A 4-year-old Tacoma boy is at the heart of how the world’s most populous country loosened adoption restrictions to find homes for some of its smallest citizens.
Meet Isaac White, a sweet, energetic kid, who knows his colors, letters, numbers and shapes, and loves to sing.
Desiree White adopted him from China when he was a baby.
At the time, the Chinese government did not actively find adoptive families for children such as Isaac, who has Down syndrome. Today, thanks in part to successes such as Isaac, more than 200 children with the condition are ready to be adopted from China.
White, a family nurse practitioner, was a pediatric trauma nurse when she sought to adopt. She had had what she calls “remarkable experiences” with her Down syndrome patients, and wanted to open her home to such a child.
“There’s really nothing about Down syndrome that’s going to stop a child from having a full life,” she says.
White was looking to adopt internationally, where she saw the greatest need for children with Down syndrome searching for homes.
When she told Michigan-based Bethany Christian Services she was looking for a child with Down syndrome, the staff member on the phone went quiet for a moment.
It was not a request the adoption agency heard often.
“She brought Isaac home before that was something that was commonly done from China,” said Elisabeth McGinnis, one of the China program coordinators with Bethany.
At the time, the Chinese government did not consider Down syndrome an “adoptable condition,” meaning children with the condition generally were not found families.
But on Nov. 1, 2011, White got a call, in which the staff member suggested she sit down. They’d found a child they thought would be a good match.
“Congratulations,” the staffer told White, “you have a son.”
Her story is not so uncommon now. China has designated Down syndrome an “adoptable” condition, opening the door for about 10 percent of country’s children available for adoption, White said.
McGinnis said China made more children with Down syndrome available after seeing the success Isaac was having.
Bethany got 14 additional Down syndrome children in 2013, and another 31 since then, as part of what the agency calls the Bamboo Project. Fifteen of those children have found homes in the United States.
“Seeing how much she (White) just adores Isaac made a way for us to share with other families: ‘Look, these kids are absolutely loveable and they are precious, and see how well they can adapt,’ ” McGinnis said.
White helps lead an online support network for many of the families. She started the effort as a way to share advice, and it’s turned into a family of its own.
“It just blossomed into families helping people understand the awesomeness of Down syndrome, and how incredible adoption can be,” she said. “That’s a very specific, shared journey in adoption.”
Recently, families of eight kids who are part of the project reunited at a water park in Chicago.
All but Isaac were from the same orphanage originally. Two girls in particular clearly recognized each other, and held on to one another the whole weekend, White said.
Isaac, an independent kid, at one point yelled: “I can do this!” when someone went to help him down a water slide.
Very little that affects her and Isaac’s lives is related to Down syndrome, White said. They go to speech therapy once a week, and Isaac communicates in both English and American Sign Language.
The disorder has a spectrum of medical and developmental needs, she said.
“There is no recipe for adoption; there is no recipe for Down syndrome,” White said. “Every story is going to be totally different”
In some ways, she thinks, the condition can make the transition of adoption easier.
“I think the developmental delay … can actually end up protecting them from the trauma of adoption,” she said.
White declined to talk about Isaac’s start in life (“I think when he’s old enough and wants to talk about it, he can,” she said), except to say he lived with a foster mother.
In August 2012, when the adoption paperwork was finalized, White traveled to China to get Isaac. At a government building in rural southwestern China, the 20-month-old boy “toddled into my arms and slapped me in the face,” she said.
It’s a face he recognized. White had sent photos of her house and family to the foster mother in advance, and when White brought out the same photos at their hotel room, he pointed right at her, she said.
Her new motherhood started to click in the Beijing airport on the way home, White said.
“I got a banana, I sat him on my lap and I was feeding him,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I know how to do this. I know how to be what he needs.’ And it was over a dumb banana. I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got this. We’re going to be OK.’”
Now, Isaac is in preschool, “keeping up with all of his neuro-typical friends,” and starts kindergarten next year, White said. He particularly likes a children’s program at the Seattle Symphony.
“He got to go up and meet the tuba player, which was the highlight of our lives,” White said.
And the roller coaster he rode at the Washington State Fair this year was a hit.
“I thought his face was going to bust, he was smiling so big,” she said.
She’s not sure what prompted China to make more adoptions such as Isaac’s possible. She thinks it’s partly that she asked for a child with Down syndrome, showing they’re wanted and can be adopted successfully into loving homes.
“I think maybe it was the little things that China saw,” she said.
Asked about the impact she and Isaac have had on adoptions, White said that’s not what she was thinking about at the time.
“It was just one girl saying yes to a child,” she said.
For more information
To learn more about the Bamboo Project and the children up for adoption, go to bit.ly/1LwSQfG.