Six years ago, a 7-year-old Cuban-Puerto Rican boy named Jeremy was living with a foster family in Massachusetts and wondering if anyone would ever adopt him. After all, most adopters want infants. At 7, he might be considered too old.
But Matt Paluszek, who was in his mid-30s, was also doing some wondering: Would he ever get married and have children - or if not, might he be able to adopt?
Like an increasing number of single men, Mr. Paluszek explored the adoption option and found it just right for him.
As Father's Day arrives this Sunday, he and other single dads are giving thanks for the children they've recently adopted - more than 5,000 of them between 1998 and 2001 - either in spite of or because of their ages and special needs.
Yet even as they claim a niche as appreciated dads to the needy, the single man's adoptive path to parenthood is not getting easier.
Several factors dot the landscape with obstacles. For one, most foreign countries - even if they are willing to part with their orphaned or abandoned children - prohibit adoption by single men. And in America, where all 50 states permit single adults to adopt, church-related abuse scandals have recently raised the bar for single men trying to prove their fitness for parenthood.
"For some agencies, men are suspect because of the sex-abuse scandals. They wonder why a man would ever want to adopt," said Grace Brace, executive director of the International Adoption Services Centre, a nonprofit agency in Gardiner, Maine that supports single male adoption. "With everything that's happening, I believe it is becoming harder for men to adopt."
Despite the roadblocks, adoption rates among single guys haven't faltered. In 1998, 645 single men adopted children in the foster care system; that number grew to 1,110 in 2001. No later data is available. The numbers may be even higher since exact figures aren't kept on the approximately 65,000 private adoptions that take place in the US each year.
Still, unmarried men have a way to go to match the record of single women, who accounted for 30 percent of the adoptions from the foster-care system in 2001. The number for single men is 2 percent.
Single males who explore adoption quickly find that the outcome may depend on an unpredictable network of state lawmakers, social workers, agency personnel, and birth mothers, all of whom are apt to have strong feelings about a single man's ability to raise a child. Through copious paperwork and home interviews, a candidate must convince each gatekeeper that he has the maturity, financial stability, and support network necessary for the task. Given the various factors, experiences differ widely.
For Stephen Pipito, coordinator of budgets for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, an attempt to adopt abroad became a nightmarish ordeal. The process took four years, cost more than $35,000, and required bribing intermediaries in nations that frown on adoptions by single men.
A Romanian decree in his particular case said a single man of almost 40 years couldn't provide necessary "maternal care" for a 3-year-old. And because he had never married, it deemed him "an indecisive person who has sentiments which do not endure over time."
"All this, combined with a constant questioning of my social life, left me very frustrated," Mr. Pipito says.
Persistence paid off, however, as he finally picked up his 16-month-old Guatemalan son, Aaron William, last month.
Other single men, however, report having had a far friendlier experience. Paluszek, for instance, said he felt he "was treated no differently than anyone else."
John Fortini of Wellesley, Mass., adopted two years ago when he got his first-choice children - two brothers, ages 10 and 12 - after a nine-month process.
Domestically, California, which has the most inclusive laws, led the nation with 223 single male adoptions from foster care in 2002, while 32 states reported fewer than 20 adoptions by single men.
Beyond the location factor, single men who fare the best tend to be those who want older children or children with special needs.
"I started out thinking, 'It will be an infant who looks something like me and no one will ever know he's adopted,' " Paluszek says. "Then it became blatantly clear to me that wouldn't be the best situation.... With older children, they need to go to school during the day, and I need to work. I figured out that adopting an older child was the way to go."
When Mr. Fortini, who has worked with boys for 20 years as a Boy Scout leader and before that as a camp counselor, requested children 8 years of age or older, the response was celebratory.
Those he adopted turned out to need special help - weekly appointments for vision therapy, at-home supervision of daily eye exercises, and extra love as they fear abandonment after living in multiple foster homes.
Yet with help from Fortini's parents, who share his home, 12-year-old Diamond has jumped in one year from a first-grade reading level to a sixth-grade level.
For all their efforts, single men who adopt find that the children's lives aren't the only ones changed. Paluszek has marveled at situations where he has needed to "dig deep and be nurturing" during the five years he has raised Jeremy, who's now 12.
Instead of dismissing Jeremy's small cuts or bruises, he learned that making a fuss over his son when he's slightly hurt is an important sign of security.
"My nature is to say, 'All right, get up, brush yourself off,' " Paluszek says. "But anything safety-related proves to them 'I finally do have someone who cares for me and will keep me safe.' "
Fortini has learned that being a dad means getting used to defiance. The boys he's had in scouting over the year often obeyed him better than they did their parents, but now he understands the parents' frustration.
"I've asked other parents, 'How come your kids listen to me, but my kids won't?' Fortini says. "They say, 'Because you're their dad.' "
As single adoptive dads celebrate this Father's Day, the outlook for their peers interested in adoptions is mixed. New barriers are emerging, such as in Oklahoma, where a new law this year prohibits single adults from adopting with another adult who would share custody.
Yet at the same time, federal incentives - such as an "Adopt Us Kids" website - continue to generate more adoptions of all types from foster care.
The Children's Bureau of the federal Administration for Children and Families is preparing a national advertising campaign to help a wide range of adults see themselves as adoptive parents. Associate Commissioner Susan Orr hopes responses will include those of single men. "People know foster children need homes, but they don't consider themselves worthy to be parents," she says, noting that just 10 percent of foster children get adopted each year. "Our message is, 'You probably are worthy'.... It wouldn't surprise me to see more and more people step up to the plate to adopt."