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“Special Needs” is not how we describe our adopted children. Even before marriage, we decided that adoption would be part of our lives, but adopting a special needs child was not high on our bucket list. That would change with time and circumstance. As we progressed in our family adoption adventures we came to realize that, in fact, we are quite the special needs family. With four “bio” kids in our parentage we set out to adopt the first of what would eventually become six adoptions, five that fit somewhere in the spectrum of what adoption advocates refer to as special needs, or as we like to think, awesomely unique.
With eyes wide open we adopted our first, Marcie, from Korea. We prepared ourselves for our new family member. The arrival date was still months away when we received an urgent call explaining that our daughter-to-be was having life-threatening problems. She had been diagnosed with failure-to-thrive, a catch-all of sorts that meant something was causing her body and spirit to shut down. If left unchecked, her intellectual, social, or emotional development could be impeded, or even worse. Korean authorities were cutting all red tape and our daughter would be joining us in a few short days. We expected to meet an emaciated little girl on that magical “gotcha day,” but to our surprise she appeared physically together. What we discovered, though, was that Marcie, while appearing to be healthy, had a very reluctant personality. OK, let’s just say it like it was -- the lights were on but no one was home. It took about two years before we saw that she would become the healthy child that we believed she could be. We were told that she needed consistent and regular physical contact, so Marcie became the little princess that had the entire family’s attention. Marcie became an athlete, a musician, and an excellent student who completed high school in three and a half years becoming a seventeen-year-old college freshman. Today Marcie is a beautiful young woman, and a loyal and conscientious employee with an outstanding work ethic in the retail industry.
Next came Angela adopted from Romania. Despite the many stories in past years of children from Romania with special needs, Angela was not one. She came to us the picture of health. Well, she later complained about a tooth that was darker than the rest, but we took care of that. We’ll move on to Nick.
We were introduced to Nick in Russia in one of the state-run children’s homes. One of our staff members had visited his orphanage where she met Nick before we did. She took a photograph for us and insisted that he looked just like Bob. But, now approaching four years of age, this half-pint was NOT the picture of health. He was pudgy, and not because of good nutrition. In fact, it was just the opposite. His nutrition was so poor that you could sink your finger into his flesh and make an indentation, like one of those jelly-filled dolls. His teeth were rotting and he had a medical and psychological diagnosis so terrible that he would soon be ushered into the home for “irrecoupable” children, a place for children with no hope. In addition to all that, and partial blindness in one eye, he was ethnically at the bottom of the social pecking order, a non-blue-blooded Russian with Asian ancestry. Carol, having come from an extensive background in special education, checked the boy stem to stern, and decided he was our son. Bob trusted her assessment and we made the decision to adopt this unique kid. In the years that followed Nick became an excellent student, a long distance runner, a soccer player, and one of very few kids to be able to say they marched in the Rose Parade, not once, but twice. Today Nick is married and has two sons with Nick’s fun-loving personality and, you guessed it, beautiful Asian eyes.
Several years later Hannah and Christina were adopted at the same time from the same orphanage in Vladivostok, Russia. Hannah’s uniqueness was that she was half Korean and half Russian with an unattractive birthmark on her hip. In the eyes of her Russian caretakers she was an unwanted child. Had she been fully Korean or fully Russian she would have been acceptable. Carol met Hannah while touring the orphanage and had an instant connection, partially because we already had a Korean-born daughter, but mainly because Carol could tell there was something uniquely awesome about this girl. However, when Carol inquired, Hannah was (and we say this politely) likened to toilet paper, a throwaway with little hope in her future. We didn’t see a special need, but she was definitely a girl with a notable disadvantage. In this case, the handicap was in the eye of the beholder. Today Hannah is a leader, a star athlete, musician, and college student.
Christina, on the other hand, was so severely affected by a poorly developed heart (four holes) that there was little hope for her in Russia. Open-heart surgery was required. She came to our organization (International Family Services) as a humanitarian opportunity at about the same time we received a gift of stock from one of our past adoptive families. The market value of the stock came to approximately $75,000. We solicited the help of Loma Linda International Heart Institute in Southern California. The cost of the open-heart surgery would be about $180,000, but Loma Linda reduced their fee so that the gift covered the major portion of the operation. We tried to find an adoptive family for Christina, but the perceived severity of her special need scared people off. Our family nursed her back after the life-giving operation, fell in love with her, and the rest is history. Today Christina lives a normal healthy life, a recent graduate from high school – in three and a half years, enjoys sports, creative design, and keeping life orderly and fun.
