Our experience would have been easier if I’d had time (and awareness) to research disruption five years ago.
We entered the foster-adoption realm with no idea of the mammoth task we undertook. Helping disrupted children find peace, security and closure is no picnic.
Actually, maybe it is a picnic. One with a Mad Hatter. An insane, unbelievably weird picnic. Pretty much the only way we differed from Alice: we weren’t on drugs.
Our kids were 5 (he) and 7 (she) when they came to us through a foster placement. They expected to be reunited with their biological family. In their minds, we were temporary.
If we’d had the following information, our first two years together might have been very different.
Caring for Children who’ve Experienced Disruption
1. If possible, maintain consistent care for the child immediately after a disruption, keeping the same daycare, childcare, school and teachers.
This particular point still makes me grit my teeth; our kids had three families, three schools and three home environments in forty days. If social services had honored my request to enter them in our school district with family #2, we could have at least cut out the school change. (And if they hadn’t lost our fingerprints, we might have eliminated family #2 altogether…but that’s another story…)
If at all possible, collaborate with your social worker to limit the number of environments to which your child must acclimate.
Think of the last time you switched employers. The stress of learning all-new expectations, routines and ways to perform tasks. Imagine how much deeper the “newness” anxiety affects a child.
2. Just as children need to be prepared for each step of the adoption process, adults need to explain each step of a disruption in a way that children can understand.
Social services didn’t tell the children termination of parental rights (TPR) was in process. Instead, they cut off all visitation in anticipation of the TPR and moved them to our house with no warning or explanation to the kids. Although we hoped to adopt, we agreed to foster them even if reunification was still the goal. Within six months, TPR was complete and adoption with us was the new target.
We were new to the foster-adopt situation and followed the directions given by the social worker (“don’t tell the kids anything”). She sprung a “last visit” on all of us after the TPR was complete. We weren’t allowed to tell the kids it would be the last time they saw their biological family.
And yes, looking back, I realize that keeping the kids in the dark was not the way to go, but the social worker made it clear that if we rocked the boat they’d take the children from us because she already felt we “couldn’t handle” them (they have severe behavioral issues).
We’d already seen them moved twice and knew they’d had 7 placements in just over 3 years. Not wanting to take the chance of having them removed, we went along with what the SW told us to do.
Every facet of the above situation exacerbated the stress and negative feelings already pulsing within the two small, angry creatures residing in our home.
3. Engage a therapist well versed in adoption and in disruptions.
Our first counselor, referred by the social worker, was very sweet. He did a great job of encouraging Hubby and me to continue survival. He recognized that the children were angry and behaviorally…challenged.
He gave us behavior charts and tried to help us address the behavior issues. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much to address the feelings BEHIND the behavior.
Three years in, we finally found counselors appropriate for the kids. These therapists are very familiar with Reactive Attachment Disorder, PTSD, grief and, of course, behavioral issues.
I can’t give strong enough encouragement here: find a counselor for your children. Ignoring the underlying grief will not make it go away. Be sure the counselor has specific experience with RAD, PTSD, grief and any other issues you’ve seen.
4. While the first tendency is to sever all ties between the child and the family, consider if this is the best practice and if it benefits everyone involved. Contact may be advisable in some cases to take care of unfinished tasks.
In our case, the social worker denied any access to the family. When the final visit was scheduled, we were instructed to hand the children off to a social worker in a grocery parking lot. We were allowed no contact.
On one hand, this is probably for the best. Knowing what they did to the kids, I might have done something regrettable. Or, if not regrettable, at least illegal.
However, the kids left an apparent treasure trove of toys behind This caused a great deal of angst; to this day, they talk about those toys. Supposedly, the social worker asked the family for the toys and they refused to hand them over. I have a feeling we’ll get a different side of that story eventually. Either the SW never even asked for them, or there were never toys to begin with.
We also requested pictures of the family and of the kids as babies/small children; the SW said this was denied as well. Again, I wonder if she really asked. Having those pictures would have been great. Our daughter frequently mentioned a photo of herself as an infant and wished she had it, especially when her class did a project using everyone’s baby pictures.
5. Consider holding a ritual around the unraveling of the adoption, after consulting the child’s counselors and therapists. If indicated, carry out the ritual in a way that the child can understand and can participate.
Our kids are under the impression that the foster family (where they lived for 18 months) was happy to be rid of them. They don’t understand what went wrong. One reason for the move was their behavior, but it wasn’t the only reason. The family had already adopted one child and decided not to adopt further children. It wasn’t “just” our kids—they haven’t adopted any others.
Because we took the kids to the same dentist (trying to find some ways to keep continuity), I found a note in their file. The parents told the dentist that the kids needed a family with no other children willing to take them on and give them stability long-term. They weren’t able to do it. (Why they felt the dentist should know…I’m not sure.)
We weren’t allowed contact with the former foster family, either. I wish we’d been able to communicate; we might have learned that the placement ended for a completely different reason. Regardless, being able to talk through the reasons, grieve the loss and move on would have been better than having no information whatsoever.
6. Therapist Vera Fahlberg suggests that a child’s placement history be reconstructed, identifying a person to whom the child was able to attach and working cooperatively with that person in planning the child’s future.
In our case, the unfortunate truth is that there was no individual with whom the kids had attachment of any kind except possibly the grandparents. However, according to the SW, they were unwilling to get involved or help in any way. If the disrupted child does have someone in their life with some attachment, I imagine this could be very helpful.
7. Some school age children may need permission from a significant attachment figure in their past (face-to-face, via video or audio tape or in written form) before they feel free to join another family. The task of building a bridge for the child from one placement to another can be invaluable.
I wish we’d known to ask for this. A letter from a family member—especially from the grandparents—stating that “it’s okay” to settle in with the new family would have been extremely helpful. Our girl, in particular, still feels very loyal to their biological family. Attaching to us seems like betrayal. Permission to be happy might have ameliorated some of these feelings.
8. Just as parents need to describe their personal experience in order to move towards healing, so do children, often under the guidance of a trained professional during the adjustment period after a disruption.
As mentioned earlier, we’ve found a pair of excellent counselors. Our guy rarely talks about the past; I assume that will come out in teen years. Our girl, on the other hand, raves about how angry she is at her biological mother.
She’s still angry but has made great progress in talking her feelings through. We’ve even worked through some of that anger in positive ways (journaling, focusing on not allowing negative feelings to precipitate actions).
As I mentioned above, it’s possible that having some of this knowledge would have saved the kids—and us—from experiencing such high levels of heartache and stress.
I hope you’re able to use some of it to bring strength and healing to your family and the children you love.
Did I forget anything? Add your advice in the comments below!
*All quotes directly from the MNAdopt.org Fact sheet.