Across Southern California, foster parents take in children from foster care to give them a loving, safe and comfortable home. Some of those children become part of their family forever. San Diego parent and retired Behavioral Technician, Stephanie White, knows that story all too well. She was able to foster and adopt seven sons with special needs with the right support system. In her own words, she shares her journey to becoming a foster parent, facing heartbreak, building her family––and ultimately discovering herself.
“I started just fostering children with special needs after I turned 30, because I didn’t have kids or a family yet and didn’t know if or when I would ever adopt. I fostered one little boy, Sean, for almost two years before he was reunited with his birth family. I grew to love this little boy. Then one day he was gone. It was devastating to let him go but I knew that his family loved him and it was meant to be. That was without a doubt the hardest thing I had ever done in my entire life. From then on, I knew I wanted to adopt. I still knew there was a small chance my kids would go back to their birth families, but I kept fostering until they were mine.
“After my first fostering experience, I fostered seven more boys with special needs and ended up adopting all seven. My first son, Kelly who has Autism, was 16 years old, deaf and had lived in 16 previous foster homes. I drove an hour to meet him at the New Mexico School for Deaf and Blind in Santa Fe, and that same day, I decided to take him. He never have the ability to communicate with any of the previous foster families, but with me we were both fluent in sign language and could communicate clearly.
“After that, my second son Christopher, who has Autism, moved in. Non-verbal at first, he just needed a family who understood him and was patient with him. Overtime, he opened up. When my third son Jessie, who has Fragile X Syndrome (the leading genetic cause of developmental and intellectual disability), came home, Jessie and Christopher clicked instantly and formed an immediate bond. Jessie, who couldn’t read or write became incredibly verbal, talkative, full of laughter and a jokester around Christopher. Soon after, my 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th sons joined the family: Ruben, and birth brothers Manuel, Fernando and Arturo. Ruben has Down Syndrome and autistic-like tendencies and he’s minimally verbal but has always been quick to make people smile and laugh. In fact, last fall he was elected homecoming prince and part of his cheerleading squad at his high school.
Manuel, the youngest of the three brothers, has moderate intellectual disabilities, speech impairment and ERB’s Palsy, which limits the range and motion of his right arm, but he’s never let that stand in his way. Knowing his limitations as a child, he still used to climb the monkey bars and would use his left arm to knock his right arm up to grab the bars. His two older brothers, Fernando and Arturo, also have intellectual disabilities and speech impairment.
“The key to making it all work, honestly, was living in the right community, having the right support system, friend network, flexible job, reliable after school care, and neighborhood assistance everywhere we lived. After adopting our first 3 boys, my partner and I at the time moved from New Mexico to California because California Regional Center offered better Medicaid support for families fostering kids with special needs. Having a partner, it was easier to manage a household and I was excited to share motherhood. We would take family trips together, share the clean-up routine and tag-team taking care of the boys.
When we broke up, I went from a two-parent household to a single parent household just like that. The transition was stressful, but I knew I had to find a way to make it work. I made friends with a woman named Adrianna down the street who did respite care and she became like an additional mom to our family. Her help also allowed me to go back to work full-time with the San Diego Unified School District. The job was flexible and allowed me to take doctor appointments before and after work and give me summers off to spend time with them and avoid day care costs. I was also very structured and organized at home.
“I’ll never forget my fondest memory as a single parent. In 2005, I took 6 of my sons on a cruise with R Family Vacations by myself to show them a piece of the world and that there’s more to life than our backyard. To manage not losing them in the airport or on the ship, I regularly had them line up behind me and quack to each other so I could keep count. That’s where I met Rich Valenza and he introduced me to his additional network through Raise A Child. Since then, our family has traveled with R Family Vacations and met other amazing foster and adoptive LGBT families which has opened my eyes to parenting activities, tips and resources I never had before.
“One piece of advice I would give to other parents, even with less experience than I have, is to consider fostering and adopting children from foster care with special needs. People usually tell me, ‘Oh that’s great you take in all these young kids with special needs, I could never do that.’ But I just say: ‘Yes, you can. Only 5% of the focus is on handling their disability. The other 95% of their needs is just giving love, support and recognition.’ I think every foster parent can do that.”