Father & Father -- Revisiting The Serkin-Pooles, A Gay Couple Who Now Have Three Adopted Children

Nearly five years ago in these pages, The Seattle Times told the story of David and Michael Serkin-Poole, one of the first gay couples in Washington to adopt an unrelated child. The family now includes two more children, and Times staff photographer Teresa Tamura spent the past two years chronicling the family from time to time. This is the story of their lives together today.

School's out.

Eugene explodes through the door. Homework comes first, but Nintendo has been calling him all day. Danielle storms in starving. Good news, she says, slicing off chunks of cheese. Teacher forgot to give us homework. Jason gets home last, finds Turtle, his stuffed alter ego, and climbs onto his dad's lap for a hug. How was your day? Fine, he signs.

They're a pretty typical family, the Serkin-Pooles:

Three kids. A split-level house on a Bellevue cul de sac. A basketball hoop out front. Nintendo in the basement TV. A snooty cat named Ariel. A collection of potato bugs gasping for air in a jar.

And two doting dads.

David Serkin-Poole, 41, is a cantor at Mercer Island's Temple B'nai Torah. Michael Serkin-Poole, 39, is a stay-at-home who cleans the house, makes the meals and serves as school-room parent. On July 4, they'll celebrate their 14th anniversary as life partners.

It's been five years since the Serkin-Pooles made the news by becoming one of the first gay couples in Washington to jointly adopt a child unrelated to either of them. Washington is one of the few states that don't prohibit same-sex joint adoption - although that could change if enough signatures are gathered for Initiative 167, an anti-gay rights initiative to the Legislature, by December.

Because adoption files are closed by the court, no one knows how many other gay or lesbian couples have adopted in the past few years.

"Special needs" children

All three of the Serkin-Poole children are "special needs" children who will always need care.

Eugene - sandy-haired, with that self-assured swagger only 14-year-old boys are really good at - was the couple's first child. He has fetal alcohol syndrome and bounced around in seven foster homes before the Serkin-Pooles adopted him in 1990 and gave him permanence.

Jason, an affectionate 10-year-old with wavy red hair, came next; his adoption was final in January 1994. He has dyspraxic aphasia - which means he can hear but can't speak - and a slight developmental delay.

Danielle, 11, with Snow White looks and a sly sense of humor, is slightly developmentally disabled but has no physical disabilities. She's Jason's birth sister and joined the family legally last Halloween.

"We always wanted children," Michael said as he straightened up the after-school chaos in the kitchen. He and David both come from large families. Because the waiting period for an infant is so long, and because Michael had worked many years in a group home for disabled adults, it seemed natural for them to accept children with disabilities.

"When the agency asked us what kind of child would we not accept, we started asking ourselves," Michael said. "What about a child who's missing a finger? Well, why not? What about a child who wears thick glasses? Well, why not? What about a child who has only one eye? Well, why not? Biological parents take what comes to them, so we did, too."

The Serkin-Pooles flew through the adoption process - the psychological tests, the background criminal checks, the endless home visits that are mandatory in any adoption. Even so, it took them two years to finally call Eugene their own.

"Dad"? Too confusing

The children don't call their parents Dad. Too confusing.

"We played around with a few things, Daddy Michael and Daddy David," said David, who had come home early from work and sat down to one of Michael's special double tall mochas. The kids settled down, Eugene at his Nintendo, Danielle with the cat, Jason on Michael's lap.

"Finally we realized it didn't matter what they called us if there's love," David said. "So they call us Michael and David. But they refer to `my dads.' Once one of Eugene's friends said, `You've got two dads? Oh, cool!' "

All the children have changed since they joined the family.

Eugene was on 15 different medications when he came, had trouble remembering adults' names, was hyperactive and barely verbal. His use of most of the medications has since tapered off.

"I work with him on consequences," said Michael, whose long suit is patience. "Children with fetal alcohol syndrome just don't get it that there are consequences to what they do. There are studies that say a lot of people in prisons have FAS and don't understand that concept. But he's catching on. It just takes time."

