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The surprise our new son sprung on us

When we adopted my son Nick, he was four and a half years old. He came out of a supremely difficult situation. His mother, my sister, went down the meth hole. She had been using the drug (and others) for years, decades, before she got pregnant. She also drank compulsively, smoked up bunches of weed, and shot cocaine. Any respite in this activity occurred during her pregnancy. But she was unable to stay away from her drugs of convenience. She spent, we think, part or most of her pregnancy in drug- and alcohol-induced haze.

After he was born, things went downhill. Nick was loved as an infant, that is sure. But drug addiction has a habit of colonizing spaces in one’s life that were once sacrosanct. As my sister’s addiction advanced, she parked him in front of movies while she did drugs in the back room. Actions done out of sight moved to the front room over time. Soon, she left him for periods of time by himself. He compensated. He found he received attention over food, as every mother worries if her offspring is eating. He decided what he would eat and what he wouldn’t. He ate what my sister could fix easily and that he liked. Pizza, spaghetti, chicken nuggets, and canned green beans became his regular diet.

Nick weathered almost three years of her drug addiction. She often went into paranoia-fueled hysteric fits, and as tweekers tend, she spent a lot of time away from home and parenting responsibilities. Paranoia and drug-seeking behavior increased. One night, so the story goes, she went into a raving fit, a sort of psychotic break. The neighbor reported that she heard things slamming around the apartment. My sister shrieked and screamed the top of her lungs.

At some point, the neighbor called the police. She had reason to suspect that something was terribly wrong, having been around my sister and her erratic behavior for some time. When the police arrived at the apartment, my sister failed to answer the door. The cops heard the yelling and loud banging in the apartment. They opened the door with the help of the building manager.

The police officers found my sister in the bathroom angrily scouring Nick with a stiff, plastic cleaning brush and hydrogen peroxide. She was, she said, trying to scrub the microscopic cameras out from underneath his skin. The cops took her into custody and called family services, who removed my son from her care while she went through lengthy court proceedings having to do with possession of controlled substances, and child neglect and endangerment.

While this was going on, Nevada Division of Child and Family Services placed my future son with my parents. There he found love and attention necessary for a child his age. But they weren’t prepared to become permanent parents to their daughter’s progeny.

I can go on about the role drugs and alcohol served in my family history. But I’ll make this short. Of my parents’ four children, two are confirmed alcoholics and my sister is a drug addict. My father was drunk or getting drunk or getting ready to get drunk my whole childhood. My mom enabled and participated. Over time, my father’s drinking moderated, though he was still apt to drink to excess and if not to excess, then into good warm glow, which is just as good as being drunk if you’re a kid in that situation.

My parents took care of Nicholas for eighteen months. For twelve of those months, my wife Virginia and I enlisted ourselves in the Missouri Department of Social Services adoption program, administered through Jackson County. The program consisted of a year of classes every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. These people were serious. We could not be late, not even a minute. We could not miss a week. We could not leave early. They wanted to see who could be reliable. The message: Kids have needs, and you can’t put off their necessities for a television event.

Meanwhile, my sister signed away her parental rights, something she would later say she did not mean to do. But she made little effort to get Nick back. Thank goodness.

While we underwent this year rigorous parenting classes, which featured all the great and unpleasant things about being adoptive parents, we also went through series of home visits. Social workers, home inspectors, psychologists all came through our house. We enlisted the help of an attorney for the legal aspects of the adoption. Then, because this was an out-of-state adoption, we also had forms and questionnaires from the state of Nevada pertaining to our fitness as adoptive parents.

Meanwhile, we childproofed the house and put all the cleaning supplies and household chemicals out of reach. I built Nick a bunk bed from two-by-fours and carriage bolts, with safe steps to the upper bunk. I painted it bright yellow, his favorite color. (By coincidence, we live in a bright yellow house.)

When we had done all of this and passed all the tests and received all the experts’ approvals, we scheduled a trip to Reno to pick up Nick. That is, maybe we would be able to pick him up. We still had a gauntlet of psychologists and social workers to run before we they would let us take Nick with us. For a workweek, we went from office to office. Our job was to sit and listen. We answered questions, that’s sure. But we had to hear about how the adoption process would play out. The psychologist wanted to see how we got along with Nick and how we handled our meetings with him.

The psychologist told us a great deal about him and his personality, as well as physical and psychological problems we would have with him. Due  to his mother smoking, drinking, and doing drugs while he was in the womb, he might have any of a number of issues—ADHD, learning problems, psychological difficulties. These by themselves or in combination might not manifest themselves for a couple of years. But after those first few years, the social workers, doctors, and psychologist told us, we would know exactly what we were dealing with. (At age 16, Nick is well adjusted, happy, and the top of his class.)

Finally, on Jan. 7, 2007, we flew from Reno to Kansas City. And still Nick was not our son. We went through a year of being foster parents before we could formally adopt him. For the next months, social workers visited us regularly. We met with a child psychologist often. She took Nick into his room and played with him, seeing how he was adjusting. She sat with us at the dining room table and accessed our mental health and how we were adjusting.

Finally, in June 2008, we went to the family court for a formal adoption hearing. We were dressed in our best clothes and even bought Nick suit for the hearing. The judge looked over all the documents and visited with counsel on our side and that of the state of Missouri. He asked Nick if he wanted us as parents. Nick said yes. Then the judge asked him what he wanted his name to be. Nick answered that he was Nicholas Nathaniel Patrick Dobson. He added the Patrick all on his own. We had no idea.

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  1. Ashley Nicole Grady Olsen Ashley Nicole Grady Olsen

    This may be an odd question but I’m wondering who Nick’s biological father is. I know I have a brother named Nick out there and your son’s story sounds a lot like my half-brother’s story. I’ve wanted to find him for a long time but I never knew his last name until today. I have no expectations but I figured I’d just at least leave a comment and see where it leads.

    • You can reach me on my E-mail, which you’ll find on the contact page.

  2. Maureen Goddard Maureen Goddard

    Your posts are a favorite part of my Facebook scrolling.

    • Thanks, Maureen. I hope the essays continue to intrigue you. I appreciate you reading them.

  3. Jan Rog Jan Rog

    Direct, honest, and touching. From the introduction I knew you had come to adopt him, yet I still worried as I followed the piece. I’m happy for all of you — most especially your son — that this worked out.

    The final paragraph’s surprise made me smile.

    • Thanks, Jan. It’s a pretty heartfelt issue with us at the Dobson house. We are so glad that Nick has done so well.

  4. Cara Windsor Cara Windsor

    What a wonderful, sweet story!

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