It’s been nearly five years since Brain, Child published The Myth of the Forever Family but I regularly receive email from readers who are struggling with their children and are wondering what to do.
Because of this, I thought I’d go back to the topic of post-adoption support in the hopes that it would help both those families who are currently parenting as well as hopeful adoptive parents—those still considering whether or not to add to their families via adoption—create adoption plans that would promote success for their children and their families.
To that end, I enlisted the help of Paula Andree, LISW-S, a therapist here in Central Ohio who has been working with children and families for more than two decades. In her private practice, Andree works exclusively with adoptive families around issues of attachment and trauma. She is also mom to three children who came to her family via adoption.
Andree says in order to be successful, potential adoptive families need to understand how damaging early abuse and neglect are to children in order to create more realistic expectations.
“Children who come out of these experiences can be profoundly affected in ways that are complicated and long lasting,” she says. “Parents often are not prepared for this and become overwhelmed and frustrated.”
Paula points to the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a child neuropsychiatrist and founder of The Child Trauma Academy in Houston. Dr. Perry’s research shows that children who have been emotionally neglected do not have the neural capacity to overcome early deprivation and trauma without specialized support. Abuse and neglect can cause actual brain damage; therefore to expect children from deprived environments to function in the same way that typical children do is unrealistic.
“The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions,” writes Perry in the report “Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood.” “Information about these problems can prevent you from misunderstanding the child’s behaviors. When these children hoard food, for example, it should not be viewed as “stealing” but as a common and predictable result of being food deprived during early childhood. A punitive approach to this problem (and many others) will not help the child mature. Indeed, punishment may actually increase the child’s sense of insecurity, distress and need to hoard food.”
Traumatized children may also struggle educationally. Many of them have learning disorders or anxiety that negatively impacts their ability to learn. Parents who dream of attending their child’s high school graduations or have high hopes to witness their advancement in a professional career may need to adjust their expectations to be more realistic.
“I’ve worked with families who diligently put money into their child’s college fund, but over time realize that the real need is to access services so their child can live and function semi independently as an adult,” says Andree. “That’s a very difficult shift to make.”
Andree points out that adjusting goals doesn’t mean lowering expectations as much as changing them.
“Then this carries over to how the whole family identifies themselves and how that changes over time,” she says, adding that when she’s working to help a child heal she’s also helping parents learn to see growth in smaller steps and triumphs.
The Coalition of Adoptive Families, a support group in Central Ohio, also hopes to make a difference by educating and supporting families. Deborah Gnann, one of the co-founders of the group, feels that parents need to connect to each other and to adult adoptees, whose experiences are an invaluable source of information. COAF meets monthly, hosting a speaker each session and then leaving room for discussion. Their goals for the future include a directory of support services vetted and screened by families who have actually used the services as well as opportunities for parents to connect individually. Gnann understands the value of online community but feels parents who can talk to each other face-to-face can be better served, particularly since it allows them to uncover local resources.
For families and potential families who aren’t sure where to start creating their own adoption support resources, I offer the following list as a starting point:
1. The placing agency: Those who are thinking of adopting should choose an agency with post-placement needs in mind. A bulletin board or Skype sessions aren’t enough for families who may need a real life connection and support. What does your agency offer for families in your area? Can they help you connect with adoption-competent professionals? If you’ve already adopted and your agency does not offer much in the way of help, contact other agencies that have done placements in your county or state. Many of them are willing to help families who have not used their services or can at least give them information.
2. Your nearest children’s hospital: Many children’s hospitals have international adoption clinics and are well aware of the specific needs of children coming from other countries. If they don’t, they may still have clinics and services that address the needs of children who are struggling with behavioral issues. Talk to the intake coordinator and find out what’s available for you. (Note: Parents who have children who are struggling need to get good at coordinating care. Create a dedicated notebook to keep track of whom you talked to and when since getting services is usually a complicated process.)
3. Your state or county Department of Children & Family Services office. Start with the Child Welfare and Information Gateway. There is a lot of good general information and links to your own state’s resources. Here in Ohio we have the Post-Adoption Special Services Subsidy (PASSS) program, which is administered through the county offices. Andree, who accepts these funds when working with families, explains, “PASSS will cover the cost of services that are not covered by Medicaid, insurance or other adoption subsidies. It will cover the cost of respite services and when residential treatment is needed, PASSS can be used to cover that expense. Each adopted child is eligible for $10,000 per fiscal year, $15,000 in special circumstances. It really is a program that goes a long way in maintaining permanence for children.” Not every state has a program as all encompassing as PASSS but it’s worth exploring.
4. If the services aren’t there, connect with other adoptive parents. Ask the agencies, ask the children’s hospital, connect with foster-to-adopt support services and see if you can do what Gnann and her friends have done and create your own group.
5. Further, as Gnann points out, adult adoptees who have been through the struggle can also be a tremendous untapped resource. If your community has programs for adult foster youth, see if you can reach out to find mentors for yourself and your children. Programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters may also be able to connect your child to an adult who has had their own traumatic beginnings and thrived in spite of them. For a child—and a family—who is feeling scared or hopeless, connecting with a role model can be a game changer.
For those of you who have lived or are living the struggle, what have you found to be most helpful?
To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.