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

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``It's funny,'' says Mrs. Bergeron, ``I'm not at all hesitant talking with the children's social workers or even other families. But I get so nervous when it comes to the kids. I guess it's because you emotionally relate [to] a child and then if it doesn't work out ... well, you become less open.'' By the end of the party, though, the Bergerons had met Tara's brother and had arranged for further meetings.

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Innovative arrangements such as this adoption party are encouraged by the DSS. ``There are many more older children who lack homes,'' says Ms. Spears. Nationally, the average age of children free for adoption is 9. ``We need to awaken public awareness and break the myths associated with adoption. People still think they must own a single family home and be upper middle class. Many poor families, even those on welfare, adopt, and we help by subsidizing families who accept special needs kids. We're currently providing for 2,500 youngsters.''

When it comes to the challenges of adopting special needs children, both youngsters and parents are candid. Heidi Miller, a 19-year-old student at Salem State University, was six when her parents divorced. Although her two sisters remained in the family with a grandparent, she was released by her parents for adoption. The memories are difficult, even today.

``I was in the same foster home for seven years, but I always had this dream that I'd go back with my natural mom. Then at 14 I became a `Sunday Child' [an adoption-related feature in the Boston Globe] and that's how my adoptive mom found me. I remember giving my mom a really bad time. I still wanted to be with my foster family, not with her. One afternoon I ran away.'' Determined, Heidi strode 22 miles, arriving that evening in the town of her foster parents. Although supportive, they immediately called her mom and returned her the next morning.

Heidi threatened suicide and finally ran away. ``I stayed with different people, smoking pot - I'll never do that again - then someone slipped acid into my soda and I began tripping. I was so scared and went home right after it was over.

``When I got home my mom immediately grounded me: no TV, no phone, home by 6 p.m. I liked the discipline. It was nothing big but it showed I could only go so far. My mom's very supportive, and I can talk about anything to her. We got a lot closer and it became a very good mother/daughter relationship.''

Some children, however, run away never to return. Still, most adoptions of special needs youngsters succeed, and the changes are often spectacular.

Take the Neusomes from Roxbury, Mass. As emergency foster parents, they took in four sibling youngsters ranging in age from three to six. The children had been terribly deprived, neglected, and abused. One child, at five years of age, had not yet spoken a single word, and another had cerebral palsy. None was able to carry out basic daily functions. Simply brushing their teeth was a monumental task. The family needed extraordinary support from the state as well as from relatives and neighbors. But today, seven years later, all four children have been adopted by the Neusomes, and all are well adjusted. Two have left special schools for public ones.

``These kids,'' notes Mr. Lewis, speaking of all the children who pass through his office, ``exceed all expectations when families become part of their lives.''