As requested long ago, here is a summary of the story of Katie’s adoption~
We are an ordinary homeschooling family of ordinary means with eleven children and an extraordinary God.
In February of 2010, halfway through my pregnancy with our tenth child, we found out that she would most likely be born with Down syndrome and a severe heart defect. I began blogging a few days later, compelled by God to write down the story as He would tell it. Before this, both my husband and I were nearly completely ignorant about people with special needs, including Down syndrome. But by the time our daughter Verity was born several months later, from all we had already learned, we were excited to have been hand-picked by God for this special child.
Having Verity was the first transformative doorway we walked through on this new journey.
I continued to blog after Verity was born in June of 2010, through her urgent open heart surgery at five weeks of age and beyond. Now we added many photos of our sweet little one, who had completely charmed us with her bright-eyed spunky personality!
Incredibly, we began to hear from blog readers whose hearts were opened to adopt a child with Down syndrome through reading Verity’s story. When Verity was four months old, and I was questioning whether I should continue to put the time into blogging, I heard from a friend who said that she and her husband were considering domestic adoption of a child with Down syndrome. She asked me to recommend reading for her to prepare for the needs of an adopted child with Down syndrome.
That October night in 2010, I was researching online for that friend, never suspecting how God would use it to completely change the course of our family’s life. I came across a short Youtube clip called, “The Dark Side of Serbian Mental Institutions.”
That five minute video was the second transformative doorway we walked through.
My husband and I looked at one another after watching the video. As our eyes met, we knew that we would adopt a child like that one day if God opened the door, and we knew that God could open the door, no matter how impossible it might look to humans.
We learned that all across Eastern Europe, children born with special needs are routinely put into orphanages at birth. Then at some point, usually between the ages of 4 and 8 years old, depending on the child and the country, they are transferred to adult mental institutions. These are places that aren’t fit for a dog, let alone an extra needy and vulnerable child. The youngest child we have heard of being transferred to an adult mental institution was seventeen months old. We learned that about 80% of the children die within their first year of transfer to one of these grim institutions, and if their diagnosis is Down syndrome, that percentage rises as high as 95%.
We also learned that children who are severely neglected and deprived of human contact stop producing human growth hormone. They simply stop growing.
We learned that the children sent to adult mental institutions often spend all their time in their beds or if they are strong enough, they sit all day in one small room with nothing to do, a room crowded with others who are rocking and groaning.
They receive poor nourishment.
They often receive only one diaper change a day if that.
They learn not to cry, since nobody ever comes to help them.
They are sometimes drugged and/or tied to their beds to keep them easier to care for or to prevent them from harming themselves out of sheer insane boredom and attempting to make themselves feel something at all.
When they die, nobody mourns their death—just one less mouth to feed and diaper to change.
There was a little girl on the Serbia video who cut into our hearts. She was a little girl with Down syndrome, looking at us with her almond-shaped eyes through the bars of her crib.
Will I ever be able to see her in my mind’s eye and repeat these words without crying?
“Katerina is nine. She has Down syndrome,” the speaker said.
It was as if we were seeing our own flesh, our own little daughter Verity, lying there neglected and unloved. We couldn’t imagine our small, vulnerable, much-beloved daughter destined to life imprisonment in the nightmare of an Eastern European adult mental institution. Even the small care and comfort that children receive in a baby house, where oftentimes the staff really do care for the children as best they can, will all be gone the day they are placed in the back seat of a car, driven to the institution, have their heads shaved, and are put into their bed, nameless, voiceless, helpless, and hopeless.
Shortly after God opened our eyes to the fact that children with special needs just like Verity were being thrown out for the trash all across Eastern Europe, and that He was compelling His people to do something about it, He began doing a series of miracles before our eyes. Before two months had passed, He had placed us in a position that made us financially qualify to adopt. From that point on, He moved mountain after mountain to enable us to bring Katie home as our daughter.
Before this, God had made it clear that I was to pick up the pencil and write what He was doing. Now it seemed to us that He picked us up as though we were the pencils, and continued to tell the story using our lives.
We knew that to get through the process, God would have to move, and that it would otherwise be impossible. In other words, there was no possible way we could adopt Katie if God didn’t want us to. There are always myriads of ways for Him to close the adoption door, and for us, some of those possible ways were obvious. He was literally our only hope.
And so the adoption proceeded, glory to God! Every impossible obstacle toppled before Him, very often in dramatic, heart-stopping, last-minute ways. We experienced the reality that finances, timing, and the decisions of man are all under His control.
