FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Adopting At-Risk and Special Needs Child

with Paul and Robin Pennington | September 2, 2011
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Thousands of children are waiting for homes, and many of those waiting have special needs. Paul and Robin Pennington, who have parented six children, four of whom have special needs, talk about their own journey of adoption and what they've learned along the way. Paul also shares a touching story about his grandson, Benjamin, a special needs child adopted from Korea.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Thousands of children are waiting for homes, and many of those waiting have special needs. Paul and Robin Pennington, who have parented six children, four of whom have special needs, talk about their own journey of adoption and what they've learned along the way. Paul also shares a touching story about his grandson, Benjamin, a special needs child adopted from Korea.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Thousands of children are waiting for homes, and many of those waiting have special needs.

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Adopting At-Risk and Special Needs Child

With Paul and Robin Pennington
September 02, 2011
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Bob:  A growing number of parents have made the choice to sacrifice and to care for children with special needs, children they’ve adopted into their family.  How can we as their brothers and sisters encourage those parents and minister to them?  Here is Paul Pennington.

Paul:  All over the United States there are families who have adopted special needs and kids from hard places, and when they go to church Sunday after Sunday there’s never a break, there’s never a rest, there’s no one that really has thought about what it means to be a family called to take a child like that. 

As special needs adoption increases, the one place where a family should feel safe, the one place where they have someone that understands, that gives them just that hour once a week where they can worship, should be their church.  In those churches where they do think about that and they’re being intentional, it’s an incredible ministry.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today® for Friday, September 2nd.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  When a family in your church makes a decision to adopt, those children become a part of the covenant community, and you become a part of the support structure for those families.  We’ll talk about that today.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  I know when you and Barbara made the decision years ago to adopt, to expand your family by adoption that was something that God had put on both of your hearts.  But I also know that you were not fully prepared for some of the challenges that would come with that decision.

Dennis:  I would say this, Bob.  I’ve had a lot of privileges in my life.  Adopting our daughter Deborah is right up there in the top five.  It’s just a privilege to say to a child, “We want you as our own, and we’re going to graft you into our family, and we’re going to love you as God empowers us to love you.”

The thing that Deborah would say today and that we would say is that it was not nearly as easy as we expected it to be.

Bob:  Not as easy for you, or for her?

Dennis:  No.

Bob:  It was a challenge for her?

Dennis:  Well, you know, she was an infant so I don’t think she had any expectations.  She was looking for another meal at that point.  But I think Barbara and I both entered into the whole process of adoption with the right motivation.  We felt like God was doing a work in our hearts calling us into this privilege.  But I think there are lessons to be learned.

You know, our Heavenly Father is in the adoption ministry, too.  He’s adopting people all over the world right now.

Bob:  Some hard cases.

Dennis:  And they’re struggling, all of us.  It’s not just some of them; it’s all of us from time to time reject the Father’s love.  I think it’s in those moments when those of us who do adopt a child and welcome him or her into our family, when we need some outside resources to come alongside us and to equip us to know best how to love that child.

We have a couple with us who are real – I don’t want to use the word “pro’s”, because that’s really not what we’re talking about here –

Bob:  How about “veterans?”  Can we call them veterans?

Dennis:  That would be a great one, because they have six children; five of them are adopted.  They’re just, in my opinion, real champions for the orphan.  Paul and Robin Pennington join us on FamilyLife Today.  Robin, Paul, welcome back.

Robin:  Thank you, Dennis.

Paul:  Thanks, Dennis.

Dennis:  A lot of our listeners know them.  They’ve been in touch with Paul and Robin.  I’ve always wondered how Paul gets everything he gets done during the day.


Back in 2002 Paul and Robin started an orphan care ministry in their local church.  They wandered into Little Rock one day, kind of commandeering a lunch, which we’ve already talked about earlier, and ended up coming here to FamilyLife and rolling up their sleeves, and really giving birth to more than just Hope for Orphans®, which is a division of FamilyLife, but also being a part of helping to give birth to the Summit, which is a gathering spot for orphan care, adoption advocates and foster care leaders from all over the United States and around the world, and now are helping couples all around the country know how to navigate the sometimes-challenging waters of raising an adopted child.

Bob:  I just want to add – you guys didn’t just adopt five kids, but Robin, these were kids who were coming into your home with physical challenges, who were going to demand more effort, energy, more of your time, more of your care.  You were stepping up and being sacrificial from day one.   Tell me about the physical challenges that some of your kids had, and that you knew about as you were bringing them into the home.

