A few weeks ago, I was in a staffing at my job. The case involved two girls - Janie is four years old, Dara is 12. They have the same mother and the same father - both of whom are chronic drug users. Dara came into the system at a very young age and then guardianship was given to a maternal aunt. Five years later, Janie was born and came into the system - she has been living with her paternal aunt since birth but is not yet adopted .
Janie and Dara had never met because the families never made the effort and CPS only has authority over siblings in care. Because Dara was out of care long before Janie was born, the agency had no role. Both aunts knew the other sibling existed, but neither made the effort.
Well, two months ago, Dara came back into care. Her guardian was having health problems and felt she could no longer care for Dara. Dara is now living in a non-relative foster home. She was told about her younger sister (she had not known prior to coming back into care). Sibling visits were arranged.
However, they have not occurred.
Because Janie's foster mother (aunt) insists that they will be detrimental to her well being.
1. Janie has no idea that she is not the aunt's biological child.
2. The aunt's older children (ages 6 and 8) have no idea that Janie is not their biological sibling.
3. She has absolutely no intention of continuing sibling visits once the adoption is complete. (Likely within 6-9 mo.)
The aunt was very polite, but also very resolute in her position. She does not intend to tell Janie that she is adopted until she is much older - if ever. She has already told her brother (Janie's father) that he is to call himself Janie's uncle when he is around. She firmly believes that she is making the right decision for Janie.
I understand and respect that she has been parenting this child for the last four years. I admire her dedication to Janie and that she considers her to be her daughter - no different than her biological children. I'm glad that Janie is a happy and well adjusted child who has not had to suffer some of the worst aspects in the system.
But I was also astounded. And appalled.
The aunt insisted that four years old is too young to understand the concept of "adoption".
I disagree - the preschool age is the perfect time to begin explaining these concepts to a child. This is an age where conversations about "family" and "relatives" are being discussed on a regular basis. It is ADULTS that are uncomfortable with terms like "birth mother" or "first parent" and "adoptive family". Children at this age will base a lot of their reactions on their caregiver's ways of dealing with a situation. If they are secure in their attachment and in their relationship with their foster/adoptive parents - than these terms and situations will become part of the child's 'normal' and can be incorporated into the child's life in an ongoing basis.
If we wait to tell children until they can "fully understand" - then we have set them up for quite a shock! What is the appropriate age to find out that everything you thought about your family was not true? And how are they to trust us once they've discovered this information?
The aunt insisted that "there is more to "family" or "sibling" than biology.
I absolutely believe that to be true - I have many people that I consider "family" that are not biologically related to me.
But, what I believe she really meant was that biology has no significance.
And this is where I disagree.
No matter what my reasons, I can not deny my biological family and the role they play in my life. I can choose not to have relationships with some members of my family - but they are my family either way. And I am an adult - capable of weighing all the pros and cons and making that decision.
I do not believe that anyone has the right to deny a child the truth about their personal history or to information about their biological family. I do not believe any one has the right to deny a child safe and appropriate access to their biological family. And I absolutely believe that it causes more harm to a child, to keep those sometimes difficult truths from them.
Now, I am not blind to some of the situations that arise in foster care. We are not usually dealing with birth families that have made the choice to relinquish their children. They often have serious issues - substance abuse, mental illness, safety issues. However, that still does not mean that a child should not have some access to their family and personal history.
Perhaps that access is supervised visits.
If visits are impossible or not safe, that access could be phone calls or letters.
Perhaps that access is only through their foster/adoptive parents - who can filter pieces that are age appropriate and record information for the future when the child is able to process it more readily.
Perhaps that contact is facilitated through an agency - where the families can send correspondence and information.
If the child has negative memories and feelings about their biological families - it is our responsibility to help that child come to terms with those feelings, to be able to look at those circumstances and separate their parent's choices from the child's sense of self.
Perhaps there could be contact with a more distant relative - an aunt, cousin, or grandmother who is safe and reliable.
Maybe there is no birth family to maintain contact with - then it is our responsibility to make the child aware of this fact and to help the child process their lack of information and history.
If the child has no memories of their biological families - it is our responsibility to tell them what we know and to find answers to their questions. Just because the child isn't bringing the subject up does not mean it does not or will not affect them! It is our responsibility to provide the opportunities for these talks - just like its our responsibility to talk to our children about many difficult topics!
I know I have talked about maintaining connections before, but as I continue in my new job and work on Lifebooks with children and families, I realize more and more just how important they are. We must look at our children as they are today - but also look at them as the adults they will one day become. What is easier in the short run is not always the most beneficial in the long run.
Its also important for us to listen to many different perspectives in the foster care/adoption world.
For that reason, I've updated my blogrolls (yet again!) with some new blogs that I've been reading recently. Some of them are fabulous and have opened my eyes to experiences and ideas that I had not considered before. Some of them are difficult to read, because foster care and adoption are not always easy, beneficial, or even ethical. But I am learning things from all of them - and I hope that you will take some time to peruse them and see things from outside your comfort zone too.
Our children are depending on us.
They don't get a choice.
It is our responsibility to have all the information and have thought through all the possibilities before we make decisions on their behalf.
Thanks for letting me have my