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Preparing for the Journey: A Guide to Adopting Children with Special Needs

A boy and his father enjoy playing in the park playground with a special needs swing.

Adopting a child with special needs requires careful consideration and preparation.

As a mom who has adopted children with significant special needs, I am often asked what kinds of things I wish I had been better prepared for in this new life. I am profoundly grateful for the ways that my children have changed my life. They have taught me to fully embrace myself and this beautiful world we live in, to be authentic on every single level. Before you ask, yes, I would do it again. Yes, yes, yes.

However, I wish I had known how to prepare better!

Here are some important things to consider before pursuing the adoption of a child with special needs:

1. Understand the needs of the child:

Before considering adoption of a specific child, it is essential to understand the needs of the child you are interested in adopting. Different abilities may require different levels of care, medical attention, and support. Become a trauma informed parent! Research the child’s medical conditions, developmental delays, and potential behavioral issues to understand the level of care and support that may be required.

2. Assess your own abilities:

female hand holding a wooden cube with a question mark, concept of answers and questions, suspense and solution methods, close up

Adopting a child with special needs can be challenging, and it’s important to be honest with yourself about your abilities to provide the necessary care and support. Consider your own emotional, physical, and financial resources, as well as your support network. Carefully assess your marriage or partnership to see if there is room for the additional life responsibilities that will come along with this decision.

3. Learn about available resources:

Local resources are vastly different from state to state and even county to county. There are many resources available to adoptive parents of children with special needs, including financial assistance, support groups, and specialized services. Research the resources that are available in your area and make a plan for accessing them. Keep in mind that the future may involve a move for your family and consider how that may change your resources. A favorite starting website for many parents is: Kids’Waivers.org

4. Work with a reputable adoption agency:

This is crucial to the success of the adoption. Madison Adoption Associates is known for their high ethical standards and their passion for finding the right family for each child. It’s vital to have an adoption specialist who will review a child’s file with you and be honest about what they see. Working with a reputable adoption agency can help ensure that you are matched correctly to a child and their needs. It also ensures that you receive the necessary support and guidance throughout the adoption process.

5. Consult with medical professionals:

Before adopting a child with special needs, it’s important to consult with medical professionals who can provide you with a better understanding of the child’s medical conditions and potential challenges. This can help you make an informed decision about whether adoption is the right choice for your family.

6. Educate yourself on special education:

Young student with down syndrome drawing on paper at home and looking at camera.

This could be an entire series of posts all on it’s own, because this is by far the piece many parents are not fully prepared for when adopting a child with special needs.

It’s important to be aware of special education laws, resources, and services available to children with disabilities in your area. Again, county to county, school to school may have different resources. Make sure you call your local school district and discuss the resources they have for your child. This will help you advocate for your child’s needs and ensure they receive the appropriate support and services.

Adopting a child with special needs can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, but it’s important to approach the process with careful consideration and preparation. By taking the time to research and prepare, you can relieve some of the stress that will come from being underprepared and use that energy to bond as a family.

GIVE KIDS FUN IN THE SUN

Vacation. 

Just the word alone fills me with a calm.  My mind is flooded by memories of past vacations (from childhood all the way through now), and also visions of future getaways. 

Who doesn’t love a good vacation?!?

So when our partners mentioned that they strive to take the children on a vacation when possible, we jumped at the possibility of being able to help make that happen! Everyone deserves a vacation every now and then, but especially waiting children who don’t otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy such ‘typical’ childhood experiences!

So we began asking questions –

When? Where? How many children? Budget? 

And while getting the details, we learned these vacations go far beyond fun in the sun. The orphanage staff utilize these trips to begin teaching and instilling independence and life skills. They utilize public transportation, not just to save costs, but specifically to guide the children on how to do so. They stop at convenience stores for supplies, but have the children budget the shopping, make the purchases, and check to ensure they received the correct change back. 

They include the children in the planning, the preparation, and the packing, all in an effort to prepare the children for their years beyond the orphanage – whether those years are in a forever family, or out on their own.

Upwards of 40 children, ranging in age from school-aged to teens, will participate in this amazing opportunity this spring.

The intentionality and forethought to not only give these children the vacation they so very much deserve, but to do so in a way that will teach them valuable life lessons, left us in awe. 

Of course we will help make this happen! 

And we invite you to join us!

Sweet Little Old {Young} Lady

MAA Colombia Team: “Wait until you hear about Sia who we just met with!  We HAVE to advocate for her ASAP!”

MAA Advocacy Team: “Tell us about her!”

