Supporting Permanency in Post-Adoptive Families

Supporting Permanency in Post-Adoptive Families

Nutshell logoIt’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?


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Reading is an Act of Communion

Reading is an Act of Communion

DawnMany years ago I wrote a post on my blog about being a child and accidentally learning how to do guided visualization. I described the exercise I invented—a quiet room in a little house, a closet overflowing with boxes containing my worries. My job was to stack the boxes that contained my anxiety.

“Once the worries were shut away,” I wrote. “I was free to leave the little one-room house. Outside was a garden, neat and vaguely hostile, with a path leading away back to my bed, where I could finally sleep.”

I did this exercise, I wrote, because I was eight years old and scared of multiplication. I wrote about the paper plate clocks hung over the third grade chalkboard, stickers marking our progress through the times tables.

I wrote about watching “the other clocks fill up with stickers while mine perched forlornly on the wall, steadfastly advertising my inadequacy.”

To finish the entry I typed that I wrote it because “I was remembering the imaginary room and its cold, quiet stillness.”

Then I hit publish and I walked away.

When I came back to my computer that evening the people in my comments were talking about their own experience with multiplication. Nobody mentioned the visualization, which surprised me. It was, after all, why I wrote the piece. It’s how I came up with the post title (“Mind Control”) and how I began and how I ended the entry.

When I reread it with their comments in mind, I realized that I hadn’t done a very good job of conveying the power of that room but I’d done a great job of conveying a kid’s anxiety at staring down the times tables. I also began to understand that struggling with multiplication is a universal experience and so even if I hadn’t done a very good job it was a story that would immediately speak to the reader. On the other hand, visualization—something so personal and specific—was a much harder sell.

My piece was completely upside down and lopsided and it was indeed about multiplication for the reader even if it wasn’t for me, the writer.

When I was in college and wearing a lot of black and doing a lot of scowling, I was also taking a lot of creative writing classes. Back then if people didn’t understand what I was saying I figured it was a comprehension problem. I figured I was the expert in what I was writing because I was the one writing it. When people in my class would say they didn’t understand what I was trying to say, I’d roll my eyes and dismiss their criticism. I was a writer; they were mere readers.

It took me a while to realize that for writers who want to be read, the reader is pretty darn important. Writing is one thing and being read is another. Writing is solitary, an act of discovery, and the joy of both process and product. Reading is another creative process that happens away from me. Once I set my writing free to be read it exists to evoke a response and an experience in someone else. The reader brings her own history, her own assumptions and her own prejudices to my work.

My words are static and they only come to life when my readers take them in. In other words, I may be the expert on what I meant to say but my readers are the experts on what I actually said.

Writing an essay or a story is a little bit like having a child. While that baby is in your arms you can protect it but when you send it out into the world it will evoke responses that you cannot predict and that you will not always understand. No matter how carefully we write we cannot control that space beyond our keyboards.

Stories live on out there in the world without their authors to stand by and try to explain their intention. Our stories go on to be a part of other people’s lives in ways we can’t imagine. The best we can do is to write as well as we can and trust our readers to their experience, even when they don’t get it exactly the way we wanted them to.

Most of the magic—the magic in the communion between writer and reader—happens without us. We do the work, we let it go and we let the reader have her way with it.

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The Stories Of Our Lives

The Stories Of Our Lives

I recently read an interview with Joan Didion where she expands on her famous quote saying writers are always selling people out. Here is how she explains it:

If you are doing a piece about somebody, even if you admire them tremendously and express that in the piece, express that admiration, if they’re not used to being written about … they’re not used to seeing themselves through other people’s eyes. So you will always see them from a slightly different angle than they see themselves, and they feel a little betrayed by that.”

Most people don’t understand that creative nonfiction is biased. It’s creative in that those of us who write it are using the facts (as we understand them) to write our way to a truth that is inherently personal. If we are writing from our own experience, we are sharing a perspective that is shaded in memory. We may write that, for example, that a little sister was forever whining or that a father was preoccupied with work but that sister and that father may remember it differently. The sister may remember that you were terribly bossy. The father might tell you that he was only distant during that difficult time when he was passed over for a promotion.

The truth is all of that. The truth is the bratty little sister and the bratty big sister. The truth is the worried father and the lonely child.

But when we write our stories down, they carry a weight that they don’t have when we’re telling stories around the dinner table during a family reunion. An essay published and out in the world has an authority that may feel threatening to the people featured in it.

When I talk to other writers about it and about their decision-making there’s a variety of responses. Some believe that speaking their truth takes precedence over the feelings of friends and family. Some always seek permission before taking pen to paper (or before sending it out for possible publication). But most of us take it step-by-step, piece-by-piece. We check in and we pull back. Or we write it all and then edit more. Some of us having written things we regret and some of us wish we had written with more honesty and less fear.

Personally I think we should write it all, write everything and write as true as we know how. But then I think before we give it to the world we have to edit with kindness and sensitivity.

For myself, I’ve certainly gone too far with work that is doggedly self-centered. I remember back when I was writing my personal blog way before blogging was anything anyone knew about and I wrote a pretty damning entry about my father. I didn’t bother to consider that he might be reading it and only heard later that he’d looked at that entry then called my sister to say, “She really hates me, doesn’t she?” I didn’t then and sure don’t know but I did during the time I was writing about. But I didn’t bother to shade what I was writing with the benefit of hindsight and so that entry sat bald and glaring, telling a truth that no longer needed to be told.

It was so easy to be caught up in my story – that time in my life where my feelings were so raw – and to forget that the people I were writing about weren’t static characters. I knew the happy ending (my eventual reconciliation with my dad) and didn’t consider that without current context my father just looked like a bad guy.

I’m fortunate that my father forgave me and I learned to be more cautious when I hit publish on a blog or send on a submission.

I’m curious about the rest of you writerly folk. Have you ever gone too far? Do you ever feel hemmed in by the expectations of friends and family? Do you talk about these things in your writer groups and with your writer friends?

How do you manage the challenge to be truthful in your work without violating the truth of others?

Family is Now

Family is Now

100_1669A picture came across my Facebook feed this Thanksgiving. It’s a snapshot of my daughter’s birth mom standing with her 4-year-old son and her younger sister. The three of them are standing in the family kitchen ready to start cooking the holiday meal. My daughter’s mom is wearing her chef’s apron and she’s loaned her little sister her chef’s hat. They are beautiful and they are happy.

My daughter looks like a replica of her birth mom, Pennie, and Pennie’s little sister looks just like her, too. They are like a triple carbon copy of each other and when I saw the photo I could picture my daughter standing there with them and it made me happy and it made me sad. Happy because I am always happy to see my daughter reflected in a family that may be far away but still loves her, and sad because they are so far away.

Parenting means getting comfortable with the understanding that family—any family—is ever changing.

I didn’t get that parenting the first time around. When I gave birth to my son I felt like this was our family eternally. His adulthood seemed so far away as to be nearly a fantasy. I bought much too expensive wooden toys in part because I couldn’t fathom him ever growing out of them; I felt like they needed to last forever because we would be forever. Even when we began trying for a second child it felt like we were planning to build onto a house; an addition that would seamlessly expand our home. But then the second baby didn’t come and so we sat down, considered our options and moved onto adoption.

Enter our daughter. Or rather enter her mother because more than gaining a child, we gained a whole other extended family. Even then I thought our family was constant. I couldn’t imagine Pennie ever moving and even though I knew she wanted more children, it seemed as impossible and fantastical as my son’s adulthood seemed when he was small. But she did have another baby, a wonderful son with his big sister’s sense of mischief, and because she wanted to raise him near her mom, she moved away and out of our everyday lives.

But before Pennie moved, she graduated from chef school here in town and her mother came out to go to the graduation. The five of us—Pennie’s mom, my son, Pennie’s son, our daughter—sat together in the auditorium and cheered as Pennie walked across the stage to collect her diploma. I cried because graduations always make me cry and because Pennie worked so hard to finish school and also because I knew she was moving. I knew that in a few weeks she and her mom would pack up her things and drive away, much too far for casual visits.

After the ceremony we all went out into the lobby to meet up with Pennie. The foyer was packed with happy graduates and proud parents and the crowd pressed us in. As we were worming our way through the people to get out to the parking lot I kept worrying about losing my daughter. Her grandmother was trying to break a path and Pennie was following, holding her son and then I was herding my daughter and my son in front of me. I put my hand on my daughter’s arm a couple of times and the second or third time she spun around to glare at me.

It was because she was aligning herself with her birth family and I was messing it up by claiming her with my attention. This was her birth mama’s glory day and by god, she was going along with it as her mama’s daughter. I knew it. I knew that’s what she was doing. I could see it in the way she leaned into her grandmother and in the way she kept her distance from me.

So I quit trying to touch her as we got through the crowd and I let her claim her family and let them claim her.

That claim, that’s what I saw in the picture on Thanksgiving, although my daughter is not in it. I saw her right to keep her distance someday, to step away from us in order to give herself the space to claim them. It was so clear in the reflection of her smile in the smiles of her mother and her aunt.

I imagine sometimes, what if my daughter grows up and doesn’t choose me? What if she moves to live near her other mom? What if I lose her to her birth family? And I think about that and I get scared. Then I think, so what if she does? I can’t worry about that; I can only parent now how I see fit and I can’t parent from a place of fear and insecurity.

Also I think about how things change. There was a period in my early twenties where I wasn’t speaking to my dad. Once he showed up at the restaurant where I was working so I just went out the back door and went home.

At the time I thought I’d never speak to him again. I thought I’d never like him again let alone love him. But now I love him. Things change. Life changes you. Life will change my kids in ways I can’t expect.

What I do know is that my family is now, here around me. My family is now, far away loving our shared daughter. Someday both my children will grow up and likely they will move away (certainly they will eventually leave my house!) and it will be hard because change is hard and I’m sure that I will miss them both. Someday they may not be speaking to me and they will not be able to imagine in a time where they will want to speak to me. Someday they may make excuses not to come home for the holidays.

