I was handed a copy of the latest edition of Time magazine by a good friend of ours today. Contained within was a story about the risks involved in Russian adoptions, and it shares the stories of families whose lives have been challenged greatly by the addition of older Russian adoptees and the emotional baggage and adjustment issues they bring with them.
I found the article to be even handed and informative. It made some very good points, none of which would be a surprise to anyone who has been involved in Russian/Former USSR country adoptions as long as some of us have.
There were some interesting points made which I would like to comment on, and which many pre-adoptive parents may not consider or believe to be true. A quote from the article from Joyce Sterkel, who founded The Ranch for Kids for struggling older adoptees, which I found to be right on the money was this: "The agency's job is to process your legal paperwork, not help you take care of your child when you get home.". I think the vast majority of adoptive parents have a very different expectation level from their adoption agencies, and are quite sadly surprised to discover they literally have nowhere to turn when they arrive home and find they have a disturbed child on their hands. Agencies are just that...agencies...they are your agent for the adoption process. Some agencies are better than others at post-placement follow up. Some simply want to make sure they are paid and that you get your required post-placement reports turned in on time.
However, the fact is that they are not going to hold your hand when you return home (Heck, many of them won't hold your hand before you leave nor will you hear much from them when you travel!). If you adopt internationally, you might be wise to view your agency as simply a "paper pusher" for you, and be well prepared to be extremely proactive and be your own (and your child's) best advocate should you find you need help. While you might be pleasantly surprised to discover strong support when you return home, I think if you surveyed adoptive parents you would find that the vast majority did not find that to be true.
And is that fair? What SHOULD we expect an agency to do? Should your fees cover post-placement services beyond report writing? Frankly, no. Long term therapy of the type that is necessary for healing for these kids is drawn out, costly, and requires vast experience. Agencies are experienced paper pushers, not always experts in post-institutionalized children and their issues.
What can a pre-adoptive parent do to help prepare themselves? Here are a few things:
1) DO NOT BURY YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND. This is NOT a fairy tale. If you are adopting older children, you must not avoid thinking about the fact that your child may be one who is terribly scarred and will need help. Odds are, your older child will have a slew of issues, some worse than others, some more manageable than others. If you deny the possibility you will not be able to get help.
2) Research ahead of time. Find out who in your area is skilled in counseling families with attachment issues, fetal alcohol issues, etc. Search out the specialists for academics who might be of help to you, if there are any adequate ones around. Talk to other local families who have adopted older kids internationally and build a support system so you have someone to run things by if you encounter something odd.
3) Get as much training as you can, read as many books as you can, get in as many online groups as you can. Self-educate, do not count on your agency to do it. Even the good ones can only provide you with the tip of the iceberg. I am not talking about taking mandatory classes and calling it good. I am talking about literally doing thousands of hours of research and reading. This is your life, this is a child's life, you had better be willing to put the time in to educate yourself and not count on anyone else to do it for you, or hand you that knowledge on a silver platter.
It is not your agency's job to take this part seriously, it is YOUR job. There is not a single excuse worth listening to for not doing your homework ahead of time. The amount of information available these days is staggering....blogs galore, books, research, you name it you can find it. You ought to be well versed by the time you travel in all areas of adoption adjustment, not much should come as a surprise for you. If you are well read and prepared, you can identify issues very early on and get help. You can recognize what is "normal" behavior for a post-institutionalized child and what might be off the scale.
4) This one is the hardest. Be prepared to walk away if your gut tells you to do it. Be prepared to ignore feelings of sympathy or pity. Give yourself permission before you ever find yourself in the situation to say "no" to adopting a particular child, even if it means walking away empty handed. Do NOT play head games with yourself, be as thoroughly honest with yourself as you can be.
I remember after visiting Josh on Day 2 and being 100% certain he was going to struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder. It was so obvious, even if others say that was too soon...I was obviously right. I knew it, I had done the research, and every possible sign was present even as I watched him with caretakers. Dominick and I talked about it honestly that night, not pretending it would all be OK but asking ourselves if we should proceed and if felt this child was ours knowing what would likely be down the road. Our decision to move forward with the adoption was not based on pity, it was not in an attempt to fool ourselves. It was a conscious decision to take on a child whom we knew would be a real handful for a long time to come. It was not a gamble, it was a realization that we felt that this was a path we were being called upon to travel and we offered ourselves up to travel it with eyes wide open.