MAA Colombia Team: “She’s like the sweetest little old lady sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch welcoming her friends and neighbors to come take a seat with her and waste away the day chatting, but she’s only 8.”

MAA Advocacy Team: “Well with that intro, we have got to hear more!”

MAA Colombia Team: “Sia is 8 years old.  She is kind, smiley, loving, and accepting of all people.  She understands boundaries, but when she knows she’s in a safe space she will open up to you and welcome you to do the same.  She plays a mean game of Connect 4!  She was eager to show us her excellent arithmetic skills!  She’s an old soul in a little girl’s body desperate for a family to call her own.”

MAA Advocacy Team: “She sounds perfect!”

Have an empty rocking chair on your front porch? Sia would be the most perfect occupant of it!

Sia is waiting in a country in South America. If you are interested in learning more about her, please complete our Prospective Adoptive Parent form and an MAA staff member will be in touch! You can also find more program information on our website.

Cracking the teen shell

She walked in with her head held high, displaying the perfect ‘this is lame’ teen strut.  She was trying her best to let us know this meeting was boring, and she’d rather be doing a million other things.  But she slipped up when she briefly made eye contact with both of us, letting down her tough teen façade just for a moment, and giving us our first glimpse into the amazing young woman that she is.  She knew why we were there, and it wasn’t hard to see her vulnerability behind the valiant attempt of only giving off teen ‘tude.

Maleah (13) beelined straight to the familiar face in the room to sit next to, and geared up for our questions.  At first shy, quiet, and attempting disinterest, she slowly answered our questions with the briefest of answers.  She likes school, loves sports (she’s very tall!), loves helping with the little kids in the orphanage, and desperately wants a family.  Maleah is open to just a Mom, or a Mom and Dad, who will support her athletics, as well as teach her to cook.  With each question, we got a bit more out of Maleah, and little by little we cracked her shell and got to see the real girl under the teen face.  The Maleah who loves with her whole heart, despite a challenging childhood.  The Maleah who tried so hard to give a teen eyeroll at our American antics, but ultimately let her giggles slip out.  The Maleah who takes care of the younger kids as if they were her little siblings.  The sweet, funny, kind, nurturing, hopeful Maleah. 

Maleah started our day together with her armor on and buttoned up tight.  But we ended the day knowing the real Maleah.  And we couldn’t be more grateful and humbled that she let us in to see a small part of her soul.  To see her heart, her hopes, and her dreams.  Dreams of a family to call her own.

There were delays in preparing Maleah’s adoption paperwork, giving us very little time to find her family.  But we vowed to her we would do all we can to find them, and we need your help.  Interested in learning more about Maleah, and about adopting from Thailand?  Please complete our Prospective Adoptive Parent form today!  Not in a position to adopt?  That’s OK!  Simply sharing this post will help find her family!    

Mr. Personality

When we arrived at the orphanage to meet the children we are advocating for, we were told that Petey was in the hospital with pneumonia. So couldn’t be with us.  We were disappointed, but grateful for the excellent medical care he has access to. 

After meeting with several children, a staff member shared, “Petey was just released from the hospital, so you can meet him after all!”  We expected a weak, tired child to enter the room, as he literally came straight there from the hospital.  Boy were we wrong!  In comes Petey, running in like a dinosaur complete with using his pointer fingers as horns on his head and roaring with all his might.  I had to confirm with the staff, “Wait…..this boy was just released from the hospital?  He just had pneumonia?”  “Yes!”

Group of children playing the drums

To say this boy has personality doesn’t.do.it.justice. 

The light Petey brings to the room is magnificent. 

He proceeded to entertain us with more dinosaur impressions, singing baby shark in Thai, as well as signing other Thai songs, teaching his friend different animal sounds, and just overall bringing an unbelievable amount of joy to everyone in the room.  The staff shared that this is Petey.  Overjoyed, animated, social, happy. 

Toy Dinosaur on a wooden deck between two children's legs.

His friends miss him desperately when he’s in the hospital, and rejoice the moment he comes back to the orphanage.  On paper he sounds like a very sick little boy (and he does have medical needs that his family must be prepared for), but in real life he is so much more than his needs!  He clearly does not let his needs bring him down or define him!  Petey is not a sick boy.  Petey is a lively, animated, happy-go-lucky, light up the room, loving little boy who just so happens to have some medical needs.  There’s a big difference.   

The family who brings this boy home will be blessed beyond measure with one of the happiest souls I have ever encountered.  We have several pictures and video that we would be more than happy to share with an interested, qualified family.  Please complete our free Prospective Adoptive Parent form today to learn more about this special boy! 

