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SPECIAL-NEEDS KIDS LONG FOR A FAMILY

She was 8 years old when they adopted her - a bright-eyed, intelligent and extremely insecure child.

Her new father - we'll call him Frank, since he doesn't want his real name used - said he and his wife had prepared for a variety of problems.They knew it would be hard for her at first, in their already established family. She'd have instant older and younger brothers. She'd be moving away from a foster home where she was beginning to feel pretty comfortable.

They were sure they could overcome all of those problems. They didn't realize it would be so hard on them. Candy was terribly insecure and followed them everywhere.

"She was a little shadow, and we had absolutely no space," Frank remembers. "We had to try to set up areas that belonged to her so she'd know she was secure. We made her room off limits to everyone unless invited in. I think it gave her a feeling that she finally had some control over something."

Three years later, Frank wants people to know that the adoption has been a miracle for his family, which is now complete and integrated.

He knew they'd arrived at that point, he said, the first time the children really "no-holds bickered. Those ornery voices were the sweetest sound I've ever heard."

Candy had been on her best behavior for months - except for that shadowing problem. He thinks she was afraid if she was less than perfect the family would send her back. She'd been rejected before. First by her natural mother, then by at least two foster homes where "things didn't work out."

When the kids started bickering, Candy's voice as loud as the rest, "I knew we were a family. She felt secure enough to join the brawl," he laughed. "We're just a normal, happy, loud family. Finally."

People adopt children every day. And others wait eagerly for a child to be available for adoption. But generally the prospective parents are waiting for a "perfect" baby, one without a past or any problems, as if the child were a blank sheet of paper on which to write the future.

Frank and his wife decided to adopt a special-needs child. Candy, because of emotional problems created by abuse and neglect, fit into that category.

So do 30,000 other children across the United States, as Dixie David, Rocky Mountain Adoption Exchange, told me some months ago.

They are "special-needs" children because of abuse, neglect, physical disabilities or age, all of which make them harder to place in good adoptive homes. Sibling groups are considered special-needs, because most people want to adopt one or possibly two children. Not many people are up to taking three or four or five. But social workers try very hard to place brothers and sisters together.

Ethnic children are also hard to place, even if they have no emotional or physical problems. In most cases, social workers are looking for parents of similar heritage, and it's not always easy to make that match.

Special-needs children are the specialty of the exchange, which covers a six-state region. At a given time, they have about 100 children on their books.

Just over half are adopted each year, while the others roll over into the next year's book. Occasionally, a child's life can be traced through the photographs kept by the agency. There the child is at 4 and at 5 . . . and at 9.

One of the saddest photographs in the agency photo album, to me, was the smiling face of a handsome 17-year-old male. He was ready to be "emancipated" - a process where he is considered old enough to be out of foster care and on his own.

Instead of looking forward to the autonomy and freedom, he just wanted to be adopted. Not because he wanted someone to raise him. He just wanted someone to care for him. As David said, "to really be emancipated, you have to have something to be emancipated from."

He wanted a place to go on spring break. Someone to call and tell about his new job. People to hug him and send him birthday cards. He really just wanted to know that he wasn't alone; that if things in the "real world" got tough, he had people with hearts warm and broad enough to provide a safety net or a security blanket.

He wanted a family.

I don't know if he ever got that family. He's no longer on the agency's books. But I hope he found people of his own.

There are still others waiting. Children who are eager or shy or frightened or fearless. Children who are brown or white or black. Children who can do anything if only someone will show them how. And children whose disabilities will always provide some limitations.

Some of these children have already experienced things most adults pray they will never encounter, from beatings to debilitating neglect.

For all their differences, they have a lot in common: the need for love, for security, for stability.

And hope. Hope of a family and a future.