When Jake Dekker* first heard about the boy who would later become his son, he had a strong negative reaction. Nine-year-old Danny* had been diagnosed with ADHD, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and something called reactive attachment disorder. He’d grown up in foster care, having been abandoned by his mother as a baby and then later abused by the people who were supposed to protect him.

How he met, got to know and ultimately adopted the boy named Danny is the subject of Dekker’s memoir, One Kid at a Time. (To protect his son’s privacy, Dekker used a pseudonym for himself and his son.)

In an interview with Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller, Dekker described their first meeting at a Red Robin in Tacoma as “bizarre.” “It started out feeling like the worst possible double date and I wanted to turn around and go home,” said Dekker.

Even in that first meeting, Danny, who had been told he was meeting a potential adoptive father, immediately started calling Dekker “Dad” and seemed “desperate to connect to someone.”

“He was all in from the beginning with me,” said Dekker. “At first it pushed me away when I thought about it, but my heart recognized his need.”

Despite the awkward beginning, Dekker said that, by the end of the lunch, “I saw something that I liked, that I could connect or resonate with … and I’m like, ‘I think I want to be this kid’s dad.’ “

Growing up, Dekker never thought he’d be a father. He was gay and hadn’t seen any good examples of people like him being parents. In addition, he battled substance abuse and for a time says he couldn’t imagine bringing a child into his alcoholic world. But Dekker got clean, found a long-term partner and slowly began to recognize his deep desire to become a father.

“I’ve had plenty of challenges myself and I think that gave me a recognition that people can change,” said Dekker. “Just because someone looks kind of hopeless or appears to have insurmountable obstacles, we do sometimes change. So for me the fact that [Danny] liked to lie and steal and had these issues or did these bizarre things wasn’t completely out of the realm of my own experience.”

Dekker says he wanted to write the story in part to talk honestly about the difficulties of adopting in the foster care system and to let people know they can be overcome. 

“It was a long journey and I had no idea how challenging it would be. It’s not a very functional system and I found that much of my time and much of our effort, instead of being spent on Danny, was being spent trying to deal with the demands of the system.”

* The names (including the author) are pseudonyms to project the privacy of his son.

Listen to the full Think Out Loud interview.