A home for every child

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Anne Giaccio was a medical student in her native Ireland when she first learned about sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder that affects predominantly those of African descent. At that time, "there were virtually no blacks in Ireland," said Anne. She remembers thinking, "Why are they teaching us this? I'll never see this condition."

Fast-forward several years. Married to her husband, Greg, and living in Northern Virginia, the couple received a call from Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities' Center for Adoption and Pregnancy Services. After a long wait, there was news about a possible addition to the family: a 3-week-old African-American boy with sickle cell anemia.

Sickle cell symptoms can include fatigue, episodes of severe pain, frequent infections and delayed growth. Average life expectancy is about 45 years.

The couple had just one day to decide if they wanted to take on such potential challenges.

They packed in as much reflection and as many prayers as they could, took a deep breath, and said yes to the baby. Elijah became the family's fourth child and the second adopted through Catholic Charities.

And they can't imagine life without him.

'It's what we do'

Finding parents like Anne and Greg for babies like Elijah is common for the Center for Adoption and Pregnancy Services. The agency, founded in 1947, has a reputation for obtaining homes for locally born children with a range of physical and mental health challenges, including Down syndrome, birth mothers who are HIV positive, physical deformities and a family history of severe mental illness.

Director Kimberly Harrell has been with the center for nine years and said working with these children is inherent to their mission.

"It's who we are, and it's what we do," she said. "There was never a conversation about whether or not we would do this; we just do it. We believe every life is a gift from God."

There are three other domestic adoption agencies in the region. On average, about 29 percent of the children they find homes for are considered harder to place. At the center, it's around 40-50 percent, according to Harrell.

"We have a reputation with hospitals and with birth parents," Harrell said. "Just recently, a birth parent came asking for help with a child who will be born with Down syndrome. And the hospital calls us because they know that we'll take the child and find a home for the child.

"We will find a home for everyone," she said. "Life is precious, no matter the circumstances. We don't ever want a birth mother to think her child is worth less than another."

Harrell said that not all families have the capacity to take on children with difficulties, but those who do are never sorry.

"These children are beautiful creations of God, and having the opportunity to love and raise them is a gift," said Harrell.

Anne and Greg embraced the opportunity twice. The parishioners of St. James Church in Falls Church always had planned to adopt. They married later in life and knew their age would prevent them from having many biological children. So, after Francis Xavier was born, they began working with the center.

During an adoption home study - a process that evaluates, educates and prepares a potential adoptive family - couples are asked what kind of mental or physical challenges they are open to in a child. While not comfortable with all medical and emotional complications, Anne and Greg said they were open to harder-to-adopt children.

Down syndrome children are a sizable part of the difficult-to-adopt population. Stephanie Thompson, co-director of the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network, estimates that about 45 percent of families with Down syndrome children place them with adoptive families.

Due to "the extra costs incurred by the adoptive parent during the lifetime of a child," said Harrell, many adoption agencies "don't want to touch" Down syndrome adoptions. Catholic Charities lowers the fees for the adoption of children with Down syndrome to help families bear the financial burden. "Agencies don't want to get involved because they believe it's harder to find families, and they know they will have to charge a lesser adoption fee, and they don't want to do that."

The Giaccios' first adopted child was 2-year-old Christopher, a Peruvian-American. Christopher, like Elijah, was considered hard to place because he was not an infant and has an open adoption, meaning he has limited visits with his birth mother.

The first week with the toddler was stressful, said Anne. Christopher was chaotic because his early life had been chaotic. Attempting to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings, "he was just all over the place," she said. "Then somewhere along the line, this child was just in - like he'd been here the whole time."

God's helping hand

Now with a family of six, Anne home-schools and passes along the Catholic faith to her diverse and lively brood.

Every so-called hard-to-adopt child has "so much to offer," she said. "There's a place, a home, for everybody."

Her children, now ranging from 16 months to 8 years old, played on the family's backyard tree fort last week, laughing, squabbling and chatting.

Standing atop the wooden platform, Christopher pointed to Elijah, who is doing well, with medical advances offering new hope for those with sickle cell.

"He didn't come out of Mommy's tummy - just like me," said Christopher. Later, with an ear-to-ear smile, he added, "They got me."

Harrell and her colleagues at the center want to help as many children as possible know what it's like to be "got" by families who cherish them.

She knows from experience they are not alone in their efforts.

There's a "miraculous nature of every placement," said Harrell. "It's not a question that God is involved. I never worry if we will find a placement, because I know God is orchestrating this. So it's not a stretch for me to take a child who is harder to place - I know we will always find a family for them."

Find out more

Go to the Center for Adoption and Pregnancy Services website.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014