KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The first doctors told the Langford family that young Phoebe might never walk or talk. Yet, they felt in their hearts they should make her one of their own, first as a foster child, and eventually adopting her.
Melissa Langford had cared previously for a child with special medical needs, and she had cared for various foster children, but nothing like this.
"When I first saw her, her affect was completely flat, she couldn't lift her limbs, she had severe torticollis which kept her tucked down, and she couldn't make eye contact, she didn't smile, at 17 months old. She had no language, no communication skills," Melissa Langford said.
Torticollis involves the head often turned tightly to one side, and can also involve painful muscle spasms. Phoebe had been born prematurely with prenatal drug exposure and had a complex variety of medical problems. She had suffered neglect as a newborn. She depended on a feeding tube for nutrition.
Melissa and her husband followed the protocol for all of Phoebe's medical needs, including the frequent visits to therapists. Yet, they felt the most important things they could offer Phoebe were their time and love.
Melissa wore Phoebe in a baby sling for the few few months they were together. Plus, everyone in this large family with five other children pitched in to give Phoebe attention. It made a difference.
"By the end of the first 30 or 45 days she was raising her head up to look at me, and she was starting to smile, and she was starting to babble and talk just a little bit, so we knew when we saw her responding to touch and constant love, just somebody handling her and being with her and talking to her all the time," Langford said.
"Melissa is just a very kind and patient person. But the main thing about Melissa is that she has a lot of love to give," explained Serenity Andrews, who works as the Recruitment Specialist with Omni Visions, an office that contracts to help place children in foster care for the state of Tennessee.
Andrews said around 800 children in Knox County need homes, while around 8,000 children do statewide. There is a need for parents willing to help foster children who fall into a narrow part of the special needs category, like Phoebe does, that is considered medically fragile. Offices like Omni Vision provide free training for foster parents, including extra training to meet the needs of those medically fragile children.
Andrews explained, "These children need love, and they need that extra attention, and it takes just a few hours of training usually to be able to care for whatever that special need is. We do teach a lot about therapeutic needs that children have. Sort of what their history is, where they're coming from, the hard issues. We also teach parents specific ways to help with behavior management."
Andrews said, "The demand is huge. We are always looking for another loving family to take care of these children."
Phoebe's big sister, Lily Grace Langford, explained that the family had expectations of adding another girl. "Me and my sister prayed for about three or four years for a baby sister," she said.
The family was delighted when Omni Visions recommended they bring Phoebe into their home for a trial visit. The entirely family fell in love with her.
"Me, Caleb and Abby we tried to just make her smile," Lily explained. "My big brother Caleb, I accidentally tripped over him and then we got like a little smile from her."
Eventually the child relying on a feeding tube for all her nutrition would begin to eat by mouth as well. By age three, she would walk on her own. And her verbal skills developed as she enjoyed the company of a large family along with ongoing therapy.
Now, Phoebe can speak short sentences, count and even sing along to songs with her siblings. Her mother is confident that Phoebe will continue to thrive despite some ongoing medical challenges.
Andrews said about the need for families like the Langfords, "The demand is huge. We are always looking for another loving family to take care of these children."
Melissa Langford homeschools all her children and is able to be a stay at home mother. However, she encouraged other families to be open minded about ways they could make time for a child with special needs.
"I would say to anyone who would maybe consider taking a medically fragile child, would be consider your support system," Langford said. "It doesn't always have to be mom that's home all day, it could be dad, or maybe you have grandparents. My husband learns every piece of her care that I learn so that we can kind of trade in and out."
She suggested that a family might consider one parent being home full-time with a child for at least a short time, until their condition improves enough that they could attend some type of childcare setting.
Langford blogs about her family's adoption story and related topics at Blessed Simplicity.
You can find more information on free classes and other resources for people considering foster parenting or adoption at Omni Visions.