SEMINOLE — More than a year after an affair between a lobbyist and lawmaker tanked a multimillion-dollar project to build a juvenile center, Sen. Harry Coates and Haley Atwood have divorced their spouses, married and opened their home to foster children.
“We can be bitter about it, but what's happened has happened,” Coates, R-Seminole, said of the scandal and fallout from the affair. “We just have to live through it, and we've lived through it. We're moving on and working to save children from another angle.”
Coates, 62, said he and Atwood, 31, are devoting their time to help needy children caught up in the child welfare system.
Both passed background checks and completed classes in February to be foster parents for the state Department of Human Services, agency spokeswoman Sheree Powell said.
“I had to go through the same process as everyone else,” Coates said.
Atwood and Coates have had two foster children — infants — in their home. They've been working directly with the Oklahoma United Methodist Circle of Care, a private provider of foster care services.
At the time of the affair, Atwood was lobbying for Rite of Passage, a Colorado-based company that was awarded a $10 million-a-year state contract to operate a juvenile detention center to be built in Ada. Coates was among the strongest advocates of the project that he said would have taken a positive approach to rehabilitate juvenile offenders.
The project was quashed in February 2011 after the affair between Coates and Atwood became public. Questions emerged as to whether the senator used his political influence to encourage Rite of Passage to hire his lobbyist girlfriend and secure the state contract for the company.
Coates' and Atwood's divorces were final within days of each other in early January. The baby Atwood was carrying during the controversy was fathered by her ex-husband, not Coates, court records show.
The two were married in early July, Coates said.
Circle of Care CEO Don Batson said Coates and Atwood are part of the agency's emergency foster care program. They take in infants and toddlers when state shelters are full. The children are generally moved to a long-term foster home or reunited with their families within 30 days, he said.
Batson said foster parents are paid about $23 a day, and his agency has been cutting the checks to Coates.
Coates said money was in no way a motivation for them becoming foster parents. He said the payment doesn't come close to covering the cost of the full-time nanny they've hired to help take care of four children ages 8 and 6 years, 18 months and their 10-week-old foster child.
DHS spokeswoman Powell said there are no rules against unmarried couples being foster parents, and no law prohibits Coates from drawing a state check for being a senator and an additional one for being a foster parent.
Batson said he's known Coates since 2005 and is well aware of the controversy that emerged over the juvenile detention center and the affair. Accepting Coates and Atwood into the faith-based program was never an issue.
“If they are supporting children then we are supporting them,” Batson said.
Learning to adjust
Coates and Atwood recently ran into trouble with DHS over a foster child being photographed in Coates' arms without the agency's consent.
Coates said it was an accident. He said he was asked to speak to a group of adoptive parents on the second floor of the Capitol and held his foster child in his arms while he spoke. Someone snapped a photo.
“It certainly upset DHS, that that would happen,” Coates said. “We had to go in for a little talk, a little reprimand. It was not intentional.”
He said he and Atwood do their best to make their foster child part of their daily lives, which becomes complicated at times being a public official working in a public space, but they are being careful.
They hope someday to adopt a child through the program, he said.
“I have a lot on my heart with regard to these children,” Coates said. “I am pro-life to the point where I don't even like to talk about it anymore ... but one thing I would like to present to the pro-lifers that come to the Capitol is why don't you sign up to be a foster parent. You're preaching to the choir. Why not get involved with the DHS foster parenting program and try to do something for the life of a child that has already been born.”