By Kelly Rouba
Going through the process of adopting isn’t easy, whether you have a disability or not. On top of cost and time, would-be parents with disabilities can face a number of obstacles, including discrimination and prejudice. But fear not, people with disabilities are succeeding in adoption and figuring out ways to turn their disabilities into advantages.
Bob Vogel adopted his daughter, Sarah, through the foster system.
Bob Vogel, a T10 paraplegic since 1985, quickly became aware of the obstacles when he and his wife first began looking into adoption after unsuccessful attempts at conception. “From everything we read, as well as talking with adoption agencies and parents that had adopted, we learned that the average process takes a couple of years, and domestic or overseas adoptions cost more than $20,000,” he says. “No way we had that kind of money.”
However, the Vogels, who live in Loomis, Calif., managed to get assistance from a local agency that worked hand-in-hand with the foster care program, helping foster parents adopt when birth parents aren’t able to take their kids back. The Vogels learned that by becoming a licensed foster care family they could take in a child and potentially adopt him or her down the road. After months of preparatory classes the Vogels got their license. They fostered several children on a temporary basis, including a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby girl. After a year as her foster parents, they were able to legally adopt her.
Vogel admits they were rather fortunate when it came to the adoption process. “Ours is a unique situation, but it couldn’t have gone more smoothly,” he says. “We loved the foster care classes, enjoyed working with all of the social workers, and were supported every step of the way.”
An Advocate is Born
Carrie Ann Lucas knows how difficult trying to adopt can be. Lucas, who has a type of muscular dystrophy called congenital myopathy, fought the state of Tennessee for 14 months to adopt her first daughter (her biological niece). “My daughter’s social worker was determined that there was no way that a handicapped woman could take care of this handicapped child,” she says. “Fortunately for us, a court-appointed special advocate was a great advocate for us, and the judge ordered her placement, notwithstanding the social worker’s bias.”
As a result of her struggles, she started the Center for Rights of Parents with Disabilities in 2004. The Center is a nonprofit dedicated to helping fight the discrimination that disabled parents face. Lucas is now in the process of adopting her fourth child — all of whom have disabilities — and is managing well. Ironically, “I was a lot less disabled 13 years ago than I am now,” she says, noting that she has quadriparesis (weakness in all four limbs) and is dependent on a ventilator as well as personal care assistants to help with most activities of daily living.
Parents’ rights advocate Carrie Ann Lucas is in the process of adopting her fourth child.
L-R: Anthony, 11, Adrianne, 13, Carrie, Heather, 21 and Asiza, 16.
In her 15 years as an advocate, Lucas has grown familiar with the multitude of obstacles facing disabled parents. Cost is the most obvious barrier. She says the average cost to adopt a healthy infant domestically is $25,000 to $35,000. Costs for adopting from abroad vary, but average between $28,000 and $50,000. That’s not including
a home study process and other preparatory fees.
Discrimination can be equally vexing. Lucas takes on cases that involve agencies that have refused to do a home study because the applicant has a disability, which she says is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She says agencies often discriminate against parents with disabilities by citing “the best interest of the child.” Overcoming the socially-learned biases of birth parents can also be difficult for would-be disabled parents. “The parent has no recourse over this type of bias, and parents simply have to do their best to demonstrate and explain how their disability is not a barrier to parenting,” she says.
International adoptions can present additional challenges. The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, which established standards and requirements for adoption agency accreditation in participating countries in order to safeguard intercountry adoptions, has proven to be a barrier to some, while other countries have age, marriage and disability restrictions. “Several countries prohibit wheelchair users from adopting,” Lucas says. “There is no recourse if a particular country has policies preventing parents with disabilities from adopting.”
Lucas says some countries are very open to parents with disabilities adopting and encourages prospective adopting families to research adoption limitations for each particular country. As for which countries are best to work with, Lucas says it varies on a case-by-case basis. She singled out China, Vietnam and Korea as some of the countries with the most arbitrary and inconsistent rules.
‘Don’t Give Up’
Despite all the potential obstacles, Vogel and Lucas offer the same advice: Don’t let the process discourage you because it can work out. Overall, Lucas says, she doesn’t usually find that people with SCI have an exceptionally difficult time adopting. Lucas, who is now in the process of adopting her fourth child, reminded prospective parents that adoption is rarely easy, whether or not you have a disability. “The first adoption is always the most difficult, no matter what the system; this is true regardless of disability,” she says. “Single parents with disabilities have the most difficult time having that first child placed because there is often a bias concerning how the parent will be able to parent the children.”
Use Your Disability
Both Lucas and Vogel urge potential adopters to be creative and try to use their disability as a strength. “I frequently argue that parents with disabilities are best suited to parent these kiddos because we are masters at adaptation,” says Lucas.
Vogel says being open is key. “In the long run, I think being a wheelchair user and paraplegic helped me because openly discussing my disability and how I would care for a child — such as what kind of child carrier I would use to carry the child on my lap, how I drive, how I would load a child into a car seat, etc. — helped the foster care staff really get to know me,” he says.
Be prepared to answer tough questions about your abilities, and know ahead of time how you will handle tasks that others may perceive as challenging. Lucas pointed to a colleague with SCI who made a video showing how she could care for a child as an example of the creative approaches that could help prospective parents.
“The advice I would give to other wheelchair users is figure out or ask other parents with similar disabilities how you would handle situations, like feeding, carrying, diapering, etc., and openly discuss this with the agency or bring it up if people seem afraid to ask,” Vogel says. “It is much easier to carry an infant or toddler on your lap all day in a wheelchair than when you are standing up. In a wheelchair, you are at a lower height and closer to a toddler when they are walking. Use the wheelchair as your asset.”
Finding agencies, advocates, and attorneys that specialize in helping those with physical disabilities adopt children can be difficult — but they are out there!
“The best way to start is to contact your local foster care agency and find out what the options are,” says Bob Vogel, who successfully adopted after being a foster parent. “Also, ask them if they work in conjunction with any adoption agencies.”
Here are a few other resources to get you started:
- The Center for Rights of Parents with Disabilities — “My organization is one of the few places where parents can access legal assistance for adoption, and we primarily serve parents in the Colorado/Wyoming area,” says founder Carrie Ann Lucas. www.disabledparentrights.org.
- Dexter & Moffet — Catherine Dexter, an attorney with this adoption law firm based in Wilsonville, Ore., specializes in private adoption and has experience working with parents with disabilities. www.oregonadopt.com.
- Parents with Disabilities Online — This is a helpful resource for people with disabilities who have children or want to adopt, Lucas says. The site provides information and support, and it hosts the Parent Empowerment Network, which is an email community of individuals with disabilities who want to become parents. www.disabledparents.net.
- Through the Looking Glass — This national organization advocates for parents, children, or grandparents with disabilities, and offers a variety of services and training. Based in Berkeley, Calif., TLG also produces two design guides to assist in building adaptive baby equipment. www.lookingglass.org.
- Disabled Adoptive Parents — Founded by Nadia Ortiz, who has osteogenesis imperfecta and is an adoptive parent herself, this online support group provides information and helps prospective parents deal with the barriers to adoption. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/disabledadoptiveparents.