Robin:  Well, first of all, Bob, we weren’t smart enough to ever think about it like you just said.  We adopted them one at a time and didn’t really see a lot of the challenges until later.  And some of the challenges that we were concerned about ended up not being of any concern at all.  Our first adoption was a domestic newborn who was a Caucasian little baby girl, and she now has five children and one of hers is adopted.

Then our next child we adopted as a ten-day-old infant, and he is a black American, and then after that we had a big eight-year gap.  And then Ethan was our first international adoption from Korea, and he was not special needs.  And then after Ethan came Hope, and she had five heart defects and kidney issues and other problems.

Then our next one was Noah, who has short arms.  Out of all of those children our biggest concern was Noah.  We thought that his needs were going to be huge.  I remember Paul saying before we decided to adopt him that he really didn’t know if he could parent a child that had needs like this, and he didn’t know if he would be what this child needed.  Interestingly enough, that has ended up probably being our easiest child out of all six.

Dennis:  Now when you say that, what do you mean, “The easiest?”

Paul:  A lot of families think that adopting the child with a physical disability is the most difficult thing.  I think what Robin is saying is that we’ve learned that that’s not really the case.  In Noah’s case, here’s a little boy who was born with short arms, missing fingers, doesn’t have thumbs, has the best handwriting of my six children.

Robin:  By far.

Dennis:  And how long are his arms?

Paul:  His hands barely reach his mouth.

Dennis:  And I’ll never forget the first time I met him.  He was a delightful young man, and you described him as you just did now, Paul.  You described him as a problem solver.

Robin:  Mm hmm.

Paul:  He really is.

Dennis:  You wouldn’t think – you just wouldn’t naturally think that being born with a disability like that would create a mind that has to solve problems that the rest of us don’t even have to address.

Paul:  Yes.  The way Noah sees life is just really wonderful to me.  He doesn’t get frustrated; he just doesn’t give up.  He’s persistent, he’s creative, he’s an overcomer.

Bob:  You know, Paul, twenty years ago if we had been talking about adopting children, the kids with short arms or heart defects were being overlooked.  If most parents were going into an adoption agency, they were looking for the child to come with a clean bill of health.  They were looking for what we’d call the perfect baby. 

Today there is an openness.  In fact, many Christians are saying, “Our hearts and homes are open to kids with special needs, with physical defects.”  As I said, that can bring some challenges with it that parents aren’t prepared for.  You’ve started to see this, and Hope for Orphans is really working to help churches and couples understand some of these challenges before they arrive.  Right?

Paul:  That’s right.  We’ve been seeing a need brewing in the church in America for quite some time now.  Part of it is being driven by changes in the adoption landscape.  More and more adoption is changing internationally.  It’s decreasing and the kids that are available are increasingly special needs, older and waiting kids, kids coming from hard places. 

In fact this next year, we understand, maybe fifty to sixty percent of all the children from China will be special needs kids.  And as the orphan ministry movement has grown in the United States, we have more and more families that are willing to take these kids. 

But unfortunately there has not been the knowledge to be matched with that compassion as it should be.  And as a result, there is a tension coming here because the adoption agencies were designed twenty years ago really for healthy infant adoption, and now we have hundreds, thousands of believers who are adopting kids from foster care and internationally that have special needs, they’re older, actually they’ve come from very hard places.  And that’s where the need is great, and that’s what we’re trying to address with the Institute.

Dennis:  You mentioned the Institute.  Explain what the Hope for Orphans Institute® is all about.  It’s coming up here in a few weeks, right?

Paul:  Right.  The Hope for Orphans Institute will be on September 16th and the 17th at the Hope Center in Plano, Texas.  Our real focus here is the local church serving at risk kids and at risk families.  That’s our goal.

Dennis:  You’re training trainers.  When you speak of the local church, you’re wanting to equip perhaps some pastoral staff or lay couples who are giving leadership to orphan care, foster care and adoption ministries.

Paul:  That’s exactly right.  We have – this event is designed for leaders in the local church and orphan ministry, but equally for pastors, elders, those that are providing Biblical counseling and such, because it’s not if, it’s when.  This is coming.  There is a wave of this need coming; we see it every day.  The agencies cannot meet that need through child and family services.  The only place that can meet this need effectively and biblically is the local church.

Bob:  So – I’m trying to imagine a family adopting a special needs child.  How is that going to intersect with what’s going on in the local church?  I mean, they’re doing their worship service on Sunday and they’ve got small groups going on, and where’s the church going to get involved in this happening, Robin?

