When he started his adoption journey a decade ago, Benjamin Carpenter was the youngest gay adopter ever in his municipality. Now, the 31-year-old single dad has four kids and is considering adopting a fifth.
The organization First4Adoption named Benjamin Adopter Champion of the Year during the UK's National Adoption Week late last year. The award catalyzed a flurry of attention on Carpenter and his family, prompting him to assign pseudonyms to each of his kids.
Each of them has special needs: 8-year-old Jack is autistic and has autism-related OCD. Ruby, 5, has Pierre Robin syndrome, a visual impairment, scoliosis and limited use of her arms as a result of missing radius bones. Lily, Ruby’s 3-year-old biological half sister, is deaf and uses British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate. Newly adopted 1-year-old Joseph has Down syndrome and uses a colostomy bag.
Benjamin approaches each child's needs as just part of who they are, not their defining characteristic.
"All my children have the, 'I have a disability. So what?' attitude," he says. They enjoy what he feels is a normal family life on the Huddersfield, United Kingdom, farm they share with resident rabbits, chickens, geese, ducks and peacocks.
"As of yesterday, the weather was lovely. They were playing in the garden from morning 'till night," he says. "Our life is so complete. They're complete with me and I'm complete with them, really," he says. While he fields the question “How do you manage?" quite often, Benjamin says it’s just what he’s meant to do — and so far, the kids have been relatively easy.
"I've been very lucky. I may get it when they become teenagers. Obviously they will have their own demons when they get older with their adoption."
He receives an adoption allowance from Social Services for each of the children since they have special needs, allowing him to stay at home full-time aside from teaching BSL in schools.
All the kids are learning to communicate with Ruby. Benjamin is teaching them Makaton, a simplified form of sign language, in lieu of BSL. Ruby’s difficulty moving her arms prevent her from forming the signs, so the sisters have learned to communicate in other ways.
"They do it through facial gestures and body language. It's quite fascinating to see, really, when they're together," Benjamin says.
In fact, Ruby has learned to do many things independently without the use of her arms. Whatever the challenge, Benjamin resists the urge to do it for her, instead talking her through doing it on her own.
"She's learned to adapt, so she'll use her legs or she'll use her mouth or chin to do it," he says.
The kids share a collective dream of making their way to Orlando, Florida and visiting Disney World.
“They want to do all the white knuckle rides when they’re older — and I can see them doing it, especially my son," Benjamin says.
Joseph’s adoption was finalized earlier this year. Benjamin is already talking about adopting a fifth child. But first, Joseph will undergo surgery to reverse his colostomy.
Joseph was given up for adoption by the parents when they learned he had Down syndrome rather than being taken out of their custody by the state as is the case with most foster kids. As a result, until the adoption was finalized, the parents retained nearly full parental rights.
"They could, if they wanted to, have changed their mind," Benjamin says. Until the final court hearing, Joseph’s birth parents were so involved in his life that Benjamin had to consult about even the smallest decisions that affected Joseph — even taking him in for a haircut.
Since the adoption finalized early this summer, he's breathed a sigh of relief.
"The fact of the matter is, he's now in a loving, stable [home]," he says. "The kids absolutely adore him. Jake is the first to go up to someone and say, 'This is my little brother!'"
Though he began seeking to be an adoptive parent four years prior, Benjamin wasn't matched with a child until 2010.
"I knew what I wanted, really, and it was quite difficult to adopt because I was out to prove myself," he says. Though same-sex adoption seems normal now, at the time, he felt himself under high scrutiny.
All he knew was that his first child, Jake, came from a rough background. Later, Benjamin learned Jake had autism and OCD. Experienced in working with adults who have "complex needs," Benjamin found his calling: Within two years, he was seeking to adopt another child with special needs.
When he's not spending time with his children, Benjamin works to educate other would-be adoptive parents.
“I do so many talks in my local [community] where I am — and when I first start my meeting with these prospective adopters, I ask them, ‘What are you looking for in adoption?’” he says. “Every adopter starts in their heads with what I call the Angelina Jolie or Madonna adoption — where everything is perfect.”
Many children over 4 years old, and those with special needs, struggle to be placed with a family because they do not fit that mold. Benjamin shows them photos of his own children and tells his story — the good and the bad — and tries to dispel the notion of “normal.”
"For me it's about getting people to think outside the box."