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Beyond the Barriers

What We Have Learned about Older Child Adoptionsby Mary M. Johnston



In June 1993 my husband Bob and I made a phone call that changed our lives forever. We initiated the process that would lead to adopting our daughter, Teresa. In those early weeks we could not imagine what she would be like or how she would fit into our lives. But we did know that we wanted an older child, maybe even a teenager. Our personal experiences with nieces and nephews, and our professional experiences in human services helped us choose an age with which we were comfortable. Friends and relatives reacted variously to our decision, from excitement and admiration to incredulity and fear.

In Adopting the Hurt Child, authors Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., and Regina M. Kupecky, LSW, note that “as the long list of parents who want to adopt increases, the number of children waiting for permanent homes continues to swell.” This statement refers to the alarming statistic that approximately 100,000 children in the United States wait for adoption. Many are older. Prospective parents do not wait years to adopt these children as they often do when adopting healthy infants.

Public awareness about the plight of older children has been slow in coming, and more needs to be done to recruit families. The emotional and societal costs that result from this lack of permanency for older children are difficult to estimate, but the actual dollar costs are clear. Maintaining waiting children in temporary care, whether it be foster care, therapeutic foster care, residential treatment, or a psychiatric hospital, far outweighs the cost of placing and supporting a child in an adoptive home.

So what are the barriers that make placing an older child difficult? Why do so many children stay in the “system” until their eighteenth birthday when they must fend for themselves, often lacking the foundation on which to build a life for themselves and their children? And how can prospective parents know if adopting an older child is the right decision for them?

Respecting the Past
One potential barrier to older child adoption is the child’s past. When older children are placed in adoptive homes, they bring their pasts with them. One summer on vacation our then 12-year-old daughter reminded us of this yet again. While passing the “Welcome to Michigan” sign, I announced to Teresa, “Now you can say you’ve been in another state!” With a wry twist of her lips, she said, “How do you know I haven’t been here before? My life didn’t start when I met you and Dad, you know.”

Indeed it didn’t. Her life story, though short in years, was long in experience. She had lived with her birthmother, then her birthfather. She had been in and out of several foster homes while the Department of Human Services attempted to reunite her with her birthfather. Finally, at age ten, she was made available for adoption. Ten years of life that did not include my husband or me. But they did include experiences, good and bad, which shaped Teresa’s early years and helped make her who she is today.

Adoptive parents of an older child need to recognize, accept, and respect their child’s past. This can be difficult. A child’s memories of abuse and neglect arouse myriad feelings in adoptive parents who are committed to protecting and raising their child in a healthy home. Yet a child’s positive memories can trigger fears that the child will struggle with divided loyalties and fail to bond with new parents. Our experience has been that listening and accepting Teresa’s memories enhances the bonding between us. The more matter-of-fact my responses are to Teresa’s disclosures (e.g. “Sounds as if you enjoyed painting the house with your father” or “I’m sorry that happened to you”), the more comfortable Teresa seems to feel in our relationship. She is assured that I won’t reject her because of her past—an important part of her identity. In Adopting the Older Child, Claudia L. Jewett writes, “near the beginning of the placement, or even during visiting, the adults involved should communicate to the youngster that it is permissible to talk about feelings, worries, and the past with the new family.”

Attaching in the Present
Another potential barrier to older child adoption is the difficulty of achieving the necessary attachment. Such attachment problems can be perplexing and frustrating. It seems puzzling that a child who needs and often wants loving parents and a safe home would reject these very things. A child’s difficulty in attaching to adoptive parents in a healthy way can be the result of trauma from the past. The child may desire a normal, happy home life, but memories of betrayal by other caregivers can make it difficult for the child to let down his or her guard. The child’s behavior may range from being distant and aloof to inappropriate or even bizarre.

Teresa’s attachment to us started as an exciting and gratifying adventure. We began slowly by spending weekends together for four months before she moved to our home. Every Friday afternoon we arrived at the foster home to find her waiting by the door with her suitcase. We were thrilled to bring her to our home. We played, cooked, went to movies, fixed up her room, and talked about the future. She was verbal and affectionate, sitting on our laps and making small gifts for us. We couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to have her in our lives. She told us one Sunday after worship that she believed angels had brought us together. Every Sunday evening we drove her back to the foster home. She hugged each of us and said, “I love you,” before we left.

