Finally Craig Peterson was going to be a father. Four adopted children would soon fill the empty halls of his two-story suburban Indianapolis home, share the comfortable life he’d built as a successful salesman.
The hard part of adopting a family was over, or so he thought.
When Peterson started the adoption process, he knew he would have to overcome the stigma of being single and gay. He found a group of siblings, three boys and a girl, all black and all brain-damaged from fetal alcohol syndrome. They were kids who required special attention, kids others looking to adopt might pass over.
Peterson, who is white, went through months of interviews and training. He picked out schools, learned how the kids’ disabilities, including short attention spans and learning problems, could be handled. His effort paid off. The adoption board voted unanimously to place the kids with him.
But then the little girl’s foster parents, Saundra and Earl “Butch” Kimmerling, learned about Peterson’s sexual orientation. They protested, rallying state and local politicians to their side.
They were certain they were right--certain that a homosexual could not be a good parent, and that a heterosexual would be.
But this is not an age of certainty.
The story of this little girl--call her Mary, though that is not her name--is a cautionary tale about assumptions made at a time when the definition of a family is elastic and blurred.
You see, the Kimmerlings fought to keep Peterson from adopting the girl, and they won. As it turns out, Mary didn’t.
Peterson remembers the excitement he felt in August 1998 as the adoption was coming together, before the debate over his parenting ability began.
Mary, now 9, was to be the first to move in. The boys, who lived together in a separate foster home in Anderson, were to follow a week later. Mary’s upstairs room was ready: flowered wallpaper, a desk for studying and a pile of pillows on the bed.
But then the Kimmerlings--who have shared their home with nearly 50 foster children--learned Peterson is gay. That was too much for the churchgoing couple to bear.
The story hit the local newspaper, with Earl Kimmerling saying adoption by a homosexual was against God’s will and it would be unjust to place Mary in an “immoral” household.
In a letter to the editor of the Indianapolis Star, the Kimmerlings wrote: “Girls need mothers so they can learn what it is to be a woman; they need fathers so they know how to interact with the opposite sex.”
The Kimmerlings’ pastor, Brad Brizendine of Center of Faith Church, had started sending letters to churches throughout Madison County, urging them to oppose the adoption. Anderson Mayor Mark Lawler publicly supported the Kimmerlings.
So did Republican state Reps. Woody Burton and Jack Lutz, who sponsored a bill to ban adoptions by homosexuals in Indiana. It was defeated in the Senate last year.
Within a week of learning that Peterson is gay, the Kimmerlings filed to adopt Mary.
“We have her, and we’re a family,” Saundra Kimmerling said at the time. “We’ve been a family, and now it’s going to be official.”
Peterson couldn’t believe what was happening. Fearing he might lose all four kids, he pushed ahead with adopting the three boys, ages 4 to 6, who were placed with him over Labor Day weekend 1998. Peterson’s homosexuality was never an issue in getting the boys, perhaps because the boys’ foster parents never expressed concern about it.
In December 1998, at proceedings attended by Mayor Lawler, the Kimmerlings’ adoption of Mary was made final.
Despite a push by adoption agencies to keep siblings together, Mary and her brothers were separated, and there was little Peterson could do.
“The whole thing was just like a real odd movie,” Peterson said. “Like a scary movie or something.”
He believed Bruce Stansberry, director of Madison County’s Division of Family and Children, had caved in to public pressure surrounding the case. Stansberry referred all questions to the state office; representatives there said the adoption was handled appropriately.
What nobody was aware of at the time was what had been going on for months inside Mary’s pink-walled bedroom.
The last time it happened was May 10, 1998.
It was morning, just like always. Mary’s mother left for work. Her father came into her bedroom, sat on the bed and touched her, made her touch him as well.
She had wanted to tell her mother for nearly a year; but every time the 8-year-old tried, Earl Kimmerling was there, giving a look that scared her.
It was a Tuesday evening, May 11, 1999, when Mary finally told Saundra Kimmerling what had been happening.
According to Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings, the mother went into the little girl’s room and found what she believed to be secretions from sexual activity on the bedsheets. She stripped the bed and put the sheets in the washing machine. But she didn’t turn it on. Instead, she took Mary to the Anderson Police Department.
Before Detective Dale Koons, Mary gave videotaped testimony of the abuse. “She told about her father, Earl Kimmerling, engaging her in sexual activities quite frequently, most often in the morning upon waking her for school,” according to a supplemental case report.
The same day, Earl Kimmerling, who worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation, met with Koons and admitted to many of the abuse charges, saying he started molesting her in April or May of 1998 and had continued the encounters about once every two or three weeks since.
The unwashed bedsheets were found during a police search of the Kimmerling home. Kimmerling’s DNA matched that found on the sheets.
On Jan. 13 of this year, with Peterson present, Kimmerling pleaded guilty to four counts of child molestation. Peterson wept as the charges were read.
The Kimmerlings separated after the charges were filed, and Mary remains with Saundra Kimmerling, who has refused any comment. Earl Kimmerling, 52, is serving a 40-year sentence.
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit on Peterson’s behalf, accusing Stansberry of violating Peterson’s constitutional rights by reversing the adoption decision.
Jim Hmurovich, director of the Division of Family and Children, said the proper procedures were followed.
“Everything we do, we have to do in the best interest of the children,” Hmurovich said.
Those who had spoken in favor of the Kimmerlings have since denounced Earl Kimmerling’s actions, but remain steadfast in their belief that allowing gays to adopt is wrong.
Peterson has tried to remain strong throughout, being a father to the boys, teaching them to ride bikes, explaining to them as gently as possible what has happened to their sister.
At one point, 5-year-old Michael posed a question.
“Father,” he asked, “can’t we call Mary to make sure we know she’s OK?”
“That’s a really nice thing to say, Michael,” Peterson replied. “Maybe someday we’ll be able to do that.”
On the Net:
Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families for general information on adoption: https://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cb/parent/index.htm
National Adoption Information Clearinghouse: https://www.calib.com/naic/