As we know, all adoptions come from loss. It’s a sad thought, but a truism nonetheless. Many adoptions also come from traumatic early years. And every one of those situations is heartbreaking! So when we hear of adoption dissolution (that is, a child is adopted, then the adoption is dissolved when it can’t be made to work) it’s easy for those of us already hurting for the child to jump on the judgment bandwagon. Some of us get angry! Most of us can’t understand how an adult could possibly give up on an already traumatized child. I asked a handful of questions to a group of mothers who have experienced adoption dissolution. This series will open our eyes (and hopefully our hearts) to the maternal view of this horrific reality.
THIS IS THE EXPERIENCE OF LEIGH
Why do you call yourself a “survivor” when it is the child who has been traumatized?
Trauma begets trauma. What else would you call it when you wind up with PTSD from being kicked, bitten, hit, and threatened almost daily for over two years? Kofi would tell me that he was going to cut off all of my fingers one by one, or that he loathed me; he broke my husband’s toe in a fit of rage – and then aimed for that toe every time he raged again over the following weeks. On any given day, we didn’t know if we’d be holding Kofi for a four-hour rage over being asked to get ready for bed, cleaning up food off the walls because we served blueberry pancakes instead of plain, or if maybe it would be a semi-normal day with just the usual kid-type drama. Yes, Kofi came from a background of trauma – and he created an environment of trauma in our home as well.
How could you possibly expect me to feel anything but anger for you when you gave back a child who really needed you?
I’d say that you’re allowed to feel the way you do – but until you’ve been in the Solomon-like position of having to choose between your children in order to protect them all, you have no idea what it’s like. And, I pray that you never do know for yourself how it feels to do everything you possibly can to care for a child who really does need something, and then realize that despite the myth we’re lead to believe – “All you need is love!” – sometimes life in a traditional family is just too threatening to children and teens who come from backgrounds where parents, especially moms, are not trustworthy. And it would be the epitome of arrogance for us to go against what Kofi’s team of therapists and other providers recommended – namely, to voluntarily surrender our parental rights to give him a “fresh start” – to insist that somehow we knew better what, exactly, Kofi needed to heal.
You’re an adult – how could a little kid be so hard to love, discipline, etc.? They’re just children, right?
It’s easy to think that, and I might have even thought that way before the experiences we had. But parenting a child from a trauma background is so completely unlike parenting a child you’ve brought into the world. A phrase that has always stuck with me is that adoption is always about los – that child has lost their biological mother and father, their familiar environment, sometimes even their language and culture – and the reasons for that loss (e.g., abuse, poverty, death, malnutrition, abandonment) have a ripple effect through that child’s life. Children in those situations learn how to survive rather than thrive, and those behaviors and habits aren’t very conducive to the expectations we put on them as members of a new family. Being in a family is often perceived as threatening in itself. In our family, we saw time and again that Kofi could not handle the emotional responsibility of being a brother and a son. In a group home, you can blend into the crowd whenever you choose, and you’re not expected to have an emotional bond with your foster siblings, orphanage director, or foster parents. On the other hand, within a family, there are (reasonable) expectations of working together, treating each other with kindness, even apologizing when you make a mistake. All of that was so very foreign to Kofi. I remember one day when he came home from school and I asked him how his day had gone, he launched into a verbal rage against me. At the end of it, he said, “WHY DO YOU CARE?” as if it was completely incomprehensible that someone was genuinely interested in him, his life, and his experiences. So many times when we’d try to help him – homework, taking him to the dentist, basic things – he would scream at us that he did not want our help.
Why didn’t you seek help sooner so that you could keep your family intact?
It can be challenging to find the “right” help. With Kofi, he had such a violent reaction to just going to the pediatrician or dentist for a checkup that we felt like we’d have to ease him into therapy – there was just no way he was going to open up to a stranger about his innermost feelings and conflicts (if he could even get so far as to actually recognize them), so we wanted to give him time to adjust to life in America in general. When the time came for us to get him into therapy, it was no easy task. We decided to try Theraplay, hoping to take a more subtle approach than traditional talk therapy, but the practitioners in our area refused to see him. They said his case was “too severe” for them to be willing to take him on. We wound up finding one single provider who would see him; her office was more than an hour away, and Kofi would get horribly carsick on the way there and back. That type of therapy wasn’t a good fit for either of us – singing baby-like songs while rubbing lotion on each other’s hands left us both looking at each other like, “Is this for real?”