Robin:  Well, really through many means.  One of the most important is helping families before they adopt to be prepared for what’s to come, and that’s through the lay leaders in the local church.  The family who has already been there, walked that road before, can help this family before they get there.  What should your expectations be?  Because when you look at families that have successful adoptions, almost always the one key factor is that their expectations were realistic. 

And for families who are going into it with unreal expectations, they’re just appalled that it could be so difficult.  They don’t know where to go for help, and as the church comes alongside that family before they get into trouble, they can help that family to see what’s ahead for them, the needs of that child, and the needs of their children that are already in their home.

Dennis:  You had something – well, you’d have to call it a tragedy – occur in your family.  You had a daughter who adopted a special needs little boy, and from the very beginning you knew that the likelihood of him living a full, long life as we would think of it was not likely.  Explain what happened and how the local church came alongside your daughter.

Robin:  Our daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Matt, who have five children – well, actually they have six now – they adopted Benjamin from Korea.  He was a year old and had basically in laymen’s terms, half of a heart.  As they brought Ben home, his needs were even more significant than they had realized.  Through Paul and I helping, through their local church, who brought meals, who watched their other children while they went to doctors appointments – there was one point where they were in the hospital for six weeks straight with Benjamin.

And they’ve recently moved to Dallas near us, and they also attend The Village Church, and because Benjamin getting sick is such a concern with his heart and lungs, the church came alongside them and they set up a Sunday school class for our grandchildren.  It was amazing.  Every week they went to church and they just could not believe that people were giving their time for a private class for their kids.

We also see like at Prestonwood Baptist in Dallas, they have an entire Special Needs ministry, and the woman who runs that is going to be one of the speakers at the Institute to help people know how can your church reach out and help these families, not just with adopted children but biological children who have special needs so the parents can attend church.

Paul:  And the point is is that these churches are being intentional about welcoming and serving the special needs family, whether it’s an adopted child or a biological child.  One of the things we want to happen at the Institute is to give our attendees a vision for what special needs in the church should look like.

But going back to Benjamin for just a minute, just to show you what this can mean – when Benjamin was in the last days of his life, he actually – I’ll just kind of mention this – he told Robin and he told his mom – he said, “You know, I’m going to be going to see Jesus soon.”

Dennis:  How old was he?

Paul:  Turned six.

Robin:  He was turning six, but we didn’t know he was in the last days.  Ben had been using oxygen for about a year-and-a-half all the time, and if he went more than 15 minutes without oxygen he would pass out.  And my daughter and some friends in a Bible study started praying at the end of January that Ben might not need his oxygen anymore.  She didn’t tell anybody else other than this group that they were praying.

About ten days later Ben came to her and said, “I don’t need my oxygen.”  They told him, “Well, you do have to have your oxygen,” and he says, “No, I’m going to see Jesus.”  So my daughter and her husband prayed about it and they said, “Well, we’ll take him off and let him go for a few minutes, and then have it be ready to put back on him.”

They took him off and he turned pink instead of blue – like he normally was a grayish-blue because the lack of oxygen – he turned completely pink and looked normal for the first time.  None of us had ever seen that.  And he went week after week.  He told us that Jesus was coming to get him, and he told Elizabeth that he would miss her.

Paul:  He even said that “Jesus is going to pick me up in a red car.”  And then one morning the kids came and they said, “Something’s wrong with Ben.”  Noah and I ran down there and Elizabeth was holding Ben, and I heard her say, “It’s okay, Ben.  You can go see Jesus now.”  And he closed his little eyes, and it wasn’t five minutes and he was gone.

I think I made one phone call to the people who had been providing the special needs care for their family at the church.

Robin:  And they had been attending that church for a total of four months, so this was not the church that knew the family.  It was a church that reached out and said, “Here is a need, and we want to be a part of the solution.”  And as they came up the sidewalk after Ben went to be with the Lord, we were amazed that they sent their whole staff.  I mean, eight people were standing there and started talking to the kids and took the kids individually outside and talked to them and kind of worked through –

Paul:  Prayed with them.

Robin:  -- some of that with them and prayed with them.  But that’s just an –

Paul:  Illustration –

Robin:  -- example of what the church can do.

Paul:  And the truth is, is that all over the United States there are families who have adopted special needs and kids from hard places, and when they go to church Sunday after Sunday there’s never a break, there’s never a rest, there’s no one that really has thought about what it means to be a family called to take a child like that.

But in those churches where they do think about that and they’re being intentional, it’s an incredible ministry.  And that’s part of what we want people to see at the Institute, is that as special needs adoption increases, that the one place where a family should feel safe, the one place where they have someone that understands, that gives them just that hour once a week where they can worship, should be their church.

