Sunday, June 27, 2010

Is Time Right?? When the Adopted Can't Adapt, a Parent's Perspective

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 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 is not the fairy tale many make it out to be. It is real, it hurts, it is 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, 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.


Joyce said...

HI Cindy
not sure if you want to answer this on here but I will fire out the question here and you have my email if you dont want it public.
What does 'help' look like with you?? You talked about how when the girls came home that the first weeks werent so good but had it not improved you would have gotten help. Do you mind expanding on what that help looked like??

THanks for the post and timely for me as I am starting the process for an international adoption living now in Australia and planning to adopt from China. Well its early days so anything can change.
Thanks for your honesty

Anonymous said...

Great post, Cindy. We've also been blessed tremendously to have brought home children who "settled" into our family without many issues. Though the bonding still took time and real effort with our last daughter, I believe it's been "normal" stuff that comes from living without a family for 11yrs, meeting her birth mom at the age of nine, and quite a stubborn personality. It's not until a few months ago (home 2 1/2yrs) that I feel she turned a very real corner in her feelings toward me in particular. It came, unfortunately, by way of a very scary outside situation I won't talk about, but it seems to have made a huge difference. I think it woke her up to what it might be like to NOT have this family, or me as her mom. We too would have sought help, if I hadn't believed we could make it through this, as we had to a lesser extent lived through some of the same things with our other daughter who came home at 10 1/2yrs.

I do look forward to the day when my kids can look back on their lives and understand and talk about what they were truly thinking and feeling during the changes they had to live through, by then from their adult perspective. Their ability to "survive" and thrive is nothing short of miraculous.

My theory on our "luck" at being blessed with kids without major issues is that God knows exactly how much we can handle. He gave your family more challenges than He did mine. He knows me better than that! Yet He stretched me and has taught me much more about love, committment, facing fears, etc.

I've had the opportunity to speak a few times on adoption to women's groups. I always stress that each of my children has taught me more about myself...and not always things I wish I'd had to learn. I tell the group that I'm a slow learner, as it took me eight kids to learn specifically what God wants me to know. I reassure them that it might not take them that many kids!

Nancy in the Midwest

Anonymous said...

I did it again...passed the character limited allowed in posting comments. Here's the other half:

Someone just finding your blog now might not fully understand the extremely difficult days you lived through in Kaz, with the girls nearly sabotagging their adoption for their own fears. They might not realize that the miracle you now call your family came because you took that giant leap of faith, as you prayed and asked God for the wisdom to make the right choice, and as you walked through those terrifying, heart wrenching days. While our situation was much less intense, I do know the striking fear of wondering what on earth God was thinking, asking me to parent a particular child (who shall remain nameless, and is now such a blessing...and still a challenge to my personality some days!) I see how God worked in our lives to leave doors open, even as we prayed He would close them if any of our adoptions were not the best thing for our family or for that particular child. And I see how He brought each child home in the order He did, which then lead us to the next child, and the next, and the next two. Had any of them come in a different order, I can see how I might have balked and backed out, decided that was enough.

I won't ever understand the reasons each one remained in the orphanage for the years they did, the last two not coming home for 3yrs and more after our paperwork was in. I just have to trust that God will use all of these circumstances of their lives, both in Guatemala and now for the shortened years with us at home, to accomplish His purposes for each of them. I don't go to that place of the "whys" and the "what ifs". No point in being sad or angry or frustrated at what was never intended to be. God accomplished great things for our family, in His perfect timing.

As my husband and I sat behind our four teenagers in church yesterday (did they choose the short pew so we'd have to find seats behind???), I was reminded of the years of waiting and praying for them to be part of our family. And there they all sat, in their varying sizes and body types, two boys, two girls, 13,14,15,and 16 until November when we'll once again have two sets of "twins". I was again humbled that God would choose this measely specimen of a mom to help bring about His purposes in the lives of eight children, and using each of them to change me. Growing up, I decided in jr high that I wanted to adopt. God has allowed that to happen five times. Humbled doesn't cover it, as I know my weaknesses far too well. As I say, it's taken that many children to get me to even this point in my learning!

Thanks for always being honest about your adoption experiences and for sharing your triumphs and joys, heartaches and fears with us lucky enough to either know you or to have found your blog.

It's not that I expect you to find the time to read my long comments, but since I don't blog, sometimes posting a comment serves the same "theraputic" purpose for me. Sorry to use your blog for my own purposes, Cindy. I do enjoy "chatting" and "getting to know you" here. You are an amazing mom, and I know even when we don't feel like someone's compliment comes from truly knowing us, I know it's still encouraging to hear such words now and then. God has given you some wonderful, creative ideas to help your children with their learning.

Nancy in the Midwest

Anonymous said...

