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

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.

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.

``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.

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.''

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