Special Family, Special Needs

When most people think of adoption, they probably picture a wealthy, young couple bringing home a healthy, newborn baby. They probably don’t picture a couple with an already large family opening their home to four children with special needs ranging from developmental disabilities to mental illness. Well, that’s just what David Stevenson* and his wife did.

No restrictions, no regrets

Stevenson, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, already had adopted several healthy children with varying biracial backgrounds before deciding to welcome more kids into his home. “After we adopted these children, we didn’t feel like we needed to put in the restriction of ‘healthy,’” says Stevenson. The Casey National Center for Resource Family Support (http://www.casey.org/cnc/) defines “special needs” children as being older than 5, requiring adoption as part of a sibling group, or having medical, emotional or behavioral special needs. Recognizing that there were, and still are, many children with special needs looking for permanent homes, the Stevensons chose to adopt three more girls and one boy.

When he and his wife decided to adopt children with special needs, they didn’t know exactly what to expect even though they already were experienced and skilled parents to several other children. “You can’t know in advance everything that’s going to happen, so you must be a little courageous and trust that God will help,” says Stevenson. The couple looks back with no regrets. If they had made other choices, they might have missed out on the “sparkling personality” of their teenage daughter, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, who loves reading but struggles with math and abstract thinking. Stevenson also has two young adult daughters, one who has mental illness and one, born prematurely with a brain hemorrhage, who has cerebral palsy and a lower learning ability. They are both participating in work rehabilitation to learn employable skills. His teenage son, who has learning disabilities and limited vision caused by severe head trauma, has learned how to read.

“He could do a lot more than schools allowed him to,” says Stevenson, who chose to homeschool his son after seeing mixed results from his children who attended public schools. In addition to the challenge of providing the best and most appropriate education to his children, Stevenson says there are other obstacles that seem to be unique to parenting children with special needs.

“A couple things stand out,” he says. “Finding good friends for them to enjoy and do things with. In some areas, you have to be quite protective in finding social activities outside of the home and interaction.” As his children have gotten older, a more recent issue has been thinking about how they can experience a fulfilling life after Stevenson and his wife are unable to care for them. “It’s not easy to identify places you feel good about,” says Stevenson, who has just begun this process of searching for living arrangements for his adult children.

Support, soccer and swimming

The challenges are made easier by the support Stevenson and his family have found within their church and community. “The most important thing is to have a strong support network,” he says. The Stevensons are still active in their church, and their children have been frequent participants in Chapel Hill’s Rainbow Soccer program, which encourages non-competitive play for kids of all ages and skill levels. The family enjoys a wide variety of outdoor activities, from swimming at the community pools and going to the beach to camping and traveling outside of North Carolina. “There are lots of outdoor activities that are accessible to kids with and without special needs,” says Stevenson.

While Stevenson wouldn’t discourage other couples from adopting children with special needs, he does not suggest that they adopt a special needs child as a “second best” approach if they are unable to find a healthy infant to adopt. “It’s better if you can go into it with some enthusiasm for what you’re doing and the feeling that this is what you want to do with your life,” he says. “For us, it’s been a very rewarding experience … appreciating in different ways people who don’t fit into the mainstream.”

In fact, Stevenson says his children without special needs have gained an increased sensitivity for people with differences and adjusted well to the addition of siblings with physical and mental disabilities to their family.

Fostering love for a lifetime

Tamika Williams, adoption supervisor with the Durham County Department of Social Services (DSS) Child Placement & Supportive Services (CPSS) appreciates Stevenson’s approach to adopting children with special needs.

It is her job to ensure that foster and adoptive parents fully understand the challenges of caring for a child with special needs. All children available for foster care and adoption through the DSS are considered to have special needs because they often come into the system as a result of abuse and neglect, says Williams. According to the NCKids Adoption & Foster Care Network, a statewide adoption resource center operated through UNC-Greensboro and the DSS, 1,379 children were adopted in North Carolina last year. Currently, there are close to 11,000 foster children in the entire state of North Carolina; more than 3,000 of them are available for adoption (their birth parents have relinquished parental rights).

“Many foster parents become adoptive parents along the way rather than give the children up to another family,” says Williams. This is not to imply that anyone can become a foster parent or adopt a child. However, those who put in the commitment can. “The process is similar for becoming a foster parent and an adoptive parent,” says NCKids Program Director Jeanne Preisler. According to North Carolina law, you can become a foster parent if you:

? Are between the ages of 21 and 65;

? Are in good physical and mental health and pass a TB skin test;

? Have a telephone and access to transportation;

? Have been married for at least one year, although single parents also may be considered;

? Have adequate income to meet the needs of present family members without relying on the foster child’s board payment;

? Provide each child with his or her own personal bedroom space;

? Have a home that passes a fire and safety inspection;

? After fingerprinting, pass locally-conducted, State Bureau of Investigation and FBI criminal checks;

? Complete an application form detailing your family profile; and

? Participate in and complete 30 hours of pre-service training.

Lora Smith, adoption specialist with Methodist Home for Children’s (MHC) Wilmington office, assists people in fostering to adopt children (becoming a foster parent first in order to be eligible to adopt), but she also makes sure that MHC maintains strong contact with families after the adoption.

“Our agency is committed to our families for a lifetime,” she says. The private agency’s post-adoption services include quarterly home visits, monthly phone contact, training, visits and support groups for one year after the adoption becomes official – and longer if the family requires additional support. As far as Smith can remember, MHC never has had a situation in which an adoption “disrupted,” or where a child has left an adoptive home to return to foster care.

“When they make the decision to adopt those kids, they know those kids really well,” says Smith of the foster-to-adopt families.

Really getting to know their foster children allows families to better handle their multiple special needs, including Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiant behaviors, medical conditions, drug addictions, abuse and neglect. Many children available for adoption are part of a sibling group, so a family would need to adopt all of the kids in order to keep them together, says Sandy Cooke, executive director of the Children’s Home Society (CHS) of North Carolina, a private adoption agency providing services in the eastern, western, Triangle, Triad and Sandhills regions of the state.

Removing the barriers

There is no doubt that adopting a special needs child means taking on a lot of responsibility. To lessen some of the financial burden and provide an incentive for adoptive families, some funding available is available.

“We believe the state has begun to look at trying to remove the financial barriers,” says Cooke. “Sometimes Medicaid covers costs, but things come up at different developmental stages.”

In addition to Medicaid, which serves as the primary insurance for special needs children and those who have been in agency custody, an Adoption Assistance program offers three types of assistance to remove the financial barriers to special needs adoption: vendor payments to medical service providers, vendor payments to psychological, therapeutic and remedial service providers, and monthly cash payments, all available until the child turns 18. The Special Children Adoption Incentive Fund in North Carolina exists to serve kids with more debilitating conditions, impairments and physical disabilities.

Adoptive and foster families must be able to provide for the children without depending on this additional funding, however. There are no rigid income requirements for interested families, but providing the best possible life for the child comes first.

“We are entrusted with the decisions that affect children’s lives,” says Cooke. “Therefore, we have to look for safety and love.”

*Name has been changed to protect the family’s privacy.

Categories: Exceptional Child