Friday, February 24, 2012

Five for Friday: Siblings

Adoption and foster care don't just separate parent and child; they also separates siblings. Here are five links to posts and articles looking at the subject of sibling separation from different viewpoints:

I met my own biological brother when I was 30 and he was 15. This past summer, I joyfully attended his wedding.

My adopted daughter currently has contact with her youngest two siblings but hasn't seen the older group in years. I wish I could change this for her, but the circumstances are currently beyond my control.

Do you have a sibling story of your own? If so, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

One More Reason I Love Openness in Foster Adoption

I keep coming back to this post by SocialWrkr24/7. If you read my blog regularly you already know that I love this piece; I can't seem to stop mentioning it and linking to it. Today the part of it that is on mind is the following:
[Children who were adopted from foster care] deserve to know their parents are okay - even if that just means they are still alive and have enough to eat. They deserve to know that their parents do think about them and want contact with them - they weren't thrown away and forgotten.
This passage is personally poignant for me because those are in fact two very important things that my daughter Ashley has received by way of our open adoption arrangement with Erica, her first mom. A few months ago, during a visit, Ashley herself brought up the second topic, asking Erica, "Mom, did they say I couldn't come home or did you not ... um ... um ..." She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence with "did you not want me," but Erica knew that's what she was asking. She quickly reassured her that she had always wanted her but hadn't been able to get well in time, and an important (albeit age-appropriate) conversation about addiction and recovery ensued. (Erica writes about that conversation powerfully here.) 

As an adoptee, I got to hear my own mother say "I always wanted you" and explain the factors that came into play in my adoption when I made contact with her as an adult. It was a powerful, healing moment. I'm so glad that Ashley didn't have to wait as long as I did to get her question answered.

But the part of the passage above that has really been pulling me back is the part about deserving to know that the parents are okay. This is something people probably don't often think about in foster-adopt situations. I didn't think about myself, until something happened that made me look back and realize that this had been a concern for Ashley.

After one of our early visits with Erica (back when we were still meeting in public places), Ashley said to me with great excitement and emphasis, "Mom, she lives in an apartment. Did you know that? I asked and she said she has an apartment." And suddenly it dawned on me that prior to that day's visit, she really had no idea where Erica was, and it had been on her mind. And it's not just that she didn't know specifically where she was; she wasn't even certain that she had a home -- a roof over her head.

Her concerns were not unfounded; there was a period of time during which Erica was homeless. Someone -- a social worker or former foster parent -- may have said something about this to Ashley. Maybe she asked "Why can't I live with my mom?" and was told "She doesn't have a home for you to live in." I don't know how long she was carrying this worry, and I hate to think how long she might have carried if she hadn't been able to ask Erica the question.

Kids come into foster-adoptions carrying so many burdens; one of the reasons I love open adoption is that it gives them the means to set some of those burdens down. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Camp To Belong

I LOVE this concept:

Please click here to learn more about about Camp To Belong.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How We Got Here: The Gradual Opening of an Adoption

These days, my relationship with Erica (my daughter Ashley's first mom) is very open. I love her as a friend and family member, I respect her as a colleague in the work we do through Ashley's Moms, and I'm comfortable with her being the adult-in-charge for either of my children. She's been to my house; I've been to hers. She has attended school events. She has my cell phone number, my work number, and our home number.

(Photo copyright 123RF Stock Photos)

But it's important to note that we did not start out this way, and when I talk about open adoption in foster-adopt situations, this is not at all what I am recommending for others at the outset.

Each situation is different and every family will need to figure out for themselves what level of privacy protection is needed. In some cases, protecting the safety of the child will be a bigger concern than in others. Open adoption does not mean you have to bring the biological parent physically into your home or open up all areas of your life to them. Rather, it is more typically a limited relationship that takes place in a structured, controlled environment, with the adoptive parents setting the boundaries.

