Nine years ago Robyn Sheppard welcomed a son into her family through adoption. It was Deion, 7, a student she’d worked with as an educational assistant at the Bloorview School. She and her husband Norman would later adopt Benjamin, also a student in the Bloorview school, as well as their daughter Skylar. BLOOM spoke to Robyn about adopting two children with disabilities.
BLOOM: Tell us about how you met Deion.
Robyn Sheppard: I originally met him when he was two in the Easter Seals daycare where I was doing a college placement. I was only 18, so I wasn’t in a position to adopt anybody. Then I met him again when he was in Grade 1 and I worked as an EA at the Bloorview School. He was going through a hard time. He’d been apprehended from one foster home and moved to another. He missed a month of school and when he came back he was sad and said: ‘I just want a family to love me.’ I would go home and tell my husband about this kid. We were just planning our wedding at the time. ‘Maybe we should look into adopting him?’ my husband said. He’s got a big heart.
BLOOM: How old is Deion now?
Robyn Sheppard: He’s 16 and in Grade 11. He goes to a mainstream high school. He loves Pokémon and he loves to draw and play video games. He has a few close friends he spends his time with. He’s very independent—he manages all of his own self-care and own laundry. He has very mild cerebral palsy and ADHD. He’s a really good kid and we’re very lucky.
BLOOM: How did you meet your son Benjamin?
Robyn Sheppard: Less than a year after we’d adopted our daughter—we adopted them out of birth order—I met Benjamin when he was in junior kindergarten at Bloorview. He was four and not very verbal and just learning to walk. He had a lot of trouble regulating his emotions and his behaviour. He was adorable. He was a little monkey who got into a lot of trouble and had a hard time of things. But he had an amazing smile and was really interested in cars and trucks and police officers. He’d recently moved to a new foster home and wasn’t happy there. We were at an AdoptWalk event and one of the children’s aid workers came up and said: ‘Did you know there’s another child at Bloorview available for adoption?’ We said, no, we can’t do another adoption.’ But the seed was planted and of course we couldn’t just leave him.
BLOOM: Was disability a factor in why your boys were placed for adoption?
Robyn Sheppard: I believe it was absolutely. I think a lot of birth families that have children with disabilities are already struggling to raise children and when you add in the disability factor and the extra care, you can’t do it. They tugged on our heartstrings and we saw these beautiful kids and didn’t want to walk away. It seemed everyone had been walking away in their lives. It would be nice if other people were interested in adopting kids with disabilities because there are so many of them.
BLOOM: What kind of a kid is Benjamin now?
Robyn Sheppard: He’s a funny guy. His interests have changed and he’s into sports and fashion. He has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair for long distances. He needs assistance with all of his healthcare and dressing.
BLOOM: What was the most challenging part of your adoptions?
Robyn Sheppard: Just figuring out how you’re going to raise these kids who have already had such a hard start. They’ve already had so many influences in their lives and all of a sudden we’re new parents and we don’t really know how to parent. It was a big learning curve for sure. When we first got Deion we’d never been parents and all of a sudden we were parenting—things like knowing how to enforce rules without being too strict. I think we were too strict.
Ben had had a harder start to his life so it was difficult for him to adjust. He brought new challenges with a lot of difficult behaviours and we still have challenges with him. We think he also has fetal alcohol syndrome and it’s affected how he can process things. When we adopted him he was still going to school at Bloorview and we live in Whitby and I’d drive him every day. He’d have major, major meltdowns in the car.
The mental health support in this province is non-existent and we can’t find help that is appropriate for Ben. They look at his physical disability and dual diagnosis and say send him here for this aspect, and send him there for that aspect. But we can’t separate him up. He’s 120 pounds now, so if he does get out of control I’m not physically able to handle him. It’s really difficult. He had hip surgery in March and was at Bloorview for four months. That was a long, difficult road for him and he’s still experiencing a lot of pain.
BLOOM: How do you manage when you can’t seem to find the mental-health help for Ben?
Robyn Sheppard: We take it one day at a time, to be honest. Some days it’s really overwhelming.
BLOOM: What kind of changes have you seen in the boys?
Robyn Sheppard: They’ve both developed more confidence. Deion has his own personality and he’s comfortable with that. He feels secure and loved and he knows that he’s good—that’s the biggest change for him. Benjamin’s personality has really come out. He’s always singing and he wears bright gold shoes and loves to talk about baseball and basketball.
Love goes a long way, but you also need other supports.
BLOOM: Are you able to get help?
Robyn Sheppard: Ben goes to Holland Bloorview’s respite program once a month for a weekend and that’s been a great physical and mental break for us. He loves the nurses and rec programs.
A lot of people don’t know that children’s aid provides an adoption subsidy that is not necessarily income-based if they’re placing a child with significant needs who needs extra support in the community. They give you a daily per diem that adds up to be quite significant. It makes a big difference in being able to meet those extra costs. Just the months that Ben was an inpatient at Holland Bloorview were very expensive months for us. It’s made a big difference in what we can provide for our kids.
I wish there was more emotional support. They say there’s post-adoption support, but whenever I’ve reached out to the children’s aid they haven’t had anything for us.
BLOOM: Your adoption is interracial. Have there been issues related to that?
Robyn Sheppard: There have been some. When we first got Deion I had no idea I had to bring him to a special barber. I took him to First Choice and that was a disaster. He was culturally raised in a very white foster family and at this point he’s not interested in his roots but we would love for him to learn about that in the future.
Ben is much more culturally black. He would like us to be really into all of the black basketball players and he wants to dress like them and have his hair done like them. I don’t even do my own hair and I’m not very fashion savvy. So that’s been a bit challenging. We incorporate his culture into our lives as much as we can and encourage connections in the community.
BLOOM: What advice would you give a parent thinking about adopting a child with a disability?
Robyn Sheppard: Take it one day at a time. Just because they have a disability doesn’t make them any less valuable. They have a lot to give.
BLOOM: How has adopting children with disabilities changed you?
Robyn Sheppard: It’s been eye-opening to understand more of what other parents experience every day and how hard it can be to navigate the medical system and the mental health system, not to mention schools and IEP meetings. There are so many more things for you to navigate every day. It’s overwhelming. I wish it was easier to keep it all under one umbrella. But there’s one piece over here and another piece over there.
The biggest change is that I used to be very quiet. I didn’t really seek out people. I was very introverted. You can’t be introverted when you’re raising kids with special needs. It brought out the mama bear in me and made me face things I wouldn’t have before. It brought me out of my shell.
BLOOM: Do you think differently about life now?
Robyn Sheppard: Yes. The things my kids have been through and they’re still smiling every day. It’s humbling. Some people look at adoption and think all the problems go away. They don’t. Their early experiences affect every aspect of their lives.
BLOOM: Had you planned on adopting prior to meeting your boys?
Robyn Sheppard: It was something I’d always wanted to do eventually, but it wasn’t on the radar. But these situations presented themselves.
By Louise Kinross