To respect the privacy of waiting children, Madison uses representative photos of children. We do not publicly share photos of waiting children in our programs. If you would like to learn more about a child, please contact us for the next steps to be taken.

Mundane = Magical

The holidays are over.  School is back in session.  In much of the country it’s chilly, wet, and gets dark early.  And at least someone is sick.  Sometimes it feels like Groundhog Day, with each day like the last.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  It’s easy to let the winter blues get you down…..if you let them.  But I challenge you not to.  Because the days of January and February are far from mundane.  In fact, these are the days when magic happens.  It’s during these winter days that family dinners are early and long, weekends are snuggly and slow, hot cocoa and cookies turn into secret telling sessions.  These are the days where the real family memories are made.  The memories rooted in time spent with one another.  Mundane, ordinary, even boring days are the ones that build trust, attachment, and security.  Making them the farthest thing from mundane.  Making them magical.

Alonzo deserves to be part of a family’s mundane winter days.  Part of HIS family’s mundane winter.  He deserves hot cocoa and cookies, early and long family dinners, and snuggly and slow weekends.  He deserves the magic of the mundane.   

Alonzo is a sweet, kind, amazing 6 year old little boy who has Down syndrome. He is from a country in South America and is waiting for his forever family to come forward and say Yes to him. If you are interested in learning more about Alonzo, please complete our Prospective Adoptive Parent form.

A Place Called Home – A Memoir by David Ambroz {book review}

Sarah Hansen, International Programs Director, takes a moment to review and reflect on ‘A Place Called Home,’ a memoir written by David Ambroz.

Every human living in America needs to stop what they are doing and read this book.  In this memoir, David Ambroz gives an eye-opening glimpse into the lives of foster youth in the US.  From poverty, to abuse and neglect, to system failures, and so much more, Mr. Ambroz shares not just his experiences, but all of his feelings associated with these experiences, and the impact they have had on the person he has become.

Whether you are involved in foster care or not, this memoir provides insight far beyond the walls of the foster system (though, that specific insight is crucial for every American to open their eyes to).  But David’s account of his tumultuous upbringing drives home the importance of being trauma informed.  Regardless of where you fall – adoptive/foster parent, child welfare professional, teacher, or just a human who interacts with other humans – it is imperative to understand how adverse childhood experiences affect a person for a lifetime.  Through his heart-wrenching personal account, David puts the reader in his shoes, making them understand why children with a history of trauma put up walls –  

“Child abuse and neglect have a long shadow that stretches beyond physical pain.  For decades I’ll flinch when someone goes to hug me – sometimes I still do.  It’s an irreconcilable contradiction between the love of a caregiver and the damage she does.”     

No.  Stop.  Crying.  Now, I command myself, and eventually I do.

Your tears are useless.  Tears are going to get you killed.  No more tears, I vow.

No more emotion.  I can dim that part of me to almost nothing.  These people can’t have that power over me.  I take the pain and squeeze it into a tight square.  Then I pack it in a box and place it on a shelf….  I know where it is, and maybe one day I can take it down and feel again.  But right now, feeling is a luxury I can’t afford, not if I’m going to survive.  Whatever is coming, I need to be bulletproof and numb.  I’ll wear a mask.  I don’t know this yet, but I won’t shed a tear again for twenty-three years.”

He painstakingly portrays that regardless of how unhealthy a relationship might be, connections to birth family are nonetheless such a primal part of a person’s essence –

“This woman is my curse, my burden, and my blood.  I will never stop loving her.”

“I have one foot in my mother’s world, anchoring me to a past, and one foot stepping into this one, with Holly’s outstretched hand reaching from the shore of a loving present and a better future.  I’ve only got to lift my anchor, but I can’t, not yet.  Holly is offering me the life I have always wanted, if I can just find my way there.”

He truly makes the reader understand that while one healthy connection and environment can make a dramatic impact on a child’s life, the lasting impacts of trauma do not go away over night –

“…relieved to be out of there, but also sad.  I finally have the freedom to be normal, but I don’t know how.”

Though a gut-wrenching read, I walked away from this book with a renewed passion – to act, to protect, to speak up, to put words into action.  Children are living in poverty, children are being abused and neglected, right down the road and all around the world.  It is 2023 – we can do better. We can all do something.  So let’s.