Or maybe not. I can’t know.

I can only know now. My family is now.

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How to Balance Writing with Parenting

How to Balance Writing with Parenting

agathachristieI’ve always liked to read about writers’ lives and see how they arrange things so when my son was born nearly 17 years ago, I was thrilled when a friend gave me The Bluejay’s Dance, Louise Erdich’s memoir of writing after having her first baby. Only it made me depressed. I tried to read the book while nursing my son in our tiny one bedroom apartment. I read in fits and starts, falling sleep in the middle of a paragraph, startling awake and forgetting where I was. Louise waxed on about her tiny little writer’s shed in her backyard, her baby cared for by someone else or tucked quietly next to her and it all made me feel very gloomy.

It took me two years to get into the writing swing of things again. I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be, of course. I had no writer’s shed (I wrote at a table set up next to the washing machine, listening to the hum of cloth diapers on the spin cycle). I had no childcare (I wrote during nap time, that is if my son was willing to nap). But I started to figure out how to fit writing into my life again.

Parents know that caring for kids doesn’t make for a lot of free time; there are always things—laundry, cooking, shuttling to this or that activity—that will eat up every minute of the day. But because the domesticity of parenthood is made up of these kinds of mundane tasks there is a lot of time for thinking and it turns out that those times are ripe for non-writing writing work. If you’re stuck sorting socks, why not plan out a story or an essay?

That’s the truth about parenting and all of the mundane jobs around it—it can be rewarding or frustrating or challenging or fun but mostly it’s pretty boring and boredom begets creativity.

Much of the work of writing doesn’t happen at the keyboard (or with a pen and paper for the luddites among you). Writing takes a lot of thinking, a lot of daydreaming away from the workspace. This is a good thing for those of us writers, (which is most of us writers) who work around the demands of kids, partners and jobs. We can “work” while we’re stuck in traffic or half-listening to a colleague’s presentation or, as Agatha Christie says, while we’re doing the dishes.

When my kids were little, I did my not-writing writing work during slow, slow, slow walks around the neighborhood. My kids wanted to stop at every single crack in the sidewalk to check for ants and day dreaming is the only thing that kept me from losing my mind from the boredom. We would come home, I’d serve lunch and then I’d get them down for naps. Naptime was when I would hit my keyboard.

Now I do my not-writing writing work while driving. Sometimes I take the longest route to give myself some extra time and it’s best if I keep the radio off unless there are kids with me. In that case, I turn the radio speakers on to play only in the backseat and let them sing along to P!nk or “Wrecking Ball” so that they’ll leave me (mostly) to my thoughts. I planned this blog post during my commute to work last week since my commute home is usually eaten up with thoughts about my day.

This kind of not-at-the-desk work does take intention and there’s no substitution for putting your butt in the chair and writing it all down. But having space to worry at your narrative can help you pick through problems and create a trajectory so that when you do get to your desk, your work is much easier.

I decided to write this post because I know that Brain, Child has always been a writer’s magazine so I know there are writers reading here and I’m curious: When do you do your best thinking? And what’s helped you be most productive in those times?

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Adoptees As Mothers: A Roundtable Discussion

Adoptees As Mothers: A Roundtable Discussion

Nutshell logoSince 1995 November has been National Adoption Month. In honor of the month I wanted to use the roundtable to talk about the experiences of adoptees as mothers. Participating in the roundtable are:

Rebecca Hawkes who was adopted as an infant and is a mom both by birth and by open foster-adoption. She writes at and is co-founder of

Gina Kohn, also adopted as an infant and mom to two daughters by birth who are now adults. (In the interest of full disclosure, Gina is also my cousin by birth. We are forever grateful to the internet, which has allowed us to have a relationship although we have never met. Gina reunited with her mother – my aunt – as an adult.)

Catie Mehl, adopted in a private closed adoption and now in reunion with both her birth parents. Catie has two stepdaughters and also has two children by birth. She is a Certified Birth Doula, birth doula trainer, certified childbirth educator and a certified lactation counselor. Catie also co-facilitates the All Adoption Group here in Columbus, Ohio with Kate Livingston and me. Catie’s web site is

Rebecca: For me, the biggest adoption trigger connected to my daughter’s birth happened when she was three weeks old, the age at which I joined my adoptive family. I looked down at her sleeping and thought of all the changes she had gone through already in those few weeks as well as how completely I had transformed into a mother in that same time period. It felt like a lifetime, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that these three weeks, so rich in my daughter’s life, were the missing weeks of my life. I have no idea who fed or held me during that time. I think it was the first time I ever processed that as a loss. I recognized that I had a pre-adoption history though the adoption institution was set up in such a way that no record of it was passed along to me. The period between birth and placement had been treated as trivial but I suddenly recognized that it wasn’t. And neither were the nine months prior to my birth.

Gina: Currently, as a mom, I am dealing with empty nest symptoms. My older daughter is attending college far away from home and my youngest is attending a local college so she still lives at home. I think my adoption issues are surfacing due to the separation that is occurring. Although it’s such a natural process and I know that, sadness wells up from a cellular level within me and I’m having some grief over it.

Rebecca: “Sadness wells up from a cellular level.” Yes, absolutely. That’s it exactly.

Gina: I feel bad that my adoption has affected my children (and it will for future generations) forever; I call it the trickledown effect of adoption. We have a small extended family but we did form many positive, loving friendships that gave us that familial feeling. I was determined to let my daughters blossom into their own unique, authentic selves. As a child I didn’t have that opportunity. (I’m still trying!!) I encouraged their individuality and talents to emerge naturally. Seeing them develop and become who they are has helped me on my continuing lifelong search for authenticity. I truly feel that my daughters have taught me more about life, than I have taught them. They are so dear to my heart and soul.

Rebecca: The one other thing I might add is that my entry into motherhood also affected my relationship with my adoptive mother. I’ve only just recently come to understand that our different styles are largely rooted in our distinct personalities. We are just very different people. I think it can be hard for adoptive parents of my parents’ generation to accept and embrace the ways that their adoptive children are different from them because they were led to believe that we were blank slates, which we weren’t—at all.

Catie: I second Rebecca. I found the exact same thing to be true for my adoptive mom and myself.

Rebecca: As an adoptee parenting an adoptee I need to remember that her experience of adoption is her own and will not necessarily be exactly like mine; nevertheless there are certainly times when I am aware that we understand things about each other, specifically because of the adoptee connection.

Gina: I felt guilty for being so happy about my pregnancy. I had to carefully navigate the eggshells I tiptoed on around my adoptive mom. The issues they each had with the loss of never having their own biological children were never dealt with an adoptive mom had a competitive and jealous spirit.

Catie: I spent my whole life not looking like anyone in my family. Even after reunion, my husband and other friends would say I don’t look that much like my birth family (but pictures of my mom when she was younger say otherwise). I remember when my son was born and he looked just like my husband, Jim, I felt so disappointed. And the same when my daughter Lydia was born. She looked like him, too, and I was sad all over again. All of my life I’ve wanted to look like someone and I gave birth to two great kids and still can’t say I have anyone who looks like me. I know that’s probably silly and little, but it hurts.

Gina: I think as adoptees, we have always been looking for that familiar face. I can understand how that would be hurtful and disappointing. I don’t think it’s silly at all.

Rebecca: For me, the grief began rising up in my twenties, overwhelming me on a couple of occasions, but I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know other adoptees, hadn’t read anything about adoptee grief, and didn’t have the Internet yet, so I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It was a very lonely time. These days I derive a lot of benefit from the online adoptee community. It’s a tremendous relief to interact with people who understand what I have experienced because they’ve lived it too.

Author’s Note: As an adoptive parent, hearing the voices, thoughts, experiences and opinions of adult adoptees has made me a better, more responsive parent. I am grateful to the participants for sharing their stories with me. I hope other adult adoptees as well as other adoption constellation members—birth family members, adoptive family members—will feel free to comment with their thoughts.

Art by Michael Lombardo

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Informed Adoption for National Adoption Month

Informed Adoption for National Adoption Month

Nutshell logoThree years ago I wrote a feature for Brain, Child called “The Myth of the Forever Family,” which examined adoption disruption—when adoptive parents decide they are unable to parent their adoptive children. Part of the article discussed the underground re-homing movement, specifically quoting two posts from adoptive parents asking people to take their children from the group Christian Homes and Special Kids (CHASK). Movement from family to family like this often happens underground via yahoo group or online message board, out of reach of agency homestudies or social work visits.

Recently a series of articles published by Reuters, The Child Exchange: Inside America’s Market for Adopted Children, looked at the phenomena of re-homing in terrific detail, highlighting the risks for these vulnerable children as well as the lack of post-adoption support, which could make these disruptions less common. Children who are sent to through these underground networks are sexually, physically and emotionally abused.

Now, just in time for November’s Adoption Awareness Month, the Evan B. Donaldson Institute (America’s adoption think tank) has released a 176-page white paper, A Changing World: Shaping Best Practices through Understanding Of the New Realities of Intercountry Adoption, which addresses concerns about international adoption, disruption, illegal re-homing, and the needs of the children in question.

The report highlights the importance of helping countries keep children in their countries of origin whenever possible and when that cannot happen, internationally adopting families should have a great deal of pre-adoption education and post-adoption support. Currently, many agencies pay lip service to educating prospective parents on the special needs of adoptive kids but do very little in the way of real training and do even less when it comes to supporting families post-placement. As the report states, nearly half of all adoptive parents who adopt overseas end up parenting a child with special needs although only a quarter of them realize this pre-adoption.

