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The 32-year-old male nurse was in the middle of the afternoon shift at his former job at Fort Lauderdale's Children's Diagnostic and Treatment Center. He was thinking about what to do for the holiday -- maybe take a vacation to see a friend in New York City, or go to a few parties -- or just catch up on some sleep. Then he spotted a disheveled and jumpy-looking man in the waiting room. As the visitor approached, Doug recognized him as Oscar Williams, the father of twin babies and a three-year-old boy whom Houton had treated for two years. Williams was known around the ward as a drug and alcohol abuser, frequently out of work.
"All of a sudden, he started telling me how he'd lost his apartment and that he didn't have any food for the kids," Houton remembers. "He kept saying, 'Here, you take the boys and give them a good Christmas.'"
Before Doug could fully grasp what was happening, Williams had disappeared. "I thought, 'OK, I have two weeks off,'" Houton says. "'I love kids. What's a couple of weeks, you know?' That was two in the afternoon. By five, I had all the kids and we were in my car, heading to my house."
Two weeks passed. Then three. Then four. "I didn't know how long it was going to last, but I can tell you it was chaos," Houton recalls. "I mean, I go from having zero kids to three under five [years of age]. Oh my God, you've never seen the freak-out I was having."
Meanwhile, Fanny and Jimmy Williams, Oscar's folks, who live in Fort Lauderdale, had been looking for their grandchildren. "We were saying to our son, 'Now, where are your children, Oscar?'" Fanny recalls, her voice cracking with strain. "I said, 'Don't you wanna know where your babies are?' But he wouldn't tell us. When he's on that dope, ain't nothing that matters to him. He told me, 'They all right and with a nice man.'"
Eventually Houton contacted the Williamses through a social worker at the clinic. Although the grandparents barely knew Doug, having talked to him only twice at the clinic, they were comfortable with him caring for their grandchildren. "He seemed like a nice man," Fanny says now.
A couple of weeks later, Fanny and Jimmy went to Houton's home, intending to pick up all three boys. But the couple, both in their seventies, took only the twins. They left Oscar Jr. because the toddler was too "out of control."
"Nothing we could have handled," the grandmother sighs. "He would bang his head against the wall and throw fits. We liked the babies because they quieter."
Once again, Houton did what he felt he had to do. "The grandparents didn't get [Oscar] for whatever reason, but I knew I wasn't going to abandon him," he says. "He was sort of my responsibility at that point, and I accepted that because it just felt very right.
"My friends thought I was nuts," Houton admits. "Most of us were in our late twenties and early thirties. But I also had money, a stable life, a stable job. You can say fate or whatever, but sometimes your life just presents these roads to you, and I felt like I was prepared ..."
But Doug, who applied for, and was granted, legal guardianship of Oscar in 1996, quickly realized that raising the boy would be demanding. Born to a crack-addicted mother who often left her infant children alone for days at a time, Oscar had been severely physically abused. His mother once burned the toddler with an iron so badly that he had to be hospitalized. For that, a judge found her guilty of neglect, took custody from her, and gave it to Oscar Sr. The little boy's father, however, didn't win any parenting awards either, say Jimmy and Fanny Williams.
"We went over to his apartment once, and it was all dirty, dark, just real depressing. The kids hadn't been fed for a long time, we could tell," says Fanny.
When Houton first brought Oscar Jr. home, the child had barely a 25-word vocabulary. The emotional trauma he had endured left him prone to long crying jags, sadness, insecurity, and an extreme fear of abandonment. Doug needed help. So he called his mother, a former second-grade schoolteacher, and his sister, who specializes in developmental disorders at an upstate New York clinic. Houton paired their advice with his own learn-as-you-go parenting skills, reading to Oscar twice a day and taking him to experts in developmental disorders.
After a year with the boy, Houton wanted to adopt Oscar.
But he couldn't. Because he is gay.
Since 1977, homosexuals have been expressly banned from legal adoption in Florida.
Although foster guardianship, which gays can obtain in the state, is meant to be short-term, the tie often lasts for years. According to the Florida Child Adoption Association, 3400 children up to age 18 are in the state's custody. The vast majority of these kids are at least five years old and have backgrounds of abuse that have caused emotional and behavioral disorders. As a result they're often harder to place. If a child is matched with an individual or couple willing to take on the inevitable extra work, long-term foster relationships are acceptable. But child-welfare experts say adoption is ideal to make both guardian and child feel ultimately secure in their bond.