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 discussion 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 returning 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.

  • We must maintain our homes so that we can open our doors without hesitation to anyone, including child protective services, at any moment with absolutely no qualms.
  • We need to live in kid-friendly places in decent school districts. We need to be on good terms with our neighbors and landlords, and we need to establish some stability. Moving every year, or even more frequently, doesn’t look good.
  • We need to abide by our state’s homeschooling regulations if we homeschool.
  • We need to be involved in our children’s schools as volunteers, PTA members, room mothers/fathers, etc. We need to stay in touch with our children’s teachers, attending every parent conference and the like. We need to stay abreast of what our kids are doing every school day and communicate with their teachers immediately regarding any concerns.
  • We need to send our kids to school in well-fitting, presentable (clean, pressed, not torn/stained) clothing, well-fed and rested, every single day.
  • We need to provide health care for our children, whether we have it for ourselves or not.
  • We need to arrange for good childcare, with no latchkey children.
  • Active involvement in a church always looks good. The Unitarian Universalist Association is fairly respectable, Unity Church a little less so (in the American Bible Belt, at least).
  • Girl Scouts, 4H, Campfire – any of those groups are good for you and your kids to get involved with.
  • We cannot have revolving doors in our, or even more so our children’s, lives. That means not having SOs or roommates coming in and out of their lives frequently. If your kids are getting to know a new person every few months, it looks very, very bad.
  • It should go without saying that our children shouldn’t be exposed to our sex lives in any explicit way. Unfortunately, it has to be said. If you’re into kink, your kids should not encounter any kind of gear or literature related to that.
  • Kids should not, in fact, ever encounter any sexually explicit material in their homes. The only exception is age-appropriate educational materials. If you have porn around, put it away in a place that isn’t accessible to your children and isn’t seen by visitors. I am sex-positive, but I know don’t want to debate the literary merits of erotica with a judge in family court someday.
  • Don’t do illegal drugs. I don’t give a flyin’ flip about the ethicality of the current laws. Just don’t do them. Don’t allow anyone else to do them around your kids or on your property. Never allow anyone to have them on your property. It’s stupid. If you want to keep your kids, stay clean.
  • Don’t drink alcohol to excess, especially around your kids. Don’t allow others to drink heavily in your home or around your kids. Don’t socialize with people who consider drinking to be a vital part of having fun. Don’t keep a lot of alcohol in your home.

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 anymore.

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).

Am I speaking from a place of privilege? Yes, and I know it. However, I’m also a disabled, fat, bisexual woman who was a single parent in the American Bible Belt and who knows what it is to not have access to healthcare and to live on very little money. Even when I couldn’t work I made sure that my daughter had everything she needed.

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.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting the April Divilbiss Case: Alternative Lifestyles and Encounters with the State

  1. The biggest problem I have with this, is it is incredibly white-centric.

    According to this checklist, disabled and POC shouldn’t even have kids, much less have kids and be pagan /poly/queer. Imagine what it’s like to be a pagan, QTWOC…..and poly.

    Our polycule is frequently our only reliable safety net. Under the current administration, savings have evaporated, food banks, food stamps, even getting medications that are on the formulary for insurance is becoming a three ring circus event. I believe we should all remember Wanda Sykes admonishment: “White people are watching you”

    I don’t believe we should fall into the trap of perpetuating a host of isms (transantagonism, ableism, classism, racism, etc) within our poly communities. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, and it is still how this reads.

  2. I honestly don’t know what you find objectionable in the article – it would be helpful if you were more specific (although obviously you aren’t obligated to give more detail). I certainly don’t want to be white-centric or transantagonistic.

    I wrote this piece as a queer, disabled, pagan, poly parent living deep in the South. My partners and I were practicing just as I wrote – and we survived several experiences with local Departments of Family and Children’s Services with custody totally unchanged. Because of that, I don’t see anything in that list that isn’t perfectly achievable for POC, pagan, LGBTQ+, or disabled people. Hard, yes. But doable.

  3. Pingback: 5 Reasons Why Polyamorous Families are Reluctant to Be on TV

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