When Teresa moved to our home, we hung a banner and balloons to welcome her. A chocolate Mickey Mouse cake inscribed with her name waited in the refrigerator for relatives and neighbors to celebrate with us. In the excitement of the day I barely noticed a shift in Teresa’s attitude toward Bob. She willingly stood beside me as Bob took our picture, but she seemed uncomfortable next to Bob and suggested that they stand on opposite ends of the banner for their picture together. All evening she avoided and ignored him.

This was the beginning of a very painful six months during which Teresa tested Bob, shutting him out of her life and being hostile when he penetrated the wall around her. Bob comments about his feelings at that time, “I kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ It felt so bad having a kid I wanted to be close to, only to be pushed away for no apparent reason.” At the same time she became clingy and controlling toward me. She tried to control my attention, my time, who I spoke to, what I said, what I wore, and my relationship with her. Bob felt hurt, angry, and rejected. I felt exhausted, angry, and smothered. We didn’t know when or if Teresa would attach to either of us in a healthy manner. (See related article on adjustment, page 52.)

Fortunately we had information about Teresa’s past to help us understand this difficulty. Teresa was removed from her birthmother’s home at a very young age and had few memories of her. But she had been removed repeatedly from her birthfather’s home throughout her young life. These disruptions were punctuated each time with his promises to reunite with her and take care of her. After a final wrenching separation, he initiated termination of parental rights. Teresa felt betrayed and abandoned by him. Now Bob represented the father figure who had let her down, and she wasn’t taking any chances.

We survived those first six months despite our angry words and desperate tears. We learned to present a united front. In her presence, I supported everything Bob said and did, and to the best of our abilities we remained consistent and supportive, showing Teresa that she could trust our commitment to take care of her. According to Teri McCoy, adoption specialist at Four Oaks Treatment Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, “children express their needs through behavior. It’s helpful to know the cause of problem behaviors, but it isn’t necessary. If parents can figure out the child’s need in the present and fill it, chances for attachment are better.” Teresa needed proof that we wouldn’t abandon her.

Getting Support
Finally, it is crucial that adoptive parents of older children seek support for themselves. This support needs to come from people who know and understand the parents’ experience intimately, such as other parents who have adopted older children and persons trained in the field of older child adoption. For almost two years Bob and I participated in an adoptive parents’ support group, facilitated by McCoy, who had completed our home study. She also provided services purchased by the state, which involved weekly visits to our home. These sources of support were lifesavers during those difficult early months.
Support from family and friends is also important, but adoptive parents need to be realistic about their ability to understand these unique circumstances. The experience of parenting an adopted older child may differ from the experiences of relatives and friends with birth children or even children adopted as infants. For example, attachment problems may seem insurmountable to a friend who enjoys a close relationship with a child, or may be minimized by a relative who views rejection as normal rebellion.

To complicate matters, strict but necessary measures taken by parents to deal with a child’s behavior can be alarming to outsiders. Keck and Kupecky write, “to the unschooled, these children can seem like victims of the adoptive family.... When the child gains sympathy from these people...he has succeeded in making a loving, caring, kind, nurturing family seem quite the opposite, which is exactly what he wanted.” An attack on the adoptive parents’ credibility often comes at a time when they are most vulnerable, stressed by the child’s negative behavior and exhausted by efforts to manage it. There is great relief in having a support network that allows parents to be brutally honest about their child and themselves, without having to educate and explain the underlying dynamics.

Today Teresa is a happy, bright, attractive 15-year-old. Like most adolescents, she can be affectionate and generous one moment, self-absorbed and critical the next. Mostly, Bob and I enjoy these typical ups and downs because they are signs of trust and normal development. No longer haunted by fears of abandonment, Teresa responds well to our love, including our discipline. Of course our story doesn’t end here. No doubt we will have challenges in the future, but I cannot picture my life without Teresa. The rewards have already exceeded my greatest dreams.

Neither does the story end for thousands of waiting children. Their hope lies with adoptive parents willing to learn and struggle and risk in order to provide a permanent place for them in this world.

Mary M. Johnston, LSW, is a human services professional and writer who lives in Iowa.

©1999 Adoptive Families magazine.  Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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