Text: Celia Polkinghorne • Images: Jason Haidar
Two-year-old Sam O’Brien is small for his age, but a very curious and charming little boy, full of laughter and smiles. He says some words, communicates with a few baby signs, is on his feet a lot, and is irresistibly cute. When Carl and Elizabeth O’Brien say, “We saw him and just fell in love,” it is easy to see why.
“It’s fantastic. He makes everything exciting and he’s happy about everything,” said his mother, Elizabeth.
Sam was born with Down syndrome, a congenital condition that causes slower mental and physical development.
“We had him evaluated to get his disability certification,” explained his father, Carl. “He’s about a year old developmentally. What a typical year-old baby can do, he’s doing right now.”
Other than that, he is just like other little boys. “He loves life, he loves music, and trains. And bananas,” Elizabeth smiled. “We’ll give him every possibility to do the things that other kids can do, just give him a little extra boost to get there.”
Carl and Elizabeth have found some special-education kindergartens in their area which they are comparing as they prepare to get Sam started with his education. He has frequent health checkups and receives regular therapy services – physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy once a week.
One of the specific things that we learned about Down syndrome is that it is more of an obstacle than a barrier. There isn’t a ceiling on his potential, just like there isn’t a ceiling on ours, it’s just going to take him longer to get there.
“I’ve been surprised at how much support there is in the medical community,” Carl said. “Our physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy are all just down the street at the hospital, and they’re great.
“The government provides a lot of support. There’s a governmental recognition of Down’s kids so there’s a lot of support there. But culturally, it’s still very taboo. They’re still compartmentalized that way,” he explained.
Carl and Elizabeth came to Japan from the U.S. in 2010 to work as English teachers initially for just a year or two. Like many foreigners who come to Kansai, however, the couple, who live in Ikoma, found themselves enjoying life here, and wanting to stay longer.
“Now with Sam, we don’t really have any plans to move back. We want him to grow up in his culture and show that Down’s kids are just as capable as other kids,” Carl said.
“As long as our work visa gets renewed, we’ll stay,” said Elizabeth. “We want him to be an advocate for himself and eventually be able to speak for himself.”
Not only have Carl and Elizabeth decided to make Japan their home for the time being, they have also become passionate advocates for disadvantaged children in Japan.
“There is also a stigma against adopted kids, especially orphans, here in Japan,” explained Carl. “That’s going to be our soapbox while we’re here in Japan I think.”
Carl and Elizabeth entered the world of adoption when they decided they were ready to have a family, but found they were not able to have their own children biologically. They looked into several options for adopting in Japan, and were eventually introduced to Ai no Kesshin. Meaning “Loving Decisions,” this non-profit organization, run by an American couple from their home in Shizuoka, takes in children with disabilities and helps to find them “forever families.”
“At first I think we kind of were like, OK this is a big deal, are we sure we want to do this?” Elizabeth recalled. “It really challenged our own motivations for wanting to adopt because at first we were like, ‘We want a baby!’ Then we were like ‘OK this is a baby that is going to need extra from us. Are we really up to this?’ But after realizing he’s a person and needs a family, how could we say no?” she said.
“I think a lot of the apprehension came from just not knowing what to expect,” explained Carl.
“When we heard about him at first, and that he had Down syndrome, we started obviously doing the research. One of the specific things that we learned about Down syndrome is that it is more of an obstacle than a barrier. There isn’t a ceiling on his potential, just like there isn’t a ceiling on ours, it’s just going to take him longer to get there.
“It takes twice as much energy for him to activate his muscles than it takes for us. So he gets tired faster. Yesterday we took him to the park for 20 minutes, and he still hasn’t recovered yet. He’s exhausted!”
For many couples, the cost of adoption and the amount of red tape can put them off of following through with it. But for Carl and Elizabeth, the process was relatively easy.
“Ai no Kesshin is a non-profit organization, so they just asked to be reimbursed for all the fees that they incurred for the child. So it’s a lot cheaper, actually, to adopt through them than it would be if we were in the U.S. trying to adopt internationally. Or trying to adopt internationally from Japan,” said Elizabeth.
“Because we don’t have to pay lawyer’s fees or anything like that, for Sam it cost a little over $3,000 USD.”
The couple went to visit Sam once before he was placed with them as a seven-month-old, and then started the ball rolling with the court system.
“The system is not necessarily set up for foreigners, but it works,” said Elizabeth. “It was complicated but doable. It was long, but not as long as other people are waiting. From the time he was placed with us until the adoption was finalized was six months, which is really reasonable. We had great case workers and everyone was really helpful.
“Now we just have to change his passport, get him another Japanese passport with his new name on that, and eventually immigrate him so that he’s also a U.S. citizen,” she said.
In fact, Carl and Elizabeth had so much success with the system that they are in the process of adopting another child with Down syndrome from the same organization – a little girl just three months younger than Sam.
Unexpected as it may have been, it seems that through their stint in Japan, the O’Briens have found their calling. They are offering encouragement and support to any families willing to adopt children in need in Japan.
“Kids are waiting. Our agency has 11 more waiting children right now. These kids need families and we really want to encourage people to rise to the challenge. Because it’s doable, and they’re valuable members of society and they deserve a voice,” said Elizabeth.
“They don’t get that family experience at all growing up in an orphanage. So they miss out on that whole life we take for granted.”
Originally published in Kansai Scene magazine – Sep, 2015. Read a Japanese translation of this article at kansaiscene.com
Ai No Kesshin
2-13-7 Karase, Aoi-ku, Shizuoka-shi, Shizuoka-ken 420-0937
Tel: (+81) 05-4247-9411
US Embassy Information on Adoption in Japan: