Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Torah Connection - Bo

Once again, I am over a week behind....

Parshat Bo describes the climax of the plagues on Egypt, culminating in the first Passover, and concluding with the laws for the practice of Passover for all generations:

I note the following passage:

43 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. 44 But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. 45 No bound or hired (gentile) laborer shall eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. 47 The whole community of Israel shall offer it. 48 If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.
A circumcised slave is considered part of the community of Israel, while a free gentile cannot be.  In order to become part of the community, a gentile must take a stand on his very flesh to be recognized. Once he does so, however, the same duties and privileges will apply to him.  Note that slavery in this context is NOT the same kind of slavery that the Hebrews experienced in Egypt.  As is discussed later in Exodus, a person who buys a slave is strictly bound by rules about how to take care of him/her, and in the year of the Jubilee (every 50 years) all slaves are released.  We see here, that even as the Hebrews are liberated from slavery, they are reminded about the intrinsic humanity of slaves -- a slave who is taken in and circumcised is part of the community, subject to the same laws and welcome to participate in the rituals.

I wanna go to Holland!

Many in the Down syndrome community have come across Emily Kingsley's "Welcome to Holland":

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."
"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.
Well, the funny thing is, if you read enough stories about Holland.... it sounds pretty cool! 

And you know what, I've been to Italy.... several times already!  And it's gorgeous -- I absolutely love it! But I know the canals of Venice, the slopes of the alps, the beaches of Sicily, the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, and the best place for pizza in Palermo. But, but, why can't I visit Holland, too?

Now, some things about Holland would be familiar.  Canals, for example. Similar, but different. And there will be coffee shops and ice cream, though it wouldn't be the same as that gelato on the square in Firenze.  But there are no tulips or traditional windmills in Italy.  No Delft Blue China craftsmen.  Can the Rembrandts and Van Goghs compare to Michelangelo?  Do they have to?  Both are beautiful.

What is it like to go to Holland when that was what you intended to do?  When there is nothing to mourn in the first place?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Torah Connection - Va-era

I have been procrastinating on blogging last week's reading.  It is so overdone.   Everybody knows the Plagues.  I'll be brief, and just give my favorite d'rash (interpretation) on it.

People always ask, why would G*d punish Pharaoh for not letting the Israelites leave Egypt, when He was the one who hardened Pharaoh's heart in the first place?

Good question.  Now go back and read the text.  It is not until the fifth plague that G*d stiffened Pharaoh's heart.  The first four times, Raamses did it himself.  The lesson:  If you are repeatedly cruel and heartless, you eventually lose the ability to fully repent.  Pharaoh did have free will, at first.  He gave it up.

Use it, or lose it.

What is a baby?

Why are so many children waiting year after year in foster care, orphanages and institutions around the world?  Why, when so many childless couples wait year after year, too, spending tens of thousands of dollars on infertility treatments, surrogacy arrangements, and infant adoptions?

Of course, the answer is that parents want, first of all, a child who is like them, and of them.  Genetically related.  THEIR KID.   If not, let it be an infant, so the experience will at least approximate a biological child arriving.  THEIR EXPERIENCE. All about THEM.

What about the kid?  Does a child come into the world for the benefit of the parents, or are the parents there for the benefit of the child?  A secular worldview tries to collapse these perspectives onto each other:  Having the child is the parents' choice, but having made the choice, the parents have the responsibility to provide the child's needs to maturity.  This worldview allows for great license for amateur eugenics, as parents select bio-parents from sperm-banks or surrogacy registries, or selectively abort fetuses of the wrong gender, or with inconvenient abnormalities.  How does one "flip the switch" from thinking of the child as a product to be procured to specifications, to accepting the child for who he/she is, with all the vicissitudes of a normal childhood and adolescence?

A religious worldview can sometimes bypass this, by recognizing all children as "gifts" from G*d.  We do not pick and choose our gifts.  We do not return a gift that has been specially ordered and personalized for us.  We do not discard gifts that have been given to us by those whom we love and esteem.  If such a gift is bestowed upon us and requires care and nurturing, we will do all in our power to prove ourselves worthy of it.

In the second blessing after the Shema, we read,
And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates - so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the L-rd swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.
I love that the inheritance is passed from our fathers to our children.  We have the responsibility to maintain for our children that which we might be tempted to dispose of ourselves.  This is echoed in Khalil Gibran's famous poem:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
What, then, of all those waiting children?  The older children, the sibling groups, the children with physical and developmental disabilities, with delays, with chronic medical conditions?  Whose gifts are they?

I am currently watching two adoption stories unfold, featuring older children with Down syndrome and severe institutionalized effects.  Both families are large families which have adopted before.  Both families see these children, long rejected by conventional adopters, as precious gifts every bit as uniquely bestowed upon them as the children they have conceived and birthed themselves.

Here are the Mussers, who have just completed their first trip to adopt 15-year-old Tommy, who is scheduled to come home in April/May.  They have nine biological children, ranging in age from 2 to 18.  Their youngest was born with Down syndrome.  Just over a year ago they rescued their daughter Katie from the Pleven orphanage.  At almost 10 years old, she weighed barely 10 lbs.  The story of her recovery and blossoming in the past year is nothing short of miraculous.

Here are the Salems, who are presently in the final stages of bringing home 14-year-old Hasya and 9-year-old Kael, both of whom have Down syndrome.  Like Katie and Tommy, these children have suffered horribly, not because of their disabilities per se, but because of how their disabilities are seen by a society that views children as valuable only if they meet its specifications.  Both are tiny for their ages, and severely delayed.  Hasya, like Katie before her, has not been permitted to grow beyond the size of a young infant.  She is currently struggling to gain nutrition without succumbing to refeeding syndrome.  Kael, who was in a different institution, is doing much better, though he is still only the size of an average 3-year-old.