Her file said that she was very small, still almost as small as a baby, and did not have any skills, although she was almost nine years old. We understood that this meant that she had been neglected and deprived of the opportunity to bond and interact with anyone, or to learn from them. We knew that she might have feeding issues, very common in children with Down syndrome, but without someone to work with her and teach her to eat properly, she might not be getting enough food. We saw that her hair was thin, another sign of malnutrition. We were told that her orphanage was in a poor area of Bulgaria. We were aware that she could possibly have a heart condition which was impacting her ability to grow. We knew it was possible her photos and the information in her file were outdated, and that she may have grown and progressed since then. We learned that internationally adopted children may have parasites which could cause a failure to thrive.
There was a lot we didn’t know. But one thing we did know. We as a family could give this baby bird what she had lacked for so many years and needed most–love, food, home, and family. We loved her as if she was already ours and committed to adopt her in February of 2011. We named her Katerina Hope. “Katerina” for the girl on the Serbia video, and “Hope” for the children she would leave behind her when she came home.
The next month, in March of 2011, through an amazing providence of God, we made contact with a missionary couple in Sofia, Bulgaria. They were willing to help us by visiting Katie’s orphanage and taking a large donation from friends in the United States. Through this missionary, we received photos and videos of Katie and some of the other children on her floor.
For me, this was the third transformative doorway.
As I looked through the photos, my heart was unexpectedly peaceful for Katie, knowing she had a family who loved her and was coming for her.
She appeared to be doing better since she had received a baba. We found out later that this was true. She weighed 7 pounds at age 7, before she received her baba, and was not expected to live.
But the other children!
How would I ever be able to walk out of the orphanage and leave the other children behind, alone, invisible, unwanted, helpless?
As a family, we began to pray that God would show us a way to help the rest of the children with special needs in Katie’s orphanage to be adopted. We had no idea what this would mean. Nevertheless, we knew that our God could do anything, so we continued to pray this for months, until He answered by showing us a way.
A Bulgaria adoption requires two trips of about a week each, normally separated by four to six months of legal process, during which time the adoption is finalized in court in Bulgaria in the parents’ absence.
I traveled alone to meet Katie in mid-August, 2011.
What we didn’t know until the day I arrived in Bulgaria was that our attorney had never been to this particular baby house.
When I held Katie in my arms for the first time, I knew the shock of holding a starving child. My baby was nine years old, but her body was tiny and frail, the size of a skeletal nine to twelve month old.
The staff’s casual explanation was that they fed the children well, but that it was their disabilities that caused their condition. It was obvious to me that this was not true. I knew that Down syndrome and cerebral palsy do not cause ten and twelve year old children to be the size of babies and toddlers. I knew that what we were seeing was the result of criminal profound neglect and deliberate underfeeding.
I was allowed to feed Katie every day with a heavy glass beer bottle with a huge hole cut into the nipple, causing the smelly liquid inside to run freely down her throat so fast she had to gulp to keep up with it.
The contents appeared to be a watered-down flour gravy with other ingredients occasionally added to it. We were to find out later that many of the deaths were caused by this inhumane feeding method–the children’s bottles were propped, and they aspirated fluid and died by asphyxiation, alone in their beds.
Our attorney had been facilitating special needs adoption for many years. She immediately saw the huge contrast between the Pleven baby house and so many others she had worked with. She had met many directors who deeply cared about the children under their care and did their very best to stretch limited resources and make the caregivers do their job right. In Bulgaria, orphanage directors must be either pediatricians or family practice physicians. The Pleven orphanage was like an adult mental institution, our attorney told me. The director was the coldest and most detached director she had ever met, and she refused to meet our eyes.
That same day, our attorney called an international human rights organization to report the orphanage, and they promised to investigate. I continued to blog under our attorney’s oversight, and unbeknownst to me, God used that to quickly spread the word far and wide about what was happening. Thousands of people began to pray, and God began moving hearts to want to adopt the other children there who were also in poor condition.
When I met with the director that Monday morning, just before meeting Katie for the first time, I told her that we cared about more of the children there than just our girl. I asked her what needed to happen for the rest of the children with special needs to be made available for adoption. I asked what we could do to help make that happen. She coldly answered that it was impossible, that all had already been done that could be done, and she said it without meeting our eyes.
But two days later, with thousands of people now praying that God would break open the doors of the orphanage, the director came to our attorney and miraculously offered to give her the files of the rest of the children with Down syndrome in the orphanage. After she walked away, we praised God with tears in our eyes! Unbelievable!
The next day, the director came to our attorney again, and this time offered to give her the files of all the children with special needs in the whole orphanage.
The director had no idea that she was doing this unprecedented thing as a direct answer to thousands of fervent prayers. But the doors were now breaking open. The files began to be processed and children began to be made available, one, two, or three at a time, slowly over the next months, and families began to step forward to adopt them.
From the moment we reached our hotel after that first visit to the Pleven orphanage, Katie’s adoption began to be expedited.
The week we went to pick up Katie exactly three months later, we found out that the Pleven orphanage had been investigated by the human rights organization in September, the month after I had been there myself.