Adoption # 6
Our last awesomely unique child is Dani who came to us when she was 16 years old. A survivor of the California foster care system and a disrupted adoption, Dani needed a family who would believe in her. Seventeen years later Dani is wonderfully married, mother of two beautiful girls, an administrator at the local community college, has recently finished her master’s degree and getting ready for her doctorate. She is a much-loved daughter and true success story.
That’s our family story-in-a-nut-shell of our awesomely unique/special needs adopted kids. We didn’t set out to be special needs parents, but that’s what happened. Each of our unique kids described above certainly don’t think of themselves as special needs. In fact, when they read this article they will go, “What? Mom and dad, who are you calling special needs?” They look in the mirror and see health and a future with incredible opportunity.
Adopting a child is a big deal, and considering an awesomely unique child is certainly not to be considered lightly. Our family is made of just a few kinds of unique needs. But there are some general categories that might help those considering a special needs adoption for their family. So, let us put on our humanitarian and adoption agency hats and go through this with you.
Minor Special Needs
There are some children waiting for homes who are often young, basically healthy, and developmentally normal, but who have a minor medical or cosmetic problem that will not limit the child or your family. Marcie and Hannah fit somewhere in this category.
Fixable Special Needs
There are also many children available for adoption who are developmentally normal, and who have a medical or orthopedic problem that is not minor, but is fixable with surgery. Often these are children who will have no serious long-lasting challenges after the initial surgery or procedure. Cleft lip or cleft lip and palate fit into this group. Most of these children will be healthy and normal in every way after their needed repairs, though some form of rehabilitation may be required. One of our personal favorite fixable special needs is heart problems, like our Christina.
Manageable Special Needs
We will frequently see a child with an orthopedic or medical special need that is not minor nor fixable, but is easily manageable and which will not significantly affect the child's or your family's quality of life. An example would be a child who is smart and delightful but who is missing a finger, or who has a deformed ear, or who is deaf in one ear, or blind in one eye. Some children have tested positive for Hepatitis B or HIV; others have diabetes or asthma or other manageable conditions. Our son Nick would fit into this category. One of his unique challenges was that he came with partial blindness in one eye.
Older Healthy Children
Many physically healthy children are considered special needs simply because they are older (5 years and up). Dani (16 when she came into our family) is a wonderful example of this kind of child.
There are also children whose only unique need is that they have a brother(s) or sister(s). Yes, sibling groups are often considered special needs. Twins frequently fit this category.
More Significant Special Needs.
Of course we all know that there are also children who have more profound medical needs or who have developmental delays. This is often the special needs category that many automatically think of when considering special needs children. Not everyone is comfortable or prepared for the commitment of time and resource for these kinds of challenges. However, it should come as no surprise that there are very special families who view these significant special needs as unique opportunities and chose to adopt one or more of these very special children and find great blessing and reward.
Hidden Special Needs
The reality is that occasionally a child is adopted who appears physically or developmentally normal, perhaps even to orphanage caretakers, but who may have emotional and behavioral needs apparent only after arrival. All adoptive parents must be ready and committed to the possibility that their “healthy” child might come with some form of unique need. (Keep in mind this can be true of biological children as well.) This is one reason for the extensive training that expecting parents are required (or should be required) to finalize before they move forward in the completion of any adoption.
The Trend in Awesomely Unique/Special Needs Adoptions
Interestingly, more and more families are building their own unique families making children of all kinds, with unique stories, their own. Special needs is becoming less threatening as families realize that there might be that unique child without hope that they can love as their own.
A few years ago Bob was talking with an adoption official from another country that allows their special needs children to be adopted by Americans. He was asked straight out, “Why do Americans adopt our special needs children?” Bob’s simple answer was that there is a growing culture in the US where special needs adoption is becoming more acceptable, and often preferable. In the US, we see children all the time in our daily lives with some kind of unique challenge who have left their “special need” behind and are celebrating their awesome uniqueness.
Today greater numbers of families are considering the awesomely unique. Our family is just one of thousands whose homes have been forever blessed by being open to a unique child. Special needs adoption is not for every family, but it might be just right for yours.
We hope we have given you an enlightened view of awesomely unique/special needs adoption. Perhaps you have a story in you like ours just waiting to be written.
Bob & Carol Mardock are the founders of International Family Services (ifservices.org). IFS has helped find homes for nearly 5000 children, an estimated two-thirds of whom would fit one of the “special needs” categories listed in this article. The Mardocks are the proud parents of 10 children, ages 42 to 18, and are grand parents to 16, two of whom are adopted. Bob also serves on the International Adoption Net team as India Program Coordinator.
Reprinted with permission
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