By Ian Keldoulis.- Board Member, Downey Side.
When Donna and Charles first saw Jenna’s picture online their hearts jumped. The more they learned about her, the more they wanted to give her a home. Mature in years, they weren’t interested in an infant or a toddler—way too much running around. They wanted a school-aged child, not yet a teenager. Jenna, 9 years old and living in foster care in the North West, fit the bill perfectly.
Surely, getting an American child whose birth parents had relinquished rights would be a smoother and less costly process than searching overseas as Donna’s sister had done, adopting two Asian girls over a period of a few years. And they wanted to avoid surprises like some friends experienced when they adopted two girls from Russia who turned out to be severely mentally disabled.
Adopting a child in the US, however, brings its own set of complications. While there is far more information about American children than their foreign counterparts available to potential parents, extracting and understanding it is a challenge. And the greatest difficulty of all can be navigating the system containing that information and housing the children. Even though Donna and Charles had several years experience as foster parents—looking after siblings and individual children— when the time finally came to adopt a child they still needed assistance.
Fostering children as Donna and Charles did is an excellent form of preparation but it’s not a practical step for everyone. Natasha and Jason also weighed international adoption but felt, “there were so many kids in the US.” When they saw a brochure about adopting older children at a seminar in Brooklyn, NY, they made up their minds. They now have three children, biological siblings aged 15, 11 and 8 but it was a two-year process getting there and one that required much help along the way.
If you’re heading down the path to adopting older children and siblings in the US the “best practices” learned by both sets of parents can make the journey simpler.
1. Work with the right agency
Through a local network of adoptive parents Donna and Charles discovered Downey Side, an agency specializing in adopting older children, siblings and children with development issues. It was also Downey Side’s brochure that caught the attention of Natasha and Jason. The agency looks at adoption through a different lens; they aren’t engaged in finding children for parents so much as finding parents for children. Their key measure of appropriateness is the level of commitment of prospective parents. There must be no doubt that parents are truly in it for the long haul. Economic and social considerations aren’t regarded as barriers, just as they aren’t for biological parents. To this end, Downey Side has placed children with gay couples and single parents. Donna and Charles’ commitment was without question. Natasha and Jason were the same. But what was also readily apparent was their shared frustration.
2. Empower yourself
"We looked into 20-25 groups of siblings," recounted Natasha. "Looking at kids, you keep calling but don’t hear back from the caseworker. It’s frustrating." While she and Jason had been warned not to get attached to the photos they saw online, the experience can be demoralizing.
As a parent, you must feel that you can make the right decisions. Empowerment comes through access to information and becoming educated about how to interpret the information. A good agency will help you to acquire this knowledge. They will let you know that ultimately, the decisions are yours, not the case worker’s or even the children’s.
3. Educate yourself.
Before your family is certified by the state to accept children from foster care, you must be fully aware of the effects foster care has on children as well as the abuse and neglect that is pervasive in the system.
“You need to understand the write ups of the kids plus the jargon and the mindset of the social workers,” explains Charles. He also feels as caseloads increase and budget cuts affect social services departments the write ups on children are getting briefer, “one or two sentences aren’t enough”. Donna compares them to real estate listings that need to be carefully parsed for the truth.
As write ups shrink, case files are growing ever larger and more complex.
Sometimes the information covering a child’s entire life in foster care is simply overwhelming, “Reading the files, you look at some and say ‘we couldn’t handle this’,” Natasha relates. About some daunting cases of physically abused and psychologically damaged children, she continues, “Downey Side helped us read through the files and read between the lines. Some things are sugarcoated.”
4. Talk to other adoptive parents
Charles and Donna volunteer to meet prospective adoptive parents and share their experiences. They see it as a vital step on the path to preparedness.
For many prospective parents the conversation they have at this time is a moment of truth. Charles recounted the story of first meeting Jenna to a group, “We asked her what was on her Christmas list, and she didn’t know what that was. One couple was in tears. These kids are really needy and the simple things are really big for them.”
It can take weeks, months and years for kids to overcome the deprivations of foster care. Hearing the truth from adoptive parents helps prospective parents to comprehend what lies ahead. Of course, sharing the satisfactions and triumphs is just as important, too.
4. Have a trusted advocate
Charles and Donna found that often social workers were more willing to communicate with peers, “They want to talk to other social workers, not to parents themselves,” explains Charles. Downey Side proved more able to get privileged information. “There was a child we were interested in who’d been arrested for arson. And we weren’t told that.”
Ask the adoption agency to help you to obtain as much information on the child as possible. Review the files with them and make sure they’re explaining any unstated or overstated material in terms you understand. They should also assist you in getting personal interviews with people involved in the child’s life. And get them to help you sharpen your own questions.
An hour-long conference call with ten people, including Texas case workers and foster parents highlighted Natasha and Jason’s reliance on an intermediary. “Downey Side ensured all the right questions were asked,” recalls Donna. “And guided us on how to interpret some of the answers particularly with the foster parents who because they have a financial stake in looking after the kids have a different slant. You’re taking away their paycheck.”
5. Get your child excited about his/her new life
The child’s needs are core of the new relationship. What they really need is a loving, committed, parental relationship but what they want is what they see on TV. That’s probably not what they’re getting.
Acting on Downey Side’s advice, Natasha made a “scrapbook” for each child that was sent to them while still in their foster home. “It was personalized so each kid would feel special and wanted with details about their rooms, the color schemes, and pictures of the extended family and Christmas tree.”
6. Understand your life is going to change—drastically— forever
"The hardest part is at the beginning, getting ready to receive the kids," feels Natasha. "There’s a million things to plan and do. Your mind is always racing."
When working through Downey Side there is no “trial run”, parents must be fully committed to the adoption before meeting the children. However, most states take about 6 months or longer to legally formalize the adoption.
7. Get support
"You need someone to talk to," advises Natasha. "Your life is turned upside down."
Post adoptive support is crucial for all family members. “Their baggage becomes your baggage. They have their own view on life shaped by their experience.” Natasha elaborates, “this was especially true of the eldest, who had 11 years of misguidance from her biological and foster parents, starting around 4 years of age. But finally she’s found a therapist she can trust.”
Charles and Donna have been through plenty of ups and downs with Jenna over the past five years. Along with their own support group of friends they’ve continued to rely on Downey Side. ”They understood where Jenna was coming from,” as Charles puts it, “Plus they knew we could also get financial assistance for her medical needs and counseling from her state of origin.”
In Jenna’s case, she was “super quiet and immaculately organized” when she first moved into her new home, a sign of having internalized her problems. But after 5 years of therapy, her parents are happy that her room is now as messy as any typical teenager.
8. Remember the biggest rewards come to those taking the biggest risks
Having a family or extending your family is always a risk. Whether you are able to have your own biological children or if you choose to adopt there is no guarantee you’ll get the children of your dreams. But if you choose to adopt a child from foster care, you can be sure you’re giving someone a better chance of realizing his or her own dreams. What could be more American than that?