We began to hear more and more details about the wrongdoing of the Pleven orphanage staff.
The director, who had been in place since the Soviet era, and her daughter, who was the head social worker in the orphanage, had an arrangement set up that tidily benefited themselves.
They did not see to it that every child was properly registered for adoption, as should legally happen when they enter the orphanage.
The director solicited funds for improvements that did not benefit the children but did raise her own pension.
She was misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of funds and changing donation records to cover it up or failing to record donations at all.
The children were indeed being deliberately underfed, especially the children with disabilities, of whom there were many. The children were kept small so that they would not be transferred along with their government stipend to other institutions. This enabled the director to amass a large number of children, necessitating a large staff. This baby house for children ages birth to three years old was housing children up to the age of adulthood, little like babies and toddlers.
Underfeeding the children also kept them conveniently tiny, lethargic, and easy to carry across the room by one arm.
Some of the children were never taken from their beds. Many of them spent nearly all their time in bed, and were taken out for a few hours a week by one of the babas, or grannies, local older women who were paid a small sum to come in and hold the child they were matched with. The baba program was begun just a few years earlier, so all the older children had spent most of their life trapped inside their bed.
The children received one diaper change a day, if any, and sometimes were not changed or fed over the weekend. Many of the children had terrible diaper rash, sometimes suffering from one raw, open wound in their whole diaper area.
There were children like living skeletons on the top floor where Katie and the other very disabled children were kept. She was the first child to be adopted from the top floor of the Pleven orphanage, the floor for children labeled, “Malformations.”
Katie was 9 1/2 years old, was 29 inches long, and weighed 10 pounds and 9 ounces when we took her out of the Pleven orphanage in mid-November of 2011.
A twelve month sleeper was too large on her, and she wore a size 1 diaper.
Katie with her new Mama, struck with wonder at the privilege of receiving this long-hoped-for child~
We picked her up on a Monday and reached the United States that Saturday night. Katie had gained half a pound in five days, and weighed more than 11 pounds for the first time in her life.
The night we picked her up from the orphanage, however, and were now back in our hotel room in Sofia, Katie stopped eating. Through various kind Providences, we ended up seeing the top pediatrician in Bulgaria in the best hospital in Bulgaria. This specialist and the other medical staff of the Tokuda Hospital who saw Katie were profoundly shaken and ashamed that this had taken place in their country. They gave Katie gentle, compassionate care and charged us very little. Katie spent a day and a half there to receive IV fluids and a naso-gastric tube.
The best food we had available to give her was my own milk, as I was still pumping for Verity.
God had marvelously provided a nurse named Adam Boroughs to be Katie’s medical escort for our trip home. He is the adoptive dad of ten, going on eleven children, many of whom have special needs, and he and his wife Amy have become our good friends.
Once we reached the United States with Katie that weekend, we took her to the hospital, where she was directly admitted to the PICU for nutritional rehabilitation as had been previously arranged by Dr. Friedman, our dedicated international adoption clinic doctor.
Here she is saying goodbye to Katie the day before we took her home.
The process of nutritional rehabilitation had to be accomplished carefully, as Katie was at high risk of developing something called re-feeding syndrome, which is a metabolic cascade leading to sudden death that can occur in people who are given too much good nutrition too quickly after being in starvation mode.
Katie came home with scurvy, severe anemia, atrophic skin, muscle wasting, severe osteoporosis, and multiple spinal compression fractures due to the severe protein-energy malnutrition she had suffered all her life.
In a few short months at home with us, she progressed from a being a lethargic, frightened, dehydrated, starving, 9 1/2 year old infant orphan at a 0-3 month old developmental level, who couldn’t hold her own head upright for more than a minute, had never touched a toy to her palm or borne her own weight on her feet…
Verity is 17 months old in this photo.
…to being a healing, thriving, growing, progressing, well-loved daughter and sister in our family. Her family.
Katie is now over 34 inches long and weighs over 30 pounds.
She has learned to enjoy being touched, moved, and held. She is now tolerating and even seeking out more eye contact than ever before. She is bonding strongly to me and the rest of her family.
She has learned to say, “Mama,” and a few other functional words, and is currently expanding her vocalizations.
After wearing diapers for nearly ten years, Katie is almost completely toilet trained, although she is completely dependent on me to help her with the process. She is able to tell me when she needs to use the toilet, and wait until I take her.
She has learned to move correctly from her belly to sitting, and can do a correct cross-pattern army crawl. She readily pulls up to her hands and knees. She needs minimal prompting and support to pull herself up to standing. She can stand upright with minimal support. [NOTE: A few hours after I wrote these words, Katie pulled herself up to standing without assistance, then proudly proceeded to do it again and again to the loud cheering and clapping of her family.]
