Aad and Ron Dissel de Boo tell the story of how they once went to a conference in the USA to talk of their experiences in raising children. Before the spoke, a woman came up to them and told them forthrightly that she didn’t agree that homosexuals should be allowed to raise children, because it went against traditional family values.
And then they went on the podium and told their story. Later the same woman came to them in tears to apologise for what she had said earlier. “And then she wrote to us later,” says Ron laughing in his booming bass. “She said that she had our photo on a notice board in her office with a sign underneath it that read ‘they opened my heart and my eyes.'”
It’s a telling anecdote. And after having spent an afternoon in their company, I know exactly what caused such a radical transformation in that woman. 25 years ago, Aad and Ron decided that they had room in their hearts and in their lives to adopt a child. The Dutch Child Welfare Agency demurred. A young homosexual couple with a child went against the accepted wisdom and in the Christian conservative Holland of that time; there was no precedent for it.
First and second child
But they persisted and eventually, almost as a gesture of ill will, the Agency pointed them towards Huup. He was 14 years old, mentally handicapped, had been severely abused, and had gone through several foster homes. But Aad and Ron took him in and brought him up. Huup, now 27, lives with them still. After Huup had been with them for a while, the couple decided they wanted a younger child, so they went back to the Child Welfare Agency and were again met with protests. Nevertheless, they were then assigned Michel, a mentally disturbed 9-year-old whose parents had kept him chained in a closet for six years. Michel was incontinent, couldn’t speak, and needed to be taught the basics, like a giant toddler.
With two kids in the house, the couple decided that they couldn’t both work outside anymore. So while Ron earned the family income, working in a hospital, Aad became the stay-at-home dad. “When the kids come home from school, they should see that my papa is home,” says Aad in his soft voice. “When they are crying I’m there, when they’re smiling I’m there, when they go to bed I’m there – they should never again feel alone.”
When Michel was 11, Aad and Ron decided they wanted a baby this time. The Agency reacted predictably: “A baby needs a mum,” they were told, but Ron replied: “I can be a mum.” And so they got Michael, a one-and-a-half year old, mentally challenged and also with a background of abuse and neglect. When they got him, Michel still hadn’t been introduced to solids, so he drank only enormous quantities of milk. His inadequate diet meant that he couldn’t really move his lower body, but Aad and Ron fell in love with him immediately. He’s now a hulking 17-year-old who also lives at home still.
After Michael, Ron said it was such a men’s family that he wanted a girl in the house. The Agency was unhappy about the idea of a girl brought up by two men, but had no other option for Paula. The baby of two drug addicts, Paula had been taken away from her prostitute mother. What the Agency neglected to tell Aad and Ron that Paula was born with her parents’ addiction and when they got her, she was in withdrawal.
Because she was still a toddler, there were no drugs to help her physical symptoms, so Paula cried every night, all night for months. Aad and Ron laugh as they remember how the boys hated having a screaming baby in the house. “But she was so lovely,” says Ron, and every night, the length of the crying fits reduced gradually from 12 hours, to 11, then 10 until she finally normalized. “Her eyes were like flowers,” he adds, still a besotted father.
Fifth, sixth and seventh child
After Paula, Aad and Ron didn’t need to go to the Welfare Agency anymore – the Agency came to them. Paula had a biological brother, Fons. After Fons, came Kelly, another biological sibling. Her mother, still addicted, still a prostitute, gave birth at home, two months early and was then unable to stand the pressure of caring for a new baby, abandoned the newborn. The baby was discovered only because neighbours complained to the police about the crying. She was dehydrated, starving and suffering from exposure, but Aad and Ron were waiting at the hospital to take her home. She is now a healthy freckled nine-year-old who loves horse riding and sports.
After Kelly came yet another biological sister, Hannah. By that time Aad was wondering if they could take in any more children, but when Ron heard of Hannah’s birth, he ordered Aad to get her immediately. “I told him not to come home without the baby.” Hannah is an angelic five-year-old girl now with a sheet of shining hair down her back, the pampered princess of the family.
Aad and Ron decided that they could take in no more children in the house on a permanent basis, but they do take in the most severely abused children on a temporary basis, to provide a steady transition for them for a few months before a suitable foster home can be found. They reel off a heartbreaking list: there was Omar who saw his mother shot dead by his father; there was one-and-a-half-year-old Quentin who had never known family life, whose first foster family returned him after one night; there was six-year-old Vinnie who was so abused by his parents that he came to Aad and Ron from the hospital, his back covered in burns from scalding showers.
More than 100 children
When I asked them how many children had come through their house over the years, Aad scratches his head and says they’ve never counted the exact number. “More than a hundred?” I ask them. “Oh yes, more than a hundred,” he replies matter-of-factly. Aad and Ron have started a foundation called Twee Vaders, or Two Fathers. They live with their family in an immaculate house in a small town not far from Amsterdam. The children are housed in a warren of tiny but individualized, neat bedrooms upstairs.
When they were told that being near animals was good for abused or handicapped children, Ron got over his fear of horses, learnt to ride and now all the children care and ride the horses they stable nearby. Aad and Ron now work in conjunction with the Child Welfare Agency to give parenting classes to people who need them, trying to nip in the bud the problem of abuse or neglect.
They are concerned that in this wealthy country, there is a shortfall of good homes to some 10,000 kids. If there was a physical way to do it, there is no doubt that they would gather all these thousands of hurt and unhappy children into their protective fold. They can’t care for them all, but they haven’t done so badly so far.