In our case, we started with a legal agreement stipulating that my husband and I would maintain a P.O. Box where Erica could write to us and/or Ashley. That was fine, but e-mail is easier so early on I set up an anonymous e-mail address. (Initially, we didn't reveal our last names.) Our early visits occurred in public places. At first, Erica was the only biological relative involved in the visits; later, we brought in Ashley's little brother Tyler, followed by other relatives (grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins). 

The agreement that my husband and I signed prior to the adoption gives Erica the right to at least one visit per year. (Obviously, we have decided to do visitation on a much more frequent basis.) We have the choice of supervising the visits ourselves or of having them supervised by a third party (our area has centers where supervised visits can take place). We chose to supervise the visits ourselves and this worked out great for us. The first visit following Ashley’s adoption finalization took place at a roller rink and involved Erica, Ashley, and myself. At a later visit, Ashley and Erica got pedicures at a local salon while I waited in the lobby. Currently, "supervision" is no longer an issue for us -- we are comfortable with Ashley having time alone with Erica -- but we got to that comfort level by getting to know Erica over time. 

We started with a bunch of protections in place and dropped them one by one as we became aware that they were not necessary for our particular situation. Erica's recovery and current level of stability has made it possible for us to move into a level of openness that would not have been possible otherwise. If her situation had been different, we still would have wanted to maintain some level of connection with her, but we wouldn't have the same level of openness.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Sibling Bonding

This past summer, my older daughter Mackenzie spent three weeks in Maine. She stayed with my mom and dad and attended attended an arts camp in their town. She had an amazing time and wants to do it again this year, but, of course she missed me and her dad and Ashley. Especially Ashley. When they reconnected after three weeks apart, it was really sweet to watch them together, cuddling on the couch or walking arm-in-arm.

We are currently in another one of those sweet spots, but it didn't take a three-week absence to get to it: just a two-day play-date. Ashley had a friend over for a sleepover that turned into a double sleepover. She wasn't physically absent but she was completely engaged with this friend. Mackenzie wasn't able to work out a similar arrangement with one of her friends, so she spent the two days moping around the house, complaining about being bored and asking when the friend was going to leave.

After the friend did leave yesterday afternoon, we had some outdoor family time, walking around in a park (well, my husband and I walked, at least; the girls ran ahead of us); then we went out for dinner. When we returned to the house, Ashley and Mackenzie spent the rest of the evening with each other, laughing and having fun until they eventually fell asleep together on the pull-out couch in our living room. The happy harmony has continued into today, knock wood.

It's always especially heartwarming for me to see these two sisters getting along well because they got off to such a rough start. There was so much tension between the two of them in the months after Ashley moved in with us. I'm so glad to be in a different place now. In any case, this a nice way to start out a week of school vacation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More Thoughts on Open Adoption and Foster Care

When I met Erica, my daugher's original mother, the first thing I did was give her a hug. I didn't know then that she was in recovery. I didn't know yet know that she had made dramatic changes in her life and was in a very different place than she had been in when her parental rights were terminated. I only knew that she was my daughter's other mother and that my daughter loved her. That seemed like a good enough place to start.

I love the comment that socialwrkr_247 made the other day in response to my latest family preservation post:
Too often foster parents assume that because a parent could not keep their child safe, it is unsafe to continue contact with that parent after adoption. In my 7+ years and nearly 100 children's cases, I have only known about 5 parents who would pose any physical threat to the foster family or child. I have known a few more where the child was too traumatized, or suffered from such a serious attachment disorder, to maintain in person contact with their biological parents. Some of those children could handle letter or phone contact, some couldn't. But in all but those most extreme 5 cases, I would highly encourage foster/adoptive parents to continue to maintain the relationship on the child's behalf until a time when the child wants and is capable of handling the interaction with their biological family again. A child will not be a child forever. A child will not always be at this point in their healing. Someday they may need that link to their past to move forward and grow to be a confident, self-aware adult. 
Yes, there are those rare cases in which openness is not optimal, but don't be to eager to assume that your adoption situation is one of them. If the adoptive parent starts from a position of emotional openness toward the first family, and of understanding the importance of maintaining a connection to the biological family in most (though understandably not all) cases, the open adoption relationship is much more likely to succeed.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Five for Friday: Adoptee Voices

Here are five posts that spoke to some aspect of my own experience as an adoptee:

I liked this one because it makes the point that an adoptee's inner experience may not always be obvious in the way he or she shows up in the world. I am that adoptee, too.

