An LGBT couple who adopted three children with disabilities is urging others to do the same

Phil Ashton and Chris Smith with their three children

Phil Ashton and Chris Smith, both 41, adopted three children who all have a range of disabilities (Image: Phil Ashton)

Opening your home to a foster child can be a beautiful experience and, for some LGBTQ+ couples, the start of a real family.

Phil Ashton and Chris Smith, both 41, originally wanted to adopt a toddler so they’ll have plenty of firsts — like their first words and first steps.

The couple, who live in Merseyside, have indicated to their local adoption agency on their preference list that they would like a child with no significant disabilities.

They didn’t want to worry about medical needs and instead focused on the joys of parenthood.

But life doesn’t work that way and 10 years later the pair are the proud adopters of Nathaniel, 11, and brothers Oliver, 8, and Charlie, 7, who all have a variety of disabilities.

Phil, who works on the local council, held back tears of pride as he spoke to about his children and how they’ve all developed over the years.

“Look past the paperwork, look at the opportunities and meet the children with disabilities,” he said, offering advice for other potential adopters.

Phil (left) and Chris (right) with Oliver (bottom left), Nathaniel (middle) and Charlie (bottom right)

Phil (left) and Chris (right) with Oliver (bottom left), Nathaniel (middle) and Charlie (bottom right) (Photo: Phil Ashton)

Charlie, Oliver and Nathaniel on a hike

Hiking is just one of the many activities the family enjoys (Image: Phil Ashton)

“You’re going to have a lot of firsts with a child with disabilities that you won’t get with other children. It sounds bizarre, but you might not necessarily see her first steps — in our case, we didn’t.

“But we did teach our youngest Charlie to eat again as he was previously very restricted. Getting him to eat curry when he’d only eaten sausages before was a first.

“I remember almost crying. As much as you give, they will give you back.’

Children with disabilities and siblings like Nathaniel, Oliver and Charlie are said to be “harder to place” despite these “life-changing” benefits, according to Phil.

Minority ethnic children also take an average of three months longer than whites, while children over five take 13 months longer.

These groups represent 65% (1,220) of the 1,890 children currently awaiting adoption in England, according to the latest data from the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board (ASGLB).

And about 760 of them have been waiting for their housing for 18 months or more.

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Chris and Phil’s journey began in 2011 when they first inquired about the process, but it wasn’t until 2013 that they began filling out mountains of paperwork, conducting DBS and medical exams.

On the day they were approved, the couple raced to a nearby toy store and then to a celebratory pint at the pub.

There weren’t that many children available at the time, so they were told to prepare for a long wait.

Their social worker recommended that they attend an activity day where they could meet the ‘more difficult to place’ children, their social workers and carers.

It was here that Chris and Phil met their eldest, Nathaniel, who has ADHD and global developmental delay.

Phil recalled being this “excited” and “wild” three-and-a-half year old, running around making havoc and eating Play-Doh.

“He was completely different from what was written on the paper,” his father said. “I just remember thinking how can we get this little boy to come and live with us.

Charlie, Oliver and Nathaniel with family members

The children with their grandmother and aunts during a birthday party (Image: Phil Ashton)

“Chris had a really sweet bond with him. Nathaniel just stole our hearts and we immediately asked our social worker “What about him?”.

Nathaniel moved in with Chris and Phil in December 2014 which made the holiday even more special.

With the encouragement of his father, the boy matured greatly over the next two years, and his parents decided to adopt a little brother for him.

This time the couple wanted a child aged 0-2 years without disabilities.

Phil said: “We primarily thought that this little one could help Nathaniel come along in a lot of ways and we could still focus on those disabilities. It didn’t work out the way we wanted.”

In March 2018, he recalled meeting this beautiful, red-haired little boy who also had a sibling with whom he lived in foster care.

Originally, the two brothers, Charlie and Oliver, were going to be adopted by separated families, but Chris and Phil fought hard to keep them together.

Charlie, Oliver and Nathaniel and their father Chris

The family often takes long walks in nature (Picture: Phil Ashton)

Family trip to Disneyland in Paris

Last year they took a trip to Disneyland in Paris which the kids adored (Image: Phil Ashton)

“It was heartbreaking to think that they would be separated,” Phil said. After many hurdles, three became five in one year.

Nathaniel is currently working about three years pedagogically and four years later emotionally.

He is scared and will probably go to a technical school next year. His fathers take him swimming and hiking to improve his coordination, and Nathaniel climbed Snowden at the age of five.

Oliver is autistic and also has global developmental delay and works about three to four years behind.

He has some mobility issues and gets tired very quickly. He also has to wear glasses but has smashed every pair of glasses his dads bought him – five at last count.

“If he can’t assert himself, he does,” Phil explained. “He gets angry and upset about a lot of things, but generally it’s because he’s very tired.”

Nathaniel and Charlie play soccer together and Oliver tries to join in as best he can.

Charlie, Oliver and Nathaniel

They’re a tight-knit group and the youngsters look out for each other (Image: Phil Ashton)

Phil said, “He’s the best paramedic around because if someone falls, he hugs them.”

Her youngest, Charlie, is currently on the ADHD path but is not academically or emotionally retarded.

What Chris and Phil have learned is that all disabilities are different.

The two have no regrets about their decision to adopt their beloved children and urge others not to let disability or age hold them back as they will miss many “precious moments”.

They remember how just this week Nathaniel burst into their room with a picture he had drawn of his fathers and brothers, saying, “I love my family. You are all incredible. You make my life safe and secure. We love you.’

“It was so out of the blue,” Phil said. “I didn’t know what to say. When Chris showed me I started crying.

The surprise picture Nathaniel painted for his family

The surprise picture Nathaniel drew for his family (Image: Phil Ashton)

“Chris was on the rise too, he was so proud. All those precious little moments, they come out of nowhere.”

As part of the A Life Less Ordinary campaign, new data from You Can Adopt shows that almost a third (31%) of people in England would consider adopting a child.

The majority of them are most open to adopting a child between the ages of one and four (88%), while almost four in ten (39%) would not adopt a child with additional needs.

One in four (26%) would also not adopt a sibling group.

Mark Owers, Chair of the National Adoption Recruitment Steering Group, said: “While some groups of children are seen as ‘harder to adopt’, they are no harder to love.

“That’s why we’re highlighting those children who typically wait the longest to adopt — such as sibling groups, older children, children of color, and children with additional needs.”

“We urgently need to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding the adoption of these children and find parents who can give them loving, stable and lasting homes.

“Most prospective adopters already have the skills and qualities they need to change the course of these children’s lives.

“While it’s not always easy, support is available and the acceptance is so rewarding.”

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Justin Scacco

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