Many families go overseas to adopt with the understanding that they will be able to avoid some of the challenges of domestic adoption. They hope that there will be fewer birth family complications, a clearer timeline and more control over their choices (a boy or a girl, a child with a physical disability or not, etc.). But as the report states, international adoption has its own unique challenges including the possibility of adopting a child who was trafficked and who was not legally free to adopt, a child whose health history is unknown or deliberately hidden, or a child who was abused while in care. Too, children who spend time in orphanages have institutional behaviors that require a different kind of parenting. They may be developmentally delayed, have feeding challenges or have problems with attachment.

Domestic agencies who serve hopeful families here in the states to adopt internationally may collude with unscrupulous brokers overseas or they may know as little as the adoptive parents they serve. Some downplay the problems that most internationally adopted children have or do little more than recommend books for families to read beforehand. Once the children are home, most agencies offer nothing in the way of support.

Potential adoptive parents need to be smart consumers, researching the agency, the state of adoption in the country of origin, and identifying the support in their community before they adopt. For example, a family lives in a rural community where there is little in the way of special needs services; they may need to reconsider their adoption plans given the likelihood that they will adopt a child who will need those services.

These are difficult conversations to have and potential adoptive parents are sometimes so enamored with the idea of adoption that they have a hard time hearing the potential pitfalls. The responsibility then falls to the agencies who are placing the children.

Social workers who do homestudies and therapists who help families make adoption decisions need to be firm and direct in order to best serve those families as well as the children who may arrive. Families need to be screened more carefully and a safety plan should be in place, addressing what the family will do if they begin to feel overwhelmed, where they can ask for help, and to identify their local community supports.

Hopeful parents also need to understand that children who have faced tremendous loss and trauma usually have challenging behaviors. This does not make them damaged goods; it makes them children who need more loving support and parents with the skills to parent them. We must understand that the children are ultimately innocent parties to a complex, sometimes corrupt and always difficult system. Children who act out or struggle post-placement have the right to have their challenges understood and appropriately treated.

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The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart

The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart

(The names of the adoptive parents and their children have been changed as have some identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of the families.)

Su 2010 FeatureWhen we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—”a forever family.”

That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.

In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.

But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.

The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.

 *   *   *

Like many adoptive parents, Carol fell in love with a picture first. Henry was a chubby-cheeked, brown-skinned boy with a crooked grin and closely cropped hair. In the photo he is sitting on some sort of a wooden bench wearing a striped polo shirt and khaki pants. He is undeniably adorable. While Carol knew very little about him, there was nothing in his orphanage record that made her feel concerned. She knew that he lived at the orphanage with both an older and younger biological sibling and she knew that for some reason he was the target of teasing by the other orphans. Her heart went out to him.

Carol and her husband, already parents to a six-year-old biological child, knew what conditions in his Caribbean orphanage were like because they were already in the process of adopting a special-needs child from the same program, a toddler girl named Lily. Gazing at Henry’s picture online in the photo listings for the orphanage, Carol felt led. Despite their small house, modest lifestyle, and single income, she felt like God was calling her to be Henry’s mother, too.

“The orphanage was so overcrowded,” Carol says, recalling her visit to complete the adoption of Lily. “The children there are so starved for affection and you think, my house is so big! I could afford to take care of more children.”

That’s how she found herself back in less than two years, bringing home five-year-old Henry and his siblings, Isobel and Matthew.

Carol told me that all of her adopted children have histories of trauma. Her newest children raged and fought and struggled to learn how to live in a family. Henry was easier. He was a good kid, anxious for approval and able to show affection. She wasn’t worried about him. Not when her time was taken up in helping the other children who were having a much more difficult time adjusting. Then, one month into their new family configuration, things changed.

“We caught him sexually acting out,” Carol says simply. She and her husband reacted by establishing house rules. Supervision got tighter. No child could be in the bathroom with another child. They talked good touch and bad touch in the children’s native language and stopped having sleepovers. They looked into getting Henry counseling. He didn’t speak English yet, however, so they did their best to create a safe environment for all of the kids. They thought it was working until one of the older children caught Henry in another child’s room and his story didn’t quite add up. Carol sat him down and asked, “Hey buddy, do you have a secret?”

Henry had lots of secrets. He told her that he had been molesting his siblings for the past year. He described his behavior in detail and then told her about the orphanage, about the way he and his crib mate used to play this way. He told her about incidents that happened when she was in the room, when her back was turned. He told her how he got the other children to give in.

“It was extensive,” Carol says. “It was stuff I didn’t even know that a six-year-old was capable of.”

Carol called her state’s child protective services (CPS) department. They told her that unless the children were more than two years apart, it wasn’t considered abuse. At first she was relieved because she had been afraid that CPS would take her children away. She and her husband put the house on lockdown and kept Henry in their line of sight at all times. That is when he became “the angriest boy alive,” Carol says. Without the psychological outlet of the sexual abuse, her son became increasingly violent, raging two to four hours a day and threatening to kill the other children. They hid the knives and bought locks for all the doors. The behavior continued to escalate. Henry would threaten to force Carol to crash the car. He said he would bash her head in with a rock. The other children were terrified. Henry was scared, too. He knew he was out of control but didn’t know how to stop.

Carol looked for services to help Henry stay in their home and took him to experts in adoption and attachment across the state. Her days were taken up with phone calls, paperwork, and more phone calls. She worked their insurance for referrals, begged the school for resources and read up online. She took Henry to see a leading child neuropsychologist specializing in treating adopted children with severe issues. The consensus was that in order to get the long-term treatment he needed, Henry would have to leave.

Carol went back to working the phones until she found a residential treatment center with the ability to work with a six-year-old sex offender. A year and a half ago, Henry went to live at the facility, two thousand miles away. He will likely be there for at least another nine months. No one has told Henry this yet (his therapists say it’s not the right time to explain), but when he’s ready to leave the center, he won’t get to come home. Instead Carol has found another family who will take him, who will adopt him. He will become their son. “He can’t come home again,” Carol says.

 *   *   *

As a mom both biologically and by adoption, I know that adoption is different. It isn’t less than, it isn’t second best, but it’s different. Although we brought our daughter home when she was just three days old, falling in love with her was not the same as falling in love with our son. When the doctor handed my son to me for the first time, there was an immediate recognition that he was of me and that I was of him. With Madison, on the other hand, I felt like a fraud for her first month of life. It took more time to get to know her, and it took more time to trust myself to know how to be her mother.

It’s not something I like to admit; I am still a little ashamed of our challenged beginning. Part of the adoption myth is that you see your baby and you fall in love. Other adoptive mothers tell this story; it led me to wonder what was wrong with me. I went through the motions, staring at her face while I fed her, carrying her everywhere in the sling. Then one day I woke up and she felt like a part of me. It had taken longer but eventually it clicked, just the way it did with my son.

Jean Mercer is a psychologist and president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health, as well as an author of several books on attachment. Healthy infants are hard-wired to encourage their parents to attach to them, she said in an e-mail interview. This is why falling in love with Madison was nearly inevitable. A healthy mother and a healthy child are primed to bond to each other.

“When babies show obvious responses—crying or not crying, taking the nipple enthusiastically, calming when soothed—parents feel that personal communications and responses have been made,” she says. “This encourages the parents to do more caregiving and playing.”

But many children raised in orphanages stop responding to adult attention because they learn that their efforts don’t work. Overwhelmed caregivers may not have time to make eye contact or talk to their charges. Locked into survival mode, the children do not always know how to connect with their new adoptive parents. “We like people who like us,” explains Mercer. “If children don’t look at us much we figure they don’t like us so maybe we don’t like them.”

This is why it can be harder to build attachment with children who are adopted past early infancy. It’s certainly not impossible, of course; most parents are able to get past the bumpy beginnings and forge bonds with their children.

Sometimes things go horribly awry, however. Children who have experienced very difficult beginnings—drug or alcohol exposure in utero, abuse or neglect, a multitude of caregivers—sometimes develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which is a daunting diagnosis. Kids with RAD seem to have no conscience and are unable to appreciate the consequences of their harmful behavior. Because they struggle to trust that other people will care for them, they live in a permanent state of fight or flight. Many of these children constantly lash out at caregivers and rage violently at perceived threats. Their deprived beginnings and need for control can cause them to gorge on food until they vomit, go on campaigns of destruction where they destroy entire rooms, and physically attack other members of the family.

Kids with RAD can be hard to like, let alone love. Caring for them is exhausting and demoralizing. Parents tell me that their children with RAD have more energy than the rest of the family combined and need very little sleep. Raising them is counterintuitive; open affection can feel terrifying for such children and can set off a large-scale tantrum. Most of the parents I spoke with have a story that involves waking up and finding their child standing over them, sometimes with a knife. This is one reason many of them install locks on all the doors and alarms on all of the windows.

Paradoxically, sometimes the safer they feel, the more the children act out. Parents sometimes have a honeymoon period during the first trial visit or at the beginning of a placement. These quiet times can last a day or a year, but if the child has underlying issues, the behavior problems will eventually surface.

Patty, who recently adopted an eight-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl from Columbia with her husband, Wyatt, met her children through an agency that sponsors summer foster-care programs. Children come to the United States and are placed in potential adoptive homes for five weeks. Patty and Wyatt’s experience with the kids was such a good one that Patty went to their country to start the adoption process. The children came home right around Christmas; in hindsight, Patty says, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“We thought they wouldn’t be here until January or February,” she says. “We were totally unprepared, but our friends set up their rooms and there were tons of presents. In retrospect it was not ideal because it was just too much for the kids to handle.”

The children spiraled out of control, and the house felt under siege. The children were too angry, too violent. After one attack, Patty had a black eye and scratches on her throat. The police had to be called when one of the children came at her with a belt. Desperate, Patty called the agency that had done their home study to tell them they had to end the placement, meaning that she wanted to legally disrupt the adoption (disruption is the term for ending an adoption before it is finalized; dissolution is the term for an adoption that is terminated after finalization). They would need to send the children back to their orphanage. During the call, however, Patty learned that the program had an adoption preservation counselor on staff. The counselor came over the next day and set them up with a “family preservation team.”