Dennis:  I want Bob to share in a moment how people can find out more information about the Hope for Orphans Institute, but I want to go back to Ben’s memorial service.  You gave all your grandchildren a little memorial gift to symbolize Ben’s life, and the reason I want you to share this, Paul, and I heard you say this before, who would think of adopting a little infant, a 12-month-old infant who’s terminal, who has half a heart?

But you made the statement that every life has dignity and every child has worth and value, and even if a child’s life is months, only lasts months, they deserve a family.

Paul:  That’s right.

Dennis:  And your daughter and son-in-law did that.

Paul:  They did.  Here’s a little boy that – there are thousands of these little boys and these little girls – and the doctors told Elizabeth he might live to be 20, but he could very easily not live for three months.  And Elizabeth says that she and Matt, as they prayed, they realized that either way, if they took him, at least if he’s not going to be here long, he could die with a family.

Of course, isn’t that what Jesus did for us?  His plan for us in our sin, before He made the world, was a family.  The answer for sin and the fall and all of the trash that we live on this planet with was that we could be part of a family.  And here’s this little boy with half a heart, and he came to Texas and he was our grandson, and God gave him faith. 

We witnessed something that is a demonstration of the reality of God’s Word and His truth, and this little boy believed and he had faith, just like Jesus says that we have to have faith like a child.  We watched our little grandson, Benjamin, have that.  I always will remember for the rest of my life that when he said, “Papa, Jesus is going to pick me up in a red car,” he looked me straight in the eye, and he knew in the spirit that Jesus was coming to get him. 

This is reality.  I was there when he was dying with Noah and Elizabeth and Matt, and when she said, “It’s okay, Ben.  You can go see Jesus now,” he just closed his eyes and he was gone, because he believed. God had given him faith.

So at the funeral I got all of the boys together and their dads, and I gave them each a little red car, and I said, “I want you to remember and keep this car, because the most important thing you can know is who is going to pick you up at the end of your life, and you want that to be Jesus, just like He picked up Ben this week.”

Dennis:  I think what you’re touching on there is a part of the physical lesson of adoption and the spiritual reality that God wants to adopt us.

Paul:  Yes, He does.

Dennis:  That He died and went to the cross and rose again on the third day so that He could indeed invite us into His family.  And yet we’ve got to receive the gift.  We’ve got to reach out to the gift and take it.

Paul:  And it’s not about being good enough.  It’s not about being smart enough.  It’s not even about having a whole heart.  It’s just about being willing to receive.  And there are folks who are out there that are listening who feel like they’ve not been good enough and they don’t deserve it, but the truth is, none of us deserve it.  All you have to do is be willing to receive that gift.

Dennis:  And cry out to Jesus Christ, and pray the sinner’s prayer, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  I believe God at that point, I think He rescues, I think he declares you not guilty, and I think He places you in the ultimate forever family.

Robin:  That’s right.

Bob:  And maybe some of our listeners have never understood what it means to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and we’d love to send you a copy of a booklet called Pursuing God.  It’s our hope that you would not only understand better what it means to be a Christian, but that you would surrender, you would respond to God’s love for you by surrendering your life to Him.

You can call to request a copy, 1-800-FLTODAY, or go online at  Again, the title of the book is Pursing God.  Just ask for it; we’re happy to send it out to you and we hope it will help you understand what it means to become a Christian and help you make the decision to follow Christ and to obey Him.

We also want to encourage you to get more information about the upcoming Help for Orphans Institute.  This is being held on September 16th and 17th, so just a couple weeks from now.  It’s at the Hope Center in Plano, Texas.  Some of the nation’s leading experts on adoption are going to be at the Institute, there to equip you and your church to be able to better support adoptive families who are in crisis.

If you need more information about the Hope for Orphans Institute, and there’s still room available if you’d like to attend this event, go to our website,, and you’ll find a link there that will get you all the information you need.  Again the website is, or call us for more information at 1-800 “F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word “Today.”

Now, let me say a quick word of thanks to those of you who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  We are listener-supported; the cost of producing and syndicating this radio program is covered by folks like you who say, “This program means a lot to us and God has used it in our lives.  We want to make sure it continues, not only for us, but for our whole community here on this local radio station.”

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Last year I presented this message as a part of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation National Convention.  By the way, their National Convention is coming up next month in Louisville, Kentucky.  The focus this year is on psychiatric disorders, and there’s information on our website at about that upcoming conference as well.

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And we hope you have a great weekend.  Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and we hope you can join us back on Monday when Michael and Heidi O’Brien are going to join us, and we’re going to hear a great love story and some great music as well.  I hope you can tune in for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today

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