That "Need To Know" I can so relate to the strong emotions that came up for this adoptee prior to searching.
Joy Siblings! For years I was a ghost sister in my brother's life. I met him when I was 30 and he was 15. Here's something my first mother wrote recently about that first visit: "As I listened to you talk to each other, I thought, 'Wow. If they had been raised together, they would have had a secret language, they are so much alike.'" I'm so glad to have him in my life now!
Why my [Amended] Birth Certificate is a Lie I too can remember being stunned and confused when I learned my birth certificate had my adoptive parents' names on it. This is the first time I've mentioned the OBC (Original Birth Certificate) issue on this blog, but I will have more to say about this in a future post.

Here's a quote: "The more of us who involve ourselves in that personal process, write, blog, talk about it, make videos and films and in other ways challenge the myths, the attitudes and misconceptions of non-adoptees and tell it as it really is, calmly, with authority, confidence and certainty of the ground we stand on, the better it will be for our future and that of the young adoptees who will benefit from that groundwork, the foundations for a better future for them and their lives as adult adoptees." Yep, that pretty much sums up why I do this.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I Mean, and Don't Mean, When I Say I Support Family Preservation

Note: This post is focused on issues involving foster-care adoption. I'll look at the subject of preserving biological families versus infant adoption another day.

In December, I wrote some posts about family preservation (here and here). An anonymous reader expressed concern about my position, asserting that by adopting a stance in favor of family preservation I had aligned myself with ill-conceived policies keeping kids stuck in foster care. Here's a quote:

Please realize that this trend of promoting family reunification is literally stalling adoptions for YEARS so that half-siblings or step siblings who have never lived in the same home can be placed in entirely NEW homes together. Please realize that when you choose to emphasize heritage and biological ties OVER exiting from fostercare into adoption, you are ... stalling the most common form of American adoption: foster adoption.
In light of this comment, and as someone who adopted from foster care and promotes foster care adoption, I'd like to clarify my position. I do support family preservation (and I'll explain more about what I mean by this further on in this post), but that doesn't necessarily mean that I believe in reunification at all costs. I understand that children are not at all well served by being kept in foster care for long periods of time or by bouncing from home to home within the system. I also understand that the reunification-focused policies of the past were largely unsuccessful. Here's a quote from Adam Pertman's Adoption Nation:
For decades, the defining principle in the child-welfare system had been "family reunification" at almost any cost, a wonderful ideal that entailed putting kids in foster homes while their mothers (and fathers, when they were around) received help to deal with their violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, or other problems. Unfortunately, far too often, the children were shuttled back and forth between foster and biological parents for years. 
Obviously, that didn't work; alternatives were clearly needed. I've said previously on this blog and elsewhere that adoption is a flawed strategy for a flawed world. The same thing can be said of family-preservation policies; it is crucial that we continue to look at such policies critically. But to admit that a particular set of policies was unsuccessful is not the same as tossing out the entire idea of family preservation. We can cast a critical eye on specific practices while simultaneously holding the understanding that, when possible, it is preferable to have some connection to one's biological family than to have none at all.

