By Riley Manning
Anyone who has gone through the adoption process will tell you, when they saw their child, “they just knew” he or she was the one.
Scott and Amanda Burden are a Tupelo couple who made the rare decision to adopt their daughter, McKenna, when she was 13 years old.
“When we started thinking about adoptions, we both felt, in our hearts, that we wanted to give an older child a chance,” Amanda said. “We originally were shooting for between the ages of 9 and 12.”
Scott first spotted McKenna in 2011, when she was featured as a “Wednesday’s Child,” a televised promotional effort by adoptuskids.com, a nation-wide database of children in the state foster care system.
“I knew instantly something was special about her,” Scott said. “The more we learned, things just kept lining up. She was from Washington state, where I’m from. She was born the same month Amanda and I got married. Now she’s like sunshine when she walks into places.”
For children in foster care, the odds of finding a family diminish drastically with each passing year. Though the demand for infants is high, by age two, children in foster care are no longer considered infants. At age five, unadopted children are automatically classified as having special needs, due to developmental damage and delay accrued from living in the foster care system. By age 12, children have less than a 10 percent chance of being adopted.
“When we found her, McKenna had been in 19 different foster homes over the course of the previous seven years,” Scott said. “Living so long in the system, she came with history, with baggage.”
Because early years are so important to a child’s cognitive development, Amanda said foster children suffer from a lack of stability and structure. As they grow, kids develop tendencies they need to get by inside the system, tendencies that may make them seem rough around the edges to potential adoptive parents. Sometimes, these behaviors stem from neglect or even abuse.
“In foster care,” Amanda said. “Kids have never known unconditional love. Their life has conditions all over it. If they mess up or don’t act a certain way, they get sent somewhere else. The longer they live in that kind of environment, the bigger effect it has on them.”
The Burdens said when McKenna came home, she exhibited post traumatic stress disorder and defiance disorder. Amanda said state adoptive services had acknowledged McKenna’s conditions, but only vaguely.
“We made a real effort to keep a level ‘emotional thermostat,’” Scott said. “In so many ways, they give what they get, so the calmer and more even-tempered we were, the more she was, and pretty soon she settled right in.”
No blank slates
The term “non-infant adoption” may bring to mind teenagers like McKenna, but even by age two, kids are commonly passed up in favor of newborns.
Tupelo resident Taneill Barbour adopted her son Isaiah when he was two years old. Barbour was working as a speech therapist with children ages 0 to 3 in Jackson when the woman caring for Isaiah asked if she would adopt him.
“She had a lot on her plate and felt like she couldn’t give Isaiah the attention he needed. When I met him he wasn’t talking much at all, and hadn’t been out of his crib much,” Barbour said. “I initially said, ‘OK, you’re stressed out, I’ll take him for the weekend and we can talk after that.’ But instead of feeling like work or babysitting, he fell right in with me. I fell in love.”
By October 2010, Isaiah was officially a Barbour. But like many non-infant adoptions, his vocabulary and speech skills were behind, and he was hungry for attention.
“He would run up to anyone and hug them. I knew he loved me, but we had to build that bond, that attachment as mother and child,” she said. “One time I held a bag out for him to put his cup into and I told him, ‘Put the cup in the bag,’ and he looked at me like, ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ I tried motioning, but he got so upset he started crying. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, he just couldn’t understand. But by working with him, just taking that time and giving him that attention, he learned 10 words the first weekend.”
Over the next six months, Isaiah’s language skill advanced two years ahead. Heading into kindergarten this year, at age five, he tested at almost a third grade reading level. Barbour said he is now talkative and personable, and has yet to meet a stranger.
“People tend to think they are getting a blank slate when they adopt an infant, but not even that is a sure bet. There are tons of problems that might not reveal themselves until the child is older,” she said. “Personally, I liked having an older child who was already sleeping through the night, and who I could communicate with. It’s true some foster kids may have issues from abuse or neglect, but you can make a huge difference for them. For him to kind of fall in my lap the way he did was such a blessing.”