their story because they want to enable better societal understanding of adoptive families, and to inspire others to adopt. They have begun speaking about their experience at the monthly meetings prospective adoptive parents are required to attend in Brazil in order to become certified to adopt, and they are active in several organizations devoted to support for adoptive families and public advocacy on their behalf.
There is serious need for such efforts in Brazil, where a growing and powerful faction composed of evangelicals and other ultra-conservatives want to ban same-sex couples from adopting, despite the large number of unwanted children in shelters. Such sentiments are also common in many other countries, including the United States.
After a three-week trial period — one designed to allow both the prospective parents and children to decide if the situation should be made permanent — the two fathers and three boys all unequivocally agreed they wanted to form a family. All three boys moved into the couple’s small, two-bedroom apartment in Tijuca, a working-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro’s Northern Zone. The two new fathers kept their bedroom, while the three boys moved together into the small spare room, with bunk beds and pull-out trundles maximizing the space.
“I grew up middle class, with English classes and trips to Disney World and other foreign countries,” Alexandre recalled. “And I did not want to adopt until we were ready and able to provide our own children with everything I had growing up.” Alexandre is a trained psychoanalyst but has been unemployed for the last year, creating uncertainty about whether they were ready.
But Francisco had a radically different upbringing: born into extreme poverty until the age of 7, and then raised by an aunt along with three cousins. “Because of how I grew up, I felt the most important thing wasn’t what we could give materially, but all that mattered was providing a loving and stable home, with the right values being taught,” he said.
Alexandre has now come around to that way of thinking — for the most part.
“I still wish I could give them more,” he said. “But reality is reality, and I feel very good about what we’ve all been able to do for each other’s lives.”
I first met the couple last July, when they spoke at a meeting I attended with my husband, David Miranda, for parents who were planning to adopt; it was the last of four meetings we had to attend to fulfill our own requirements to be certified by the family court. The session was held at night in a chapel inside a Catholic church in the Tijuca neighborhood where the family lives.
We sat with 20 or so prospective adoptive couples, all of whom seemed — like we were — filled with a roughly equal mix of apprehension and excitement. One of the four meetings entails listening to parents who have already adopted describe their experiences, and Alexandre and Francisco regularly volunteer to share their story.
Halfway into the couple’s presentation about their new lives as parents, all three boys entered the room, after playing together upstairs with their grandfather, Alexandre’s father. They walked through the crowd of prospective adoptive parents and made a beeline for their fathers, seating themselves at the front of the room next to them.
What was most striking about this 1-year-old family was its total normalcy. As most children would, all three boys manifestly felt uncomfortable as a roomful of adult strangers gazed at them. They sought immediate refuge and protection behind their fathers, literally hiding their faces.
But as their fathers’ presentation progressed, each of them — on their own time, slowly — began to be more comfortable. They gradually revealed their faces, while remaining anchored to the protective arms of their fathers. They began playfully interrupting their fathers’ presentation, mischievously grabbing their microphones, making fun of one another and their parents. The two fathers valiantly tried to divide their attention between the talk they were giving and their efforts to control three increasingly bold and restless boys as they began basking in the positive attention they were receiving from the roomful of attendees.
Five people who did not know each other the year before — who came from such radically different backgrounds and experiences — had so obviously and quickly formed a standard family with all of its familiar patterns. The power and beauty of this bond instantly dispelled whatever lingering doubts my husband and I had about the exciting but scary prospect of adopting.
The family agreed to share their story with The Intercept. Our team — myself, reporter Juliana Gonçalves, and videographer Thiago Dezan — spent many hours with them over the course of several days, in various settings, in order to get them comfortable with being interviewed and filmed and to be exposed to a full range of their experiences. Their individual story is fascinating on its own, but also for the window it provides into a wide array of societal issues.
Adoptive parents in Brazil confront a number of ethical quagmires which many did not anticipate. The first is the issue of race preference.