“They said these kids might not have it in them [to be adopted] because they were just that crazy,” Patty said. To qualify for services, Patty and Wyatt had to check off a list of problem behaviors such as lighting fires in the home and wielding knives. “We could check off every single one with our kids.”

The family preservation team spent every waking moment for the first week with Patty, Wyatt, and the children, watching their interactions and interviewing the parents and the kids. In order to help the children be successful in the family, Patty and Wyatt needed to radically change their parenting plans and expectations, the team leader said. Patty used to picture cozy family reading times and romps in the park, but the kids aren’t ready for that level of intimacy. Even a recent quick game of soccer between Patty and her son had to be cut short since the children desperately need her to be the authority figure. They are unable to handle her presence as a playmate.

“I had to grieve—I’m still grieving—the family that I pictured three months ago [when the children first arrived],” she says. “I mean, you think you’re supposed to attach to these people and they have real feelings and real personalities and some parts you’re going to love and some parts you’re not going to love so much. But the objective thing is that I committed to do this, and I wouldn’t give up until I’ve tried everything because that wouldn’t be fair to them. It wouldn’t be right.”

Patty is clear that without the family preservation team’s guidance, she would not be able to parent her kids. Their support is what allowed her children to stay home.

 *   *   *

Adoption termination is the industry’s dirty little secret. It’s especially secretive in international adoption. Studies of adoption termination, as reported by the Child Welfare Information Gateway report, “Adoption Disruption and Dissolution” (2004), usually focus on foster-care cases. This research, done by child welfare academics and advocates, estimates that ten to twenty-five percent of all adoptions terminate either before finalization (disruption) or after (dissolution). It’s hard to say whether or not the numbers in international adoptions are similar, but the kinds of challenges that terminate domestic adoptions are certainly present in many international ones. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, in their 2004 research review, “Adoption Stability & Termination,” adoptions fall apart when kids have behavioral and emotional problems that overwhelm parents and when appropriate supports and services are not accessible. There are specific indicators of an adoption that runs a higher risk of failure, such as those in which children have been in foster care for more than three years, have experienced sexual abuse, arrive in a sibling group or have had prenatal drug or alcohol exposure.

Katie Valentino, a licensed professional clinical counselor, worked as an adoption preservation specialist for a federally sponsored program until it lost funding. She is now in private practice in Bloomingdale, Illinois.

“People think it can’t be the child’s fault; it has to be the parent’s fault,” Valentino said. “But I think the commonalities [in adoption terminations] are more the lack of support and the extreme nature of the child’s background. Social workers have to really identify and speak the truth about how difficult these kids might be. If we have the supports in place, these families and these kids could do so much better.”

The other challenge is fitting the right kids to the right parents. Matching families is an elusive art, and hard-pressed social workers in the foster-care system don’t always have the time or the ability to focus on choosing the best placements.

In international adoptions, the matching process varies. Parents may get placed with the child at the top of a list. Other programs match kids to parents who orphanage program administrators think resemble them. Then, too, parents often fall in love with photo listings, like Carol did with Henry’s. It’s one reason agencies use such photos. In many international adoptions, there is little to no history on any given child, yet parents are expected to commit to a specific boy or girl based on a picture (one that’s sometimes months or even years old) and scanty records that are often poorly translated.

“With a lot of kids, especially the foreign adoptions, parents fall in love with a videotape,” says Valentino. “They don’t know they’re falling in love with a child who has been horribly sexually abused.”

Carol says the agency she worked with is a typical “do-gooder” agency whose best intentions for the child sometimes run roughshod over the families who adopt them.  She understands their imperative to get families for needy kids.

“[The agency] thinks it’s better to get the child out of the country and then you can deal with whatever the child’s problems are. But they are so unrealistic,” she says. “You get the child, but you can’t get services for the child. I know of at least five disruptions that have happened from this agency in a three-year time span because the kids are traumatized and the orphanage is crap. But the agency doesn’t care. Their intention is good, but they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.”

In many international adoptions, the legal adoption happens in the child’s country of origin. By the time the new family gets on the plane, they are irrevocably tied to each other. Valentino said many parents who wind up in trouble have doubts in the orphanage, but they don’t speak up because they have already come so far. They have already been through the home study, written the checks, waited for their referral, and now they are here. They are told this is their child. How could they back out now?

Troll online adoption support groups, and you’ll find the stories. Alongside more benign message boards where adoptive parents chat about creating “lifebooks” (adoption-centric baby books) and answering their kids’ questions, there are websites of home-study-ready families willing to take in children who have already failed with one family. The website (Christian Homes and Special Kids) has a page on their site with photo listings and short descriptions of children whose parents no longer feel they can care for them. On the day I checked, there were two children listed, both with severe issues. One was a foster-to-adopt placement whose parents had split up, and the other was an international adoption from an Eastern European country. The text of that one reads, in part:

The main reason we have decided to find a new home for Nick is that he is an expert liar and manipulator, and he acts out. He tells lies about us to others (hurtful) and is very convincing. He is also hostile toward me (Mom). His therapists believe he has RAD, and maybe ADHD.  He needs constant supervision when he is around young children. This has been traumatic to us and combined with his acting out, is more then we can handle.

When I read that paragraph, I wondered about the details the mother is not sharing. I wondered about her frustration and disappointment. I wondered what dreams she had about motherhood that this child could not fulfill. Valentino notes that in families struggling with attachment issues, mothers are usually the targets of their children’s anger and abuse. They are also usually the ones to give up their jobs and social lives to make parenting their troubled children their full-time occupation.

 *   *   *

Laura (not her real name) is a licensed professional counselor in the Midwest working with a legal practice that specializes in adoption. The practice gets a lot of criticism, Laura says, because their services include helping parents terminate adoptions and supervise “re-placements”; she asked that I not use her real name or identify the practice.

While Laura and her husband make their living in part because some adoptive families fall apart, she is sharply critical of the parents who use their services. Laura told me in an e-mail interview, “There should be nothing a child does that would cause a parent to ‘get rid of them.’ There are millions of biological kids out there making bad choices and their parents never get rid of them.”

Laura is making the same assumptions that most of us laypeople make. In fact, some parents do “get rid of” their biological children and for the same reasons that they send their adopted kids away. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (the GAO is the investigative arm of Congress), in 2001, more than 12,700 children were deliberately placed in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Most of them have a diagnosed mental illness. While the GAO report didn’t differentiate between adopted kids and kids living with their biological parents, it’s clear that parents who can’t help their children sometimes give them away to someone that they hope will. Addressing the report, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a grass-roots advocacy organization based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote that families are forced to give up custody of their children when they cannot handle their behavior and when they have run out of resources.

While Laura is critical of families who seek her practice’s services, she does agree that support and education is vital for success. “Sadly, love and commitment can be conditional with adoptive parents,” she says. “Many of the families were not prepared properly, or did not receive accurate information about the child to make an educated decision to adopt. Also, they may not have had the right motivations to adopt or they do not have realistic expectations of the child.”

Arleta James, a professional clinical counselor, is on staff at the Attachment and Bonding Center, a therapy center in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of Brothers and Sisters in Adoption (2009) and has done research about disruption.

“Expectations seem to be endless in adoption,” she says. “And psychological fit plays a role in disruption and dissolution. The parents just can’t seem to connect to the child in any way.”

James describes one family who planned to adopt a little girl from an Eastern European country. “They had all girl’s clothing, decorated the bedroom for a girl,” but after arriving at the orphanage discovered they had been matched with a boy.

“They never seemed to recover from their expectation of a girl,” she says. Within two years the family split. The parents divorced, and the family discovered that their son had many sexual and aggressive behaviors. James helped the family through the dissolution process. Eventually, the family placed the child in an open adoption, where his behavior is improving. “The mom now views herself as the vehicle through which the child arrived in this country,” James notes. “So as time goes on, you can see the healing.”

James said that having one parent who feels more committed to the adoption than the other is not uncommon, but in already challenging adoptions, this difference in dedication can be too much.

“I had a case in which the child was adopted ten years ago,” she recalls. “One of the first things the dad said at the assessment was that he never wanted his daughter in the first place but his wife wanted to adopt. The wife has taken this child to more therapy and evaluations than can be counted. She was so tired that she also wanted the child out of the home. The assessment at our office was the first time this dad had gone to any of his child’s services and he was very angry at our office that his presence was required. Ultimately he left the room to talk on his cell phone.”

It’s easy to condemn this man. But then I think about how many women I know who wanted a baby more than their partners did. My own husband let me lead the way when it came to our family planning, both for our biological son and our adoptive daughter. I’m sure that this woman had the same faith I did—that her spouse would fall in love eventually. That worked for us, but whose fault is it when that doesn’t happen? And how do we best serve the kids when it all falls apart?

“From one point of view, I’d say that if a parent has seriously considered disrupting the adoption of a young child, perhaps she ought to go ahead and do it,” says Mercer, the psychologist who specializes in infant attachment. “A disengaged adoptive parent is probably not giving the child what he or she needs. I don’t mean to suggest rushing out to disrupt the minute you feel things are going badly.”

Mercer goes on to say that families considering disruption need to be sure that they have exhausted all of their resources and sought professional help.

She admits that help can be hard to find. “Most parenting coaches and LMFTs [Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists] working with families have had little or no useful training in this area and although they may want very much to help they may not have the skills to do so,” she says. “The mere fact that a practitioner has a professional license does not necessarily mean that they have the right training.”

 *   *   *

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway website—a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—some of the same factors that put a family at risk for adoption termination also put children at risk for abuse, such as the presence of physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities in a child. In their report “A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice” the HHS Office on Child Abuse and Neglect says that  “parents who maltreat their children report experiencing greater isolation, more loneliness, and less social support.”

