by Colleen M. Proctor
I had come in contact with many families of children with special needs during my nursing career, and read widely about family experiences with these children. When I and my mostly grown daughters decided to sign up to provide foster care, I anticipated providing long-term foster care for some of these children, figuring those were the type of children likely to be hard to place for adoption. But most of the kids we received were in foster care due to neglect rather than physical abuse, and had, at least initially, some developmental and speech delays. Almost without exception, these kids had been exposed to illicit drugs and tested positive for alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine and other substances at birth or when taken into the foster care system. They were otherwise beautiful, typical kids.
I was told that if I wanted infants or toddlers to be placed in my home, I should complete the Adoption Studies course since the goal is to minimize placement changes, especially for kids under age three. I took the classes, but this somehow changed my focus from long-term foster care to concurrent placement with a goal to adopt children with special needs.
Then I heard about our little Zachary. He lived in a different county and was disabled with Cortical Vision Impairment. His eyes are fine, but his brain was injured and doesn’t process the incoming messages properly. The ladies from Blind Babies said it’s like looking through Swiss cheese, but the holes keep moving. He also has Spastic Quadriplegia and is very stiff. At 15 months, he could not roll over or sit without support.
We drove up to meet him and had some back and forth visits to transition him to our home. Eight months later his adoption was finalized and I never looked back. He is definitely tall, dark and handsome, and filled with music and song.
Zachary’s need for Physical Therapy is currently at a monitoring only level, and he wears shoe inserts to increase his stability when walking and running. Occupational Therapy continues to work on feeding, drinking and dressing skills. Due to the altered tone in his face and mouth, he is still dependent on bottles for most of his liquid intake and continues to have significant drooling. Speech Therapy is provided through the school, and he receives services from specialists with low vision for orientation and mobility, and specialized materials as needed.
With Zachary we provided lots of toys that had bells, whistles, music and lights, and he started to really tune in to his environment. In addition, a huge amount of cuddle time really helped his development to skyrocket. I have learned the lyrics to most of the songs on our cable channel for toddler tunes, as well as rediscovering some oldies but goodies. For a child who was almost considered unadoptable and not expected to walk or talk, he had done amazing things. He runs, sings, loves to look at books. Our big issues at this time are behavioral-how to get him to stop throwing things, how to help him drink liquids from a cup, and working on toileting and dressing/undressing.
Two years later I adopted another child, a little girl with sparkling blue eyes and curly blond hair, a spunky spirit and lactose intolerance. Susanna had come for a weekend visit, and then came for good two months later. Her needs are different than Zachary’s, but no less complex.
Susanna came with a list of problem behaviors, many of which went away when I took her off milk products. We were truly BLESSED that the first food I eliminated turned out to be the big culprit. She had chronic diarrhea, diaper rash, and was reported to not sleep well and to strip off all her clothes and smear her feces. She had a lot of catch-up growing to do since her food hadn’t been properly digesting. She continues to require speech therapy but is making good progress. She does continue to have poor impulse control, little-to-no safety awareness, and an uncanny ability to tune out what she doesn’t want to hear. She just started Head Start earlier this month and they have requested that a one-on-one aide be assigned to her to help keep her focused and safe.
Susanna had learned some behaviors we wanted to discourage, so my daughters and I also took every opportunity we could to cuddle with her. Of course she also benefited from all the fancy musical toys and CDs/DVDs we had on hand. If she is inadvertently given milk-containing foods, her behavior worsens and she has almost immediate loose stools and a burned skin appearance in her diaper area. Otherwise, she is a happy princess who loves her jewels, but can wrestle with the big kids when they visit.
Oh, what a blessing these two babies have been to us! And oh, what fun I have shopping for them! We have met and enjoyed relationships with so many people we never would have known otherwise. Social workers, attorneys, infant teachers, therapists of all kinds, volunteers, even the clerks at the grocery store and farmer’s market know these kids, and by extension, us.
I think God was preparing me to be a Mom to these kids for decades! My experience with my older children, my nursing studies and concentration on children with special needs all provided the much needed mindset and skill set.
It has been interesting, too, to watch my extended family members and friends welcome these babies into their lives. Maybe because we are all older, some of them seem much more child-friendly than when my other kids were little. I have learned a lot about joy from watching Zach with his piano or Susie dancing to music with no self-consciousness at all. And, it turns out, rocking and cuddling babies is good for your blood pressure!
Sometimes I find myself angry at the abuse my kids received that led to their placement in foster care and precluded their birth parents from regaining custody. Whenever I am wondering how they would be different developmentally if they were born into loving, capable families, I remind myself that they wouldn’t be my children and I wouldn’t have the joy of watching their progress, slow as it may be sometimes. And I can’t even imagine what my life would be like without these little guys!