Is there any explanation, other than racism, for why some white parents would specify that they only want a white child, thus ensuring a far longer wait for themselves, particularly when most of the children in Brazil eligible for adoption are black?
Psychologists who oversee the orientation sessions insist that there is a non-racist motive. Adoptive parents, fearing that their children will already face significant hurdles, don’t want to add another: the constant stigma of having everyone — even strangers in public — know they are adopted by virtue of being of a different race than their parents. Having a child who looks enough like their parents to be perceived as their biological child, so the explanation goes, reduces the stigma for the child.
One of Alexandre and Francisco’s first conflicts with their youngest son, Gabriel — which took place within weeks after the adoption process was finalized — highlights this concern. When the five of them were walking on the street, Gabriel, when told he could not have something he wanted, threw a tantrum of the type common among 6-year-olds.
As his rage escalated, he ran away from his fathers, and Francisco had to chase and then grab him, all while Gabriel screamed for help. The sight of a 30-something man chasing and grabbing a screaming black child attracted the attention and concern of pedestrians and even security guards. “It was embarrassing,” Francisco recalled, “because it was the first time it happened. But I explained Gabriel was my son and that was the end of it.”
Both Alexandre and Francisco are dismissive of the significance of this stigma. “People do look at us in public, especially when I’m alone with them,” said Alexandre. “But it’s a look of curiosity, not malice, and it’s not hard to deal with. The boys know they are adopted and do not regard it as a stigma or source of shame: quite the opposite, as they have learned that adoption is something to be proud of and we are as much a family as anyone else.”
Whatever else is true, the issue of race looms over the adoption process from the start. The question prospective parents in orientation sessions most frequently ask is about time frame: How long will it take before you have your child? The answer is delivered by social workers in a matter-of-fact tone that masks its stunning meaning. The message is along these lines: “Well, it all depends on your preferences; if you want a fully healthy, white infant, then of course you will wait a very long time, even years. But if you are more flexible with your preferences, if you’re open to a nonwhite or an older child, one with conditions requiring treatment, then it will go much quicker.”
That nonwhite children are implicitly regarded as less desirable and thus more available is casually stated — as though it’s the most natural, or obvious, fact in the world. The grim reality that white children are more in demand hovers over an otherwise inspiring process. For that reason, preferences about race, along with age of the child, are among the most significant factors determining how long the process takes.
The issue of health is also complex. Children with disabilities requiring significant levels of care are sometimes given up for adoption by parents incapable of caring for them, meaning that many of those eligible suffer from blindness, paralysis, Down syndrome, or severe heart disease certain to produce a short life. Other children have treatable, chronic conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV, or diabetes.
An adoptive parent’s decision on the limits of illness or condition they feel themselves able and willing to confront can be a tormenting one. “You have dreams for what you want your children to be,” explained Francisco, “but you don’t want to feel as though you’re demanding a physically perfect specimen. We all have frailties and imperfections; it’s part of what makes us human.”
Beyond that, added Alexandre, “part of our motive was to have children because of the happiness it would bring us, but a big part was to give an unwanted child a home. So we didn’t want to restrict ourselves to children who would easily find one.” Ultimately, they opted to accept a child with treatable, chronic conditions but not grave, untreatable ones.
Questions of gender, and, for same-sex couples, sexual orientation, can be even more difficult to navigate. The couple’s youngest child, Gabriel, spent years in a poorly funded and badly managed shelter that was just one small step removed from living on the street: Homeless children often entered without impediment, and the children in the shelter easily left to commingle with groups of homeless people. At a young age, they were all immersed in a highly patriarchal and macho culture as a means of survival. And no family members or relatives ever visited the boys to provide a countervailing influence.
The two fathers were, at first, concerned about what attitudes Gabriel and his brothers would have to same-sex couples and to women. They therefore prioritized education about social attitudes. Alexandre bought books designed to teach kids that both genders are equal and that sexual orientation discrimination is wrong. “I immediately corrected any expression of bigotry that they had picked up,” Alexandre said, “and now they see these issues completely differently.”