“Is it really realistic to think that every adoption will work out?” asks James, of the Attachment and Bonding Center. “People go to a foreign country and come home with a virtual stranger. And, on the child’s part, they are moved so abruptly from one country to another. There are going to be cases in which the parents or the adoptee simply cannot adjust.”

In April of this year, Torry Hansen, of Shelbyville, Tennessee, put her unaccompanied seven-year old son, Artyem Savelyev, on a plane back to his native country of Russia. She sent him with a note saying she was returning him because he was mentally unstable and she was not prepared to parent him any longer. Russian officials cited the incident as just the latest in a series of adoption tragedies for Russian children. They put the United States’ adoption program on hold.

This is not the first time an official has proposed ceasing American adoptions. After Nanette and Michael Craver killed their adopted seven-year-old, Nathaniel, in 2003, a senator in Russia argued for a ban on foreign adoptions. Speaking to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-News, Andrei Sitov, bureau chief for Russia’s ITAR-TASS wire service said, “Obviously, the biggest concern here is that it keeps happening. The latest figures we’ve seen is fifteen or sixteen [children killed] in the last several years.”

Artyem’s plight brought disruption to the forefront of the media. While officials pointed fingers, Hansen was alternately vilified and celebrated in comments on blogs and news reports. While her decision to put Artyem on the plane alone is inarguably indefensible, adoption activists debate who is ultimately responsible. Is it the Russian government for failing to provide adequate care in the orphanages? American agencies for doing a poor job of screening prospective families and supervising them once the children are home? Is it the adoptive parents who expect things to be easy? Or are the children themselves too damaged to parent? Most importantly, how can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Jae Ran Kim is a social worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was born in Taegu, South Korea, and was adopted by her family in 1971. She has worked in child welfare for several years and is working toward a doctoral degree in social work with a focus on adoption at the University of Minnesota. Her blog, Harlow’s Monkey, takes a critical look at adoption practices and adoptee rights. She says that Artymem’s case highlights the weaknesses in the adoption process, particularly the subjectivity of home studies and the dearth of services.

“I am in no way at all condoning what [Torry Hansen] did,” says Kim. “There were a million better options, but I think that she felt that she was desperate.”

The agency Hansen worked with, World Association of Children and Parents (WACAP), based in Renton, Washington, has posted a document on their website answering some of the questions they’re fielding from the media and worried waiting families.

According to the document, only one percent of adoptions managed by the agency end in dissolution. According to the document “Child Returned to Russia FAQ’s” on the WACAP the agency does provide “older child training opportunities” for families waiting to adopt, maintains an online chat board monitored for a social worker; facilitates post-placement visits (as required by Russia); and is willing to come out for additional visits if requested.

In the case of out-of-state adoptions like Artyem’s, these visits, training opportunities and follow-up may be subcontracted through a partnering agency.

“They [WACAP] weren’t at her home doing the interview; the agency was entrusting another local agency to do the legwork for them,” says Kim. “My guess was that there was miscommunication, missteps and mistakes. Standards among different agencies can be very different.”

I asked Karen Valentino if she thought of her at-risk families when she read stories about abusive parents who abandon or kill their adoptive children.

“Oh yes, of course,” she says. “We had one case where the adoptive parents actually locked two of their children in a shed outside. No food, no water, no bathroom. They had no idea what to do with the kids. This family had something like nineteen adopted children and they needed help. But they never called DCFS to come in because they were so afraid the other children would be removed. Those siblings had such severe trauma [before the adoption], the worst trauma I’ve ever heard about, and they had no idea how to function in a family, and the family had no idea to handle them.”

In other words, sometimes disruption is better than the alternative. The more I talked to the families and the counselors that work with families at risk, the more I began to see disruption as a parenting decision rather than an abdication. Sometimes, perhaps, being a good parent means knowing that you can no longer be this particular child’s parent.

*   *   *

Tiruba and her family are a success story. The pseudonymous blogger at Tubaville, Tiruba, is mom to three children who have all been through disrupted adoptions. Her oldest daughter’s blog name is TTops. TTops, who just turned fifteen, was born drug- and alcohol-affected, and was placed in the foster-care system at birth. She is developmentally delayed and has been diagnosed with RAD.

Tiruba and her husband fell in love with TTops at her therapeutic foster home when the girl was ten years old. They were at the home to visit another child, but TTops charmed them. Like many children with attachment disorders, she was indiscriminately affectionate, climbing into Tiruba’s lap and offering hugs right away. When the adoption of the other child fell through, Tiruba and her husband started the paperwork to adopt TTops.

“We were head over heels in love with her from the second we saw her. It was like love at first sight,” Tiruba tells me. “She’s got this spark in her personality that just sucks you in. You couldn’t see that shining light in her paperwork. If anyone had read it before meeting her, she wouldn’t have had a chance really.”

For six months, Tiruba and her husband visited TTops in the foster home. Before they brought her home, they knew about her rages and her inability to understand the consequences of her behavior. But living with her was different. Six months into their lives together, Tiruba found TTops trying to strangle one of their dogs.

“We went into this with no parenting experience and so we had no expectations. We were completely enamored with our daughter and we just rolled with it,” Tiruba says. “We were really nice to her at first and she would scream for four to five hours at a time. At mealtime she would swallow her food halfway and then vomit it up because family food time was too stressful.

“I thought I’d be all hung up on education and sending my kids to college and doing all that fun stuff that you see on TV,” she says. “I’ve had to readjust my own expectations on a daily basis, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of guilt and feelings that I’m a failure as a parent. I have to remind myself that I didn’t cause this. I didn’t make her what she is. It’s maternal alcohol consumption and brain damage and cognitive disability.”

The family celebrates TTops’s progress even though change sometimes seems glacially slow.

“She has come so far in the last four years that we’ve had her, and for me that’s so satisfying,” says Tiruba. “She’ll never been completely there and it’s been a journey for us to learn how to accept that she’ll never be completely attached to us. But she actually says she misses us when she’s away, and there’s a glimmer. That’s what’s satisfying.”

James, from the Attachment and Bonding Center, sees this ability to find joy in small steps in other successful families, too. “These parents are able to see the ‘good child’ behind all the behavior. They strive to bring that ‘good child,’ as they say, out more often. They enjoy small positive moments and appreciate small gains. They can reflect backwards and see the progress they have made, rather than always looking at how far they have to go.”

Tiruba says she does not condemn the people who tried to parent her daughter and two sons first, who brought them home and then gave them back to the system. For one thing, she says, if she didn’t have the health benefits they do, then they wouldn’t be able to afford to parent them in part because of the medications the children need.

TTop’s first parents had no support and quickly became overwhelmed by her behavior. Three months into the placement, they were already done. They disrupted the placement the day the social worker arrived at their house to start the adoption paperwork.

Tiruba, on the other hand, quickly worked to put together a team of people to help her parent TTops and TTops’s younger adoptive brothers. The team consists of a disability worker, who helps them connect with community resources; a school support team, including a full-time aide and school psychologist who helps with TTops’s individualized education plan; and in-home family services workers, who give them respite care and everyday parenting support. In addition, one or two weekends a month, TTops goes to a therapeutic foster home so that her parents can focus on the boys.

“If you haven’t lived with an attachment disordered kid, how can you judge anyone who can’t do it?” she says. “I don’t judge the people who couldn’t take care of my kids before me. I honestly believe that they didn’t get what they needed for the kids. It’s not always there and it would be impossible to do this without it.”

I asked Tiruba if she grieves for the people her children might have been if their histories had been different.

“Of course I do,” she says. “TTops grieves, too, for the person she could have been. She wonders what her brain would have been like if her mom hadn’t been drinking when she was pregnant. It’s a lifelong struggle for her.”

TTops will never be able to live independently. Tiruba’s goal had been to keep TTops at home until she turned sixteen, when she would need to find a group home. As she’s gotten older and stronger, however, it has become harder to keep her younger brothers protected from her violent outbursts so she will likely move earlier than her mother would like. Tiruba and her husband found a group home that’s nearby, close to their weekly routines so they can visit often and pick up TTops to join them when they’re running errands.

 *   *   *

It’s easy to pathologize children who have experienced trauma and loss, to focus on the stories of Russian children gone bad and foster-care kids who become violent. Social worker Kim, however, says it’s vital to understand that a deprived environment shapes children. Like Tiruba, the parents who are able to successfully parent challenging kids can see the person behind the behaviors and are able to adjust their expectations.

“We do have to recognize that for most kids who have had multiple placements there is tremendous loss and there are tremendous survival skills that these children have developed. They wouldn’t have survived without these,” she says. “Unfortunately when we try to place them in an adoptive home and their parents have this expectation that they can relax and be normal, well, we need to reconceptualize this idea of what a normal child is.”

Citing her work with parents adopting from foster care, Kim says that parents need to be given a “safety plan” before their children come home detailing who they will call if they need help and what services exist in their area. She also recommends that parents connect with a knowledgeable therapist ahead of time so they aren’t searching for an appropriate counselor post-placement when they may already be overwhelmed.

Astrid Dabbeni is the executive director of Adoption Mosaic, an adoption education organization in Portland, Oregon. She is also an adult adoptee who came to her family from Columbia along with her biological sister when she was four years old. She agrees with Kim about the need for parents to let go of their fantasies about what their families “ought” to look like.

We need to be looking at adoption through the lens of the child. It is a normal human reaction to have some serious attachment issues when you are taken from your birth mother and placed in an orphanage,” says Dabbeni. “We need to honor and recognize that adoption is different and not a replacement for birth children we never had. Not until then can we really embrace how adoption really is different and how we need to go about parenting differently. Social workers have to speak the truth about that.”

 *   *   *

Through her networks, Henry’s mother, Carol, found a family who has experience working with boys with histories and behaviors that mirror his. He will be the youngest in the family by several years so there are not other children to prey on. Carol said they will have an open adoption. They will continue contact with Henry, in part because his biological siblings remain in Carol’s home and also because they love him and remain committed to him.

