Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why I am Not Anti-Adoption: Part Two

In "Part One" of this slowly-developing series (I will post now and then probably take a break on the series for a while before posting again), I addressed in several ways the common argument against adoption that the separation of mother and child is traumatic, hurtful or damaging, and often avoidable/unecessary. I hope you will go back and read that post if you have not already.

In summary, I can agree with anti-adoption advocates in that the above statement is true. As I said in "Part One," largely for this reason, I am an spirited advocate of adoption reform, and I will speak more to that later. Please do keep in mind that this is a series, and thus I am going to address issues one at a time.

Sticking to the issue at hand, however, I also outlined in "Part One" the distinction between the separation of mother & child and adoption. The former is necessary if the latter takes place, but the former takes place in many cases without the latter. There are a lot of children who age out of foster care (as in, kids who live in foster homes until they are old enough to be independent), as well as kids who live with adults (relative or non-relative) under informal arrangements or who live with adults (relative or non-relative) who have assumed some form of legal guardianship. The parents of these children may or may not retain some or all legal rights to their children, let alone relationships with their children.

Each case varies, and in this particular post, I'd like to speak to illustrate a few key points using just one particular case. Largely it is some background into one way in which I have come to the conclusions I have. This particular post is most useful in a conversation about American adoptions through the state, but aspects may apply to other forms of adoption. However, let me very clear at this time that by no means is my post meant to demonize or contribute to negative stereotypes about so-called "birth parents." What I say about the parents in this case apply to their case quite specifically.

Having foster parented for six years now, I have seen the issue of adoption from a number of different perspectives. The first child I foster parented was fifteen years old. His parents had seven children, and he was in the middle. Due to severe abuse and neglect that started in-utero, he was finally after five extremely torturous years that easily could have killed him, removed from his parents' home along with the rest of his siblings. He suffered through another six years of intense effort by the state to reunite his family. Though I cannot and will not share details, I hope my post is clear that I call it "suffering" in his particular case. I am not saying that reunification efforts automatically equal suffering. I am referring to the specific circumstances of this reunification period.

So during those six years he was bounced around from home to home while the process dragged on and on and on. His parents were offered an array of services to help them become healthy and re-establish themselves in their role as parents. They were also given frequent visitations with their children to which they often didn't show. Experiencing the excitement of preparing for visitations and then living through the betrayal of parents who didn't show was among many, many facets of our foster son's trauma. By the time he came to live with us at 15, we were his twenty-third home.

In the end, his parents simply did not have the ability, at least in the timeframe of our foster son's childhood, to parent without abusing their children...for whatever very tragic reason. When he was eleven years old, our foster son's parental rights were terminated. That legal event was but a footprint of a very, very profound loss that had been occurring for him for years. It can't be reasonably argued that our foster son, on many levels, had not already lost his parents. Clearly, he had.

That marker, that legal event, changed very little in the day-to-day life of the children, but it did have one positive effect for our foster son (who was, as I said, not yet with us). Rather than having parents in and out of his life (way more out than in), parents who I must remind you:
  • frequently and consistently made promises to him that they would do the work required to get him back, promises they must have known on some level they wouldn't keep
  • made it a regular practice to hand him their own dramas and place on him the burden of their adult issues, even berating and blaming him for the fact that not he and his siblings were taken into foster care
  • had a legal right to access him, to come in and out of his life at whim, and chose to do so only periodically and at their own convienence without once showing concern for the impact on him...

...he finally was able to be told that his parents weren't able to parent him, that they tried but couldn't learn how to parent, that they just didn't have the ability. He could be told the honest-to-goodness truth. And he had the opportunity to free himself-- as much as humanly possible (which is never entirely)-- from what proved to be the fantasy that somehow they would get it together and make it work and give him the life he dreamed of. In other words, finally, after years and years and years of living hell, he could begin trully and fully grieving his loss.

His parents had made themselves utterly unavailable, starting before their parental rights were terminated, but during our time with him, we tried to give him what information we could and sought as many more answers (and photos) as we could through connections that we did have. We encouraged him to put up the two pictures he had of his mother in the house, if he was willing. We were honest with him and compassionate toward his parents, who I have no doubt loved him despite their inability to gain the skills to parent safely and to engage in treatment.

