For Jason and Hollie Costa, falling in love with feisty 5-year-old Daeonna Smith was the easy part. Deciding whether to parent a child with special needs, however, tested their resolve.
The Columbia couple didn't know anything about spina bifida, the spinal condition that Daeonna was born with that left her with no feeling below the waist. They wanted badly to become foster parents and eventually adopt, but they worried: Could they meet her needs? Could they handle the inevitable stress of her condition?
The Costas found answers at Kennedy Krieger Institute's Therapeutic Foster Care Program, which trains parents to foster or adopt children like Daeonna with the support of a team of medical specialists, social workers and parents like them. Since 1986, the program has matched parents with children with severe medical conditions, emotional and behavioral difficulties, and developmental disabilities. It's one of seven foster programs statewide that serve kids with such complicated medical problems they are deemed "medically fragile," according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
Children are referred to Kennedy Krieger's program by the state and often the city's social services department — some 70 percent of children placed in the program come from Baltimore. Their needs are complex. Some have been abandoned by birth parents, many have multiple health problems and nearly all have experienced some kind of trauma.
For foster families, the challenges are great — so much so, that these days the program has a critical need for would-be parents. Once they apply, parents attend a three-day introductory training program. When demand is high, Kennedy Krieger typically offers four sessions a year with upward of 30 people per class. But since last July, the program has trained just nine families.
The dismal economy may be in part to blame for the lack of interested parents, said Stephanie King, a social worker and manager of Kennedy Krieger's program. While the program gives parents a tax-free stipend plus room and board payments to cover a child's expenses, it won't place children with people struggling with the basics or who are in debt, she said.
"On top of the typical issues in foster care, these kids have special problems," she said "There are lots of medical appointments, lots of therapy, lots of special understanding. And that requires training that is very different from what you might do with a typically-developing child."
But with help, parents gain confidence and skills to be great caregivers, said King. In fact, many families find fostering a child with special needs such a joy that they become repeat foster parents.
"We've had people come to us and say, 'Oh my God, I don't think I can do that,' and not only are they successfully doing it, they go along to train other parents to do it," said King. "I have families who have done this for 20 years."
Interested parents go through a lengthy assessment process, including an initial three-day training session and four to six home visits. Once approved, parents attend 24 hours of additional training each year. Sessions focus on how to build a rapport with a child's teacher, coping with grief, loss and illness — and, for the stressed-out parent, an entire session on how to breathe. Parents are matched at the end of the program with a child based on a family's strengths and a child's need.
Once a child is placed, families meet routinely with a child's doctors at Kennedy Krieger clinics and twice a month with a social worker. A 24-hour support line is available for emergencies. And when parents need a break, they can have their child stay with another foster family for a few days.
When the Costas started the process last year, the details were overwhelming. They learned Daeonna had been in foster care since she was less than a year old, and the Costas would be her third family. Daeonna used a special stroller to get around but she couldn't maneuver it on her own. The Costas would need to take her to physical, speech and occupational therapy and to Kennedy Krieger's spina bifida clinic regularly. At home, they would need to do daily stretching exercises and to strengthen Daeonna's leg muscles. And they would have to learn how to change her urinary catheter several times a day, teach her to dress herself, to use a wheelchair and, one day, leg braces.
The couple also had another child, Benjamin, 8, whom they adopted from Ukraine years ago. And then there was the matter of Hollie Costa's own condition — multiple sclerosis. While not debilitating, the condition causes occasional episodes of extreme fatigue.
"Choosing a child that had disabilities worried me because at some point, there is [the] real possibility of me having to take care of not just a child, but my wife," said Jason Costa.
But Daeonna, whom everyone calls Di Di, charmed him upon their first meeting at an Italian restaurant. Wide-eyed and grinning, Di Di climbed into his lap, promptly asked him his name and complimented him on his pink tie. While Hollie and Di Di's social worker discussed specifics, Jason Costa spent the afternoon coloring and laughing with his soon-to-be daughter.
"Here was this energetic little girl, with smiles all over the place," he said. "I couldn't help but enjoy her and be engaged. She's just such a beautiful little girl."
Since moving in with the Costas last summer, Di Di learned to master her new wheelchair, and on a recent morning climbed into it on her own and spun around to the applause of her mother and guests. The chair is fun, she said, but she's eager to get "leg bracelets."
For now, when Di Di is not in her chair, she gets around by creeping on the floor using her arms to propel herself forward, something Hollie Costa hopes she will grow out of.
"I'm a little hard on her, I'll admit it," she said. "I want to teach her to be independent. I want her to know she can grow up, go to college, get married, have a life, and there's nothing stopping her."