“Security. Support. Hope. Love. Family is just everything. I think so many of us take that for granted,” parents Cassie and Chris say. Their children, Isaiah (age 21), Kaleb (age 15) and Armando (age 17), are three reasons they believe that “family is the most powerful, amazing thing you can give to someone.” Armando, adopted from foster care November of last year, is the most recent reminder.
Needs That Looked Different
Before Cassie and Chris welcomed Armando home, he didn’t have a place he belonged, or people to remind him he always would. He entered foster care on a permanent basis when he was 13, following several years of temporary care. Armando would have been one of over 100,000 children in foster care, kids living in communities across the U.S and waiting for families to adopt them.
Cassie and Chris didn’t start out thinking they’d adopt from foster care, and they hadn’t expected to find a boy like Armando, either: a nonverbal teenager with a gentle smile and spirit, who—like their biological son Kaleb—had needs that, in their words, “looked different.”
What They Deserved
In fact, both Kaleb and Armando had a range of needs related to development, speech, mobility, and balance that seemed to parallel each other. Kaleb’s needs were related to a rare genetic condition called Angelman syndrome, primarily affecting the nervous system, and both he and Armando experienced seizures sometimes. From an early age, the two boys’ needed care that looked different from what many children require. “But they also deserved the same thing,” says Cassie. “Love and a family.”
While Kaleb’s childhood was lined with a family’s love, Armando’s was more difficult, and the permanency he needed was harder to come by, particularly as he grew older. Teens were (and are) less likely to be considered for adoption, and Armando’s everyday needs required more attention than many aspiring adoptive families felt prepared to give. Beyond that, his need for long-term care didn’t fit the pattern that most families planned on.
“It’s hard enough for children without disabilities to be adopted from foster care,” Chris and Cassie recognized, asking themselves, “How much harder it is for children in foster care who have disabilities?”
Opening a Window to Who a Child Is
Guided by their faith, the couple felt ready to care for another child with needs that “looked different,” and their thoughts bent toward their son at home, and toward Armando. They knew he would grow up in an adult care facility, if not for a family. The realization was striking, “This could be our Kaleb.”
Stirred, Cassie and Chris began the process to adopt from foster care, equipped by their perspective and experience; and supported by those who’d worked beforehand to bring Armando’s story to life through video. These behind-the-scenes advocates at WACAP had been working with Armando’s caseworker to help find the family he needed, and were committed to sharing the picture, profile and video that painted a picture of who he was.
“When we get comfortable with the fact that children have different needs—and that a child's needs may just need to be met in a different way—we can better accept what we're capable of,” Cassie shares. Aiding families on that journey, she believes, is every resource, no matter how small, that opens a window to who a child is.
Among those supports were two "A Family for Me" videos WACAP and KING 5 collaborated to create in February 2013 and December 2014, which helped give the couple a needed sense of Armando. Seeing him stride across a playground, confident and curious, they understood what his mobility was like, and how he’d be at their home. They glimpsed his personality through his expression, engagement and body language, “especially important,” Cassie notes, “when children are nonverbal or have complex communication needs. An amazing person and personality is there in these kids, but isn’t always seen because people sometimes can’t see beyond disabilities.”
“Seeing beyond disabilities” is something Cassie and Chris encourage in themselves, and challenge others to do, as well. When it comes to their kids, they speak to their children’s potential, never to the stereotypes that could limit them.
After joining his family in January 2016 (with his adoption finalizing in court in November), Armando has a place to call home, and his parents say he’s thriving. A “typical teen,” his mom says merrily, he practices selective hearing now and then, especially if he’s lounging in the sun. But he also enjoys his special spot on the couch after school, and can’t wait to come home to get comfy.
A high school senior this year, Armando has an Individual Education Plan, and is attending a Life Skills class that’s focused on communication. At school, he uses an Augmentative and Alternate Communication device to help express himself. Together, with his family, they’re finding out what he loves, and with music topping the list, he attends band class at school, a thrilled listener and observer.
Armando goes to sleep in a bedroom that’s his and that’s been decorated for him so he knows it. “It’s yours forever,” his parents assure him. “You’re not going to have to move again.” He a “peaceful, gentle soul” who loves his family, say Cassie and Chris. “We just love him so much; we’re so delighted that he’s our son, and that we get to be his parents.”
Kaleb, “their renegade,” his parents call him affectionately, adds his firecracker energy to the mix, and to the dynamic with his brother. Though working on attachment with the brothers isn’t always easy, Cassie and Chris anticipated that, and they’re making progress. Both parents make sure their boys get individual time and support, remembering to tell each one how valued they are.
“Whatever comes our way”
Cassie and Chris live by the motto, “Whatever comes our way, we’ll get through it,” but they don’t pretend life’s always easy. They know their two kids at home won’t be able to look out for their own needs as grown adults. “That’s an extra commitment as parents, and it can be hard ... but there’s so much blessing in being able parent a child whose needs look different,” say Cassie and Chris.
When they adopted Armando last year, they were asked often if they were sure, considering how significant Armando’s needs were. Over time, Chris and Cassie note, many others have approached them with a sense of pity, or as though their lives are limited because of their children’s disabilities.
Gently challenging assumptions, they ask others to rethink their approaches: “Hard doesn’t always mean ‘bad,’” Cassie explains. “Having to do these extra things as a parent, things that look different, can be beautiful in that you’re able to do something for your kids, and serve them.” She concedes that difficult days happen, but they happen alongside support services, respite, and a family’s love.
“It’s hard when you have to go to the hospital, when your kids have seizures, when they get stared at or people don’t treat them nicely,” they say. “But we have a really good life. A really happy life.”
Their boys love their home, and they enjoy coming back to it after traveling as a family. Accessible hiking trails and equipment bring them to waterfalls and national forests, while laughter and memories knit them together.
“I hope people think about our kids the next time they think about quality of life,” Chris and Cassie say. “That when people think about our children with disabilities, they see our life as colorful and full of possibilities, and know our life is good. We love our kids. They bring us way more than we could ever give.”
Contact WACAP (wacap@ wacap.org) to learn more about adoption from US Kids or to find out how you can join WACAP in our work, for children.
Written by Melissa Harrel.