“It sucks, it really does,” Carol says. “There is no other way around it. I don’t see one; I really do not. Nobody worked harder for their kid than we did. But in some ways bringing him home would be like asking an alcoholic to live in a bar. It would not be healthy to ask him to live here.”

Her husband did not want to disrupt the adoption. The experience has been hard on their marriage but they—and their other kids—are healing. Carol told me that recently she pulled out video from the couple’s visit to Henry’s orphanage and this time she saw the scene differently.

“We walked into this room, and there were ten cribs with two babies in each crib. It was mealtime, and about half of the babies were screaming and the other half were totally silent,” she recalls. “The babies that were screaming, they were also rocking, self-soothing and you could see that they were kind of tuning out, you know, dissociating. My husband, he was running the video camera and you see him caressing one baby’s head, a baby that was not crying, and the baby didn’t react. I remember thinking, oh the nannies must be in the back room getting the food ready. What was I thinking? There was no back room. Those babies were hungry. They were hungry every single day.”

Carol is silent a moment.

“How did I not see it? I didn’t see that it was a disaster waiting to happen, a whole brewing ground for attachment disorder waiting to happen.”

Author’s Note: As I worked on this piece I became increasingly frustrated and saddened by the lack of information and support both for pre-adoptive and post-adoptive families. Adoption agency websites usually have glowing stories of new families and pictures of adorable children cradled in their new parents’ arms, but very few have concrete information about preparing for children who have suffered the tremendous loss and trauma that most of these kids suffer. I feel like we’re setting families up. Adoption can be a wonderful thing but unless prospective parents go into it with their eyes open and post-adoption services at the ready, how can we blame those families that fall apart?

Finally I want to thank the mothers who trusted me enough to speak with me. Their stories are difficult, and they are used to condemnation. Trust me, no one is harder on Carol than she is on herself. While I was editing this piece, I discovered that Carol is known for sending gift baskets to other RAD families who she knows are having a hard time. She’s a pretty amazing person.

Brain, Child (Summer 2010)

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Something to Think About: Parenting Children with Mental Illness

Something to Think About: Parenting Children with Mental Illness


Nutshell logoAccording to the National Institute of Mental Health, a government agency dedicated to medical research, at least half of all cases of lifetime mental illness appear before age fourteen. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says 1 in 5 children between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a severe mental illness. Parents who are raising children with mental illness must contend with social stigma, lack of psychiatric support, and a dearth of appropriate interventions. Yet we hear very little from those parents and kids who are struggling except when the cases are outrageous and tragic. I brought together two moms who are parenting children who are mentally ill and who are out-spoken advocates for greater support and information.

Chrisa:  I’m Chrisa Hickey. I’m mom to three kids and legal guardian to a fourth. My oldest is 23, and our biological kid. Our next is Tim, 19, adopted at birth, diagnosed Pervasive Developmental Disorder at 4, Bipolar at 8, and Schizoaffective at 11. Our daughter is 18, adopted at age 4. She has Reactive Attachment a Disorder and epilepsy. I am also guardian to E, 17, who is a precocious teen diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I blog about parenting kids with mental illness at and I co-founded a Facebook support group for parents of children with brain-based challenges that currently has over 600 members.

Julia: I’m Julia Roberts and mom to two kids with special needs, including a boy teenager at 14 and a girl preteen age 11, who have an array of differences including mental illness. A vision disorder they share, our girl has an additional vision disorder, they both have kidney disease (ARPKD) which led to kidney transplants at age 8 and a liver disease (congenital hepatic fibrosis), learning disabilities and our son has a depression with suicidal tendencies, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and ADHD with severe impulsivity.  I co-founded a site for families touched by special needs,, where people come to share, gain insight and hopefully laugh.

Dawn: What are the greatest challenges parents of children with mental illness face?

Chrisa: The biggest common theme I see for families is that they either can’t find doctors to help them, or can’t get doctors with any experience/expertise in treating children. 50% of all persons with mental illness start showing symptoms before the age of 14 (per the National Association of Mental Illness), and there are less than 7,000 child psychiatrists. Unless you live in or very near a large city, finding a doctor who has experience with childhood onset mental health issues could be a 4-6 week wait. If you’re suburban or rural, forget it—you might be 100 miles or more from the one in the area.

Julia: I’ve generally found that people are afraid to treat complicated kids. In addition, for us, there was a fear of doctors for mental health because we didn’t want to be judged on what we were or weren’t doing. We literally stumbled on our current doctor when we had to admit Gage because he was suicidal. We consider ourselves lucky.

Chrisa: If you have a child in crisis, you need a bed in a decent facility. It’s not uncommon for a parent to post to the support group that they are messaging us from their phone after 3 or 4 DAYS sitting in an ER with a wildly unstable child, waiting for a bed. The availability of beds on psychiatric units has been rapidly declining over the past two decades. If you can get a bed, you can’t get your insurance to cover it unless your child is in “imminent danger.” For some reason, preventative care is all the rage for insurance companies, except when it comes to mental healthcare.

Julia: Our doctors that deal with the organs and body often clam up when we discuss Gage’s mental health. When Gage was suicidal and we were begging them for help they basically said they couldn’t do anything. They didn’t even have a list of doctors who might work with complicated kids. Same with our pediatrician. We basically were on our own to find our own help.

Dawn: Can either of you speak to prejudice you’ve faced from parents of typical kids? What do you want these parents to know about your and your kids’ experiences?

Julia: It’s really difficult to see adults treat my son differently. I’ve had to approach adults about their bias and in several cases, completely cut them off. In a lot of cases the adults were raising kids that also treated my son unfairly.

We were very fortunate to have a few families who were willing to encourage their kids to befriend my son. He had one special friend through the worst times. Laura accepted Gage the way he was in all of his wonderful oddness; this happened because of her parents. They showed compassion towards Gage and Laura followed suit.

Chrisa: I remember when Tim was eight he wanted to play tackle football, really badly. So we decided that he could if my husband could be at practice every day. We were up front with the coaches and other parents about Tim’s condition, and I can’t say they weren’t nervous, but they didn’t let on. Tim made friends with the other boys on the team and they had a great year. The following year the league made sure to put him back on the same team. The plays were getting more complicated, but the kids got in the habit of the boy playing the position next to Tim giving him instructions as they set up on the line—they figured that out all on their own.

Julia: When Gage had his most horrific time a school administrator asked me not to blog about him because they were worried the kids would hear parents talking about him and then take it out on him at school. While I very seriously did consider not blogging about his mental health (for a few days) in the end I decided to keep blogging and told them that students and parents were already talking about Gage and I wanted to share the story and the truth.

I learned at the time there were parents approaching the administration requesting our son be removed from the class he was in and the school all together. Luckily, our principals were supportive of Gage and his quick return to school and routine after his admittance into a psychiatric hospital.

Dawn: What do you most want people to know about your children?

Chrisa: I think I’d want them to know my kid is a kid like any other kid. And when you get to know him, he’s a pretty cool kid. Just ask the kids that have gotten to know him. Those boys never let Tim’s “oddities” stop them from being his friend. Even as they got older and Tim couldn’t play football anymore (too much anxiety, not stable enough), they still fist-bumped him in the hallway at school and did boy scouts together. We moved away from that town when Tim was about 12 but he has kept in touch with a few of those boys. They always say, Tim is their friend; he’s not his “quirks.” I learned from that. We are very up front with Tim’s diagnosis. People are often taken aback—he’s not the stereotype they expect.

Julia: The thing I want most from parents of kids around my son is to be open. Be open to hearing about the issues we have and encourage your child to be open as well. Kids need friends and connection. When a friendship happens between a child with mental illness and a typical child a special thing happens between them. For the child that is different it means validation and comfort and for the other child it means they have a personal experience getting to know someone with gifts that few people see. Our son really saves his best self for those who accepted him for him.

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Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Nutshell logoIt’s October and you know what that means? It means it’s time to sit down and chat with your children about vulvas and penises and how they work! Yes, October is Let’s Talk Month, a national public health education campaign coordinated by Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth is an organization that focuses solely on adolescent reproductive and sexual health in the United States and in developing countries around the world.

According to a 2012 study by Planned Parenthood, most parents of teens are talking to their kids about sex. Nearly 90% of us have had at least one sex talk with our kids. That’s pretty darn good. Unfortunately, while we’re comfortable talking to our teens, the same research says that less than 18% of them are comfortable talking to us.

So who are they talking to? Research doesn’t say but likely they’re talking to each other, which means the information they’re getting might not be all that good.

You can help your teen get solid information and support by finding trusted mentors you can count on to share your family values and letting your child know that this person will respect their confidentiality and that you’ll respect it, too. This could be a relative or a family friend, a teacher or a coach. I’ve designated my kids’ best friends’ parents, who are people I can trust to give good advice and who have already earned my children’s trust.

There are some other challenges for us, too. While parents are discussing relationships and telling their teens to put the brakes on before heavy petting gets to third base, only about a third of us are also talking to our kids about actual sex, like how to do it safely or how to talk about sexuality with a partner. The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to advancing sexual and reproductive health, found that nearly two-thirds of our teens have had sex by the time they’re 18. Most kids lose their virginity at around 17 (that goes for both boys and girls), which is longer than our generation waited and they’re better about using birth control than we were, too.

But our kids are exposed to way more media sex than we ever were. According to a study published in 2008 in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, 93% of boys and 62% of girls under the age of 18 have seen online porn, which means we need to be talking about it. It’s not enough to tell our kids to shield their eyes; they’re going to see it and they’re going to need to know that it’s not a realistic depiction of sex.

