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Making Adoption Work - Post-adoption Parenting

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On New Year's Eve, 1992, at SeaTac Airport, family and friends assembled to welcome Dan Drischel, Alice Madsen, and their two newly adopted sons home after six long months in Brazil. The family had been forced to wait in limbo for months when Brazil temporarily halted intercountry adoptions to put new legal procedures in place. Because the boys were born in different states, separate adoption proceedings-a thousand miles apart-were required for each. Poor foster care had left one child malnourished. Both parents got sick. But as the new family walked off the plane, their joy was palpable.

"It had finally happened," says Alice, an education instructor at Highline Community College. "We'd gotten through the difficult times in Brazil; we were home, and there were all the people we cared about most waiting for us. It was without a doubt the grandest moment of my life." And there the story begins.

The process of adopting a child is complicated, lengthy, and often frustrating. And that's the easy part. Then comes parenting. Well-publicized adoption horror stories abound, but the truth is most adoptions work out fine. While the challenges facing adopters are real, there is consensus on steps parents can take to facilitate a good outcome.

#1: Accept that Adoption is a Lifelong Issue

The adoption process is demanding; it's easy for adopters to stay so focused on legal minutiae and paperwork that they lose track of the big picture and forget their early choices will have a lifelong impact on their family. But to the extent that adopters consider these impacts in advance and plan accordingly, they are more likely to achieve the adoption that best fits their family.

Children of another race or culture than their parents need help resolving identity issues. How to include a child's heritage in daily family life may appear simple when a child is small, but becomes complex as children grow. Issues can be expected to arise at important developmental stages, such as adolescence.

Kim Padrow, adoption social worker with Medina Children's Services, says that families who seek to adopt across cultural and ethnic divides need to proceed carefully. "Families may say they believe in diversity, but if their attitude is 'I'm color blind' or 'race doesn't matter,' that shows naivete." Medina helps prospective explore their willingness to embrace a child's birth culture before they proceed with adoption.

For parents willing to make the effort, becoming and growing as a transcultural family is a thrilling and broadening experience. Stephanie Bartlett, a novelist in Ashland, Oregon, has a son, 6, with special needs adopted from Brazil, and daughter, 4, from China. "We try to incorporate their cultures in every aspect of our lives and make friends with people from both countries. After all, if we liked people from China and Brazil so much we wanted a child from each country, how could we explain we have no Chinese-American or Brazilian-American friends?"

#2: Help Your Child Process the Realities of Adoption

Until recently, adoption professionals believed well-adjusted adoptees had no interest in their birth origins. If a child did express an interest, it was seen as a failure of the adoptive family. We now know that assimilating the fact of their adoption is a lifelong process and, whether they express it or not, adoptees do think about their origins.

While most parents share the adoption story with their child, some feel uneasy or even threatened by the prospect of the birth family prior to or just after adopting. But as they become secure in their role and develop an independent bond with their children, most no longer fear that acknowledging a child's birth history, even allowing birth family contact, might disrupt their adoptive family. When adoptees express a need to search out their origins, the parents who love and raise them may wish they had done more, at the time of the adoption, to facilitate their child's quest.

Knowing of their adoption raises further questions. Children may ask 'why did my birth mother give me away?' as early as age three. When and how should you share information? Let your child know you are comfortable with and willing to answer their questions, then let them take the lead, experts suggest. Kathy Foster has made lifebooks for her daughters, telling their personal story as far as it is known. She has let them know that more information is available, at their request, but is letting them decide when to seek it out.

Adoptees across racial lines will have early questions about skin color, often more challenging than adoption questions. Having a support system that includes children and adults who share your child's heritage is indispensable for helping your child find answers. Living in an integrated neighborhood, going to an integrated school, socializing with others who look like them, are more effective in promoting children's self-esteem than being showered with multicultural dolls and books. For families in smaller, more monocultural communities, there are still ways to reach out to a child's birth culture.

Networking with other families yields useful suggestions and emotional support. The Internet has become an important adoption resource. "There's a ton of stuff out there," says Beauchamp, who maintains two Internet adoption mailing lists. Subscribers can post questions and get helpful responses within hours from families worldwide dealing with the same issues. In one recent exchange, "African-American subscribers pointed out to parents adopting black children that they need to learn simple, but important things like hair grooming. In their community, it's usual to give a lot of time and loving attention to a little girl's hair. Not doing so may be seen as a lack of commitment by the parents."

#3: Accept and Honor Your Children for Who They Are

No child comes with a guarantee. But adopted children bring more unknowns than biological children. Even a child adopted as a so-called "healthy newborn" may prove to have unexpected disabilities. As with other facets of adoption, learning to accept children as they are is both a challenge and a gift.

Stephanie Bartlett describes coming to terms with her son's disability. "It was much more intense and time-consuming than I expected. Morgan's condition has no quick fix. It's an ongoing process. I thought he'd just walk away from his first surgery; it took three years." Still there are rewards: "knowing he would never have had surgery in Brazil, that he might not even be alive; watching him do Brazilian folk dancing with his classmates. He only fell once, popped right up and went on."