“Where are the adults?  Where is the DARE officer?  Where are the teachers?  The social workers?  Where is anyone who can protect us?  They have left us here.  We are kids suffering in plain sight.  Save your prayers, they won’t protect us.  Over and over again, the three of us were left with a woman who was clearly hurting us by people in positions of authority.  I want others to know what it means to be equally neglected by a parent and a society.  I want it to be impossible to walk past a child who is begging in the street.  Thank you for the Christmas presents collected at your office, but I’d rather you vote for people and policies so children don’t suffer from neglect, abuse, hunger, homelessness, violence, and maybe death.”

Be Trauma-Informed this Holiday Season

Holidays can be challenging for those who have experienced relational trauma.  Relational trauma is defined as a trauma that occurs in a close relationship, usually a caregiver, not caused by a single event but rather by an ongoing series of events.  Being harmed by those who were supposed to protect you leave emotional scars that can manifest in various ways. Often, holidays were moments when conflicting messages were sent to children:  happy moments followed or preceded by scary, lonely, violent ones.  Christmas can be painful and confusing.  Usually, this time of the year is celebrated, enjoyed, and related to good memories for most.  However, developmental trauma may impact a child’s ability to enjoy such moments.  Sometimes, trauma survivors can feel embarrassed and have longing feelings or be ambivalent towards their adoptive and biological parents.  The kids might have mixed feelings: they miss the celebrations from the country of origin; they recall the festivities with their birth families but also the scary memories.  Celebrations can trigger trauma-based behaviors that might not be expected, especially if time has passed since the adoption.  The fight, flight, or freeze responses may come back.

Holidays can be a minefield.  Giving the kids a voice and allowing them to speak about their painful memories is an excellent option to help them deal with their feelings.  Allowing them to speak helps them learn they are valuable, that someone is listening now, and they know how to rely on their attachment figures.  It also teaches them coping strategies that lead them to co-regulation and self-regulation.  You can make a plan when you learn what triggers your fight, flight, or freeze response and brings back the trauma-based behaviors.  Sometimes, Holidays don’t trigger traumatic memories or behaviors.  However, the feelings related to the loss of a family might still be somewhere out there, and the child may wonder how they are doing.  Ambiguous loss feelings appear.  And the lack of closure that this type of loss has does not allow the children to leave behind the past experiences but to revisit them from a new and more complex perspective as they grow in understanding.  And holidays are especially hard for those dealing with ambiguous loss.  Adopted children’s biological family is not physically present, but their emotional absence comes into their lives from time to time.  And Holidays are one of those moments where they may wonder how they are doing, if they are thinking of him/her, if their siblings are doing fine, if the grandparents are still alive, etc.

And even though some behaviors related to developmental/relational trauma may seem the same as ambiguous loss, they are not.  As Dr. Boss says, “Ambiguous loss inevitably leads to ambivalent feelings, emotions, and behaviors toward the missing person and others in the family.  With a deficit of information about the whereabouts or status of the absent person, people don’t know how to respond and feel torn about the course of action to take”.  All these can lead to anxiety, somatic symptoms, guilt, anger, or picking a fight.  Try to normalize ambivalence, allow your children to talk about those feelings, and acknowledge their existence.  Adapting to the ambiguity of the situation can minimize the effects of ambivalence.  When recognizing such ambivalent feelings, resilience may start.

Helpful hints

  • Try not to overwhelm the children with many visits or too many presents. 
  • Allow your child to feel sad or emotionally vulnerable.
  • Have some traditions from their country of origin.  Ask your child about what he enjoyed when celebrating Christmas / holidays and make them part of your family celebration.
  • Allow your children to get enough sleep.  It is essential to diminish the fight, flight, or freeze response, so your child needs to be well-rested, well-fed, and hydrated. 
  • Try to find emotional outlets.  For example, do some physical activity and draw about how he/she feels.
  • Be fully present and become a better listener to your child’s stories (and pain).   This way, your child will learn that ambivalence is normal and that he/she can rely on you and have a voice to express feelings.
  • Talk to your child about ambivalent loss.  Let them know that this emotion and reaction is very real, and they should not feel ashamed if they are experiencing these feelings.

Ultimately, the holidays can be a joyous time surrounded by family and loved ones, but for our children with histories of trauma and loss, the holidays can also be triggering, scary, and even lonely.  Continue to be the safest space for your child, and put their needs above any unnecessary holiday obligations like that gift exchange at Aunt Betty’s or the overwhelming potluck brunch at cousin Eddy’s.  Be present, be in tuned to your child’s triggers and comfort level, and be intentional about your holiday plans.

Why Host?