At one point we went with him to his childhood town for a court hearing to review his case plan. We had lunch in town and he told us about what he could remember. We listened and were there for him to hear his grief. He cried hard afterward, on the way home, moaning for his mommy...telling us again and again how badly he wanted her. His pain wasn't from the termination of parental rights. His pain was there long before his parental rights had been terminated. He had cried like this during nearly every drive from a court hearing for ten years. He talked about crying himself to sleep for as long as he could remember.

His pain was from his mother not having the ability to parent him. His pain was from wanting her so badly and knowing that she would never make herself available to him because after all these years she hadn't. His pain was from the fact that for years he was in the foster care system, sometimes in abusive group homes, and no one-- not his parents of birth, not other biological family members, not adoptive parents-- came to get him the heck out of the system.

After a number of years observing the system up close and personal, it seems to me that termination of parental rights, in foster care at least, is often the humane thing to do in a tragic and sad situation. It is only very recently in history-- within the last decade or so-- that parents have not had the right to do nothing for their children for years on end without facing a termination of their rights.

Because G. and I started out as foster parents for older kids and teens who had lived in the system during a time when some parents never faced termination at all, we became intimately familiar with what occurs when termination doesn't happen for many years even when it is inevitable. That is: the ongoing, painful, constant "rejection" a child feels when his or her parents hang on tooth and nail to rights that they are only willing or able to access without commitment to the longterm. That is the parents have the right to visits, to major medical decisions about their child and even to say when a child can get a haircut, but can choose to show up or not when given the opportunity to be in relationship with their child. They can make the effort to be there, or not, and the child is given no closure even after a decade. All the while, somewhere inside the child thinks, "if they love me, they will show up."

And each time the parent doesn't show up, doesn't follow through with services offered to them, etc. etc., the child's sense of self is diminished. Sometimes biological connection doesn't empower a child to develop a sense of self. It can in fact wound their sense of self. Had I not been a therapeutic foster parent for children who, over the course of years of endless wounds, had been hurt in this way, I would have never realized the deep, deep damage that is done to a child's very spirit when parental rights are seen as necessarily in the best interest of the children without regard to anything else (that is, parental rights become the "holy grail" of ethics in foster cases).

When our first foster son was placed in our home, we made the agreement to be a permanent placement for him. The therapeutic foster care agency he was in at that time did not do adoption, though we asked and would have been open to it. We knew that our "permanent placement" commitment extended through his lifetime, and we accepted that he would need assisted living services and our constant support and advocacy even in adulthood.

We were a family. We bonded in our relationships. We cared for one another. We functioned in every way as a family does. No, we weren't his family of birth nor the parents who "raised" him for his first five years (if you want to give them credit for that period) or even for his first fifteen years in total, and never did we think of ourselves as replacements of his first parents. He called his first parents "mom" and "dad" and he also called us his "moms" (which was absolutely his choice...we had suggested he just call us by first name).

The human heart does not have a finite ability to love and experience family. Our foster son's concept of family included the parents who had given him life biologically and raised him (to the extent they were capable) for his first five years. He has much love for them, and a great sense of pride in many things he remembers about them. He bonded with them, even as they abused him, and they will always be two of the most important people in his life, if not the most important people. It also included us, who in any fundamental definition of the word, parented him.

Was it "picture perfect?" No! No family is picture perfect. He did share with us on numerous occassions that he craved an adoption, and because of how he talked about it, I am 100% confident it was not because foster children are "conditioned" to think of adoption as "the answer." Our foster son made it clear to us that having a family-- having parents-- is a very primal, human need. It is why children, including infants, can and often do attach to-- even through their grief-- any person who becomes their primary caregiver (assuming they don't develop an attachment disorder waiting for that person). That's not to say that the grief is not real and valid and significant in the lives of these children. Or that the secondary attachment inherently "fixes" the hurt of the first loss.

