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By the time Houton had been formally added to the suit, he and Oscar had moved to Miami. Houton got a job as a trauma nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Oscar was seven and attending Coconut Grove Elementary School. The 90-pound boy with wide caramel eyes was exhibiting athletic promise, constantly running, playing basketball, and kicking a soccer ball. He had long ago stopped wrapping his arms around Houton's leg when his foster father dropped him off at school. He was making friends and papering his bedroom wall with posters of Michael Jordan and Alonzo Mourning. And he'd become -- no small achievement -- a seasoned Jenga board-game champion.
"Oscar is a great kid, and I think I'm looked at like a good parent. I've never felt any kind of prejudice from that school," says Houton, a PTA member. "And I've only gotten nice words from black people. I don't know why I've had a friendly experience mostly. I guess it might be because I'm a regular guy and not a flaming hairdresser."
Oscar's teachers say he still struggles with school work but is rapidly improving. His favorite book is Green Eggs and Ham.
A litany of people strongly disagrees with the state's contention that allowing Houton to adopt Oscar would not be in the boy's best interest.
Houton's live-in partner of three years, 38-year-old Gil Avila, is a tall, athletic man with a quiet nature. Houton describes Avila as the "straight man" in their relationship because he's a sports junkie, always shooting hoops with Oscar in their back yard. The two met at work; Avila is a supervisor of the radiology department at Jackson Memorial. On their first date, Houton told him about Oscar.
"I was a little surprised, sure," he remembers. "But it was fine; you know, I liked Doug a lot. I didn't meet Oscar until our third date, and the kid... isn't he incredible? He's really something. When Doug first took him, he really couldn't do much of anything; he was really underweight. Now, all you have to do is look at him and I, personally, see a very different kid."
Avila and Houton share the responsibility of making sure Oscar is ferried back and forth from school. They both meet with his teachers and shuttle him to sporting events. A few months ago, when Oscar turned ten, Houton rented a limousine (knowing that Oscar is mesmerized by them) and chauffeured the boy and eight of his buddies to a Heat game, where Oscar was wished Happy Birthday on the scoreboard.
"That was unusual, but Doug really does special things for him that he'll remember forever," Avila says. The ACLU lawsuit has brought a barrage of bright lights into their living room, as reporters have continually come knocking for interviews. Avila admits that that can sometimes distract them from living like a normal family. "But I believe in the cause very much, and so does Doug. He's doing what he thinks is right and what he and Oscar deserve."
Oscar's love for basketball has allowed Linda Overheu a chance to get close to the shy boy. The 28-year-old model, who has mentored the boy for two years through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, moved to South Florida eight years ago. She sees Oscar almost every day, because the two happen to live near each other, and she frequently takes him to Fort Lauderdale to visit his grandparents and brothers.
"Oscar has really opened up," she says. "When I met him, he didn't say very much, but we'd walk dogs together, and we'd talk. I like to play basketball. You know, it was just allowing him to be a kid. He's very affectionate with his brothers. I've never met his father."
"Linda has been great, because I wanted Oscar to have a female influence," Houton says. "And to have a model, well, that's just even better. I know in a few years, Oscar's going to look at her and drop his jaw like, 'Oh my God, that's my big sister!'"
Oscar's best friend, nine-year-old Emmanuel Teagan, sometimes joins Overheu and Oscar. The boys met when they were on the same soccer team and are now inseparable. They spend every night with each other, switching between Houton's home and that of Tracy and Mark Teagan. Emmanuel was seven years old when the Teagans adopted him. Emmanuel is black. The Teagans are white.
"I felt comfortable immediately with Doug. I guess we identified with each other," Tracy Teagan says. "We haven't encountered any prejudice, at least to our face, and maybe that's because we live in [Coconut] Grove, and it's particularly progressive. But my neighbors will say, when they see Doug and Oscar, "So what's the story with that?' When I tell them that Doug can't adopt, they're like, "You're kidding me? That's awful.' It seems ridiculous, and hardly anyone knew it was against the law. The guy is the most attentive parent in the world. It makes no sense."
Raising Emmanuel has presented frustrations for the Teagans that Houton's advice has soothed. The child, who today is taking jazz and hip-hop dance classes, just a year ago was an angry, frightened boy suffering from the aftereffects of years of sexual and physical abuse. Tracy says she learned from Houton the importance of being firm with her son. "Doug told me that these children, more than others, need structure double-fold because they have lived in such chaos and adults have never come through for them," she says. "That sounds like common sense, but when you have a child who is fighting you, testing you, it's hard to live up to that."