Our Awesomely Unique Family: Another Look at "Special Needs" Adoption



Our Awesomely Unique Family

Another look at “special needs” adoption by Bob Mardock

Awesomely Unique is a much more interesting description of our family than the oft misunderstood and sometimes scary Special Needs moniker that some of our kids came with when they were adopted into the Mardock tribe.

My wife Carol and I have a large family, 11 children in all. Number four of our five biological babies died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when she was 4 months old. With four remaining bio kids in our parentage we adopted our first of what would end up being 6 adoptions. A lot of people admire us, a lot think we’re nuts. Ten kids? But, we like who we are. We’re an Awesomely Unique family. Most couples would certainly have stopped at four healthy children, but we had a dream of changing the lives of other kids. Even before we married, Carol and I decided that foster care and adoption would be part of our lives, but, adopting a “special needs” child was not high on our bucket list. That would change with time and circumstance.

With eyes wide open we adopted our first, Marcie, from Korea. We prepared ourselves and our kids and excitedly waited. The arrival date was still months away when we received an urgent call explaining that our daughter-to-be was having life-threatening problems with what we were told was failure-to-thrive, a catch-all of sorts that meant something was causing her to “shut down.” If left unchecked, her intellectual, social, or emotional development could be impeded, or even worse. Korean authorities were cutting all red tape and our daughter would be joining us in a few short days. We expected to meet an emaciated little girl on that magical “gotcha day,” but to our surprise she appeared physically all together. What we discovered, though, was that Marcie, while appearing to be healthy, had a very reluctant personality. OK, let’s just say it like it was -- the lights were on but no one was home. It took about two years before we saw that she would become the healthy child that we believed she could be. We were told that she needed consistent and regular physical contact, so Marcie became the little princess that had the entire family’s attention. Today Marcie is a beautiful young woman, and a loyal conscientious employee with an outstanding work ethic in the retail industry.

Next came Angela adopted from Romania. Despite the stories of children from Romania with special needs, Angela was not one. She came to us the picture of health. Well, she later complained about a tooth that was darker than the rest, but we took care of that. We’ll move on to Nick.

We were introduced to Nick in Russia in one of the state-run children’s homes. One of our staff members had visited his orphanage where she met Nick before we did. She took a photograph for us and insisted that he looked just like me. But, now approaching four years of age, this half-pint was NOT the picture of health. He was pudgy, but not because of good nutrition. Just the opposite. His nutrition was so poor that you could sink your finger into his flesh and make an indentation, like one of those jelly-filled dolls. His baby teeth were rotting and he had a medical and psychological diagnosis so terrible that he would soon be ushered into the home for “irrecoupable” children, a place for children with no hope. In addition to all that, he was ethnically at the bottom of the social pecking order, a non-blue-blooded Russian with Asian ancestry. Carol having come from an extensive background in special education, checked the boy stem to stern, and decided he was Mardock. I trusted her assessment and we made the decision to adopt this unique kid. Nick became an excellent student, a long distance runner, and a soccer player. Today Nick is married and has a son with Nick’s fun-loving personality and, you guessed it, beautiful Asian eyes.

Several years later Hannah and Christina were adopted at the same time from the same orphanage in Vladivostok, Russia. Hannah’s uniqueness was that she was half Korean and half Russian with an unattractive birthmark. In the eyes of her Russian caretakers she was an unwanted child. Had she been full Korean or full Russian she would have been acceptable. Carol met Hannah while touring the orphanage and had an instant connection, partially because we already had a Korean-born daughter, but mainly because Carol could tell there was something uniquely special about this girl. However, when Carol inquired, Hannah was (and I’ll say this politely) likened to toilet paper, a throwaway with little hope in her future. We didn’t see a special need, but she was definitely a girl with a notable disadvantage. In this case, the handicap was in the eye of the beholder. Today Hannah is a leader, a star athlete, musician, and an A/B student.

Christina, on the other hand, was so severely affected by a poorly developed heart (four holes) that there was little hope for her in Russia. Open heart surgery was required. She came to our organization (International Family Services) as a humanitarian case at about the same time as we received a gift of stock from one of our past adoptive dads. The market value of the stock came to approximately $75,000. Loma Linda International Heart Institute in Southern California gave IFS a deal. The cost of the open-heart surgery would be about $180,000, but they would reduce that for this Russian orphan. The gift covered the major portion of the operation. We tried to find an adoptive family for Christina, but the severity of her condition scared people off. Our family nursed her back after the life-giving operation, fell in love with her, and the rest is Mardock history. Today Christina lives a normal healthy life, is an A/B student, enjoys sports, and keeping life orderly and fun.

