I have always had a keen interest in genealogy. I have spent years compiling photos of relatives, family stories, and family recipes. I traced my family tree back through hundreds of years and many generations. I find it so satisfying to send away for a birth or baptismal record and to receive a package in the mail with the missing piece of information.
But sometimes a branch goes cold—there is just nothing available to search any further. A missing name, a missing maiden name, in particular, can bring everything to an abrupt halt. The resulting loss of information reminds me of a bald patch on an otherwise large and fruitful tree. There is a section that is not flushed out, that has withered over time, and is receding. There is a certain sadness to this.
I have to consider myself quite blessed though; there are only a few of these missing areas on my tree. Despite the early deaths of many relatives, and despite having a small and widely scattered extended family, I have quite a bit of information. All the information I have includes a family history book in which I have inscribed all the information with a real calligraphy pen; about two file boxes of records, photos and stories; and several reunion and regional history books. I have physical items that have been passed down, like the large pin from a Scottish kilt, a china set, and a silver spoon set.
I feel largely fulfilled. I may not have a big family, but I do know where and who I am from. I know my roots. I have traditions that have been taught to me and passed down through many generations. Sadly, there are some people out there who are missing all of the above.
As a homeschool mom, I have the privilege of—and sometimes the chore of—picking our curriculum. I think we have all heard of the adopted child who is asked to do a school project on their family genealogy and has no information to go on. Or maybe you’ve heard of the foster child who is asked to make a craft for Mother’s Day, all the while knowing there may be no visit over Mother’s Day, and that this is just another painful area on an already tender heart. I have the ability to sidestep these potentially tricky projects. Thankfully, I have boxes just exploding with information for each of our three adopted children regarding their birth families. But many, many children do not.
First Nations Children
Here in Canada, we have a great shame hanging over us. The residential school system started in Canada in the 1870s, and shockingly, the last residential school was not closed until 1996 (as per Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada). According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture.”
In 1883, Sir John A. Macdonald authorized the creation of residential schools. According to the Indigenous Foundations website, the purpose of these schools was to eliminate all aspects of First Nations culture. What a staggering thought.
Children were removed from the families, forcibly if necessary, and sometimes sent long distances away to the nearest residential school. They were not permitted to speak their own language and were often punished for speaking anything but English.
It was not uncommon for children to return to their parents and traditional communities, and feel like complete strangers—they no longer understood or remembered traditional ways—and their community did not understand what had happened to their children. On top of this, the residential schools are charged with incredible abuse and neglect of the children in their care: sexual abuse, harsh physical punishments, poor nutrition, a lack of compassionate and caring leadership, separation from parents for long durations, and exposure to new illnesses.
The families left back home were not sure how to move on without their children. Children were ripped so cruelly from all they knew and expected to live new lives with new “appropriate” names and a new language, oftentimes being abused on top of it all. The result has been catastrophic. First Nations families and communities are still reeling from the effects of residential schools and will be for some time. The Canadian government has started to take responsibility for these crimes, as well as some of the churches that were involved, but we will continue to see the devastating effects of trying to wipe out a culture for decades to come. So what have we learned?
We are people. We have a deep need to connect and to belong. We want to know who we are. People talk with great pride, most often, about their home country, their holiday traditions, etc. Think of your own family and the things that make you into YOU. Now imagine for a moment what it would be like to be plucked from all of that and placed somewhere else entirely.
For a child in foster care, this can be particularly devastating. The foster care crisis is real—more and more children are coming into care due to the opioid crisis. This is putting immense strain on an already floundering system.
Foster homes are crowded and full to capacity. There are a high rate of special needs and behavioral needs among foster children. These crowded conditions do not always allow for the attention to detail that we would want for our own children.
If a child is placed quickly it might be in a temporary or emergency home. Once things have “quieted down” (and I mean for the adults in charge, for these children things might not ever quiet down, and they may live with the effects of this experience forever), the child may move again to a more permanent placement.
However, the home, by their due right, may choose to end the placement or may become unable to continue. This is a must. Foster homes cannot be forced to continue with a placement that is not working. When foster parents feel they cannot continue for ANY reason, or the risk of abuse is too high, then the risk of quality of care going down becomes real. If a foster family cannot continue, they cannot continue. That is that, but for the child, this is more trauma, more pain, and another move. So who do you think in this situation is thinking about preserving cultural connections? Oh, it might be in the file somewhere, and there might be good intentions. Meanwhile, time ticks on and links to the past fade away.