I write from the point of view of someone who was separated from her biological mother at birth and who lived for 30 years of her life without any connection to her biological family. My personal experience is that the loss of the biological family is no small thing. Does that mean that I value the biological connection over permanency and stability? Not necessarily, but I believe that it must continue to be a factor of consideration. 
When we shift our energies toward adoption as the only possible solution, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

I take a broader view of family preservation than the reader who commented on my blog post. I don't only associate it with reunification but also efforts to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. In fact, if I were queen of the world, this is one place where I would choose to put a larger portion of resources. I'm encouraged when I read about programs such as the Harlem Children's Zone's Family Support Center that are highly effective at strengthening families and thereby keeping kids out of the system, but, unfortunately, programs of this type are few and far between. I believe there is a need for addiction programs that help parents, or prospective parents, get the help they need sooner rather than later, and that address the complexities of addiction, including the association with trauma. And while there are children in the foster care who have a legitimate reason for being there, such as abuse, there are others who have parents who are willing and able to care for them but reside in another country, and I believe such children should be reunited with their parents. 

Biology is not the only factor, but I believe strongly that it must always continue to be a factor. And I am of the opinion that it should continue to be a consideration even in situations that do end up resulting in adoptions. Erica and I sometimes refer to our open adoption as "post-adoption reunification." This, too, is a form of family preservation ... one that is not in conflict with the child's need for permanency. Here's a quote from a post I wrote in July:

My own daughter is legally adopted but currently has relatively frequent visitation with her biological mother, and this works well for our family. I believe that both parts of the equation contribute to her well being. The adoption gives her permanency, something she desperately needed -- she was not thriving as a foster child bouncing from home to home within the system. Adoption is a legal agreement, but it is also a ceremonial contract between the parent and the child. To my daughter, it means that we will stick with her, even when the going gets tough. It means, 'no take backs.' But the connection to her biological family, and especially to her mother, nurtures her as well.
People often think of "open adoption" and "foster adoption" as things that don't go together. I understand that every situation is different; not everyone will find themselves in the circumstances that allow for the kind of open relationship that Erica and I have created. But I also agree with many of the points raised by the blogger SocialWrkr24/7 in her post Family Is Family (which I included in a recent "Five For Friday" post), including the following:
Children who were adopted from Foster Care deserve to maintain connections with their biological families. Many of these children lived with their biological parents for some amount of time and already have attachments (however disrupted) to these parents. They have memories of relatives and family friends. 
Obviously, there are situations involving abuse in which it would not be beneficial for the child to have continued contact with the parent, but there are many other cases in which the parent was simply unable to care for the child, as a result of lack of skills, resources, or stability but not lack of love or desire to parent. In such situations, I encourage foster-adoptive parents to keep the doors open, so long as it is safe to do so.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Question for You

Adoptees, First Parents, and Adoptive Parents:

What is the one thing you would like people who are not directly connected to adoption themselves to know?

Or maybe there's more than one; that's OK too. I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Five For Friday: First Mother Blues

Today I am highlighting five more posts by first mothers. The theme of loss and/or regret is more prevalent in this week's selections than in those of two weeks ago. These are not cheerful posts, but they are powerful and worth reading. This side of adoption needs to be part of the conversation, too.

Valentine's Day, Lincoln, and Anniversaries
The Things I Didn't Know
I don't get to be the one
It still hurts ...
This Is Not the Post I Intended to Write

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

There's No Expiration Date on Forever

I was recently talking with a friend who adopted an older child through foster care; my friend's son has been with the family for years and is now a teenager. When this family became involved in this boy's life, he was just about to be moved off the adoption track and onto a plan for permanent institutional residency. Because of his challenges and behavioral issues he was considered "unadoptable," but he has thrived in his adoptive family and is now an honors student in high school. That's not what this post is about, though. It's about a story this mom shared with me during our recent conversation -- a story that may surprise you but didn't surprise me. The son had made some comments that confused his parents, and when they pushed a little further to understand the meaning, they became aware that he was under the impression that he would have to move out on his 18th birthday. And he was starting to feel anxious about that date looming in his future. He is legally adopted; this family is his forever family. But he thought forever had an expiration date.

