By Cammie Jones
Katie and Steve Conner adopted a four-year-old Bulgarian boy with Down Syndrome about 10 years ago. Katie remembered a dream she had ten years before the adoption. It was of a small boy in someone else’s arms reaching out to her. She mentioned the dream to her husband the following morning. As life got busy, the Conners added five more biological children to their family and the dream was forgotten. But, the nudge to adopt never left.
Years later, Katie and Steve were looking at a special needs adoption site called Reece’s Rainbow when they spotted a young boy who reminded Katie of the boy in her dream. His name was Gabriel. Katie knew that Gabriel was meant to be part of their family. Although everyone’s story is different when deciding to adopt a child with special needs, there are some important things to consider, and the “nudge” is one of the most important.
The point of departure
A first step is to sit down with your spouse to discuss the decision. Once you are both in agreement, it is good to write down the benefits and drawbacks of adopting. Be honest with yourself and with each other. The Conners had to weigh the reality that they would never achieve an “empty nest.” Now Katie says she cannot envision life any other way— she loves when her adult children come home and ask first to see Gabe. She also adds that she and her husband prayed about the decision. “For us, it was a faith-based decision,” she says.
Educate yourself on the adoption process by looking into local and international agencies and sites online. Make phone calls to find out about the process. What is the cost? Will travel be involved if the adoption is out of state or international? Check your health insurance to determine how to add a child and what is included in your plan. Detailed research at the beginning will avoid any unfortunate surprises along the way.
It is crucial to research and understand syndromes and disabilities to see what health needs your child may have and how you are going to address those needs. Below are a few common circumstances and disorders (10 Things to Know About Special Needs Adoption, adoption.com) that may affect your special needs child:
– Abuse and Neglect
– ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
– Bipolar Disorder
– Cerebral Palsy (CP)
– Cleft Lip/Cleft Palate
– Down Syndrome
– Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
– Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
– Spina Bifida (SB)
Talk with parents who have adopted special needs children. Ask about local support groups in your area. Meet with parents of adopted special needs children to see what a normal day in the life of their home looks like.
Once you decide on adoption, sign up for support groups that specialize in your child’s specific needs. Find other children the same age as playmates. Contact your pediatrician for additional resources and support as you navigate this new and exciting territory.
The Preference Checklist/Home Study
“As an adoptive couple, you have the opportunity (or should I call it a responsibility?) to complete a Preference Checklist as part of your home study. A Preference Checklist is an exhaustive list of physical disabilities, mental disorders, and other special needs,” says Candise Gilbert, author of “How We Decided Which Special Needs Boxes to Check on Our Preference Checklist,” adoption.com. She goes on to advise that couples must use this list to determine if they are willing to be considered for children with these conditions.
It is encouraged, and advised, to check “no” if you feel that you cannot handle a unique illness or syndrome. Pay attention to gut feelings when completing this portion. Intuition and honesty are the best markers for both adoptive child and parent. The Conners always felt a pull towards children with Down Syndrome so they focused their search inside that parameter.
There are also practical issues to consider. Katie and Steve live in a two-story home so a child in a wheelchair would not be the best fit for their family. Another piece of advice they suggested was to tackle the overwhelming paperwork and endless checklists one day at a time. “Take one next step— if I could do one small thing a day like send an email or make one phone call to help the process move along, I felt that I was helping,” advises Katie.
Once the home study is completed and all paperwork turned in, you will receive a referral from the agency. The adoption agency pairs you with a particular child that matches your preferences. Open the child’s medical file and, again, take your time and do your investigative work. Allow your family doctor or a specialist to look at the file and offer any suggestions or advice regarding care. The medical information may or may not be extremely thorough so do the best you can to form a picture in your mind. According to adoption.org, “Even the most detailed medical records may miss something. As with a child you gave birth to or a child by way of adoption, you can never truly know what lies ahead.”
Adopting a special needs child is not always easy and there will be good and bad days. The adjustment period could last six months to a few years as your adopted child gets used to the new family environment. The family dynamics will change particularly if siblings are involved. Conner says, “If you have other children, be respectful of their concerns and fears. Listen to them, validate their thoughts and do what you can to reassure them.” Also, let them know that it is okay to talk about any concerns or problems.
Showing love to your child will far outweigh any parenting mistakes or hiccups along the journey. “Be prepared for the blessings that are to come because they are extraordinary,” adds Conner. She says adopting a child with special needs has added richness and unity to their family. She says they have become better people— more compassionate, more creative and more open to people who are not just like them. “These children have increased our capacity for love and therefore our capacity for joy,” she says.
This article appears in the July 2020 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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