For a child of adoption, many things can happen. If the child is adopted as an infant, they may not think too much about their cultural links until they are older. Perhaps they won’t think about it until they are confronted with a school assignment for the first time. For older children, it would largely depend on how long, and where, they waited for adoption.
Quite possibly, it could depend on with whom they waited to be adopted—a child languishing in an orphanage overseas will have a different experience than that of a child who has lived in one or two foster homes. That child’s experience again is completely different than a child who has lived in 9 foster homes in two years (if you think that is not possible, think again—I know of just such a case).
In Canada, First Nations children are attempted to be placed in First Nations homes for adoption. When that is not possible, prospective adoptive parents who are not of First Nations descent may be asked to take a “Caring for First Nations Children” online course and may be asked to sign a cultural agreement.
A cultural agreement is non-binding as far as the court system goes, but is an “in good faith” document, trusting that if the adoptive parents sign it, they intend to follow through. It may say the adoptive parents will take the child to certain cultural days on reserve, local powwows, traditional language classes, etc. It can really be anything that is beneficial to the child. Prospective adoptive parents should read the document thoroughly and think about all the aspects. Even though it is non-binding, I always tell people to never sign something you don’t intend to abide by—that is not fair.
As far as I am aware, Canadian First Nations children are the only children who have their links to culture somewhat protected through these means. That being said, I think that all of us adoptive parents want to be the best that we can be. Studies show that children who have access to the most information about their adoptions and about their pasts will struggle the least with the painful realization of loss (all adoption starts with a loss, and many children will struggle with why: why me, why didn’t they want me, why did I wind up in foster care, why did my mom place me for adoption, why was I placed in an orphanage, etc.). But, loss of culture and loss of primary identity do not have to happen.
How to Preserve Cultural Links
There are so many things we can do to preserve cultural links for our children. There are some great books out there that help explain to children what adoption means, and in some cases, why they may look different from their adoptive parents. My Adopted Child, There’s No One Like You, by Dr. Kevin Leman and Kevin Leman II is a great example.
Starting with a story about adoption might help everyone ease into things, but it depends on the child’s past or on how open your family has been up to this point about adoption.
The Mulberry Bird: Story of Adoption, by Anne Braff Brodzinsky is another great pick. Books and social stories are such a great way to connect. From here, find traditional stories from your child’s culture to read and share together. Look for something not just interesting, but also age appropriate. Gage how much information is required, for example for older kids, who are bound to ask more questions, you can read about infant abandonment in India.
Be open to discussion—don’t make anything off-limits. Things may be uncomfortable, but you are the adult so you need to set the stage for mature, in-depth conversations. Getting emotional is fine, and you can even let your child know that their feelings are okay. Take it slow. This might have to be something you do little bit by little bit, for everyone’s sake.
Some adoptive parents, particularly adoptive moms, can struggle with acknowledging their child was birthed by someone else, and that the child does indeed have another mother and father out there somewhere. If this is the case, it is okay to feel that way, but it is not okay to let it interfere with giving your child the information that is rightfully theirs. Counseling is NOT a negative thing and can be so healing.
Make a collection of books about the child’s culture. Make food dishes and look up recipes. If you can, and if you are comfortable, reach out to birth family members for family stories, holiday traditions, and photos. In Canada, there is an openness registry you can use so that neither party has access to information such as phone numbers or addresses; correspondence is repackaged and mailed through the third party if this makes you more comfortable.
If you are blessed enough to have photos, make a collage, put pictures in frames. And I mean beautiful, well-made frames—go all out! Let your child see this is important to you too. Find out traditional dress and clothing from the culture. Visit a museum, a library, or maybe even the country your child came from! The sky is the limit. This should not be a one-time thing, but a lifelong, authentic interest and study of your child’s history. It is important to make this a priority, so time doesn’t get away—write it on the calendar, make it a family date, make it a PRIORITY.
What if you have nothing or almost nothing to go on? Sadly, this does happen. You may only have an orphanage name; you may have nothing except a few lines on a piece of paper. North American children are sometimes abandoned as well—there are cases of infant or toddler abandonment even in Canada. In this case, any thread you have becomes precious. Thankfully, we are in the age of information. In this case, I would seek out and pay for a DNA analysis through a genealogy company to see where the ancestors are from.
Preserving cultural links for your child is a precious, precious gift. May you go boldly, and show your child the beauty of who they are.
Visit Adoption.com’s photolisting page for children who are ready and waiting to find their forever families. For adoptive parents, please visit our Parent Profiles page where you can create an incredible adoption profile and connect directly with potential birth parents.