"When we first adopted Eugene, whenever I'd leave the house, he'd say, `Are you coming back?' " David said. "I told him, `Eugene, I'll always come back to you. I'll always love you. I'm just going to work, and I will come back.' "

Jason had no way of communicating with people when he first came. He knew sign language for two words: food and toilet. But he wore diapers and was considered profoundly retarded.

"The first time we saw him was at a picnic with his foster parents," said Michael. "He was looking at me, and I signed `cheeseburger' and `Pepsi.' He turned around and walked off. But later on, he came back and made the signs back to me. He caught on so quickly we knew he wasn't profoundly retarded. We don't know where he is because all the IQ tests he's ever had were done by people who didn't sign. It's just too bad he didn't learn sign language as a toddler. It's a lot harder at 10."

Jason's disability is rare enough that the educators haven't quite figured out how to teach him. He attends a program for deaf children in the Highline School District - the closest match his parents have found for his needs. But he hears and understands language like any other 10-year-old, Michael said. The schools have wanted to try to teach him to talk, but "that won't work. It's like teaching someone who has no legs to walk. He can't form words. So verbalization for Jason is not an alternative."

Because he couldn't communicate, Jason was distant at first. He never hugged or kissed anyone until he became a Serkin-Poole. Now, even though it's a new feeling for him, Jason is the most affectionate of the three.

Danielle made her mark on the family almost immediately.

"We needed Danielle and we didn't even know it," said David. "Age-wise she's between the two boys, and she acts as a stabilizer, a buffer."

"She tells on everyone, and I actually want that," Michael said, launching into a sweet, high voice. " `Michael, is Eugene supposed to be eating bacon? Should Jason be flushing whole rolls of paper down the toilet?'

"Those are things I definitely need to know," he continued in his Michael voice. "I don't mean she's a goody-two-shoes. She's an easy child. We have to tone down the discipline for her. She gets hurt easily."

When Danielle needs a woman to talk with about girl things, Michael said, there shouldn't be a problem. There are plenty of aunts and grandmothers in the family as well as close female friends.

They've all changed

The children aren't the only ones who've changed.

"I don't want to give that old now-that-we-have-kids-we-work-better-as-a-team answer," said Michael, "but that is how it's turned out. We are better communicators because there's always something to talk about with kids. Life is never boring."

Despite all that Cleaver-family normality, there are times when the Serkin-Pooles' differences are called into questioned.

When Danielle's foster mom learned the couple who were adopting her were gay, she wouldn't let David and Michael in her home.

"When people question our `lifestyle,' I don't really know what they're talking about," said David. "Ninety-nine percent of the time we're doing what everyone else is doing. When they say, `We don't approve of your lifestyle,' that's just jargon for they don't know what kind of people we are. I think what they're referring to is the swinging-single lifestyle. But we're not swinging anything. That's not a compatible lifestyle with kids. We didn't have children to make a political statement. We had them because we are more like other couples than we are different."

Still, the "lifestyle" question nags them.

Last January, they went to the King County Administration Building to try to apply for a marriage license. They were denied, of course - they knew they would be. No state allows same-sex marriages, although Hawaii is considering it.

"We wanted to at least be able to tell the children we tried, in case one of them should ever ask," said Michael.

"In my not-so-distant memory, everyone told us we couldn't adopt," David said. "I wanted to go through the process to be married because Michael and I want the right to be legally recognized by the state of Washington as a married couple. It has nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with one's sexual activity. We just want that piece of paper that says we are legally together."

And, to ensure there are no public doubts about where they stand politically, the Serkin-Pooles will take the children with them - as they did last year - to march in today's Gay Pride Parade in Seattle.

"Gays and lesbians have to stand up and tell our stories so people see us as part and parcel of American society," said David. "We want the children to be part of that, too."

Beyond that, the Serkin-Pooles said, there's very little remarkable about their family.

"We're pretty middle-class Bellevue," David said. "Pretty boring. We worry like other parents. We fight for the schools. We go to PTA. We bowl with the kids. Of course Michael and I know we can't be just any old anonymous parents. We know at some point the kids will take some heat for who we are. But we can't let that stop us from being a loving family."