Friday, October 30, 2009

Our Responsibility

I'm going to make a statement in this post - some of you will agree with me, others will not. I plan to be blunt and direct - but I do not intend to offend. I feel very strongly about this topic and have never been presented with evidence or a situation where this would not apply. Also, I want to welcome your opinions and your questions. As strongly as I feel about this subject, I am very open minded and hope that we could have a dialogue if I press a sensitive button. That being said, here I go...

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.

Her reasoning?

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 rant moment - now it is your turn!!


  1. Right now I am so mad at Janie's aunt I could just scream. The river denial isn't a nice place to live and it will certainly come back to haunt her. I do appreciate that she has provided Janie with a home, stability, etc. but withholding this kind of information can be so detrimental.

  2. Miss Social Worker

    Remember that little training exercise you did a week or two ago? What step was it where you had to cross off your siblings?

    Seems like you stand to earn some bad karma either way. But that's what you get for playing God. Social workers just aren't qualified to meddle in the affairs of humans. The sooner you figure that out, the better off you'll be.

  3. Interesting situation.

    I have two contrary thoughts. One is that I agree the more open the better. I am not sure I always would have agreed. But adopting four older children has made me realize that you can't control affection. I think you have all those reasons that you mentioned to be glad of the aunt's care and that she is zealously protecting the security and safety of that child. One thing that I think the aunt wants is for that child to feel as safe, as COMPLETELY connected to the family as her bio children. Not different. Not set apart. That's good. I had a sad talk with a little girl the other day who was the "step" child in the family and felt always "different" and "bad" (her word) about having to spend time with her dad when her siblings didn't. It made her feel not blessed with something more, but burdened by the emotions of an adult. (She said she had no interest in seeing her dad, but "he wants me to for some reason.") So....I can see where the aunt is coming from, guess is that if she were open it would be a non-issue. And that leads to my contrary thought:

    After having gone to huge expense, and trial, etc. we adopted the biological brother of our daughter. They were separated at age 5, and had regular contact for the next two years. Biology or not, they have no use for one another now. He was a source of interest and drama for my daughter only until we got him here, and now he is just an annoyance. (Meanwhile, he is truly bonded with surprising affection to his adopted brother - praise God for that!)

    I think that my two "double siblings" could easily part from one another without looking back. I do think they might idly want to check up on one another as the years went on - but LIVE together? SEE each other OFTEN? No need. And, they actually have shared memories.

    That is why I think the aunt has no reason to worry. I think adults conjure up a lot of feeling where none will probably exist.

  4. I have such strong feelings about this myself. I think it the single most important thing I did for my children. It has helped them feel loved by their family and accept us as their new family, simply b/c I didn't shut out their family. I got some flack when I was still open to supervised visits with my sibling group's parents b/c we suspected but had no proven sexual abuse. The kids still begged to see them and I figured we would closely supervise as long as the kids wanted it. Of course, that has since changed b/c they were arrested and convicted of the crimes. One of our other daughters came from a situation that DFCS should have intervened and eventually did but long after we adopted her. We had to build trust for many years but now we all benefit from an incredible open relationship that includes unsupervised weekends. It hasn't been easy but worth every tear for all of us.
    I wish there was some way to influence all adoptive parents to reconsider this option. I have seen many claim to but never really mean it or do it half heartedly. When we adopt, we adopt the entire family that comes with them. We treat them all like extended family and offer them unlimited access to the child by phone and visits (supervised by me until trust is built). Safe family members are invited to bday parties, holidays, and BBQs. We integrate them into our extended family relationships, as well. My in laws, my mother, and sister all consider them family to them. We refer to them as Step family due to lack of a better term. We may not have married them but as far as we are concerned, we had a union that made them a part of us. We usually do not do separate events for our family and their family. If we go to my MIL for Thanksgiving, we invite their Gmas, Gpas, parents, aunts, and uncles to join us. We even included them in the adoption ceremony.

  5. Family is family. That kid will eventually find out about her sibling one way or another and will resent the aunt for not telling her. If aunt tells her now, there will be no surprise or shock, especially about the adoption. 4 years is plenty old enough to talk about stuff. PLENTY. My daughter never met her siblings until I came they are part of her life and she has a connection with one of her sisters so strong that it is amazing. In fact, each of my kids has that bond with at least one of their siblings that they were separated from. My boys came at age 5 and they totally understood what adoption means.

  6. Is her decision made to protect the welfare of the child, or to protect her insecurities?

    Things that are "kept secret" have the underlying assumption that they are bad?