When my friend told me this story, I nodded in recognition because we went through something similar with Ashley, though at a younger age. In a manner similar to that of my friend's son, she didn't express her concerns directly; rather, there were various hints that we needed to decode. She was asking a lot of questions about college. Did she have to go to college? What would happen if she didn't want to go to college? Around this same time she started asking a lot of questions about homelessness and how people end up homeless. Eventually it dawned on me that my eight-year-old was worrying about her own future. She was concerned about how she would survive when we ceased to support her. I turned to her and told her she didn't need to worry about that; she could stay with her dad and me as long as she needed to. I told her the day would probably come when she would want to move out, but it would be her choice when that happened. I watched her body relax. The anxious questions stopped after that, and on a few occasions in the coming months I heard her repeat the message in her own words: "I get to choose when I move out."

Now, if she's still living here at 35, we'll need to revisit this conversation. But I'm not really worried. She can't imagine it yet, but the day will come when she's ready to move on, knowing we've got her back if she stumbles. That's not something she needs to worry about yet, though. And when she was 8, and just starting to settle into our family, she needed to know that she could settle in for good. She needed to be told directly that forever means forever.

It's heartbreaking to think that former foster kids carry this legacy of anxiety with them into adoption, but I'm also aware that the two kids I've written about so far in this post are among the lucky ones. Forever may not have an expiration date, but foster care does. According to Fostering Connections Resource Center (2010), "in 2008, 29,000 youth or ten percent of the children exiting the system were emancipated from foster care (this is also referred to as aging out of foster care) at the age of 18 or older without a safe, permanent family."

I have heard it said by others within the adoption community that adoption should be about finding families for children, not children for families. If you are considering adoption as a way to build a family, please consider adopting from foster care. It's not an easy thing to do and I'm not going to try to tell you that it is. But there are kids out there who really do need "forever families." 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The "A" Word: Let's Talk Abandonment

Here's a statement that is so obvious that it doesn't need saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: all adoptees are not the same. When we meet, online or in person, we often discover commonalities, but we also discover differences. Language is one area that often highlights differences. Words are powerful, but a word that is triggering or resonant for one adoptee may not be for another.

"Abandonment" is one such word. It is powerfully meaningful to some adoptees and much less so for others. I fall into the second category. 

Though my feelings about my adoption are not 100% positive, I don't tend to perceive myself as having been abandoned by my first mother. I tend to view adoption as something that happened to us -- to both my birth mother and myself -- rather than as something she did to me. It was the baby scoop era and powerful social forces were in play. My first mother, as an unmarried pregnant teen in small-town Maine, was relatively powerless. In my particular story, the more powerful player was my biological grandmother, but even she was swept along by strong social currents. In order to move beyond the mores of her time, she would have needed to be a remarkable woman. Can I blame her for being merely ordinary? 

"Separation" is a word that, for me, has more significance than "abandonment." Simply put, I consider myself to have been separated for much of my life from something vital to my well-being: knowledge of and connection to my biological roots. "Identity" is also a big word for me. 

All of that said, I can look back over my history of relationships and notice that for much of my life I tended to seek out partners who were unlikely to stick around. Was I reenacting a scenario of abandonment, working through my unresolved adoption issues through my adult relationships? Maybe. Though stability is one of the defining factors of my adoptive upbringing (my a-parents have been married for more than 50 years and still live in the house I grew up in, with my childhood bedroom more-or-less preserved for me when I return home), I have a hard time expecting that anything will last. I have been at the same job for almost 20 years and have never received anything but positive reviews, but there is a part of me that never stops expecting to be let go at any moment. Adoption-related insecurity? Maybe. 

The thing with adoption is that it can be difficult to tease out which parts are adoption-related and which parts are just life. Impermanence is part of living; the only constant, it has been said, is change. Few of us (adopted or not) make it to adulthood without some form of damage. All of this is true. But it's also not too surprising that a person whose first experience in life was one of separation would experience ripple effects from that event. 

