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Placing the `hard-to-place' child. Agencies help connect parents and `special needs' children

By Lynn KapplowSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 1987

North Andover, Mass.

When I first found out my mother gave me up for adoption, my whole heart was shattered. It really hurt bad; I was depressed for a long time. Tara is one of 39,000 children in the United States who wait to be adopted. Articulate, vivacious, likable, she's all that a parent could hope for, yet she's difficult to place. At 13 she's defined as a ``special needs child,'' a category that includes all youngsters 12 and older, siblings, those of a minority race, and those having a mild to severe emotional, educational, or physical handicap.

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In the world of adoption, where the light-skinned infant is a prized possession even for fees ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, many wonderful youngsters like Tara are never even considered.

And some who do seek older children complain that the legal system prevents easy access to them. Adoptive parents frequently take a child, unsure of the adoption becoming final.

``Some states are required to try to preserve family units,'' explains Joyce Johnson of the Child Welfare League in Washington. That requirement can keep children from becoming readily available for adoption. ``Also,'' she says, ``as long as a parent who may have a problem is being treated, a child may never become free. Some think quick adoption is the answer, but these kids have families and the older ones have bonds with their parents.''

``Older kids especially have solid family recollections,'' says Linda Spears, director of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS), ``and must deal with the fact that their natural parents are still there, close by, but can't keep them.''

The shifting around in temporary care that's common to children like Tara, as well as to her younger brother and sister, greatly complicates their lives. During five years spent in foster care, for example, Tara has lived in six different homes.

``It's hard making friends in a half a year of school, and then I have to move and start all over,'' she says. ``I feel so scared that I might do something wrong, and sometimes I have terrible troubles with friends.'' She pauses, grasping her slender hands as she swallows down the start of tears.

``I hope I get parents who'll understand the kind of troubles I've had with my natural mother. Kids like me have been through a lot and it's hard to get along with other parents. I hope they like to talk and have a good sense of humor, too.'' She leans back, and adds, ``I really love my brother. Even though we've been through so much, underneath we're still our happy selves.''

Tara is at an ``adoption party'' being held in a large sunny room at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. The party is sponsored by the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE). These events, held four times a year, bring waiting children and prospective parents together in a spontaneous, casual environment. Giggles explode from a corner as a clown entertains the youngest children. Games, a piano, and warm chatter amuse all ages, while they await a potluck lunch.

``I began these parties five years ago,'' explains Deborah Henderson, communications specialist for MARE. ``Matches have been made at every single party. At one gathering we brought 22 kids and 10 of them found permanent homes. Ordinarily parents won't get to meet the kids unless a social worker is very serious about them. So this is an unusual experience.''

Bob Lewis, director of Project Impact in Boston, is co-sponsor. He and Ms. Henderson move through the crowd, spotting couples who need help. Karen and Robert Bergeron seem uncertain, having only begun their search for a 7- to 12-year-old boy.