    Some things cannot be controlled, does every person she has ever been in contact with assume that this is her birth child? What will happen if some stranger asks J how she feels about being adopted, or those ignorant questions like do you know your real mom?

    Secrets are harmful. There is nothing that is shameful about this situation. Hinding a child's story/history from the child is the only thing I really question.

    Be open about it and it can be a completely beautiful thing. The opposite is harmful.

    Children are people. She deserves to know her sister. Whether or no, it's her right.

  7. LK - Why do you take your frustrations with the system out on Ms Social Worker?

    You fight hard to address the undeniably gigantic problems with the child welfare systems in this country. We get that. It is a noble and worthy fight.

    Ms Social Worker seems to be a person who deeply cares about the people she works with. Whether or not you want to believe it, there are people within the system doing good and helping people.

    The whole wide world (not just the child welfare system) can be a f**ed up, crazy, dangerous, corrupt place. Should we all just hide away and not participate in life or not do our best to make things better in our world? Of course not.

    You seem to think that Ms. Social Worker should abandon all her efforts because the system is so far from perfect. How would that help anyone?

    Keep doing what you do to try to change things and make this world better. Let Ms Social Worker do the same - in her own way.

    Ms Social Worker is very gracious and open to other points of view, but repeating the same ol'
    "The system is corrupt and evil, all SW's suck and are playing God" doesn't further the dialogue.

    Of course I can't put words in your mouth, but how about a comment from you about this specific post along the lines of this:
    "Boy, doesn't it stink that the system had to get involved when there are close family members who can care for these children. Wouldn't it be great if things in this country were structured so that aunts and uncles could take over care of children when needed without any government intervention at all? Some cultures where extended families are always involved, have been doing this successfully for hundreds of years. Don't know why our system has to be so darn invasive."

    Hey look - you just gave us all something to think about, made your point and didn't slyly insult anyone!

    If you could wave a magic wand and destroy the whole child welfare system in this country tomorrow, what would that world look like? Help us to imagine the possibilities. You are clearly fighting against something - but what are you fighting for?

    And my great apologies, Ms Social Worker, if my comment is way off topic and gets the conversation going in an undesirable direction. I don't want to start a big kerfuffle but I couldn't help but respond to LK. You are very much within your rights to tell me to knock it off or delete my comment. It's your "home", your rules and I want to respect them.


  8. I enjoyed this post and I agree with everything you have said. I can see why the Aunt is doing this but I don't agree with it one bit.

    I have a friend who was adopted and she has always known. Finding out from a young age gives kids the opportunity to ask questions. For some reason children are so much more equipped to deal with big things and they handle it ten times better than any adult. They are not scared to ask the tough questions and this is great.

  9. Great post, SW!! I got a lot of insight from it. I am struggling with all of this myself as we may be adopting two of our kids in the next year or so. I honestly am not sure how I would handle things with their bio families, but it is one of the things that if forefront in my mind. Your post definitely brought up some great points and has added to my inner dialogue on what would be best for our kids.

  10. Janie knows, she was THERE. She was there when she was taken from her bio mother and even if they (her adoptive family) never understood the signals, I am sure she was telling them from the start that she KNEW something was different/wrong/missing. Just because you are preverbal, does not mean you are pre-feeling. A profound sense of loss and abandonment is something EVERY adoptee encounters, no matter how wonderful the adoptive home.
    When Janie finds out all the details her adoptive family have neglected to tell her, she will feel hurt, angry, betrayed, abandoned all over again. WHY (if they love her) would her adoptive family want to add to her trauma?
    I reccomend they (the adoptive family) read The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It is essential that they understand the additional damage they will be setting Janie up for, by not being honest as soon as possible.

  11. Okay, I have to join in here. My sister adopted her second child at birth. C. (aka the Princess) has always known that she was adopted, and was loved just as much as her brother, the biological child of her parents. It was a semi-open adoption as the bio-parents (who later married, had children, divorced, remarried other people) received pictures and an update on C. every year on her birthday (which killed my sister -- Number 1, 2, and 4 on the infamous list). Eventually that stopped. On her 16th birthday, C. received a message via facebook from her biological mother. C. was devestated. When discussing it with my sister, (and thank heavens they have a relationship wherein they still talk) she stated that the biomum had said "you have x number of brothers" to which C. replayed, no M. is my brother! I think this girl's aunt has done a horrible disservice to her adopted daughter.


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