Can a disabled parent adopt? How will they be viewed by a caseworker? Or by the social workers that handle waiting children? Or by birth mothers? These are some of the questions I asked myself eight years ago when my wife and I first approached the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Bill, our Illinois caseworker, didn’t seem concerned in the slightest. Soon we were licensed to adopt, but would other social workers place their children in our care? We were about to find out when my wife became pregnant with our first child, which put our adoption plans on hold.
Although we cleared the first hurdle without incident, I had legitimate cause for concern. A good friend, whom I will call Jane, was not as fortunate. Like me, she is totally blind, and like me, she has a sighted spouse to help raise her children. Unlike me, she already had two boys who were thriving under her care. In fact, she stayed home and assumed the role of primary caregiver while her husband worked outside the home. There should have been no question, but when Jane first met her assigned caseworker, he could not control his laughter. “You’re not a fit parent.” he chuckled. “How would you handle an emergency?” Needless to say, Jane was taken aback. “I have a mouth you know,” she replied. “I’m quite capable of dialing 911.” After a brief and unproductive dialogue, Jane realized that neither reason nor her proven track record as a fit parent would alter his position, which was based on an irrational prejudice. Jane did not have the resources or the temperament to take legal action. Instead, she focused her energies on her two children. If she were childless, she may have pressed the issue. Alas, we will never know.
How can we reconcile these radically different anecdotes? Jane applied several years before I did; perhaps the adoption industry acquired maturity and wisdom during that time. Perhaps it was forced to change its position by a court order. Or perhaps disabilities are tolerated in a father, but not a mother, who is still viewed as the primary caregiver. Personally, I think a systemic explanation is unlikely. Rather, the difference is probably due to the distinct mindsets of our two caseworkers as individuals. If Jane had approached another agency, or even another caseworker within that agency, she might have received her home study in short order, as I did. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
When our daughter was three, we moved to Michigan and started the adoption process all over again. Once again my disability was not an issue, and soon we were sending our information to birth mothers and social workers across the country. At that time we were willing to adopt an infant or an older child, casting our nets into both ponds. Of course there were several birth mothers who read our profile and didn’t select us. My handicap may have played a role in these decisions, or it could have been the color of my hair, or my religious beliefs; we’ll never know. Birth mothers and social workers are individuals; hence there are no universal answers to the questions posed at the start of this article. However, I believe most birth mothers and social workers can accept a wide range of disabilities, and that’s good news for everyone.
After a time, we were selected by a birthmother. Our joy, however, soon turned to great sadness. Sitting in the hospital room, we held Steven in our arms for a short time, then gently placed him back in his bed next to his birth mother. We slowly left the premises, carrying an empty car seat. Under intense pressure from her relatives, she changed her mind at the last minute. Prospective parents must be prepared for this scenario, which is reenacted time and time again in hospital rooms across America. “We have no way to predict which mothers will follow through with the adoption,” remarked my case worker, who has been in the business for 30 years.
Several months later, we took an infant into our home as a foster placement and confirmed what we had begun to suspect; we weren’t really prepared for a baby after all. Our birth daughter was almost five and would have nothing in common with a newborn. We wanted an older child and soon made that commitment to ourselves and to our agency. We scoured the Internet in search of waiting children, and sent our information to various caseworkers all over the country. Some agencies were reluctant to place their children with a blind father. Most agencies rejected us because we were in another state, and the interstate paperwork represented a daunting challenge that most overworked and underpaid case workers would rather avoid. I have a drawer full of rejection letters urging me to “Please consult an adoption agency within your home state.” Sometimes my letter of inquiry was sent back unopened; the return address was enough to disqualify me.
To my surprise, one agent, whom I will call Tina, viewed my disability in a positive light. Since I had already accomplished a great deal, despite a significant handicap, Tina felt I possessed the emotional characteristics needed to parent a troubled child. Furthermore, my experiences might provide insight and understanding, allowing me to sympathize, without mollycoddling. Thus my disability was one of many factors that encouraged Tina to eventually place a brother and sister in our care. Having raised these kids for a year now, I find Tina’s logic inescapable. Both children have, on separate occasions, told me that their lot in life (i.e. disability and/or troubled past) was “unfair.” I held them close and agreed with their assessment. Life had indeed dealt them several bad cards. But I reminded them that my situation was also “unfair.” I haven’t walked precisely in their shoes, but my shoes don’t fit right either. Somehow we must keep walking. I set the example, and they are compelled to follow.
When you write a profile for birth mothers, state your disability as a matter of course, then move on. If you view it as neutral, they will too. However, if you are looking for an older child, who is possibly disabled, your disability may be viewed as an asset. The insights you have gained will help you raise a child who has been dealt a less-than-perfect hand. Please do not feel that your disability will keep you from adopting; it doesn’t need to. Don’t be afraid to blow your own horn, albeit softly. Those who adopt aren’t rich, or powerful, or ideal physical specimens; they are merely passionate and persistent.