In that "spare time" I am always teasing you about, please consider writing a book. It could be a combination of your very sound, wise observations and advice on adoption and your story and others. Yours is a story steeped in the Spirit, grounded in vast self-education, and agumented by personal experience. You also have a wealth of people, your blog support system, to draw upon for further experiences. Please consider it--not for now but as things settle a bit. I'd say normalize, but I think the adventurous will always trump normal for Team LaJoy.
Love you all,

Dee said...

I loved this post so much I linked to it on my blog! Kudos to you!

Anonymous said...

When reading about your girls, I have often thought about those girls on the ABC special on adoption--I think it was 20/20, aired probably 2 or 3 years ago, two girls adopted in the same age range as your girls. The younger girl accepted/bonded with her new parents and life fairly easily, the older girl fell apart and eventually left the family. In one scene, the "father" was following this poor girl around with a video camera as she acted out.

Of course, I don't know if this older girl was truly beyond love. I realize this is quite possible. But the video camera scene will always haunt me, and always make me wonder how she would have fared in a different family--like your family. I've wondered what would have happened to Angela with these parents. And I've wondered if these parents could have done better with more help.

You are right that there is no excuse for not doing a ton of research BEFORE adopting. But there will always be parents who get in over their heads (even if they've done the reading), and I've wondered whether you, yes you, Cindy LaJoy, could help some of these parents.

I have long hoped that, once you have a bit more time (yes, I know it may be years before this happens!), you would find a way to help other adoptive parents. Yes, your blog is great, but I've wondered if you could somehow become a more formalized mentor/counselor to parents of adopted kids. Maybe it's one on one mentoring, maybe it's the book that Lael talks about. Maybe both. I just know that you are one of the clearest, smartest, most experienced, compassionate and helpful voices out there when it comes to international adoption--particularly older kid adoption.

Thanks for this post--which I think you should send to Time Magazine.

Tammy said...

Risk is risk is risk when you adopt. It's not just adopting older kids and it's not just about adopting kids from Eastern Europe and it's not just about adopting kids from an orphanage setting. Adoption in and of itself is a risk. So is biological parenting, as that can be a crapshoot as well. But with adoption you take more risks because there is so little you can control about what happens to your child before they come into your home.

No one can believe that my son, placed with me at 6 months through a private domestic adoption, has had the issues he has had. He doesn't fit the stereotype. I tell them it doesn't matter what age the child is adopted at or where they come from. There is always the potential for issues. Trauma does the same thing to all kids, regardless of their circumstances.

I do think many PAP's go into adoption thinking it won't happen to them. That being said, it is one thing to read about issues. It's an entirely different thing to experience them. I'm not sure anyone or anything can truly prepare a person for a raging child, when nothing calms or soothes him. And, of course, it always happens in the middle of the night, so you feel truly and utterly alone. I know of no other life experience that can prepare you for that.

In the end, I think the most important thing to tell PAP's is that when (not if) your child has issues, you are not alone and there is support out there. Sometimes it is easier to deal with something when you know you are not crazy and others have experienced it too.

Maureen said...

Once again, a beautifully worded blog posting! My father gave me that article and it was difficult for me to read. Like you said, "There but for the grace of God go I." There were moments/hours/days when we struggled, but thankfully we never gave up (us on him, or he on us).

I do have to agree with Tammy though in saying that it is one thing to read all the books and it is another to live through it. I read and researched so much before we adopted and I still felt a little blind-sided. Maybe my glasses were still a little bit rose-colored. :-) I think it definitely helped when I began to re-read those books as I was going through the difficult experiences.

A support group, whether in person or online, is also invaluable. To have someone else empathize with you and not judge you helps so much!

Kelly and Sne said...

Thanks for this post. I needed this as our adoption of a "high risk" child (per our IA Dr.) just finalized today (we should return to pick her up in a month or so). Time will tell whether our daughter will have moderate to severe issues or not - we are hoping for the best (mild symptoms - or even misdiagnosed but the latter is not likely) but preparing ourselves for the worst. I will admit that we are frightened by the worst case scenario - but chose to move forward nonetheless. This is our 2nd adoption which has bolstered our confidence in our parenting ability a bit as we would have never been able to make this decision the first time around. In any case, we are planning strategies to help her as early as possible to give her the best "leg up" in life. It IS a leap of faith.

Anonymous said...

I too would like to know what help looks like. My son is domestically adopted but has so many difficulties I can't begin to say. We have tried for six long years to help him in every way possible, therapies, hospitals, medicines, behavior mod, parent training,residential treatment. You name it we have tried. Ten+ mental health professionals have worked with us and the majority all eventually arrive at the same conclusion, "There's nothing else I can do to help you." It seems the only thing we can do is look for a re-placement or put him into a residential setting for the long haul. Unfortunately that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars we simply don't have. It is unfathomable to me that my family has to live with this nightmare situation despite our deepest most sincere efforts to help our son. No one can help us and I know it's just a matter of time until someone is seriously hurt or worse. So I welcome any "help" one has to offer.