But it is to say that the experience of being parented in every sense of the word is important for every child. Several years ago, Mothering Magazine printed t-shirts that read, "Everybody Needs Mothering." It was a lovely play on words, but my first reaction was one of mixed-feelings because I know children who have fathers and no mothers, and they are well loved and cared for. After more reflection, however, I realized the truth behind the statement. Everybody does need mothering. Whether by our mothers, or even by a father, all of us need the care, guidance, and unconditional love that we conjure up when we consider the essence of the role of parents.

In our society, for good or bad, there is a legal aspect to being family, and even kids "get this." That legal commitment, that "sealing of the deal of forever" seemed important to our first foster son. I really don't think a legal guardianship would have satisfied his particular interest. Because it is not equivalent-- in terms of legal and social aspects-- to other families who happen to be birth families, whereas adoption is. Of course, there is always an emotional difference to being adopted vs. being raised in one's birth family (more on kinship placements in another post). But legal guardianship creates other differences for the child as well.

In any case, after almost a year of being with us, our foster son started to really attach to us. He became very stable. His behavior, which had at times been totally out of control, calmed down immeasurably. He was doing beautifully in school and actually enjoying himself. He was involved in extra curricular activities that he enjoyed, and found a community for himself in our neighborhood and church.

Stability is a very frightening thing to a child who has never had it. Our foster son was used to moving from family to family, never calling one his own for too long. He had several years when he moved multiple times during the year (remember, during just ten years in foster care, he moved from family to family twenty-three times).

So one day, he just decided he needed to move. I know in the intimate way that I came to bond with this child, that he was just scared of standing still and being loved by a family for too long. He told the director of the agency that he wanted to move, and the director came to the decision three weeks later that he needed to "have a voice" in the system and that this was the way to give him a voice. Nevermind that he was simply afraid. Nevermind that he was afraid because for the first time he knew the people who were parenting him were refusing to reject him. Nevermind also that he was severely developmentally delayed, with a developmental level ranging from three to eleven, depending on the area of development and his level of stress. (This is a philosophical stand that I'll take here: I don't think kids are developmentally capable of making this kind of decision at seven or eight. I think there are other developmentally appropriate ways to give kids a voice in the system.)

The main point of telling this part of the story is that because he was still "in the system," the arbitrary decisions of someone like this agency director determined whether or not he would ever have a shot at permanency in his family life. Unfortunately, the wrong decision was made.

This is one major reason we left that agency. Since that time, we have foster parented a number of other children on a temporary basis. I've learned how wonderful it can be for a child to live with their parents when it can be done safely...when services can be provided over the long-term (which takes a lot of state resources but is worth it in my opinion), and parents are willing and able to engage in those services. And I think those kids do have a right to be parented by their parents, if the parents are willing to actually parent. Even when there are incredible imperfections. Heck, even when the child might suffer some limitations as a result.

For instance, we parented one child on a very short term basis who loved her mother beyond words and whose mother loved her. Her mother was slightly developmentally delayed and had multiple mental health issues and did some damaging things that wouldn't warrant removal of the child from her care-- such as telling an entire room full of parents and students in her child's school class during back-to-school night that her daughter sometimes poops in her pants-- but that would certainly cause ill-effects because of their repitition over time. I've learned that when children successfully bond with their parents as babies, which they usually can do in spite of abuse (though they often don't do when there is neglect), that bond is lifelong. And even if their parents do horrible things to them, the children will love them fiercely because they have made that bond.

I have come to accept the paradox in my silmultaneous belief that adoption can be supportive of children but that it also represents a very real loss for children that we should do everything in our power to prevent.

If you respond, please do so specific to the topics addressed here. This is not a forum for general debate over adoption, as future posts will address other topics.

1 comment:

sf said...

That situation was definitely heartbreaking in ALL of the terrible knowledge of serial "if onlys" - if only it hadn't been that way for him as a little one, if only a stable foster family situation had transpired sooner, if only he hadn't freaked out (as many with perfectly fine coping and other skills do) at "commitment", if only the social worker or foster care director had said "You have to stick it out."
On another note, when they said "Everyone needs Mothering," they were so right - even mothers, even OLDER mothers!!