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An Adoptive Family’s Determination to Overcome Abuse and Disability

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(November is National Adoptions Month. Below is the first of several stories on adoptive families USCIS will be featuring this month. To learn more about USCIS and adoption, please visit our website.)

As a little girl growing up in Odessa, Ukraine, Valerie rocked her head and sucked her fingers at bedtime to help fall asleep, though she tried to hide it from her nannies. They didn't like Valerie’s behavior and would yell, "You stop that!" They would also kick Valerie and step on her sternum.

Valerie's adopted mother, Lora Lyon, cracks apart when she hears Valerie's childhood stories. But showing her sadness scares Valerie, so Lora hides it, scoots closer and squeezes her tight. "Baby, Mama sucked her thumb until she was 10 years old. It’s not a big deal. And, maybe someday you won’t need to do that!" Lora tells Valerie.

In Ukraine, the orthotic Valerie needed for her cerebral palsy was too expensive for her orphanage. Orthotics must be customized and remade every 6 to 8 months, so used orthotics wouldn't have worked. It wasn’t just a matter of walking "normally." A maladaptive gait can lead to wear and tear on hip and knee joints, which can result in the need for hip and knee replacements in early adulthood.

When Valerie speaks of Ukraine these days, she gets a far-off look in her eyes as if recalling a bad dream. Bits of her past still bubble to the surface, although with less frequency. After being in her new home for 18 months, she is almost unrecognizable from the girl her parents met in Odessa.

Lora and her husband, Dean Lyon, adopted their daughter, Valerie, in March 2012. "I'm sorry that happened to you, big girl," Lora told Valerie. "I'm really glad you live here in our family now."

Lora Lyon and daughter Valerie

Lora Lyon and daughter Valerie

Valerie smiled. "Me too, Mama."

The Lyons recorded Valerie on video to see her progress. "When you live with a child, the changes can seem subtle and develop so slowly that you really don’t see just how huge the difference has become," Lora said.

Looking at the initial video, Lora sees how tight Valerie's body is; her precarious balance; her left foot way up on her tiptoe; her right foot turned so far inwards that at times her toes nearly point to her left leg; and how much her whole body compensates in order to stay upright.

Valerie now has her needed orthotic. She is also receiving physical and occupational therapy through the school system, and performs daily stretches at home as prescribed by her physical therapist a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Watching Valerie now, Lora sees a more even walk; straight legs; and her ability to walk without needing to hold something, hop in place, skip, and manage steps without falling over.

Valerie and Family

Valerie and Family

Valerie has just begun first grade. She loves to learn, garden, make friends, explore and ride her bike. Most of all, she loves to be loved. The Lyons believe that Valerie may always struggle with the reality of her early beginnings, but they are giving her tools to deal with those traumas through counseling with a professional who specializes in adopted children. "These changes that are unseen are just as important and significant, if not more so, than the ones you can see," Lora said.

Lora met with Valerie's teacher to make sure everyone was on the same page regarding her goals this year. Her teacher said, "I know that Valerie is going to be successful at whatever she chooses to do in life. She has that grit; that determination. Her ability to size up a situation or person and know what needs to happen is really amazing. She is so smart and you can just tell she wants to do a good job. Nothing will stop her."