I'd love to hear from other adoptees (and other members of the triad, for that matter) on the subject of abandonment. Is the word one that resonates for you, or not?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Five for Friday: Foster Care

My focus this week is on seeing the humanity in parents whose children end up in foster care. The first post is from the point of view of a social worker. The three in the middle are by adoptive or pre-adoptive parents. The fifth (and my favorite, I think) is by a now-grown former foster child, written in the form of a letter to the author's young child who was placed for adoption as an infant.

Family Is Family
[Birth] Parents
Open Adoption in Foster Care
Dear Isaac

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blogs, Movies, and Adoption

When I first started blogging, I didn't realize how interactive it would be. I had an agenda and some things I wanted to say; blogging seemed like a good soapbox. I didn't know I was stepping into a community. I didn't realize how much other people's blog posts would get inside my head and swirl around with my own thoughts, sending me off in new directions.

Today, for example, there are several posts that have set my mind spinning. There's this one, from Jenn at "Insert Bad Movie Title Here," which has me thinking about my own partially written second-attempt letter to my biological father, whom I've never met. And this one, by Megan at "Earth Stains," which started me musing on my own struggles with chronic pain and the possibility of an adoption connection.

But the post that really reached inside and grabbed me today was this one, by Tonya at "Mommy Musings." This blog is a new discovery for me, and I'm glad to have found it by way of the New Open Adoption Blogs post at "Production Not Reproduction." Reading Tonya's thoughtful analysis of the book Found,  I was at several points moved close to tears. I love how well this adoptive mom gets it ... or, at least, how well she gets me. She doesn't actually know me, of course, but in expressing her understanding of her daughter and of the author of Found, she is also acknowledging parts of me and my experience. I recognize myself in them.

I was particularly moved by the brief description of her daughter's tearful response to the movie Free Willy because it brought up a memory for me ... one in which I did not experience such understanding. I was in my mid-twenties and adoption grief was just beginning to surface for me. I went with a close friend to see The Joy Luck Club. At the end of the movie, one of the characters travels to China and meets her biological half-sisters for the first time. My friend is an expatriate who grew up far from the members of her extended family, and the movie struck a personal chord for her. It also struck one for me. As the credits rolled, other people left the theater but my friend and I remained in our seats, tears rolling down our cheeks. Eventually, she turned to me and said, with a note of irritation in her voice that surprised me, "I know why I'm crying, but I don't understand why you are."

"I'm adopted," I answered.

She shrugged her shoulders. "Oh right. I always forget about that."

I can't say for sure what she meant by that shrug. She was caught up in her own pain at that moment and probably didn't put a lot of thought into her response to mine. But I know that I interpreted it as a dismissal. It was as though she had said to me, "Well, that doesn't count. That's not a good enough reason for tears."

I was in the very early phases of figuring out that it did count ... that it mattered very much. I had grown up with the story that adoptive families are just like other families, only more intentional. I considered myself "lucky" to be an adopted person; it meant my parents had really wanted me. I was special ... chosen. I'd been with my adoptive family since infancy; nothing had been lost because they were all I'd ever known. (You can't miss something you've never had, can you?) I was just starting to figure out that there were pieces of my experience that didn't fit with this simplistic, happy story. During a different conversation, the friend who attended The Joy Luck Club with me admitted that she had a hard time remembering that I was adopted (and acknowledging that I struggled) because it didn't fit with her image of me. She saw me as someone who had led a perfect life, growing up in a perfect family. She didn't know what to do with any pieces of information that didn't fit with that simple view of things. I didn't know what to do with those extra puzzle pieces either either. I'm still figuring it out.

One thing I do know, though, is that I feel hopeful when I read blog posts like the one by Tonya. I love knowing that there are adoptive moms like her out there. I love that, through blogging, I have become part of a multifaceted conversation about the complexity of the adoption experience. I love that I am seen and that other adoptees are seen. Is there still work to be done? Of course. But I believe we are moving in the right direction.

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