Adopting 'waiting' children: the challenges and rewards

''I wake up in the middle of the night, wondering if I should move to an area with good schools. ''Then I think, 'How will my kid get to school?'

''And then I think, 'If I'm late getting home from work, how can I find out about child care?'''

Those are just a few of the questions Rick finds himself facing these days - and nights. His jitters are understandable, though, because he's about to become a father. An adoptive father.

Rick is among the growing numbers of single parents who are adopting children today. At a time when between 100,000 and 250,000 children are waiting to be adopted in the United States, more public and private agencies are looking for help to single people, older couples, and others who previously might not have been considered as adoptive parents.

''You don't have to be married, rich, own your own home, be young, or even childless,'' urges one agency's publicity poster. ''Single applicants will be considered. Subsidy is available'' another advises.

Today's tens of thousands of so-called ''waiting children'' generally are over nine years old, often have emotional or physical handicaps, often are black , Hispanic, or native American, and often come into the foster care system in large sibling groups. Because these children are described by many adoption agencies as ''hard to place,'' more effort is being made to publicize the need. In more than 50 cities television stations now carry public service announcements about specific children who are available for adoption, and many local newspapers feature ''waiting children'' columns.

Rick's introduction to adoption began with a photograph of an adorable youngster that appeared in his Sunday newspaper. The child was waiting for a home, the caption said. Rick thought a few moments, then picked up his phone to find out more.

The agency he called told him a conference for prospective adoptive parents was being held at a nearby college in a couple of days. Rick went, full of expectation, but came home dejected. ''There was so much I didn't know, so many questions to consider,'' he recalls. ''I gave up on the idea for a couple of months.''

Like many prospective parents, Rick eventually turned to someone who'd already adopted children for some practical answers. His friend told him what agencies to start with and urged him to ask about the post-adoptive services they offered, which can be helpful for parents of older children.

After interviewing several agencies and being coolly discouraged by some because he was young and single, Rick found a private agency he was satisfied with and filled out an application. Within three weeks he was preparing for a ''home study'' with his assigned social worker.

''It began with a series of meetings with other prospective parents, to sort of get us used to the idea,'' he says. ''Then we moved on to individual sessions. The social worker asked me questions about my apartment, my salary, what I thought having a kid would do to my social life, that sort of thing. I also filled out a form telling how I'd respond to certain behavior problems, like what I'd do if a kid began setting fires, picked on other kids, was cruel to animals, wet his bed, or acted out in class.''

One meeting of the home study took place at Rick's apartment, with his mother , several close friends, and his social worker. ''I scrubbed the bathroom for days, and she didn't even bother to look in it,'' he says with a trace of chagrin.

The social worker apparently was more concerned with finding out what kind of support Rick would be getting from his extended family. ''My mother was overjoyed with the idea,'' he says. ''When my parents were divorced, she had raised me herself as a single parent. She kept saying, 'I'm glad you saw it worked with us.'''

Now that he's been approved as an adoptive parent, Rick is waiting for the phone call that will tell him the agency has found a child for him. He realizes it could be a year before he's matched with a child, and in the meantime he says he's reading everything he can find on the subject.

As an introduction to the kinds of problems and joys prospective parents may encounter, many adoption agencies recommend Claudia L. Jewett's ''Adopting the Older Child'' (Harvard, Mass.: The Harvard Common Press, $11.95). Mrs. Jewett, a family counselor and nationally recognized authority on adoption, writes from plenty of professional and personal experience: She and her husband have three natural children and seven adopted children. ''Three of the kids we adopted were adolescents when they came to us,'' she said in a recent interview, ''and my husband and I find that we really enjoy teen-agers. One of the things that I like most about parenting is sitting down and talking to my kids, sharing with them how they tackle life, how they make things make sense - and you can't do any of that with a toddler.''Mrs. Jewett says there are a number of ''common scares'' about adopting older children. ''Parents are afraid that they won't be able to love an adopted child as much as a biological child, that a new child will have a disruptive influence on other children in the home, that they won't be able to 'hang in' if things get rough.'' All of these fears and more are addressed in her book.''I wanted to be real honest about the problems'' she says , ''because you have to do more than just love children to be an adoptive parent for older kids.'' For one thing, Mrs. Jewett points out, parents need to be comfortable with the fact that their child has a past. ''You get more history in the suitcase that comes with the kid,'' she explains, ''but a lot of that baggage is going to be positive stuff. Most foster parents are dedicated people who go farther than most of us would, more of the time. So most kids bring along some really good things with them, things that would be an enrichment to a family.''Judy and David Bailey couldn't agree more. ''They're a constant riot,'' says Mrs. Bailey of her eight children, seven of whom are adopted.After adopting a three-month-old baby, and then an older brother and sister, the Baileys last year adopted another racially mixed sibling group of four children, one of the hardest of placements, according to many social workers.''We all laugh about it now,'' she says. ''But I remember when we first met them. I said, 'Hello, my name is Judy, and I'm going to be your new mother.' And they said to me, 'Are you crazy, lady? There's no way you're gonna be our mother. We'll run away. We'll run back to the foster home.'''I went out into the hall, and I said to my husband, 'This isn't going to work out at all.' And the social worker said, 'Give it some time.' So we took them home, and it only took about two weeks' time. Now if I told them they had to go back (to the foster home), they'd die.''Most of the time you hear that it's terribly hard and difficult to adopt older children,'' she continues.'I think older children are much easier than younger children. I mean, you can talk to them. You can say to them, 'Look, we don't do that in this house,' and they can respond.''Prospective parents shouldn't be frightened to take older children if they have emotional problems, or if they've been in five or six different homes. Children are children, and there's nothing to be frightened of. Once they get settled in your home, it's okay.''Some adoptive parents are more guarded in their comments, however. The mother of one eight-year-old boy says prospective parents should demand to see all the information that's available on their children.''Also, I think there's an unwritten taboo against providing information about a child's sexual experiences. I think social workers think that if a parent knows that a child has been sexually abused, they'll get scared. But it's not that at all. If you know, you can be prepared. We wish we'd known.''Her son has been with the family for nine months now, and just last week was legally adopted. Both parents are delighted with his progress.''He still has a little problem with emotions,'' his mother says, ''but lots of these kids have been disappointed for so long that it's really hard for them to trust. Why should they? You really have to earn their trust.''At an urging from her husband to tell about ''the good things, too ,'' she laughs and begins a long list of accomplishments.''When he came to us, he couldn't hold a fork, he'd never sat at a table, he didn't know how to ride a bike, or roller skate, or ice skate, or play baseball,'' she says. ''He'd never been to a restaurant and didn't know how to order.''Now he can do all those things. You may say, 'Big deal, he can eat with a fork.' But it is a big deal. For me and my husband - and for the child - it's a huge deal.''For information about public and private adoption agencies in each state, regional adoptive parent groups, and special needs resource centers, write or call the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC), 1346 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 229, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 466-7570. -30-

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