You’ve heard some of their stories.  You’ve read our pleas asking you to step out of your comfort zone and fill in the gap for these kids.  These kids who have waited for years and years for their chance at a forever.  These kids who are so much more than words in a file.  But the excuses are so easy to hang on to.  ‘We are too busy.’  ‘We’d have to rearrange our bedrooms.’ ‘The kids might get too attached.’  The list goes on and on with the ‘why we can’t’s.’  And we get it.  We really do!  But as that list continues to grow, we ask you to just pause for a moment, and ask yourselves, Why Not?  Even take it a step further, and don’t just ask, but really consider, ‘What if we did host?’  ‘How would we be impacted?’ ‘What would it mean for us and the hosted child?’  ‘What would those 20-25 days look like?’  None of us know the answers to those questions.  But some possibilities are that you could offer a life changing three weeks to a deserving child; you could learn about a new culture, and share your own; you could become the answer to a waiting child’s prayer; you could be forever changed, and change the life of a child; or maybe, just maybe, you could fall in love.  Now, wouldn’t all that be worth it?  Think about it.

We are excited to welcome several precious children ranging in age from 12-15 from Colombia in Summer 2023 for hosting. But, we cannot welcome them unless 10-15 special families in NJ, PA, UT, or IL step forward and say Yes. Could that be you?

If you are interested in learning more about hosting, please visit our website, or email AnneB@madisonadoption.org.

Hosting {A Family’s Perspective}

When did you participate in MAA’s hosting program?

We participated in MAA’s hosting program in summer of 2016 (China) and summer of 2019 (Colombia).

How old was the child(ren) you hosted?

AiJun was 9 when we hosted him, Addie was 13, Melany was 11, and Phillip was 9 when we hosted them.

What types of things did you do with your host child(ren) during the hosting session?

With AiJun we mostly stayed home and/or just did what we would normally do. AiJun was quiet and just went with the flow. Our son joined the military while AiJun was with us so we went down to St Louis to see him get sworn in. We went to the city museum in St Louis with AiJun- he loved it! We also hosted a family reunion while he was with us and went to a museum. AiJun loved swimming in our pond and going on boat rides in the river. We also took him to Chinese restaurants. Our Colombian kids were much more verbal and active. We went to a Mexican restaurant several times and also found a Spanish speaker (teacher at the school) to meet with us a couple times to make communication easier. We used google translate on my phone, but having a translator was super nice as sometimes google translate didn’t translate accurately. I was working during that time, so friends had background checks done so they could watch the kids while I worked. Our pastor and his wife took them to the zoo, another friend took them to a hands on kids museum, another friend had the kids over to swim in  her pool. We played games that did not require language or required very little language – charades, uno, Dutch Blitz, etc.The Colombian kids had a shorter hosting stay – 2.5 weeks – so we didn’t have as long as we did with AiJun’s host visit. One weekend was spent in Champaign at the MAA picnic that all the host kids were required to attend, the other weekend was spent at our local county fair. While in Champaign we went to a water park. The kids really liked everything they got to do!

What was the best part of hosting?

The best part about hosting was to get to know the kids and learn about their culture. It was fun learning about the food they eat and the holidays they celebrate. The Colombians were especially eager to share with us their experiences. 

What was the most challenging part of the experience?

The most challenging part for me was trying to make the visit fun while staying on top of laundry and house cleaning haha! One day I did ask them to help, which they did, but you feel like they are guests and you want to show them a fun time. However, two and a half weeks is a long time to only have fun!

How did the experience impact your entire family (other children in home)?

The hosting experience impacted our other children in good ways, even if they did not know it then. They learned to look to the needs of others for a few weeks and share our attention. 

What advice would you give to a potential host family?

I would advise another host family to make an itinerary before they come. Find a translator near you. Don’t be afraid to ask the kids to help with chores. Ask about their culture and be interested in what they tell you – don’t just be eager to share American traditions. Learn about and be prepared to make food from their country while they are here -they will love it! Also- if you have kids at home, let them know that things are going to be crazy and your attention will be split between them and the host child/children. Ask your children to help you by asking the host child/children good questions about their country and making them feel at home. You are hostesses as a family, it is a group effort! 

Would you do it again?  Why or why not?

Yes we would do it again. However, we have zero space to put a host child because we have adopted the four kids! We have two bio kids still at home so we have six kids at home. We do not have enough bedrooms for any more people unfortunately, even for a host visit. I try very hard to promote it in my church every summer that there is hosting! Hosting has blessed our life. It is such a wonderful experience to be able to advocate for a child in need or meet the child that you are considering adopting. Like I said, adoption has captivated our hearts and made us better people!

We are currently seeking host families in Utah, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to host a waiting child in July 2023. To learn more about the program, please visit our website or email misty@madisonadoption.org.