Tuesday, December 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Special needs, special joys: Once-hard-to-place kids find loving homes

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For more information about Children's Hope International, call 425-391-9150. For information about WACAP, call 206-575-4550. Both agencies have grants available to help with costs.
The child's dark eyes — great pools of wonder in a tiny, scared face — stared at Denise Dumouchel from the Web page of hard-to-place children listed at the Issaquah-based Children's Hope International adoption agency.

"Even then I knew she was my daughter," Dumouchel said. A few months later, she was in Saigon holding the 8-month-old with severe facial birth defects.

The baby was abandoned at a Saigon hospital three days after she was born. Her sinus cavity was open. Diagnosed as oblique facial cleft, her defects were so severe that doctors in the U.S. warned Dumouchel the baby might have developmental problems as well.

Dumouchel was willing to take a chance. The Bainbridge Island woman was single and approaching 40 when her mother died, leaving her a small sum of money.

"I thought the best way was to use the money to become a mother myself," she said.

Local adoption agencies say an increasing number of singles and couples are adopting special-needs children — accounting for about one-third of all adoptions at Children's Hope and more than one-third at the Seattle Adoption Services of the World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP). Twenty years ago such adoptions were rare at both agencies.

"There is greater attention to these kids and greater acceptance now," said Kristine Leander, WACAP communications director.

Dumouchel and other parents who make the choice say the children are not burdens, but gifts that enrich their lives.

A voice from the heart

Steve Nafziger, 47, and his wife, Meg, 45, already had two children but last year felt called to enlarge their family.

"I just felt this strong voice in my heart," Meg "Margaret" Nafziger said.

When the Nafzigers saw Rosa-Margaret, even with her cleft lip and bilateral cleft palates, they knew "she was our daughter," Meg Nafziger said as the 21-month-old from Guatemala clattered through the house, her dark bob swaying.

"She sings. She loves to dance. She wakes up singing," she said. "She has given us the gift of joy. She is my dream come true, a dream I didn't even know I had."

One-year-old Anujah's severe facial birthmark didn't keep Annie and Rodney Bliss, 34 and 37, who live near Maple Valley, from applying to claim her as their own. If they get permission to bring the child from India next summer, she will be their sixth child — the third adopted child but the first to have any noticeable differences.

They intend to have the birthmark treated as soon as possible and expect her to be a joyful addition to their family, as the rest of the children have been.

Love at first sight

Once Dumouchel decided to pursue an adoption, she filled out the paperwork at Children's Hope, paid about $12,700 and began perusing the agency Web site of available children. She expected, as most prospective parents do, to select a healthy baby.

But in the section of "hard-to-place" children — which included not only those with medical needs but older children as well — she fell in love.

In September 2001, Dumouchel went to Saigon and met the child she would name Claire Thie Hong Dumouchel. At first she was alarmed because the baby seemed lethargic and wouldn't make eye contact. But by the end of the day, the baby was squealing, bouncing up and down on her lap, smiling whenever she saw her.

Dumouchel brought her home in November of that year.

Not long after she arrived, Claire had her first surgery. Bone from her rib was used to create an eye socket, and her nasal cavity was closed. The small face was covered with 200 stitches, the work of Dr. Richard Hopper, a surgeon at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center.

Because Claire was so young and could not be given much painkiller, Dumouchel comforted her by holding and rocking her hour after hour. The toddler — her face covered with surgical scars — didn't cry, but just gazed up at her and smiled, Dumouchel said.

"There is a life lesson there," she said. "When a child in pain can look at you in trust and smile."

More surgeries

Since then, a cherubic face has begun to emerge. She's had two surgeries and more are planned.

In the meantime, Claire is becoming all a typical toddler might be. She runs through the house, her high-top leather boots drumming against the hardwood floor, dashing room to room to find her rabbit Hopper, named in honor of her doctor.

"I can't even remember what I did with my life before," said Dumouchel as she poured tea in her sunny kitchen, then grabbed Claire and swung her up in her arms.

Dumouchel works on the island at IslandWood Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center, designing programs for teachers. She shares her love of nature with Claire on long walks along the country road in front of their house.

"The biggest gift is how she greets the new day as soon as she wakes up in the morning," her mother said. "She claps as if she is applauding. It's as if every morning she says, 'Bravo! I'm here. The day is new.' "

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or


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