Parents can point kids to, a terrific web site with heavy (and explicit) questions from teens and smart, safe answers. Scarleteen addresses the straight community and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning community

(Note: Scarleteen is a sex-positive site, which means that families who are more inclined to encourage celibacy might not find it appropriate for their values.) With articles like “Porn: How Much (Or How Little) Does it Influence Your Sexuality?” and “Looking, Lusting and Learning: A Straightforward Look at Pornography” teens can start thinking critically and making their own informed decisions about the media that surrounds them.

If you don’t quite feel ready to hand your teen the link to Scarleteen or you’re parenting younger children, you might want to check the site out just to get an idea of what is worrying adolescents today. It might help you start thinking about how you’ll broach the heavier topics and heck, you might even learn something new.

You can also look to the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ for help with sex education. Their “Our Whole Lives Lifespan Sexuality Education Curricula” starts with classes for kindergarteners and continues on into adulthood. A secular program, the Whole Lives curricula was developed in accordance with the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, produced by a task force made up of experts in adolescent development, health care and education from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

The curricula values are: Self Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity. Participants learn about human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health and society & culture and are encouraged to examine their own values so that they can make their own good decisions.

For a related piece, read Brain Child’s Conversation Starters by Catherine Buni

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Something To Think About: The Kids Are Online, and The Kids Are All Right

Something To Think About: The Kids Are Online, and The Kids Are All Right

Nutshell logoMy father and I argue about the state of the world a lot, as children and parents will do. My father is sure that texting is the death of interpersonal relationships and I’m sure that texting is just another technological leap like the radio, the television and the Internet – the kind of leap that makes old folks shake their fists and tell the kids to get off of the lawn.

Some of the research on this tends to side with my dad, witness this study out of Washington and Lee University. Texting While Stressed: Implications for Students’ Burnout, Sleep, and Well-Being, examined the experience of 83 incoming freshman and found that the more they text, the lousier they feel. They sleep less, they stress more about relationships and they burnout on their studies more quickly.

The issue we have here isn’t texting; it’s texting too much. And what the study shows is a great teaching opportunity, not a call to return to the age of the landline.

My dad read a report about the study and immediately sent it to me as proof that he’s right and I’m wrong. I read it and thought about how it gave great pointers for the youngsters to learn how to moderate their text intake by clearly listing the red flags. Is it interfering with sleep? Adding stress? Making you burn out fast? Well, there you go. Time to curtail the texting.

As a counselor, I see lots of worried parents and lots of screen-savvy kids. My client list includes both hard-core gamers and virtual social butterflies. Certainly a few of them are escaping into online worlds in order to avoid facing real life challenges and some of them are slaves to their smart phones but the vast majority of them manage things pretty well.

Lots of parents worry that virtual relationships will take the place of real life relationships but I think this stems from a misunderstanding of what virtual relationships are. Virtual relationships are real relationships; ask anyone who met their current spouse on eHarmony. Besides these crazy kids have new fangled things like web cams and USB headsets, which allow them to see that the imaginary people who live in their monitors are actually real live human beings with real live lives. Parents of a certain age used to fall asleep with the phone glued to our ears (remember that? I’d listen to the entire Dark Side of the Moon album with my boyfriend, both of us sitting in rapt silence on opposite ends of the phone line listening to our respective record players) so we should appreciate the lure of socialization from afar.

As for the smart phones and the texting, the tweeting, the Kicking, the Skype-ing, the FaceTiming and the ooVooing, I agree with my dad who looks askance at the families sitting in a restaurant, heads buried in their screens with nary a word exchanged with each other but that’s not a technology problem; that’s a people problem. I agree that using technology to avoid each other is a sign of dysfunction but it’s a chicken and egg thing. Did the texting as avoidance tool beget dysfunction or did dysfunction beget texting as avoidance tool. My money is on the latter.

There was much debate among the psychiatric community about whether or not Internet Addiction and Internet Gaming Disorder ought to be listed in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is also known as the bible of mental health professionals. At this point, neither one was included although the discussion and the research continues. I’m happy both with the current omission and with the ongoing debate because we do need to wrestle with this and we need solid research before we start giving people a diagnosis.

Meanwhile I think parents ought to be aware that managing our time with the Internet or with smart phones can be problematic and that teens—with their immature brains and emotional development—are especially vulnerable. But they’re going to head out into the great big wide world without us someday and we need to help them manage the virtual world, which they can only learn by doing.

So how do you know your teen needs to curtail her screen time? You ask yourself these two questions: Is it hurting her relationships? Is it hurting her school life? Is she stealing from your wallet to fund her Steam account? Or does he knock over his baby brother and his limping grandmother to get to his vibrating phone? Then it’s time to talk. (Me, I’ve had to set limits on texting during sessions with both teens and adults.)

Parents need to help their children learn moderation, (which can be challenging if we’re fighting our own compulsive need to add to our ever-growing Pinterest collection or to thumbs up all the events on Facebook). We need to recognize when our concern is valid and when it’s really a reaction to growing older and not understanding how that Vine thing works.

We also need to talk to our kids. One of the gamer girls who used to come to my practice was better at managing her Internet intake than her mom realized. When I facilitated a discussion between the two, the daughter had the chance to explain how she knows when she needs a break and what rules she’s set for herself to make time for schoolwork and going on World of Warcraft campaigns with her guild. So if you’re not sure if it’s a problem, ask your child. Then ask how they would know if it WAS a problem. You might find that your kids have given more thought to it than you realize.


Art by Michael Lombardo

Something To Think About: In Adoption, Fathers Have Few Rights

040456be40b65c65439284ca4ab4f3f4Mother places child for adoption. Parents try to adopt child. But where’s the father?

Here is how it works in Ohio, the state where I live. Hopeful adoptive parents take the baby home once mother has signed surrenders. Most agencies will not let you take the baby home sooner but the surrenders can be signed at 72-hours post-partum so it’s not that long a wait. This is not adoption, not yet. In Ohio, the baby is not actually adopted until at least six months have gone by. Theoretically the mother has 30 days after surrender to contest the adoption. This is very nearly impossible to win since there must be indisputable coercion present (say, for example, the mother signed the surrenders at gun point). It is very hard to prove anything as nebulous as emotional coercion (such as a woman who will lose her housing if she brings the baby home).

Theoretically the father also has 30 days to contest the adoption.

A man who believes he may be the father of the child of an unmarried mother may preserve his right to contest to the child’s adoption by registering with the Ohio Putative Father Registry. Even fathers under the age of 18 may register with the Ohio Putative Father Registry.

A putative father is a man who may be the father of a child, but is not married to the child’s mother when she becomes pregnant or when the child is born, AND he has not adopted the child, AND a court or child support enforcement agency has not decided he is the child’s legal father. Registration can occur at any time during pregnancy, but no later than 30 days after the birth of the child. Registration with the Ohio Putative Father Registry does not make a man the legal father of a child and does not establish paternity, but it preserves the right to be notified if the child’s mother places the child for adoption. For more information, call the Ohio Putative Father Registry at 1-888-313-3100. (

Putative father registries exist in 33 states although each state may handle their registry differently. Some states demand putative fathers register within five days after birth; some allow them to register anytime after. This affects birth father rights but also the rights of hopeful adoptive parents and, of course, the babies who are living in limbo.

To contest an adoption (or to be told that an adoption is imminent), putative fathers must register in the state where they live, in the state where the mother lives (if different) and any state where she might visit. For example, some adoption agencies will fly an expectant mother from the state where she lives to the state where the agency operates and if the putative father is not registered in that state, he will forfeit his rights. Some states are less committed to protecting birth father rights (Utah is notorious for railroading fathers into adoption) and unscrupulous agencies will send expectant mothers there with the intention of keeping fathers from learning about the adoption. (See the story:

I’ve been thinking about this because of the very convoluted, very complicated case of Baby Veronica. Baby Veronica is a preschooler whose mother placed her for adoption without clear consent of her father, Dusten Brown. A South Carolina couple assumed physical custody of Veronica with the assumption that they were free to adopt her. The couple was present when Veronica was born and took her home from the hospital after her birth mother relinquished her parental rights. When Veronica was four months old, Dusten Brown was served with notification from the couple stating their intention to adopt her. Brown immediately initiated court proceedings to stop the adoption and gain custody of his daughter. At age two, Brown was given custody but the couple went back to court to fight the decision.

The case is further complicated by the differences in state adoption laws (Brown lives in Oklahoma and the couple live in South Carolina) and, notably, that Brown is a member of the Cherokee nation. If Brown were not Cherokee, it’s unlikely this case would have gone as far as it has. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) states that Native American children may not be adopted into the homes of non-native people without the consent of tribe, regardless of the biological parents intentions. In this case, the ICWA became involved because they did not give consent.

In other words, it’s Brown’s rights as a Native American man and not as a father that have given him a fighting chance to parent his daughter.

We need to talk to our sons about this. We talk to daughters about pregnancy and choices and options but we need to talk to our sons specifically about their rights and lack thereof. I had no idea that putative father registries existed until we began the process to adopt our daughter. Most men I’ve talked to also have no idea that they exist.

Personally, as a pro-choice feminist, I unequivocally support a woman’s right to choose when it comes to abortion. However, when it comes to decisions about adoption, fathers should be able to participate in the decision-making. Putative father registries only work when men know about them, are able to access them easily and without confusion, and when the fathers who try to stay involved are given the space and support to do so.

Author’s Note: Readers interested in the court decisions around the Baby Veronica case can look to the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys site, which includes a pdf of the US Supreme Court Decision in Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl (

Art by Michael Lombardo

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Something To Think About: Moms Behind Bars


Nutshell logoLike the rest of America, I binged on the original Netflix series Orange is the New Black last week. At first I wasn’t interested because I’d read reviews of the memoir it’s based on and was sure it was more of the “nice white lady” schtick that permeates so much liberal discussion. But my friend convinced me to give it a try; after the first episode I was hooked.

