This is the second in a series of assignments that I had for the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. This was a very meaningful project for me, as I too was adopted, but I had found a forever family when I was only months old. Many of the children I documented in this series were not so fortunate, spending years in a system that passed them from one home to another until DTFA stepped in and helped them find a stable home life and loving forever family.
“At our last track meet, CJ ran the mile. And even though he was at least a lap behind the other racers, everyone in the stands and on the team was cheering for him. ‘Go CJ!’” CJ’s mom, Dee Marks, continues with joy in her voice. “That’s exactly what life is supposed to be about: cheering for the people who are trying their hardest.”
Dee and CJ’s story didn’t start on such a high note. Diagnosed with autism, CJ came to Dee after six years in foster care with some serious behavior and communication issues. He was nine and could speak only a few words. Despite this, Dee and CJ formed a bond right away. “I decided I just wasn’t going to give up on him.” She didn’t.
Now age 13, CJ not only talks, but reads at a fifth grade level. He runs track, goes to school in a mainstream classroom, plays percussion in the band and reads aloud to his mom and sister. The teachers and caregivers who knew him a few years ago can’t believe it’s the same child.
“I have great expectations of him,” Dee says. “He’s surpassed my expectations on every level. He wants to drive someday. It may not be when he’s 16, but I believe he will reach that goal and I’m here to support him.”
“He’s who I needed and I’m who he needed.” – Dee Marks
Dee Marks was no stranger to adoption when she began the search for a daughter to adopt. Having already adopted her daughter, Marrena, Dee hoped to find another to add to their family. She began the search for a teenager, and was open to one with special needs. When a recruiter told her about a little boy that was considered “unadoptable,” Dee asked to hear more about him. “I still vividly remember that phone call. I listened to the recruiter but then mentioned that I was really looking for a girl with a cognitive disability, and wasn’t trained on how to raise a boy with autism,” Dee told Reader’s Digest. She adds, “I hated the word “unadoptable,” and told her to tell me more about this little boy. She told me that he was eight years old and had red hair. That’s what got me. I love red hair.” The little boy with red hair was considered to be difficult to find a home for due to his frequent and lengthy tantrums, and several other undesirable behaviors for a child his age. Dee explains, ” He had severe behaviors like throwing tantrums for long periods of time, throwing up to escape doing any schoolwork, screaming, and running away. He had not been taught how to play with toys, color, feed himself appropriately, or use the restroom—and he was eight years old.”
CJ had been in foster care for six years prior to meeting Dee, a period of life that had clearly been traumatic for the young boy. Dee explains, “Due to his inability to communicate when he moved in with me, I don’t have a verbal account of how horrible the experience was for him, but there were many indicators that foster care was so heartbreaking for my son.” She continues, “It was apparent within days that he had endured severe abuse. If anyone raised their voices or moved into his personal space unexpectedly, he would cover his head and move to the floor. As his new mom, it was so hard to witness.”
Over time, Dee’s hard work to communicate safety and trust to CJ began to succeed. She says, “It took time, but eventually CJ began to trust my daughter and me, and that we wouldn’t hurt him, no matter how severe his behaviors were. The first time he chose on his own to come sit with me on the couch, putting his legs right next to mine, was when I knew our bond was becoming stronger than his memories.”
CJ’s vast improvement since his adoption into Dee’s family is a testament to the great effort she put into providing him with stability. When he arrived in Dee’s home, CJ required around-the-clock care to ensure he was making progress with his development goals and safe, so Dee hired in-home support that was qualified to work with CJ and help him meet the goals set by his behavioral team. Dee believes the progress he has made can be attributed to two things. She explains, “First, the stability in my home was something that he had never experienced before. He began to see and understand that he was loved and, in spite of his behaviors, I wasn’t going to send him away. Second, during this same time period, we were able to help CJ understand visual icons for his wants and needs, which gave him the ability to communicate with us.”
Today, the red-haired little boy that would tantrum for hours is only a memory to Dee—and the pride she has for her son and the gains he’s made is apparent. She says of CJ today, “He’s 14 years old, talks all of the time, and attends classes with his typical peers at his middle school for 90 percent of the day. During the other 10 percent, CJ works with an intervention specialist on specific goals to help him advance his level of learning, like reading skills and math computation. He also plays percussion in the school band, performs in the annual school musical, runs on the track team, and is also a member of the cross-country team.”
Though the difference in her son since their first meeting is striking, she doesn’t want to mislead others to believe it’s been easy. Dee says, “I won’t lie and say that it’s easy. It isn’t. It takes dedication and a resolve to love, in spite of how hard it can be. You can’t fix a disability. Adopting a child who has special needs won’t “fix” them, but adoption gives them an opportunity to grow to their fullest potential.” She continues,” Being able to watch your child surpass the expectations of doctors, educators, and friends and family, all because you loved them and nourished their abilities, is an indescribable feeling.”
The hopes she holds for her son’s future are bright, and no longer unreachable. Dee says, “My hope is for CJ to be happy and to always feel loved. He’s had enough heartbreak in his young life. It’s time for him now to enjoy all that life has to offer.” She adds, ” One day, He will finish school and hold a job, live on his own with support, and be surrounded by family and friends. This isn’t a dream anymore, it’s a reality—because he’s got a family that stands beside him.”
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