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`TOGETHERNESS’ WORTH WAITING FOR

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Kevin Norton, at 14, looks just like the high school photo of his dad, Joseph.

"His personality is identical to mine," Norton says with delight. "That part's a little difficult to both of us because we know all the right buttons to push. But he has no attitude. He gets A's and B's in school. And he loves to go fishing. We're absolutely enjoying being together.""Together" is something Kevin waited a long time to experience.

Kevin was removed from his birth family when he was in fourth grade. He was in several homes but didn't find a family willing to commit to him for life. Then Norton and his wife, Vicki, who had hoped to adopt a child younger than 5, saw his photograph and fell in love. The adoption will be final in a few weeks.

Defining `special needs'

His age made this a "special-needs adoption."

Sally Madsen of the Rocky Mountain Adoption Exchange said a child is listed as special needs if he or she falls into one of the following four categories:

-Is older than 5 years in Utah (in most of the nation the age is 3, but Utahns seem more willing to adopt older youngsters).

-Needs to be placed as part of a sibling group.

-Belongs to a minority race

-Has a physical, mental or emotional disability.

A number of agencies, including Children's Service Society, Catholic Community Services, LDS Social Services and the state itself, place special-needs children for adoption.

Typically, it costs less to adopt a special-needs child than to adopt an infant, said Jan Knaphus, a social worker with Catholic Community Services. A federal subsidy program helps make the children more adoptable by providing, in some cases, financial assistance to cover the cost of therapy or medical treatment.

Roland Oliver, adoption specialist in the Department of Human Services, said disabled children may qualify for the subsidy and a state Medicaid card.

And most agencies charge lower fees for their services if it's a special-needs adoption. Some waive their home study fees.

"We take into consideration the individual needs of a child," said Fred Riley, assistant commissioner of LDS Social Services. "If there's a medical or psychological need, we have a scale where we charge less to try to help the couple have extra money to meet the needs of the child."

The wait for a child can be considerably shorter as well. Couples who are looking for an infant may wait years. Couples willing to adopt a special-needs child can do so with minimal delay.

Most of the children placed for adoption by the state agency, the Division of Family Services, are special-needs adoptions. The children have almost without fail been abused, neglected, abandoned or are disabled, said Oliver.

"Most of ours were either removed from their homes or had failed efforts at family reunification," he said. "They may even have gone back home once or twice, but things didn't work out."

Often, the parents voluntarily relinquish their rights to the children because they know they aren't good parents. For whatever reason, they are hurting or neglecting the children. And they really do want their kids to have good lives, Oliver said.

Plenty of baggage

Regardless, children who have been abused or neglected and then removed from their homes carry physical and emotional baggage with them. That makes their need to find good homes even greater - and often less likely, Oliver said.

Kevin's young life was like that. He had been rejected before, and he set out, Vicki Norton said, to "be the perfect kid and do everything he could to please us. You could just see him think, `If I try this, will my mom and dad pack my bag and send me off?' We've told him, `There's nothing you can do, sweetheart, to make us not want you or to shock us.' "

Utah's a good place

Utah is a particularly good place to find homes for special-needs children. People here, Oliver said, are used to large families and various ages and problems.

A year ago, the state succeeded in finding a permanent adoptive home for seven brothers and sisters ages 4 to 11. The most amazing thing, Oliver said, was the number of inquiries: more than 200.

"We kept winnowing it down and ultimately placed them together in Washington," Oliver said.

Their new mother is a school-teacher, and their new father is a high-school principal.

It's not uncommon for special-needs adoptions to cross state lines. Agencies like the Rocky Mountain Adoption Exchange operate as a kind of interstate coalition to place the children. The exchanges are not adoption agencies; they serve as a sort of match- maker to put prospective parents in several states in touch with the agencies (usually state agencies) that have custody of the special-needs children.

The exchange operates in six states and usually has between 150 to 200 children on its books.

"We're the connection between social workers looking for families and families looking for children" Madsen said. "The child and social worker are our clients.

"Once they find each other, we're out of the loop except occasionally for support."

Adopting Kevin seemed natural to Joseph Norton, who was adopted himself when he was 5.

Each married before, the Nortons had other children, grown and moved away. When they married at age 40, they wanted to start another family. But they found it wasn't easy to adopt a child when they hit their mid-40s.

The whole family, from his new siblings to his "instant" nieces and nephews, have accepted Kevin and love him as someone they've always known.

"Kevin's life had rejected him, and I'm sure he still feels that to a small degree," said Vicki Norton. "It's really cool because we have such a neat relationship. Kevin can talk to us about anything.

"I told the judge, we adopted Kevin as soon as he came to live with us. All that's left is the formality."