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 give up on an already traumatized child. I asked a handful of questions of 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 JAN
Why do you call yourself a “survivor” when it is the child who has been traumatized?
I’ve never called myself a survivor, though I guess in some ways I am. However, I will never, ever blame our former daughter. The trauma she experienced in the five years before she came to live with us is unspeakable.
How could you possibly expect me to feel anything but anger for you when you gave back a child who really needed you?
Because in doing what we did, we did what was best for her.
You’re an adult – how could a little kid be so hard to love, discipline, etc.? They’re just children, right?
It does sound insane, doesn’t it? I felt like a hostage in my own home. Our former child was the most violent our therapist had ever seen, and our therapist has been working in mental health for 20 years. I had shoes and a variety of other objects thrown at me while driving. Even though she was small, she would pick up chairs and throw them at me; she would throw glass Pyrex baking dishes at me. I had bruises all over my arms and legs and sometimes on my face, yet she would tell other adults that my husband and I were abusing/beating her.
The only way I could keep everyone safe (because through it all, it was a huge priority for me to keep her safe!) was to keep her in restraint and to keep my boys separated from her. This included keeping them upstairs while she raged downstairs. I would often restrain her for hours each day. One of her psychiatrists told me I was running a residential treatment center solo. And I was.
So, how do you discipline a child who rages all day and lets you know she wants to kill you? Our discipline looked very, very different. I remember once in the grocery store our former daughter was angry. She ripped a box of lunchmeat in the cart, threw another box of something, and squashed a tomato. When she realized that wasn’t going to upset me, she grabbed my wallet and chewed on it. Then she bit my face as hard as she could. The cashier was speechless as I quickly grabbed some chewing gum and shoved two pieces in my former daughter’s mouth. She started calming down. I paid for the groceries (and gum). We left without any more incidents.
I could not give this child a punishment without activating the shame button. The shame button turned my former daughter even wilder. So, I had to reframe everything by constantly trying to figure out—what does she need right now? That is why discipline was so hard. That’s just one small example. I have dozens of daily situations in which my husband and I constantly tried to determine what we needed to do to gain her trust.
Why didn’t you seek help sooner so that you could keep your family intact?
We sought help before we even adopted her (our agency required us to find a trained trauma/attachment therapist). We didn’t expect behaviors from her because her orphanage wrote in the paperwork that she was not violent/was not aggressive. When she started acting out (violently attacking me for 4-12 hours daily), we called our attachment/trauma therapist within a week and started therapy as soon as the therapist had an opening.
She had physical, occupational, and speech therapies. The occupational therapy was done with a practitioner who understood the effects of developmental trauma. She had two psychiatrists. We tried a variety of meds. We also had five social workers working with our family; two of them every week. Additionally, we hired someone to come in one day/week to help with our children—to make sure some of their needs were being met.
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 simply desired more children (we had two children). We didn’t have a to-be-loved need. We also didn’t have a rescue-a-child mentality.
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?
After about 14 months of living in chaos, we realized we couldn’t go on. One of our children had a breakdown while our former daughter was screaming. He went through a screened window, ran down the roof, and jumped off. This was followed by a dinner where our former daughter was trying to harm one of our children. The child she tried to harm ran outside bawling and screaming. My husband went with him. I restrained our former daughter on the ground; she was completely out of control because she could not do what she wanted to do—harm the other child. Our other child ate dinner alone, crying. This was a picture of our family. Completely broken. If our marriage was to survive, we had to dissolve. If our relationships with our children were to survive, we had to dissolve. If my mental health was to survive, we had to dissolve. We were also wondering if our children were going to soon need anxiety and depression medications in addition to their therapy sessions. We also believed our former daughter needed a new chance.
The crazy thing is the very month we decided to dissolve, our adopted child started to do better. We found a med that helped to control the rage. And after months of all that PACE parenting (Dr. Dan Hughes), she began to trust us. However, my system was completely shot. She couldn’t hug me or touch me without me screaming or shirking away. My physical body had suffered too much abuse at her hands. It couldn’t live with her and recover at the same time. We did consider a residential treatment center for her. We also called Forrest Lien with The Attachment Institute to ask about his foster care program, but she was too young to qualify. At the end of it all, we determined that with her progress the best place for her would be a family—it just couldn’t be ours.
Did your adoption dissolution make it impossible for you to trust or love another child? Did it cause you to give up on motherhood?
We would never consider adoption again. We aren’t anti-adoption, but we are very concerned when others tell us they are adopting an older child. We usually take the time to talk with them a bit about some of the best resources out there for parenting kids with attachment disorders (Karyn Purvis, Dan Hughes, etc.).
We assume you felt completely alone. How are you getting past that? Where do you go for help?
Most of our friends and family members were relieved when we made the very hard and horrid decision to dissolve. Even though our former daughter was extremely charming/sweet around other people, our family and friends weren’t naïve—they had seen the bruises on my body. They had seen the downward spiral in our other children. They knew our family could not survive if we continued.
Even though we had support via family/friends, they can’t understand what it’s like to live with a violent, abusive child or to lose the dream of adding that child to your family and loving and caring for that child. I have found a few groups online where support has been offered for those who have been through a dissolution. I also have one friend who went through a similar situation at about the same time; she has been a godsend.
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?
FIND RESPITE NOW. Our family needed more respite; we typically only had one respite day per month. Find ways to give as much as you can to your other children. An attachment disordered child will literally suck the life out of you, but your other family members still need you, too. Find ways to connect with them—even if it means respite for the one.
If you need to take your child to a psychiatric unit, do it. I fought against our professionals when they told us I needed to take her to the mental hospital when she was trying to harm me/when she was trying to harm herself. I just thought she would be so terrified if I dropped her off where she knew no one. I thought it would be a big setback in the trust/attachment process, but I should have taken her when she was violently raging. I did not have the necessary skills to contain her, and my mental health was taking a beating. (Please note: I don’t think you are going to get any help via a psych unit, but I do think you are going to get a break which you may really, really need.)
It is very hard to find professionals who believe you. Deborah Grey has some great books which include questions to ask potential therapists. We were very fortunate to have the team we had where almost every single professional believed us and believed we were doing the right thing by dissolving. Make sure the people working with and treating your child understand developmental trauma. The only reason we were able to help our former daughter is that we had an amazing team who understood developmental trauma and they were able to help us parent her the way she needed to be parented.
If I experience adoption dissolution, how can I hope to love and trust again? How can I move forward with my life?
Forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Tell yourself the truth. Don’t worry about what other people think—they didn’t walk in your shoes. You’ve learned some amazing things (things you didn’t necessarily want to learn!)—take those and make your life richer. Know that God will use this for good. Help and love other people who are in desperate situations because you know what it is to be desperate.
Read the next part of this series here.
Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.