All in the Family
By Liz Massey, March 2017 Issue.
The 17 members of the Ham family are no strangers to the spotlight. They’ve shared their story with the Arizona Republic, they’re the recipients of the ONE Community’s inaugural Change Agent Award and, yes, you’ve gotten to know them through several stories in the pages of Echo Magazine over the years.
We last sat down with the then-Delightful Dozen for the June 2010 issue (see story at phoenix.outvoices.us/the-delightful-dozen). But the family made headlines again last year with the adoption of their 15th child, a 4-year-old name Amaya May.
While super dads Steven and Roger Ham, a gay couple who has gone from zero to 15 children throughout the past 13 years, might seem like the ultimate examples of how the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality empowered families headed by same-sex partners, they don’t see it that way.
According to Steven, they are both just grateful for the way in which their lives have been simplified once their relationship received legal recognition. He added that, because they have never left anything to chance in that area, they were already covered by all available legal protections before the decision was handed down.
“We didn’t let [the lack of marriage equality] impact us,” Steven said. We always found loopholes to ensure if something happened to one of us, the other person would be protected as the children’s guardian … We went to the extreme to take care of ourselves legally.”
But that’s not all that’s changed with the growing brood since the last time Echo checked in on them.
Steven and Roger have adopted three additional children (Bella, Julian and Amaya), their two oldest kids (Vanessa and Michael) have left the nest to attend college, the Hams have moved to a commodious house in the West Valley and the men have come full circle in their journey as adoptive gay dads by mentoring other LGBTQ parents who are new to the foster/adoption system in Arizona.
Growing the Family Tree By Three
In 2010, Steven and Roger reported to Echo that they had closed out their foster care license and that their family was “complete.” But, as has happened numerous times over the course of their journey as parents, they learned of relatives of their current family members who were in need, and they took action to bring new children into the family.
In the case of Julian and Bella, who were the 13th and 14th children to join the family, the dads were watching the local news one night – about four years ago – after their children had gone to bed. They saw a report about two foster parents in Prescott who had been arrested after a teacher had reported that their 4-year-old foster daughter was covered in bruises.
The Hams knew that their daughter Ambrose, then 6, had two younger half-siblings in foster care in Prescott. Steven said he and his husband just “had a gut feeling” that the two children on the news report were related to Ambrose. They emailed Ambrose’s former caseworker at the Department of Child Safety early the next morning. She confirmed that the children were indeed Ambrose’s half-brother and half-sister, and asked if Steven and Roger would consider taking them.
After a brief family conference to affirm that the family wanted to grow by two members, Roger drove to Prescott later that day and picked the children up. They were formally adopted by in May 2013.
More than a year later, Amaya (half-siblings to Julian, Bella and Ambrose) entered the picture when her mother asked Steven and Roger to take care of her daughter for three days. The days stretched into weeks, then months, and Steven obtained legal guardianship while the mother continued pleading for additional time away from her child.
After Amaya had lived with the Hams for a year, her mother attempted to revoke the legal guardianship arrangement and regain custody. Roger and Steven had said “never again” to adoption after Julian and Bella, but when they found out that Amaya would not be returning to her mother after a judge-mandated investigation, they reconsidered once again.
Amaya was adopted by Steven and Roger last August in a process that was, compared to all their previous adoptions, a breeze.
“We were both on the home study, and both on her birth certificate after the adoption,” Steven said. “There were also no additional costs to this adoption [beyond what an opposite-sex couple would pay]. It was amazing.”
The Rules of the House
To keep such a large family running smoothly, Steven and Roger have continued to employ the rules that they began laying down when they adopted their first child, Michael, in 2003.
Each child goes to preschool or public school during the day; each one participates in an extracurricular activity; and each child has chores to complete at home. Children must earn A’s and B’s in school to gain access to their electronic devices. When a child contacts Steven or Roger on those devices, he or she must use full sentences in their communication – such abbreviations as LOL or TTYL are not acceptable. Steven regularly checks his older children’s Facebook, Kik and other social media accounts to ensure they’re using the platforms appropriately.
Those rules may seem stringent compared to some families, but Steven said that for most of their children, this is all they have known, and it just seems normal to them.
“If you asked our kids about the rules in our house, they’d tell you it’s basically ‘treat others as you want to be treated,’” Steven asserted.
Attorney Janet Story, who has represented the couple seven times for adoption issues since 2007, described Steven and Roger’s parenting approach as, “Laid back, calm, firm, but loving,” adding that it’s “what you see is what you get with them.”
While some of the older children have displayed moments of typical teenage rebellion, now that Vanessa and Michael are in college, they have told Steven and Roger that they appreciate why their dads run the family the way they do.
“Vanessa was very rebellious at times – we’d tell her to be home at 8, and she’d be home at 10,” Steven recalled. “But by us being so strict, the kids have had a sense of responsibility placed in them. It’s worth it. When Vanessa calls us from college and tells us, ‘Now I understand why you were so strict with us,’ it feels good.”
Fostering A New Generation of LGBTQ Families
Even with seven of their 15 children still under the age of 12, Steven and Roger are already sharing what they’ve learned as parents with LGBTQ community members who are new to foster/adoptive parenting.
While both dads acknowledge that the system in Arizona has become much more accepting of same-sex couples since they began their family in 2003, they emphasize resilience and perseverance as essential traits for queer parents to manifest.
“Don’t give up, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and fight for what you believe in,” Steven advised. “If we’d hadn’t done that, we would have adopted one child, or maybe not even that one child.”
These dads also caution would-be parents against making hasty judgments about a potential foster or adoptive child.
“Whatever you read about the kid, it always looks worse on paper than in reality,” Steven asserted. “Our kids are not perfect by any means, but given what some of them have been through, they’re doing great.”
Roger seconded his husband’s assessment.
“We’ve been blessed with our kids,” he said. “They’re great – we’ve been very lucky.”
The Ham Family in 2010. Photo by Cinthia Schmidt.
“I Just Love My Kids”
As the newest little Ham settles into her “forever family,” Steven and Roger continue to attend to the day-to-day details of managing such a large and lively brood. With a 16-year span between Amaya (now 5) and 21-year-old Vanessa, the men, currently 47 and 53, will be hands-on dads for some time to come.
Despite the fact that none of their children are related biologically to either one of them, Steven and Roger say they are amused by how many of the kids have picked up their quirks, things like Steven’s sarcastic sense of humor. They’re also happy that, with so many different biological families represented in their clan, all of the kids have bonded so well.
“They fight with each other, and get on each other’s nerves,” Steven said, “but they’ve also always got someone to play with. It’s neat to see them bond … if someone gets hurt, they’re all right there to help. And if one of them has trouble with a bully, their sisters and brothers are right there with them.”
Both Roger and Steven grew up in large families themselves (Steven the youngest of 14 children and Roger is the youngest of 12). And when asked why they chose parenting through fostering/adoption, they simply said “to give back to society.”
“I just love my kids,” Steven said. “I enjoy every second I have with them. The opportunity to teach, influence, love and give back to the world [through parenting] is just amazing.”
And when you think of it, that’s possibly the most significant thing to come out of Steven and Roger’s journey as fathers, regardless of precisely how marriage equality has made that path easier.
As Story put it, “[Steven and Roger] always acted as a two-parent family – it just took awhile for the law to catch up to their reality.”