She went from being irritated at the sight of toys and attempting to bat them away with the back of her hand to learning to interact appropriately with toys when given lots of prompting and encouragement.
She went from being unable to suck or chew to being able to drink thickened liquids from an open cup and lightly chew and eat a very wide variety of soft solid foods. She can feed herself some types of finger foods.
When Katie had been home for three weeks, we heard the good news that the director of the Pleven orphanage had been fired. Over the next weeks, all the children over the age of three years old who were sufficiently healthy were moved to smaller and better orphanages. No new children were sent to the Pleven baby house. Previously there had been approximately 250 children in the orphanage, and now there were approximately 150 children there.
I contacted the wonderful pediatrician who had seen Katie in Bulgaria to appeal to her for help, very concerned that well-meaning people might go into the orphanage and begin to feed the children better. We knew that this could throw some of them into re-feeding syndrome. I asked her if there was any way she could supervise the process, and she promised to arrange to take a team from the Tokuda Hospital to the orphanage to assess the children.
Less than a month later, we found out some bad news. The director of the Pleven baby house had declared that she intended to fight her charges in court, and gotten herself another position at the orphanage–Head of Human Resources. As a result, nothing had changed in the orphanage.
Then God intervened again. We received word that one of the other tiny, malnourished children who was being adopted from the top floor had lost the will to live and was refusing to eat or drink. We contacted the Tokuda pediatrician with another appeal for help.
After considerable resistance from the orphanage, the pediatrician took that little girl back to Tokuda, along with two more extremely malnourished children who were being adopted. They were taken safely through the process of nutritional rehabilitation and given lots of love and affection. All three gained some weight.
Not long afterward, this Tokuda pediatrician kept her promise and took a team into the Pleven orphanage and assessed every child there. Rampant profound medical neglect was discovered. Large numbers of the children needed various tests, procedures, and surgeries. Three children at a time have been admitted to the Tokuda Hospital since early spring, and that is still ongoing. Because of this intervention, none of the rest of the children adopted from Pleven will need to go through the process of nutritional rehabilitation that Katie did when we brought her home.
The government of Bulgaria had to become involved to get the orphanage to cooperate with all this. They became angry when they found out that the conditions for the children had not changed because the former director was still in power. They sent the heads of the Ministry of Health and the Child Protection Agency to do a surprise investigation of the Pleven orphanage, and asked our attorney to cooperate in going public with the whole story, including Katie’s story.
So Katie ended up on the front page of all the major newspapers in Bulgaria, the only child in the world who could prove the orphanage staff wrong when they blamed the children’s extreme malnutrition on their inability to grow due to their disabilities.
The old director was completely removed shortly thereafter. The new director who was named is an answer to thousands of prayers. Her task is monumentally difficult, but she cares about the children and is trying to change the way things are done in order to provide better care for them.
A few other children from Pleven are now all the way home with their families, growing and thriving.* More children are still in the process of being adopted. Some of them are available for adoption, waiting for their families to step forward with love, faith, and courage to do whatever it takes to bring them home. And there are some children still waiting to be made available for adoption.
From the time I first met Katie, over 134,000 individuals have read her story on our blog. We prayed that God would use Katie’s adoption to show Himself for who He really is, and He has answered that prayer. Many have given Him praise for the great things He has done! Some have trusted Christ for salvation after coming face to face with the reality of who He is. Many hundreds of people have written to tell us that God has used our family’s story to completely transform their way of thinking, and many of them have proceeded to adopt their own precious children with special needs from Eastern Europe, including children from Pleven. People have prayed, given to funds for medical care at the Tokuda Hospital for the children and for more nurses and grannies for the orphanage, and have supported families who are adopting the children.
When we consider all God has done and is still doing through Katie’s story, we have such a strong and tangible sense that it doesn’t really have to do with us. He could have chosen anybody to play the role He asked of us. We pray, and act, and write, and love, but we have no ability to make the things happen that we have seen God do. God is the One who is taking the prayer, the action, the writing, and the loving, and doing whatever He wants to do with it to accomplish His good purposes. When we think about this, it’s too much to take in. We are on our faces before Him!
God has shown Himself to be our great Provider by meeting every need that we have had for Katie, from thousands of dollars’ worth of adaptive equipment, to having every drop of her formula given to us, to a care fund started by a friend and given to by many to help us pay for extra expenses we have for Katie. The list goes on and on and on.
What we have seen during the past year and a half in our family as well as in other adoptive families who love the Lord shows that the following passage is just as true today as it was thousands of years ago when it was first written:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
Those from among you
Shall build the old waste places;
You shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach,
The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.”
*Note added in 2016–Five years after I first held Katie in my arms, about 70 older children with special needs who were being neglected in the Pleven orphanage are either home or almost home with their adoptive families.