5) Pray, pray, pray. Walk in the Spirit every single moment of your adoption. Without the guidance and wisdom that comes from listening to that still, small voice, I honestly don't know how anyone can do this and end up with the child that is meant to be theirs. No flames please, just my own opinion.
It was only the Spirit that kept us sane this past winter, and it was only the Spirit that has brought us to where we are today under extremely trying circumstances where doubts assailed. Without the Spirit, we would never have had the courage to keep going, to move forward, to trust that love would win.
6) Love is NOT enough. Sounds silly after the last statement, I know, but love is an action...and loving these kids can not be passive and often involves action well beyond what many are motivated to provide. Hugs are not enough, no matter what anyone tells you. There are times when you have to gut it out, when love has nothing to do with it. There are times when love means distancing yourself so you can manage to stay in the game for the long haul, but also being willing to step back in the ring after that respite and not allow yourself to permanently distance yourself. It means loving enough to be hurt over and over again, to lay your own heart open and to ache for the pain your child has gone through...and to hold their hand and go through it with them.
7) You will not get information about your child. Don't expect it so you won't be surprised. 5 children adopted from Kaz and Kyrg and the actual amount of medical or other information we have pertaining to them is less than 5 full pages. Surgeries for which we were never provided information, school records which were never revealed, parental histories which when available were never offered...it is a total leap of faith. If you are uncomfortable, go stand in line for China or Korea where records are meticulous.
The article details specific cases of "re-homing" adopted children, which means placing them with other adoptive families here in the US if the initial placement falls through and the parents decide to go through the dissolution process. Often a child simply can not mesh with a family, for a variety of reasons. It may not be any one's fault, it could be the child carries too much anger or due to personality conflicts can not allow themselves to heal in one family where the dynamics in another provide emotional space and support that feels non-threatening and creates the opportunity for healing to occur.
If your child is close to one year old or older, your child WILL be delayed. Period. Expect it and get over it. The older they are, the more delayed they will be and in more areas. If you are looking for the kind of child you can show off to others and who will immediately get straight A's in school and be bound for Harvard, I suggest you look into surrogacy. That is NOT to say that many older adoptees don't do amazingly well. The truth is, despite the issues we have before us with our children, I wouldn't trade a single one of them for any Harvard bound child. We were not in this to have kids who "make us proud", and interestingly we ended up with children, all of whom make us extremely proud despite the fact that the world would look at them and likely see all that they lack in so many areas. The beautiful hearts in our kids, the ease with which we all live with one another, the love and laughter we share...all of that is worth ten times more than any wonderful academic achievements they might attain that would give us bragging rights. And who knows, we might one day even get those academic achievements too! But if not, who cares?????
The one thing that I personally see as the key to the breakdown of many placements is what I call the "Shame Factor". Parents are reluctant to admit things are as bad as they are, they are slow to get help, they drown in a sea of emotions with their child that neither the child nor the parent are equipped to save them from and they will not reach out for help for fear of looking like a failure. After all, isn't adoption SUPPOSED to be a fairy tale? Isn't it the fulfillment of dreams on both sides? How can anyone openly admit that all is not going well and professional help is needed? For some reason, adoptive parents often forget that they did not create the situation and are only trying to help a child heal. They feel shame that perhaps they don't yet love this longed for child, who is acting in a very unlovable way.
It is for this very reason that I pledged to be honest in our blog, so that other families could see the reality and maybe be helped by it. Our roller coaster ride in Kazakhstan would have given us reason to hide and not blog about it all, but sharing it helped make a point I have always tried to make when discussing adoption...it is not the fairy tale many make it out to be. It is real, it hurts, it is hard...it is also miraculous and wonderful to see the hard work pay off. As you all know, our first several weeks home as well as in Kaz once we got the girls were not exactly easy. Had things not improved at home, we would have gotten help immediately for we know our limitations and we know what we can and can not handle on our own....and we refuse to feel shame for a situation which we did not create. We did not abandon our children, we did not cause them to feel fear of intimacy, we did not create that hollow space in their hearts. We are, however, responsible to do our best to help them become whole again, and that means being honest and fearless in pursuing help and not worrying about how it looks to others.