For Vicki (her name has been changed to protect her children's privacy), mother of four, it was hard to accept that her special-needs children, biological and adoptive, are unlikely to attain the success she took for granted as a high-achieving student. "People below me only existed to make me feel good. I never considered what it felt like to be hanging out in the 10th percentile," she observes.

In denial, parents may overlook a child's struggles in school, Vicki believes, ignoring cues that things aren't going well. "It's easy to be lulled into complacency. Everybody wants their kid to be in the gifted class, not the learning-disabled class."

Judy Heinemann was surprised to discover how much she had personally invested in her child's achieving high academic status. Parents run the risk of overlooking a child's genuine gifts by concentrating exclusively on academics, she says. "You've got to let go of being judgmental. My daughter is an incredible poet, but doesn't spell well. I was focusing so much on academics, I missed that."

#4: Advocate for Your Child in School

The first step is to pay attention to how your child is doing, says Madsen. Teachers may take the lead in identifying a concern that needs intervention, but not always. "Kids who disrupt the teaching or disturb other students stand out. If a child is quiet or withdrawn, maybe doing well socially but not academically, they're a lot easier to overlook."

Vicki remembers shrugging off a teacher's hesitantly raised concerns that one of her children was behind in school. Once she realized that her children's struggles weren't going to disappear by themselves, she began to look for help.

"Assume that the schools and you are going to be on the same team. Start with the teacher, and ask for their perspective: 'does this look normal?'" says Gayle McDougall-Treacy, Family Advocate for Kellogg Middle School and Shorecrest High School in Shoreline and adoptive mother of two.

If greater intervention appears necessary, parents can request that the school make their child a "focus of concern." This triggers a scholastic assessment process involving teachers, parents, administrators, psychologists, and perhaps, other professionals. The child is tested and a plan of action devised. Outcomes may include extra help with reading, family counseling, or an Individual Education Plan (IEP), a formal blueprint to meet the child's educational needs, setting goals and specifying a timetable for meeting them. School compliance is mandatory.

"I would encourage people to get an IEP," says Vicki, acknowledging that it can be a shock to realize your child needs one. "Suddenly you're hanging out in a different part of the school system-IEP land. No one wants to hang out there. You really resist it. You don't want your child labeled 'special ed.' But the kids get rights with an IEP."

Another helpful tool is a 504 plan, mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It provides that all children identified as having special medical needs must be accommodated in school.

Such plans can follow a child from grade to grade and school to school. But even when an appropriate plan is in place, parents should make sure teachers are aware of it and that their child is receiving the educational services specified. If the plan fails to adequately address the child's issues, parents can initiate a new assessment.

Today, one of Vicki's children has an active IEP and another, a 504 plan. Vicki has come to terms with who her children are. "Guess what: you're not going to be at the top of the class; you're not going to go to Stanford or U.W.; but we'll do something else, something that's good; and that's OK."

#5: Develop Long-term Problem-Solving Strategies

Overwhelmed yet? Don't be. The reality is that most of us, however inexperienced and unprepared to begin with, become good parents. And many helpful resources exist; those below can get you started.

If you adopted through an agency, take advantage of services it offers before and after placement. If you adopted independently, try contacting an agency that places children like yours. Many gladly include non-agency families in post-adoption activities.

Finally, remember that diagnoses of attachment disorder, learning disabilities and attention deficits, aren't written in stone. Every day children outperform expectations. Even when limitations are real and permanent, rewards can be just as real, if different, from what parents originally envisioned. Alice Madsen says, "Emily Kingsley, a parent with a Downs Syndrome child, wrote an interesting essay. She talks about becoming a parent as thinking that you're going to Paris. You think about all the wonderful things you're going to see in Paris, and then you find out you're not going to Paris after all. You're going to Holland. And that's not what you had in mind; there's no Eiffel tower there; no French food there. But then you find out that Holland has different things, and that's OK, too."

Resources

Internet

Newsgroups, mailing lists, Web sites on adoption abound. Medical and legal information is available, along with friendly support from parents like you. Support is just a modem connection away. Just typing "adoption" into your Web browser will bring up a wealth of options. If you're not cyber savvy or lack a home computer, ask the librarian at your local library for help.

Mailing Lists

Subscribers share views, ask and offer suggestions, commiserate and celebrate online. To subscribe to the adoption list:

Send e-mail to: LISTSERV@MAELSTROM.STJOHNS.EDU. As a message, type: "subscribe adoption (your first name) (your last name)."

Web Sites

Be aware that not everyone in cyberspace is pro-adoption, and not all information is reliable. However, the Web sites below contain balanced, sensible information:

(For all addresses below, first type: http://www.)

adopting.org/sitadopt.html (adoption-related sites)

adoptivefam.org (Adoptive Families of America)

halcyon.com/adoption/exchange.html (lists adoption agencies, attorneys, services, and support groups for Washington State)

helping.com/family/helper.html (Canadian-based resource with links to adoption information worldwide)

worldaccess.com/~clg46/ (foster parent homepage)

NOTE: This article focuses on post-adoption parenting. To explore how to adopt, the resources above are a good place to start. People of all races, single, gay, lesbian, low-income, or over 40 not only can adopt, they may be preferred as prospective parents for some children. Foster/adopt programs, financial aid, and tax credits can substantially reduce the expense of adoption.

Credits: Nancy Thalia Reynolds

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