An inquisitive mind.
Though it may read like the end of a John Hughes movie, what the list really represents are characteristics that scratch the surface of small town family in Central Massachusetts, one of love, diligent upbringings, and an overall sense of uniqueness that is actually grounded in tradition.
When Joe Sandagato and Tom Scott met more than two decades ago, Sandagato expressed he wanted to have a dozen children — and the couple is more than halfway to that goal, having over the years adopted seven through the state’s Department of Children & Families (DCF). The children not only range in age from 5 to 24, but also come from very different cultural backgrounds; four of the children identify as Mexican and Caucasian, African-American and El Salvadorian, African-American and Caucasian, and Latino and Caucasian.
“The 20-year-old version of me living in those political times, living the lifestyle we were living when we got together, would never have imagined that two decades later we’d have so many kids and this large family dynamic,” Sandagato said.
Scott and Sandagato have not only watched their children grow over the years, but have also been witness to an ever-evolving society that has become more accepting of such a constellation, a term used to describe the structure of an adoptive family. They live lives of constant motion and change, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The couple first began the adoption process in 1999, facing a bit of push back from some along the way who were not yet comfortable with the idea of a same-sex couple seeking to adopt. Yet the process was the same as that of any prospective adoptive parent: Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships and Parenting (MAPP) training, home studies, background checks, and seeking out the right fit.
“There were a lot of obstacles back in those days, and fortunately that’s changed because of the work people have done over the years; we participated in some of it and we continue to today,” Sandagato said. He serves as president of the board for the DCF Worcester West Area office and also heads Gay Adoptive Fathers of the Northeast. Today, any adult over age 18 is eligible to adopt from Massachusetts foster care: single, married, partnered, straight, or LGBT.
The first two children to become a part of the family where then 4-and-a-half and 9 years old — now 24 and 20 — Anthony and Malcome, respectively, who are also related through their mother. Next came Victor, now 21. The family is rounded out by Ashley, 15, who is also related to Anthony and Malcome maternally; Devin, 17; and two boys ages 5 and 10 who are currently in the pre-adoptive stage.
Over the years the couple has adapted to the lifestyle change, something they said wasn’t always easy, but worked out in the end. Scott, a physical therapist assistant, took what the men refer to as the “first shift,” a seven-year period during which he worked part-time and was home with the kids. Sandagato, who worked in a corporate setting up until eight years ago (and now works from home through his own real estate company, as well as sales and marketing consulting), claimed ownership of the “second shift.”
They say communication is key, a process anyone in their presence can see flows naturally as they often finish each other’s thoughts and round out one another’s ideas. There’s also a willingness to cooperate and humor involved; Sandagato jokingly asked Scott if he had forgotten anyone when rambling off the list of children’s names and ages.
A Multi-Faceted Bunch
Adopting across race was never something Scott and Sandagato sought out; it just happened. “When we met the kids, we just knew,” Sandagato said.
The couple understands the importance of integrating the children’s various cultures and have always sought out ways to show each child not only their own background, but also those of their siblings. The gateway to this is as simple as sitting down at the table.
“The thing that ties people to their culture in every family, no matter what their culture is, is food,” Sandagato said. “Learning how to make the food, trying to figure out what some favorites are. That’s where we really started.”
The dads have also made sure the kids were surrounded by multi-cultural environments growing up, taking them to cities such as Boston and Manhattan as often as possible, exposing them to broader communities of people. They wanted to explore diversity with the children, but without forcing it.
“We wanted to let them kind of take the lead and explore their ethnic background,” Scott said. “A lot of times it’s a process of self-discovery you have to enforce.”
They also want their children to explore who they are as individuals. “We’ve taught them that you can be whatever you want, you can do whatever you want, you can make choices about what your future is going to be like. Because of that they had exposure to a lot of things and they tried a lot of things,” Sandagato said.
For all of the unconventionality on the surface, the household is one of the most traditional one may come across in this day and age.
“One of the most important things we found as a family unit is to sit and eat every night with the kids,” Scott said. “There may be nights where I might not be here, or Joe might not be here, or it’s more casual, but for the most part we are sitting at that island, talking and engaging, no technology allowed.”
Not only are these parents enriching the lives of their children, they’re also getting so much back from them. “It causes you to engage with the world in a different way,” Sandagato said. “We can talk about it from diversity, but there’s also looking at the world through a 5-year-old’s eyes.”
Does the pair intend to add more members to the family any time soon? Though they say they aren’t currently looking, it’s also a case of “never say never,” according to Sandagato.
“We’ve had, for the past 10 years, the same social worker, she always says, ‘You’ve told me so many times before you’re done; I don’t believe it!’”