Revisiting the April Divilbiss Case: Alternative lifestyles and encounters with the state

Originally published on LiveJournal on 7 April 2005.

A nice lady wrote to me recently, provoked by my post about our DFCS experience. She wrote about it on her blog, too.

The Divilbiss case was a topic of constant discussing in forums related to polyamory back in 1999. Loving More magazine and others raised money to pay the family’s legal fees. The assumption was that the Divilbiss-Littrell home was the best place for little Alana.

Most news coverage and 99.9% of the talk focused on polyamory. The judge said that the Divilbiss’ lifestyle was “depraved” and that he would not consider return Alana to their home unless one of April’s husbands moved out of the home.

The paternal grandmother was painted as a harridan who couldn’t have a child of her own, and coveted Alana.

The problem I had with it was that nobody was really talking about the family. What were they like? Were they really taking good care of the child? I suspected that there were other issues involved.

The social workers who investigated the family supposedly stated that the family’s polyamorous lifestyle was not detrimental to the child.

I never heard a thing saying that the social workers stated that the family was providing a good home for the child.

I don’t know how many of you have read Divilbiss’ own statement about ending the case, but you should.

Some have questioned it, saying that it didn’t ring true compared to earlier messages from Divilbiss. Her lawyer, as I recall, verified that it was from her.

Perhaps wisdom is a grace that comes with age, along with the power of observation. For three years, I stood in stubborn denial that I could provide the best life for my child compared to the life that was being offered by others. My daughter’s paternal grandmother made every attempt possible to shed some light on the facts that proved me wrong. I mistook her efforts to be malicious, oppressive, and manipulative. Even as I sat in a dark apartment with no electricity, in sub-zero temperatures heating stolen baby formula over a candle flame, I thought that I could provide better for my daughter than she could. After three years of this denial, my child’s grandmother used the only sure thing she had to help reality crash my little tea party: The fact that alternative lifestyles are still frowned upon in courtrooms.

No utilities. Stolen baby formula. No health care, according to other parts of the statement. What Divilbiss described cannot be considered a good environment for a child.

Why couldn’t three adults manage to keep the utilities on? Nothing was ever said about there being any disabilities that made the adults unable to work.

My point here is that the family wasn’t a good candidate for a test case. They were not providing a good, stable home for their child by any first world country’s community standards.

The case should not be used as a yardstick in general, or a reason for poly families to be closeted.

What is reasonable for poly families, or pagan/queer/kinky/anything outside the mainstream families, is to have stainless steel lives. We need to do everything we can to make sure that we are blameless in every respect, model members of our communities.

That means stability, respectability, and involvement. A few points.

If you are worried about custody problems because of your lifestyle, you need to go through that list and make sure you are doing those things.

Is it fair? No. Is it unreasonable or undoable? No. They’re all things that are good for any family, but if we are living alternative lifestyles we have to be extra careful.

The last thing is what has been called “fuck you money.” One important aspect of the Divilbiss case was that the grandparents had money, and Divilbiss and her husbands didn’t.

You must be financially independent. If you are depending on family or friends for money needed for basic life necessities, you are in a very bad position. You need to have a place to live in which you have a legal right to be, so that you can’t be evicted because your parents/friends/ex-boyfriend decided they don’t want you there any more.

If you rely on having an automobile to get to work or otherwise do what you have to do, it needs to be yours and reasonably reliable.

Your job shouldn’t be contingent on your parents’ approval or some such, which is a major argument against working for a family business.

Establish some stability in your working life. Stick with a job rather than jumping around. Be the kind of employee who is kept and promoted – get to work on time, don’t miss any time if you can possibly avoid it, follow the rules, be productive, be proactive, etc. Don’t push your lifestyle in anyone’s face – it isn’t appropriate for anyone. I don’t care if other people do it, that doesn’t justify it. I don’t think you should necessarily be closeted, but if you’re a queer/pagan/polyamorous person working for a conservative Christian organization, you’re probably in the wrong place anyway.

Those are the barest basics. You need to have some savings in case you lose your job. You need to be insured for all the normal stuff (auto, homeowners/renters, life, disability if you can get the coverage, liability if possible).

Every horror story I’ve ever encountered about alternative lifestyle folks losing their children to the state involves the parents not doing one or more of these things. The families involved have usually been financially dependent on people who don’t approve of their lifestyles. They haven’t provided stable, clean homes for their kids. And so on, and so on.

Those whose encounters with the state were more or less painless, including us, were following these guidelines.

Don’t bother talking to me about the fairness of any of this. If you want to make constructive suggestions, I welcome them.

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