Meanwhile, I had started an intensive study of attachment/connected/therapeutic parenting and applying what I learned on my own. We were seeing significant progress as we applied those principles – Kofi started to recognize his feelings and even remember moments from his life back in Ghana that had had a major impact on him that he couldn’t recall previously. But, every step forward came at a price. Each time he let us in a little, it was as if his internal alarm system started screeching and telling him he was in mortal danger. We knew that we needed to buckle up for a bumpy ride, because every pit of progress was followed by hours or days of increased aggression and rejection.
Were you adopting for the wrong reasons, and that’s why it didn’t work? Were you seeking to gratify your own need to be loved, rather than to love and care for an innocent child?
We jokingly told people that if we had wanted another child that looked and acted exactly like us, we would have made one. My husband and I love being parents to our four other children, and we wanted to provide that kind of love and stability to a child who needed it. We knew it would be hard – we were under no illusions that it would be easy, and we expected it to take a very long time to work through everything that comes with bringing a stranger into our home and family.
At what point did you realize that the situation was beyond anything you could do? Did it take a while to get to that understanding? How did you choose dissolution?
Even when things were seemingly at their worst – Kofi regularly destroyed property, lied and stole, told me how much he hated even the sight of me, pulled a blade on our other children, and so much more – we told him we would never give up on him. We meant it.
All bets were off when my husband walked in on him raping our youngest daughter. She was 7. He was about 12. (Birth certificates in many international adoptions aren’t generated until many years after the child’s birth; Kofi’s said that he was almost 12 at the time, and we think he was likely 12 or maybe a little older.) Even then, we didn’t immediately think we would voluntarily surrender parental rights – the last thing we wanted was to break our promise to Kofi, to be yet another family that walked away from him. However, there was no question that he could not ever live in our home again. It turned out that what my husband witnessed was the fifth rape in a two-week period. Kofi had always focused his violence and hatred on two main people: My daughter and me. During one of his worst rages, after having pulled a blade on the four of them and while we waited for the police to come and help, Kofi told me that everything was my youngest daughter’s fault, and that he wouldn’t behave that was if she were gone. Did that mean he would eventually kill her? I never would have thought so – but then, I never thought he would do the things he did do. Kofi was only going to get bigger, taller, and stronger; and it would only take one time, one moment of unsupervised interaction or relapse for him to take her from us, and I’d never be able to protect her again.
DCFS put us between a rock and a hard place: We were told that if we brought Kofi back into our home, they could put our other children into protective custody and charge us with failure to protect. If we did not take him home, we would be charged with abandonment and neglect. We begged DCFS and the police to help us figure something out; the police said he wasn’t old enough to be taken into custody (even though he eventually was convicted of Class X felony and registered as a sex offender), and DCFS said that because he wasn’t currently being abused, they would do nothing. The DCFS investigator said to us, matter-of-factly, “He’s your child and your responsibility. Good luck and let us know what you decide.”
After spending three days making phone call after phone call, trying to find somewhere he could go – too old for this residential facility, too young for that one; too violent for a third, and too sexually reactive for yet another, and so on – we were left with nothing that felt like a good option. DCFS suggestions were either that my husband take Kofi to a motel and live there with him for some unspecified period of time, or that I take him to my parents’ and live with him there – and all this while our daughter was undergoing the traumatic experience of having a rape kit done at the hospital, interviews at the state’s attorney’s office, and trying to cope with what she’d been through.
We decided to refuse to pick him up from the hospital where he had been admitted for saying he was a monster and that he should kill himself, essentially making him an “abused child” because we were “locking him out” of our home.
We went to court at least 8 times in the case against us, for abandonment and neglect, before Kofi was even charged with a crime. We had to pay for our legal defense as well as his – yes, paying for the criminal defense of our daughter’s rapist. And even with all of that, we continued to call him, visit him once a week at the shelter where DCFS placed him (two hours’ drive each way), bring him gifts on his birthday, everything that “good parents” do.
Then, five months after he left our home, he asked the judge to discontinue his contact with us. He didn’t want anything to do with us. The court granted his request, being sure to clarify that it was in keeping with his therapists’ recommendations and not because we had done anything wrong.
