Ben Carpenter is a single adoptive parent to four children, all with significant extra needs.
When Ben applied to adopt 11 years ago, he was the youngest and first single and first gay man to contact his local authority in Yorkshire.
The 32 year-old was voted ‘adopter champion of the year’ during last year’s National Adoption Week awards.
Ben said: “I was 21 when I started the process of adoption. I’d never sought a relationship but I’d always wanted to be a father. The legal age for adoption is 21 so I thought ‘surely l stand a chance?’ I was told I was the youngest and first single, gay male adopter at my local authority in Yorkshire
When I applied there was a misconception amongst a lot of people that to adopt you have to be someone with money or a profession - not ‘little Ben from Yorkshire, working in a care home’. I’d worked with children and adults with complex needs so I knew adopting children with additional needs was my niche. I rang up and spoke to my local agency who advised me that a social worker would ring me and talk me through the stages. I was invited to an ‘initial stages meeting’. I was given lots of positives and I thought ‘my goodness, I’m going to get to become a parent!’ I passed various stages but there were some concerns about my age.
A lot of people asked me why I wanted to adopt at the age of 21. My dad was a vicar and I was brought up in rural Wales. When I was 15 I was brought to West Yorkshire and started going out with friends, experiencing night-life and parties. By the time I got to 21 I‘d started to calm down and started to think that I wanted to become a parent. I’d worked out that if I started the process at 21, the likelihood was that I would be an adoptive parent by about 25. My mother, who lived with me at the time, just thought ‘let Ben get it out of his system’. She never thought I’d actually get on to the next stage.
I knew that as I was a 21 year-old boy it wouldn’t be plain sailing. At panel I didn’t get a 'yes' or 'no' - it was a 50/50. I’ve always wondered what the
reasons were for this decision. Perhaps it was because I was young and naive and wasn’t a tried-and-tested parent but at the time my world crashed. My mother remembers me as a little boy wanting to be a daddy. All these dreams had gone in the words ‘you’ve not got a recommendation’.
I thought ‘what am I going to do?’ I also had the disappointment of having to tell everyone. I was almost aged 25 at this stage. But my social worker said: ‘don’t give up as it’s still got to go to the independent decision maker’. I thought it was the end of the road but my social worker told me that the independent decision maker can overrule the decision, so to leave it with her. She rang me the following week and told me the independent decision maker had said I should be approved to be an adopter so I was delighted.
About two months went by and then I had a phone call from my social worker who told me that the local authority had a little boy in mind for me. He had additional needs and was very quirky. They were querying whether he was autistic and he had other problems relating to the medication his birth mother took during pregnancy. When I met Jack he was certainly a quirky little boy. I was really taken with him but then panel said he was not the right match for me. But the independent decision maker said Jack deserved a chance with me.
If I’m honest no one could say it’s ‘because he’s gay’ or it’s ‘because of his age’ or ‘because he’s single’ because if they did, it would open themselves up for discrimination. I think the panel actually thought ‘what do we do here?’ By saying they were ‘50/50’ it throws it onto the decision maker. If I could have burst into the decision maker’s office and given him a hug I would have done.
Six years later, Jack is a nine-year-old boy who is thriving in mainstream school. He is my world, as are my other three kids.
I'm now well-known to social services now because I do all of the courses on offer around parenting and I also provide a lot of media coverage around adopting children with disabilities.
Jack’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, but the medication can cause learning difficulties for babies in the womb and stunt their growth. He also has OCD which was linked to his autism. As a result he is routine-driven and everything has to be in place.
When I went back to my local authority to adopt a second child I was approved unanimously within eight months because the law had changed so the time-scale of adoption was completely differently and had sped up. I was approved as an adopter for a little girl aged up to three. After an initial match fell through I was invited to an information day which was where I saw Ruby’s profile. She has some health and physical difficulties I knew she was going to be my daughter.
It went to panel and I was approved as a match. She had just had her second birthday when she came to me and she’s now been with me over four years.
When the social workers came to talk to me about Ruby they told me her birth mother was about to give birth to another child so would I consider this child as well? They also pointed out the scans had shown some disabilities. I said ‘yes’ but at this time my main concern was that Ruby’s needs were met. Ruby had been in an amazing foster home, as had Jack, but I didn’t feel it was the right time to adopt her sister Lilly as well, because Ruby had attachment issues. Ruby is severely visually impaired and her hearing is also impaired. She’s epileptic, has foetal alcohol syndrome, has learning difficulties, radial dysplasia (missing radius bones).
It was a big upheaval for Ruby and it took a long time for her to settle because of the differences and smells and because I have to feed her through a tube into her stomach. If I gave her half a meal more than she should have there would be projectile vomit so she had to be cared for by someone who knew how to care for her. But as soon as it clicked it was great. She was secure and she was attached.
Lilly came to stay with us two years ago, last April. The social workers hadn’t picked up that she was profoundly deaf with no speech. They knew there was deafness so a cochlear impact was fitted but she had actually been born profoundly deaf.
I then completed our family when I adopted Joseph at the beginning of September 2015. There are now two boys and two girls in our family.
Joseph was 4 weeks old at the time. He was a relinquished baby. He’s British Chinese and has Down’s syndrome.
I’d always wanted to adopt a child with Down's syndrome. Working with children and adults with an array of needs has always been a passion of mine but adopting a child with Down's syndrome is not for the faint-hearted as it does come with difficulties. They can be very poorly children. Joseph suffers very badly with his chest as his immune system is very low. Children with Down’s syndrome can also have heart complaints if their development is sufficiently delayed. Joseph has just turned one but he’s functioning at the level of a two-month old.
But adopting children with additional needs doesn’t mean it’s an end of your social life – it can actually enhance your social life. I’ve seen and done more things with the children than I would have done before adopting them. It has opened up a lot of doors for me. My attitude is ‘they’ve got a disability - so what, we’re going to do it!’ Having a family has improved my life as well as my children’s.
Inevitably adopting a child with additional needs is slightly harder but in my opinion all children have a need, whether it’s ‘additional’ or not – they can have emotional difficulties, they could have experienced neglect... all children coming into the care system have a need.
The challenges of being a single dad...well, I'm a very patient person. I don’t do stress. I take each day as it comes. When I look at the children and see how they are now, compared to how they were... they've come on in leaps and bounds through love and nurturing. They really are amazing children.
And I have a great rapport with Jack’s birth mother which is quite unusual. Jack's birth parents are schizophrenic so they can't look after him. His birth mother adores me and me her. After a right good chat and hug she said 'he's so lucky to have you' and I replied 'I'm so lucky to have him'. They are my children so they act like me. They do my quirky things as they've adapted through my lifestyle.
When people have said to me: “they're not your flesh and blood” I reply: “I'm the one caring for them, clothing them, loving them, and nurturing them”.
My message to prospective adopters when they're coming to being matched is to think outside the box. Don’t think you only want a 'perfect child'...I'm sorry, but no child is perfect, and that applies to all children, not just those who've been adopted. Incidents of children being born with foetal alcohol syndrome is on the rise, as are problems related to the birth mother's drug use during pregnancy.
I’m not saying children with disabilities are right for everyone as some people can't cope, but there are children out there with slight additional needs who are being overlooked by a lot of prospective adopters.
People say my children are so lucky but I'm just as lucky as they're my world. If I didn't have them I’d be a very lonely person.
I envisage myself as a 70 year-old man caring for 50 year-old adults but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Being presented with the national adoption champion award by First4Adoption in October last year meant everything to me and took me completely by surprise. The award takes pride of place in my living room. I’m honoured and it inspires me to encourage others to adopt.”
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