Dr. Ronald Federici put it best in his quote in the article when he said "You can take the kid out of the orphanage, but taking the orphanage out of the kid takes a systematic process.". A truer statement was never uttered!!! Adoptive parents bring home children expecting them to be like their age mates here. They are not and can not be. Their life experience is radically different, and treating them like "normal" kids from homes here can lead to great disappointment for all involved. Learn what your child's life was like, attempt to understand it and it's limitations to the best of your ability, be realistic about expectations. You are not going to make up for years of institutionalization in 6 weeks or 6 months...or sadly sometimes not even in 6 years. Some deficits may sadly be carried forward into adulthood, some will be overcome with patience and diligence.
For some children adopted from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus or Ukraine nothing will work. For many older adoptees it is too late, the damage is too severe, the clock has run out on the time to heal. It is unfortunate that many prospective families will focus only on those kids, for their stories are truly horrific and the damage they inflict on their unsuspecting families can not be understood unless you have lived within one that has been faced with this unusual circumstance of trying to love those for whom love is foreign.
So should the risks convince parents to look elsewhere? Should all Russian and former Soviet countries be crossed off the list of potential countries to adopt from because of these risks? For some parents, perhaps this is a good idea. Not everyone is prepared to accept such risks or deal with the consequences should the worst case scenario occur.
But it is hard for me to advocate for that when I live amongst a houseful of perfectly normal kids who all come from that background. It is hard when reading about the hundreds of successful placements of older kids who are all thriving with their new families and who now have hope and a real future, all because someone was willing to take a risk on them. It IS terrifying, and many a sleepless night is had by those of us who move ahead and push past the fear to adopt.
Our lives may be a bit more complicated, we may deal with issues others do not, but that doesn't make our family any less happy. The fact is, I think we walk around with a far greater appreciation for what "family" really means than many do, for not a single LaJoy takes it for granted that family is always there for you or that love will always be in your life. We all know that is not always true, and the depth of what we feel for one another is largely due to experiencing life without family first, and realizing first hand what a tremendous difference having one another makes.
Did we dodge a bullet? In the words of our friend who gave me the article, are we lucky not to be in the shoes of other families like the ones in the article? I don't know, and probably never will. I'd like to think our success has been a combination of 100% Spirit guided choices, thousands upon thousands of hours of research, and realistic expectations. Maybe it was dumb luck, maybe it was the odds being with us rather than against us. Maybe one more adoption and we would have found ourselves in a very different situation. All I know is that for our family, adoption worked. It has not been without it's hardships and complications, and we have experienced the gamut of challenging issues but have thankfully somehow escaped unscathed for the most part...but we have dealt with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder, Racism, Rickets, Trauma, Abuse, Neglect, Night Terrors, English as a Second Language, Academic Delays, Global Delays and somehow have lived to tell the story and still come away loving our children to distraction.
Maybe it is because the labels mean very little to us in the long run.
My heart breaks for the families whose children can not ever heal, whose issues are too overwhelming. I do at moments think "There but for the grace of God go I.". How could we not? The risks are very real, and the end result can be devastating. I am glad though that we took the risk, and I am thankful that our children were able to adapt as some can not. I don't even want to contemplate how much would have been lost if the risk weren't taken or the adaptation did not take place. Lucky, blessed, grateful...you name it and it applies. But one thing I do know is this, you'll never get to be "lucky" if you do not take on the risk. I am sure glad we did, and it was not easy nor jumped into without copious amounts of prayer and consideration.
And I come away from reading this article with a renewed sense of abiding love for these children of ours, not born of our flesh but born in our hearts...imperfect and yet somehow perfectly suited.
They beat the odds and so did we.