A radio program about raising kids with special needs encouraged an Ohio couple to expand their family.
Little did they know at the time that a baby boy who was "sentenced to a life of disabilities" by his birth parents would soon enter and change their lives forever.
Eric and LeAnne Stadler married in 1996 and welcomed a son and a daughter. They lived "the fairytale life" for a few years until Eric listened to a poignant family-focused radio show.
The couple went on to have another biological son and daughter. But after moving to a country house with land, they realized there was still space in their home and in their hearts. LeAnne's parents had fostered children in need, and LeAnne had seen the toll it could take, but she and Eric felt an urge.
The couple took classes and became licensed "Foster to Adopt" parents in 2014. Three years of valuable experience later, Eric and LeAnne received a call from Children's Services about a 2-month-old baby boy, Easton, in desperate need. They didn't hesitate.
Easton was frail, gaunt, and blue.
"For the first time in my entire life, I was afraid to take home a baby!" LeAnne recalled. "I had never seen anything like him. He was blue!"
"He was so pitiful ... he honestly resembled an alien," LeAnne added.
In fact, the baby boy was starving. Doctors had diagnosed "Non-Organic Failure to Thrive" (NOFTT), meaning that Easton was capable of gaining weight but simply hadn't been fed.
A nurse had made the call. During a state-ordered visit to Easton's birth parents' home, she had found the baby sleeping in soiled clothing, unfed, and covered in dog and cat hair, LeAnne recalled. The nurse called the authorities. A detective removed Easton from the home on the very same day and launched an investigation into suspected abuse.
"He never once cried. He never once woke to eat on his own. He couldn’t. That is failure to thrive," LeAnne wrote.
"When a child’s cries for care are not answered, they stop crying," LeAnne added. "When their hungry bellies are not fed, they lose their sense of hunger. That sweet baby boy had given up, but we were not giving up on him."
Safe and sound with the Stadlers, Easton was a quiet baby.
Easton received round-the-clock love and care. He started gaining weight, but still, something wasn't right. LeAnne described him as "like a rag doll" with a void behind his eyes.
An MRI confirmed non-accidental head trauma, and a heartbreaking diagnosis ensued: shaken baby syndrome. Questioned, Easton's birth father confessed to shaking the baby for crying and throwing him onto a sofa, inducing a seizure.
Neither parent called 911. The father was sentenced to four years in prison.
Initially, the goal for Easton's case had been reunification.
Speaking to The Epoch Times, LeAnne shared her family hopes to "make people aware of the reform that needs to happen" within the child welfare system.
"Easton had to continue visiting with his abusers [before his father's confession] and he suffered post-traumatic stress because of it. This is one of many things that need to change," she told The Epoch Times.
But things got better for the sweet baby boy. Easton grew; he started physical and speech therapy. Despite additional diagnoses of hypotonic cerebral palsy, dysphagia (a swallowing disorder), and dyspraxia (a speech disorder), the little warrior persevered.
He started learning to walk with a brace at the age of 2.
"He isn’t able to keep up with kids his own age, but he is happy!" LeAnne wrote on Love What Matters. "He doesn’t see his differences and he does not let them stop him."
Best of all, Ohio courts ruled for the county to take permanent custody of Easton, making him adoptable. Just like that first, fateful night, Eric and LeAnne didn't hesitate.
Just before his third birthday, they adopted Easton, "a child who God knew we needed," said LeAnne.
Easton still has struggles ahead, but his family, and his doctors, believe in him.
"[M]any have shared with us they never imagined he would be at the point he is at today," LeAnne said. "He has far surpassed their expectations. Love and nutrition can change a life."