I watched the whole series in a matter of days, propping my iPad on the counter to watch it while I made dinner and keeping it in one corner of my desktop monitor while I did mundane paperwork in another window.

I loved the show for the actors and I’m looking forward to the second season in part because the experience of mothers in prison—while touched on—was underrepresented. I’m hoping this is rectified as the series goes on.

I’m not sure how many women in the fictional Litchfield NY federal prison are moms but in the core group whose stories are told in episodes 1 to 13, only three actually claim parenthood—Sophia, Aleida and Dayanara’s roommate, Maria.

Maria gives birth on episode 8 and is wheeled back into her prison cubicle without her baby. That’s all we see of her experience although (spoiler alert) there’s reason to believe that in future episodes we’ll have the opportunity to learn more about pregnancy and motherhood in prison through the eyes of one of the main characters.

I counted 22 credited women on IMDB (internet movie database), which means that about 13% (or 18% if you’re going with that spoiler) of the women whose lives we’re witnessing on our small screen are mothers or about to be mothers. But according to the Women’s Prison Association’s 2007 numbers, nearly two-thirds of all the women in prison are parents. To put it even more starkly 1 in 359 kids in America are missing their mom because she’s behind bars.

With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that Sesame Street recently launched an “incarceration toolkit” for teachers and caregivers.

Like Maria, approximately 5- to 6% of women who enter the prison system are pregnant yet the prison system is ill-equipped to deal with the needs of those women and their babies. According to the activist group Birthing Behind Bars, when a woman goes into labor while incarcerated she is likely to be in handcuffs and ankle shackles. Stories like Diane’s, presented by ACLU Maryland, are not uncommon.

Once the woman has given birth, she must either find a relatives to care for the child, make an adoption plan, or her baby will be released into the foster care system. When families take guardianship, they do so without the subsidies that come with a foster placement. A biological grandmother, aunt or uncle is not able to get the money for food and clothing that comes to unrelated foster parents, which means some children are released to strangers not because their families don’t want them but because their families can’t afford their care.

The PBS documentary Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis, points out that most women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses related to poverty and/or drug addiction and that unlike the majority of children whose fathers are in prison (who are usually left with their moms), kids whose moms are in prison are losing their primary caregiver.

In an effort to support and educate prisoners who are parents and their families, the organization Prisoners with Children’s Family Unity Project offers a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Parents, which emphasizes the importance of supporting relationships between mothers in prison and their children. To that end, Get on the Bus, a program of The Center for Restorative Justice Works, helps organize annual field trips for kids to visit moms and dads in prison.

Orange is the New Black has a terrific opportunity to shine a light on the experience of moms in prison and I hope they take it.


Art by Michael Lombardo


By Dawn Friedman

fall2007_friedmanEvery morning I turn on Max & Ruby and sit down in the blue chair with the red cushion. My three-year old daughter grabs a little chair for herself and places it between my feet. I have a wide-toothed comb, a rat-tail comb, and spray-on conditioner. I also have a box of barrettes, cloth-covered rubber bands and little plastic snaps.

First I separate Madison’s hair into sections and spray it liberally with the conditioner. Then I use the wide-toothed comb to smooth the tangles from her curls. Next I use the rat-tail comb to make parts. Sometimes I divide her hair into a dozen little squares to braid. Sometimes I give her two fat pigtails down low behind her ears to leave room for her bike helmet. Other times I pull back the top and braid it to keep the hair out of her eyes and leave the rest down to froth around her shoulders. Depending on the style, our morning ritual can be as short as twenty minutes or as long as an hour.

My daughter’s hair is rich, chestnut brown touched with auburn. It bounces around her ears in silky corkscrew curls. It is the kind of hair that captures attention in the grocery checkout line.

“Look at that gorgeous hair!” the observer exclaims. “Wherever did she get it?”

They don’t really need to ask. Underneath that mop of glistening curls is a café au lait face. It’s obvious that she got her beautiful hair from her African American ancestors. But people ask this because I am white, and clearly there is some story to our daughter’s arrival to our family. “Where did she get that hair?” is a question that comes from white people. Black people simply say, “She has good hair.”

It’s what her birth mother said at one of her visits. “I hoped she’d have hair like this,” Jessica said, twisting a curl around her fingers. Our daughter’s first mom, with whom we have a fully open adoption, has kinky hair that gave her fits when she was a child and that she now wears in a soft afro. “She has good hair.”

“But isn’t it all good hair?” I said, quoting the title of a book on African American hair care (It’s All Good Hair) that’s widely recommended in transracial adoption circles.

Jessica snorted. The snort said, “Spoken like a white person.”

Madison is not tender-headed–she never yips in pain when my comb hits a snarl–but getting her to sit (mostly) still has been a matter of training. I started having her sit for hair time before she had much hair at all. We both needed the practice.

“Do you want braids today?” I ask Madison. “Do you want your dragonfly clips?”

“I want to wear it foofy,” she might say. She means in two fluffy ponytails. If her hair was in braids before we sit down to style, her ponytails will be soft ripples. If we mist them with water, the curls will bounce right back. Sometimes she wants twists, two strands of hair twisted around each other to make a sort of looser version of a braid.

“Like Rudy,” she says, because she admires Rudy’s hair on old Cosby Show reruns. For twists we might use tiny clasps called snaps at the end of her hair. We have flowers and jeweled hearts and little opalescent butterflies. Madison fiddles with them and by the end of the day her hair is still in twists but empty at the ends. I find the clips scattered around the house and I pick them up to put back in our barrette box. Replacing snaps can get expensive.

Our babysitter Jaime is a young African American woman with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm who wears her hair in natural short twists, which she usually covers with a pretty scarf. Every morning she greets Madison by commenting on her hair. A neutral, “Look at your hair today!” means I could have done better. An enthusiastic, “Look at your pretty-pretty braids!” and I can tell I’ve done a good job.

I knew that this was her ever-polite way of guiding me while I tried to figure out the social mores around my daughter’s halo of curls. One morning I asked her outright how I was doing on Madison’s hair.

Jaime seemed relieved I had asked. She mentioned the products that would work best on Madison. She checked out my comb and cautioned me against over-conditioning.

“What about this?” I asked. My daughter has little flyaway wisps that escape around her face. “Do I need to do something to keep them down?”

“No, but if her hair was really nappy, that would look like a mess,” Jaime answered. She paused to cup Madison’s chin in her hand and tilted her head up to see her eyes. “But we know our children’s hair comes in all grades. We know that her hair just does that and it looks just fine.”

There are other words for nappy. There is “textured” or “kinky” or “coarse.” My black friends have instructed me not to say nappy because this is a word that in the mouth of a white person has the dim, lurid overtones of hatred.

“I can call a child’s hair nappy,” explained one of my former co-workers. “But you can’t. Don’t even go there.”

After we adopted Madison, one of my white friends asked, “Can you say it now?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. To make sure I asked a black friend. That’s when I learned the word “textured.”

When I took my daughter across the country to meet her extended birth family, I was nervous about her hair. She didn’t have much then, being only about fifteen months old, but what she had was a soft blur of curls. Left alone it was cute but messy and there was barely enough to style.

“Just get the parts straight,” said a black friend. “It’s all about having a good part.”

Now I practice parts the way I used to practice my tennis serve. I try to put style, grace, and accuracy into my daughter’s parts. If the line wavers at all, I comb her hair out and start again. I’m finally getting the hang of it and now I can make complicated parts at an angle to each other. I’m proud of my parts.

I’ll admit it, I was scared to adopt a daughter. Once we knew we would be adopting a black child, I read books about hair care and felt worried. I’ve never been good with my hands. I hate to sew and crochet; even writing a letter by hand makes me groan. How would I manage her hair?

Most of my white friends don’t understand the fuss. They have daughters with long hair or with short hair and sometimes they send them out looking like they’re wearing a bird’s nest on top of their heads.

“Well, she won’t let me get a comb through it,” they shrug.

One day I was talking to a white friend about Madison’s hair and about trying to figure out how to keep my daughter walking between two worlds with her head held high.

“I just want her to look right,” I said.

“She’ll look right because she’s your daughter,” my friend said.

I found her assurance well intentioned but frustrating. When my white friends argue that I shouldn’t “have” to adhere to black standards in styling Madison’s hair, they are refusing to acknowledge that this is a response driven by white expectations, created by a culture where the texture of black hair is considered a problem, an anomaly. When they say, “Would you do this for your biological child?” they ignore the fact that my bio son is white.

When my white friends’ daughters leave the house with uncombed hair they subvert ideas about shiny neatness and little girls. My feminist friends smile easily at their tangled-headed daughters playing princess. But this is not a privilege extended to children with brown skin. I know that my daughter–like any child of African descent, boy or girl–carries the weight of racism on her curls. The cultural image of the unkempt black child–of Buckwheat and wide-eyed pickaninnies–is part of a racist legacy used to argue that African American parents didn’t care for their children and that their children weren’t worth the care.

White people, like my friend, usually assume that my whiteness protects my child. It’s a dangerous assumption. My daughter cannot escape racism just because she is my child. I don’t want to send my daughter out into the fray without the visible respect of her mother. I do her hair to send the message that her curls are worth the trouble because she is worth the trouble. I’m telling the world that she is valuable and loved and protected.

None of this is a burden to me. I look forward to styling Madison’s hair every morning. I enjoy the closeness, the quiet focus of my mind while I sift through the barrettes. I mist my daughter’s hair with water and prepare to unknot the tender place at the base of her skull, the place that my black friends tell me is called “the kitchen.”

At the end of our styling sessions I always say the same thing.

“You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, hairdressing lady,” my daughter says formally. “Thank you for doing my hair.”

Then she’s off to go look in the mirror and I put the comb away.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

About the Author:  Dawn Friedman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, son, Noah, and daughter, Madison. Her work has appeared in, Yoga Journal, and Greater Good. She was an editor at Literary Mama and blogs at