Our last (we think) awesomely unique child is Dani who came to us when she was 16 years old. A survivor of the US foster system and a disrupted adoption, Dani needed a family who would believe in her. Eleven years later Dani is wonderfully married, teaching at the local community college, working on her master’s degree, and serving as a mentor to teen-age girls at church and young adults at school. She is a much loved daughter and true success story.

That’s the Mardocks’ story-in-a-nut-shell of Awesomely Unique adopted kids. Did I get you to thinking? Could you have a story in you like this?

Adopting a child is a big deal, and considering an Awesomely Unique child is certainly not to be considered lightly. Our family is made of just a few kinds of unique needs. But there are some general categories that might help those considering a special needs adoption for their family. So, let me put on my humanitarian/agency hat and go through this with you.

Minor special needs

There are some children waiting for homes who are young, basically healthy, and developmentally normal, but who have a minor medical or cosmetic problem that will not limit the child or your family. Marcie and Hannah fit somewhere in this category.

Fixable special needs

There are also many children available for adoption who are developmentally normal, and who have a medical or orthopedic problem that is not minor, but is fixable with surgery. Often these are children who will have no serious long-lasting challenges after the initial surgery or procedure. Cleft lip or cleft lip and palate fit into this group. Most of these children will be healthy and normal in every way after their clefts are repaired, though some form of rehabilitation may be required. One of our personal favorite fixable special need is heart problems, like our Christina.

Manageable special needs

We will frequently see a child with an orthopedic or medical special need that is not minor nor fixable, but is easily manageable and which will not significantly affect the child's or your family's quality of life. An example would be a child who is smart and delightful but who is missing a finger, or who has a deformed ear, or who is deaf in one ear, or blind in one eye. Some children have tested positive for Hepatitis B or HIV; others have diabetes or asthma or other manageable conditions. Our son Nick would fit into this category. One of his unique challenges was that he came with partial blindness in one eye.

Older healthy children

Many physically perfectly healthy children are considered special needs simply because they are older (5 years and up). Dani (16 when she came into our family) is a wonderful example of this kind of child.

Sibling Groups

There are also children whose only unique need is that they have a brother(s) or sister(s). Yes, sibling groups are often considered special needs.

More significant special needs.  

Of course we all know that there are also children who have more profound medical needs or who have developmental delays. There are very special families who chose to adopt one or more of these very special children and find great blessing and reward. 

Hidden special needs

The reality is that occasionally a child is adopted who appears physically or developmentally normal, perhaps even to orphanage caretakers, but who may have emotional and behavioral needs apparent only after arrival. All adoptive parents must be ready and committed to the possibility that their “healthy” child might come with some form of unique need. (Keep in mind this can be true of biological children as well.) This is one reason for the extensive training that expecting parents are required (or should be required) to finalize before they move forward in the completion of any adoption.

A Trend in Awesomely Unique Adoptions

Interestingly, more and more families are building their own unique families making children of all kinds, with unique stories, their own. Special needs seems to be becoming less threatening as families realize that there might be that unique child without hope that they can love as their own.

Recently I was talking with an adoption official from another country that allows their special needs children to be adopted by Americans. I was asked straight out, “Why do Americans adopt our special needs children?” My simple answer was that there is a growing culture in the US where special needs adoption is becoming less threatening and more acceptable. In the US, we see children day in and day out with some kind of unique need who have left their “special need” behind and are celebrating their uniqueness.

Today greater numbers of families are considering the Awesomely Unique. The Mardock family is just one of thousands whose families have been forever blessed by being open to a unique child. Special needs adoption is not for every family, but it might be just right for yours. Maybe you’ll have the opportunity some day of telling your own Uniquely Awesome family story.

About the Author

Bob Mardock is the President of International Family Services ifservices.org. Bob and wife Carol (IFS Executive Director) are the founders of IFS, a Hague Accredited international and domestic adoption agency with headquarters in Houston (Friendswood) Texas and with affiliated agencies scatter around the US. IFS has helped find homes for over 4000 children, an estimated two-thirds of whom would fit one of the “special needs” categories listed in this article. The Mardocks are the proud parents of 10 children, ages 38 to 13, and are grand parents to 13, two of whom are adopted.


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