How long should we have beaten our heads against that particular brick wall? He didn’t want to talk to us, see us, even think about us. He was back in the type of environment that made him feel safe; a group home where he could blend in, where the staff rotates in and out and there’s no emotional responsibility to anyone or any expectations of emotional bonding. All of the behavioral issues we saw in our family – violent acting out, total defiance, constant struggles with school and other tasks – disappeared, as far as we were ever told. Should we have tried to force him back into an environment where he clearly did not want to be? And at what cost to the rest of our family?
Although we never thought we would consider it, after about nine months we decided to put the question to Kofi’s team: If we were to voluntarily surrender our parental rights, would you view it as a positive, neutral, or negative thing for Kofi? We had always assumed it would be a negative thing – one more abandonment – but we felt that the time had come to actually ask. The other factor was that we had been told by both lawyers, our state representative, and several judges that if we voluntarily surrendered our rights, we would likely be “indicated” as child abusers and put on the state registry for up to five years. That would effectively prohibit us from working with Cub Scouts or teaching children, which had been a part of our lives for long time. We eventually got to the point where we would just take our chances and let the state do whatever it chose.
The response from Kofi’s team was unanimous: It would be a positive thing for Kofi if we voluntarily surrendered our parental rights.
Exactly a year to the date that he was last in our home, the judge granted our request to voluntarily surrender our parental rights. She made sure we understood that it was an irrevocable decision, wished us luck, and dismissed us from the courtroom. It took five minutes.
Did your adoption dissolution make it impossible for you to trust or love another child? Did it cause you to give up on motherhood?
Of course not. If anything, I was grateful that we had been set free, as horrible as that sounds. After Kofi left, it was like we could all breathe again, like we’d been holding our breath for more than two years and had forgotten what it felt like to not live in a constant war zone. The six of us grew closer together as we went to therapy to heal from the experience.
I will say that I have a hard time recommending that families adopt or foster. Because of our experiences, I’ve met many – too many – families who have been in the same situation of having to choose between protecting their other children and themselves, or keeping a dangerous child in the home. Our experience was hardly an isolated event. What I usually tell people now is this: If you choose to adopt or foster, it could turn out okay, or it could turn into your worst nightmare … and you won’t know what you’re getting until well after the fact. Be prepared to sacrifice everything that you hold dear – your home and belongings, the health of other children in your home, your marriage, and your very reputation – and count yourself extremely blessed if you don’t wind up having to sacrifice those things.
I can’t envision any circumstances under which I would ever consider adopting or fostering, unless it was my own grandchild or some other close relative.
We assume you felt completely alone. How are you getting past that? Where do you go for help?
In the very beginning, when we couldn’t tell anyone the entire story (in order to protect our privacy and Kofi’s), it was very isolating. People made a LOT of assumptions about us. “I can’t believe they gave up on Kofi! How could they do that?” That was incredibly hard. We leaned on the few friends and family members who did know what was going on, and our faith in God was paramount. We also connected with other “trauma mamas” who had been through it before; one of the most valuable resources I had was a mom who I called on the night everything happened, because she was able to tell me what to expect and what to do next. She didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but she absolutely told me what I needed to hear.
What if I’m in a situation similar to yours? What would you suggest I do differently than you did, and what worked for you?
I don’t know that I have any great pearls of wisdom. Every situation is very different, and the dynamics of every parent-child-sibling relationship are so individual. And I don’t think there was anything that would have made a positive difference in our situation, short of not adopting to begin with.
I will say that if you get into a situation where DCFS becomes involved, especially if you are self-reporting abuse committed by one of your children against another, do not expect DCFS to be your friend or advocate. Document absolutely everything – who you call, with whom you speak, paperwork requested and visits made – because you may need it to prove that you’re not a “bad parent.” Understand that, in the legal system, the presumption is that an adult is always the aggressor and the child is always the victim; there is nothing that covers what to do or what statutes apply when the child is the perpetrator of violence or abuse.
If I experience adoption dissolution, how can I hope to love and trust again? How can I move forward with my life?
Give yourself permission to feel anything that comes up, from relief to rage, from doubt to hope, and everything in-between. It’s okay for you to still love your adopted child – and equally okay to feel hatred for the destruction and havoc wreaked in your life. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy for yourself; I was diagnosed with PTSD nine months after Kofi left, and going through EMDR treatment was a lifesaver. Be aware that you’ll go through “trauma-verseries” as you remember times you spent together, good and bad, and wonder what life would be like if everything had worked out differently.
Read the next part in this series here.