During their first week together, one of the boys, when told that Alexandre and Francisco were married, asked whether that was allowed. After being told that it was, the boys pointed to a well-known Brazilian prime-time soap opera that had depicted a same-sex couple, provoking controversy in Brazil. “That normalized it for them,” said Francisco, “made them understand that this was common. After that, it’s just natural for them that they have two fathers.”
The question of age also presents an endless array of difficult questions. Child psychologists vehemently debate the age at which a child’s emotional and psychological formation is largely complete and thus immune from meaningful influence, with some believing that can take place as early as 2 or 3 years old. Others, however, believe the process never ends.
Alexandre and Francisco had no such doubts about their ability to parent their pre-adolescent boys, and time appears to have proven them correct. “These are completely different children than they were a year ago when we met them,” Alexandre says. “Even as an adult, I continue to learn and change from interactions I have with others and my life experiences. Of course kids are susceptible to parental influences throughout their childhood.”
Perhaps an even more excruciating ethical quandary comes from how one conducts the “search” for the child. The question a prospective adoptive parent must face is an almost impossible one to resolve: Do you keep meeting multiple children until you find “the right one” — thus rejecting hopeful children you meet on the path to the one you ultimately adopt — or do you commit in advance to adopting the first one that falls within your demographic preferences?
Children in shelters who are older than 3 or 4 know that they are waiting to be adopted and are hopeful it will happen. When a prospective parent visits, many try to be charming in the hope that they will be chosen. A parent who rejects a child under those circumstances knows they are bestowing the child with the knowledge that they have been rejected, and are also consigning them to a future where there is a real possibility that they will never be adopted. That’s a heavy burden for both to bear.
But the other option — committing in advance to adopting the first child one meets regardless of compatibility — can present its own serious difficulties. Not every parent is equipped to provide every adopted child with the emotional and psychological support they need. Compatibility can be critical in determining whether the relationship works.
“In our case,” recalls Alexandre, “this turned out not to be a problem because we knew as soon as we met Gabriel that he was our son. And we felt the same way when we met his two brothers.” Francisco added: “That’s not to say it’s always been easy. But somehow we found them and they found us and it was meant to be.”
There is no question that adoption presents some unique challenges. Ultimately, though, parenting adopted children is far more similar than different to the process of raising biological children. Those who have children biologically also face an endless array of unknowns and factors far beyond their control. On one level, adoptive parents have more advanced information about their children than biological parents do. But in each case, the beauty and power of the parent-child relationship lies in the unknown. As is always true, that is where human possibility resides: in the realms we cannot control and thus limit with expectations.
In his 2016 book “Love That Boy,” the political journalist Ron Fournier describes the dreams and plans he had for his son before he was born, only to find that his son’s autism rendered the boy much different than the blueprint envisioned. Fournier’s account of how he came to love his son on his own terms, for what he is and for his unique attributes and abilities, highlighted the vital lesson: Once one frees oneself from expectations and attachments, all new and more powerful possibilities are discovered.
What is ultimately most powerful and inspiring about the family formed by Alexandre, Francisco, and their three boys is the sheer improbability of it. The seemingly insurmountable obstacles one would expect them to face are, in reality, no match for the human bonds they formed. The barriers and differences — socioeconomic, racial, cultural, psychological — seem trivial when set next to the love-and-support-based structure these five human beings have chosen to form. Observing and understanding it provides critical, and universal, clues for how empathetic humans are truly capable of interacting with one another.
For a school assignment, the middle son, Pablo, now 11, wrote a story of the wish he once made when throwing a coin into a fountain. He wrote: “My dream came true: I asked for a family which would never leave me.” His father Francisco put it simply: “If anyone thinks that we, two men, cannot care for these children, and that they’re not living well at our house: come here and meet us.”