These and other families are taking on the children whom they recognize as "the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself", who welcome the children to come through them though they are not of them.

What is a baby?  A baby is a human being coming to the world, and meeting his/her family for the first time.  In reading various people's adoption stories, I am repeatedly struck by the idea that a child coming into a family - at whatever age - is in many ways like a newborn.  They may or may not be walking, talking, or toileting yet, but emotionally they are at square one.  Many families report very good results by "regressing" their new child, so that s/he can cover the lost emotional ground.  Katie, a year later, is in many ways comparable to a one-year-old.  In some ways she is way ahead of a one-year-old!  She has grown to the size of a 3 or 4-year-old, she is learning to toilet herself, and so on.

Russia is not likely to approve any new adoptions at this point, although it is hoped that the proposed amendment to make an exception for special needs will be passed speedily.  However, many older children are waiting in Ukraine, Bulgaria, China, and many other countries, in conditions just as deplorable as Pleven. U.S. foster care provides for over 100,000 children each year, most of whom have no disability except their age, in conditions which are incomparably better.  These children go to school, receive full medical care, and enjoy a semblance of family life.  Yet emotionally, they need parents who will baby them, make up the lost time, and allow them to reach their true potential.

Why, then, do they wait?  These gifts, these babies frozen in time?  A newborn baby is no less a bundle of needs than a child scarred by loss and neglect.

One of the prayers of Yom Kippur calls upon us to see ourselves as raw material in G*d's hands, to be fashioned into a work of art through the process of repentance and good deeds.  Khalil Gibran once again echoes Jewish liturgy when he writes:
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Monday, January 14, 2013

I can't say it better myself

This is truly awe-inspiring, and Julia does a great job of photo-journalism here.  I have nothing to add.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

One Year

It seems that Russia has decided to honor the bilateral agreement reached last year, and delay putting the ban on adoption by Americans until January 2014.

This is great news!  There are nearly 50 American families who have already completed all the legal steps of their Russian adoptions -- their children have been assigned to them legally by Russian courts -- who have been holding their breaths for the last 2 weeks for fear that they would not be permitted to bring their children home.  They will now be able to do so.  There are hundreds of other families at various stages in the process, who will also (hopefully) be able to complete their adoptions.

This is also a window of opportunity for the rest of us.  One year.  One year in which to complete a home-study, submit a dossier, and make 3 trips to Russia to bring home a child before the gates shut.  Yes, there are many needy orphans elsewhere in the world, including here in U.S. foster care.  A year later they will be.... a year older.  A year later, Russian orphans will no longer be eligible for adoption by Americans.  Americans have consistently adopted more Russian children than any other country.  Being wealthier on average means that we can better afford the costs of adoption than most Europeans.  We have extensive medical and educational facilities for addressing the special needs of most adoptees. 

Let us take action in 2013 -- reach out to our communities, and support families who are willing to take this leap -- maybe even take this leap ourselves!  Let's see how many Russian orphans can be rescued this year.

And who knows, the law might just be amended or abolished in the meantime.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Awesome progress!

Not mine, sorry.

Look at this little boy, who spent the first 6 years of his life in a crib because of severely clubbed feet.  Less than a year later, after progressive casting, surgery, and a LOT of therapy, he is WALKING!!!!

I was thinking recently, after reading all the responses to the Russian adoption ban, about domestic adoption from foster care.  After all, American children who age out of foster care have greatly elevated levels of homelessness, suicide, drug use, crime etc.  Looking at the special needs children, however, it is clear that there is a world of difference between the way they are treated here compared to many other places.  Here they receive medical care, therapy, and special education.  So many "medically fragile" children are fed with a g-tube, and are growing well in spite of their severe needs.  In other countries children in this condition would be in a "laying down room", fed with a propped bottle, which would not only leave them severely malnourished, but at risk for aspirating the liquid, resulting in infections and possible choking.

I do wonder, though:  What is the prognosis for "medically fragile" children in American foster care? What happens to them when they age out of the system? What is their life expectancy, compared with a medically fragile child who is adopted?  I have been looking for info on this, and could not find any.

Torah Connection - Shemot

Today we begin the reading of the book of Exodus.  The family of Jacob has transformed into the people of Israel. The Pharaoh who lavished honor and wealth upon Joseph and his kinsfolk has died, and in his place rose a Pharaoh who sought to gather honor and wealth for himself upon the backs of Hebrew (and other) slaves.  A familiar story, repeated throughout history.  Jews are always welcomed at first, as they are at the forefront of technological and social innovation.  As their power and stature in society grows, however, anti-Semitism rises as well, driven by fear and envy.  Eventually they are oppressed, massacred, and/or driven out.

I came late to synagogue today, however, and I missed most of this story.  I also missed the part about Moses growing up in Pharaoh's palace, running away, and being called by G*d to go back to Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Israelites.

Instead, I came right at the end.  After refusing Moses' plea, Pharaoh instead ramps up the oppression.  The people complain to Moses, who turns in prayer to G*d:

"O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?  Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people."

 How this resonates for us today!  We despair at the recent ban on adoption of Russian orphans by Americans, not understanding why G*d would allow young children to be used as political pawns in this fashion. We are frustrated that we feel called to adopt or otherwise help orphans, yet these efforts are rebuffed.

And G*d answers:

 "You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land."

 What does that mean as far as Russia goes?  We do not know.  It may be that this roadblock will increase adoptions from other areas.  It may motivate new reforms within Russia.  It may simply raise awareness about adoption, so that more children, both domestically and internationally, find loving homes.   We, like Moses, must not shy away from doing the right thing just because it is hard, or because there are obstacles.  The struggle is as much a part of the story as the ultimate redemption.

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