Making a Difference in Children’s Lives
Eye on LSSI, Summer 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)
Michelle Hutchison of Vienna hadn’t planned on becoming a foster parent.
But after she accompanied a friend to a seminar on foster care for special needs children, she went home to her husband Greg and said, “This is what we are going to do.” He agreed enthusiastically.
Dealing with special needs kids was familiar ground for Michelle and her husband, whose three biological children have special needs. One has an amputated leg, another was diagnosed with autism at the age of 18 months and with deafness at the age of 3 years, and a third was born prematurely.
After the couple went through about 90 hours of “fairly intense” training, they were ready for a child to be placed with them.
“We went into foster care [with the intention of fostering] a girl. We’re on our sixth boy,” Michelle says with a laugh.
The family’s first placement was a 12-year-old boy, who “had whole new world of experiences to weave through.”
Michelle noticed that he seemed confused during the first meal the family had together. It was a simple meal, just hamburgers from the grill. But he had never been in a family that sat down to eat together. And then, during the Fourth of July celebration, he didn’t seem to be enjoying it. “Finally, he asked when we were going to get the beer out and start the party,” Michelle says. She told him, “No party; we’re just going to bed.”
Fostering a Special Child Leads to Adoption
After that child was placed in a permanent home, the next child Michelle fostered turned out to be very special. “We went to meet him, walked in the door, and [I knew] he was my kid,” Michelle remembers.
The foster care agency the Hutchisons were working with at the time said that the four-year-old wasn’t expected to live long. “They said he didn’t talk and would never walk,” Michelle says.
Under the agency’s protocol, she was required to meet with the child four times and have him or her overnight once before placement would occur. After she met Victor for the first time, Michelle says when the other family that was currently looking after him left with him, they “took my child” home.
Not surprisingly, Victor went to live with the Hutchisons, who adopted him after two and a half years.
“We wanted to help him spend the time he had left the best way we could,” Michelle says, adding that the family spoiled him extremely well.
And surrounded by love, Victor survived. Now, at 10 years old, he is learning to walk and “talks very well.”
“He’s just a delightful child,” Michelle says. “He has been just a joy for us.”
“Victor’s personality is such,” she adds, “that nobody who meets him doesn’t love him. And he has such empathy for anyone who is hurt,” perhaps because of his medical problems. “He has a harem at school — including teachers.”
Nothing Better Than Being a Foster Parent
Adopting Victor hasn’t stopped Michelle from fostering other children. Currently, she’s caring for another boy. She cares for each child for as long as is needed. One boy stayed with her for 11 months before finding a permanent home with an aunt. Another was with the family for 16 months and then went back to live with his mother.
When her husband died in early 2004, Michelle worried that Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), the foster care agency that she was working with, wouldn’t place special needs kids with her because she was now a single parent. But it didn’t matter. LSSI accepts both single and married people as foster parents. “You don’t have to be a two-parent home [to be a foster parent],” she says. “You just have to make sure there are father figures in the children’s lives.”
Michelle receives a lot of support from other parents who have special needs children. “There’s kind of a subculture of parents of special needs kids,” she laughs. She says she can reach out and call someone for answers to problems she is having. “[It’s great] being able to draw on the resources of the other people. In no time, you can have 30 responses to a question or [tips on] how to handle a situation.”
Asked why she fosters special needs children, Michelle says she just “really enjoys the challenge.”
“I don’t know that there is anything else better in life than to be a foster parent,” she says. “There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a kid respond whether medically or emotional[ly].”
Simple Milestones Create “Highs”
Those “highs” are often the result of simple milestones, such as when a child behaves properly while in a store, or the first time the child rolls over at age 7. “If you wait seven years for that to happen, when it does happen, you throw a party,” she says. She adds that she has friends who have kids with some of the same issues, and they share the same feelings.
“It’s just such an incredible high,” Michelle says. “You know you’re making a difference [in a child’s life].”
That “high” doesn’t come without a lot of work. Michelle says her weeks are very full. For example, in one week she might have to take a child to eight or nine therapy sessions, a water therapy session and, of course, go to the doctor’s office. In addition, because a foster child may not have experienced such things as going to the zoo or a movie or a museum, she tries to organize something like that once a week. But fostering is very much a family effort, and the children help each other.
“I am really blessed,” she says. “[My sons] are helpful. They may grumble [when I ask them] to do things, but they want to do it anyway.”
She adds that her teenage sons gave her a T-shirt that says “I don’t suffer insanity, I enjoy it.”
“That pretty much sums up things,” she says.
Patience, a Sense of Humor Are Essential
Michelle says that to be a foster or adoptive parent, a person has to be patient and strong-willed, and have a sense of humor.
“You have to be patient — and not just with the kids,” she says. “You have to be patient with the court system. You want what you see as best for the child, and sometimes the court system doesn’t see it that way.”
A person also has to be pretty strong-willed. “It’s not a job for people who take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says. “Sometimes you have to fight for what’s best for the child — testing, school system, whatever.”
A sense of humor is also important, “especially when you walk into the living room to find a child pouring chocolate syrup over whipped cream that was going to be for dessert in his lap,” Michelle says. “Or when you see a child walking the dog across the living room with dog’s front paws on the floor and the back legs around child’s shoulders.”
“I have had people ask me if [these] are my real children,” Michelle says. “Of course, they are. None of them is made of Play-Doh. Vic is as much my child as the other three. When you adopt a child, make sure it’s your kid and you love him — or her. Love is thicker than blood.”
And as for the future, Michelle is still looking for that girl to foster.
For more information on LSSI’s foster care and adoption programs, e-mail Sophia.Williams@LSSI.org, or www.AdoptionIllinois.org.