This past week I had a young foster client on the verge of disruption due to his behavior, and though the parents took great care not to disclose that he and his sister were moving, he had that ‘foster kid sixth sense’ that something was up. A week before his disruption, his foster father emailed me and wrote:
After a long week in which my son was openly mocking and disrespectful, throwing tantrums and chewing up furniture, we braved leaving the house and went to a movie. At the wishing well in the mall, I gave him a penny to throw. He said his wish was for new parents. Then he grinned at us ear to ear. Not sure if he wanted to hear us reassure him, if he was being sincere, or if it was an attempt to torment us.
The siblings had been placed in a home six months ago by the State after being moved countless times. The couple that took them in was very clear when speaking with their caseworker that they were looking to adopt; however, they also stated that they were not equipped to handle high level needs children. They further specified that they didn’t have the skills to deal with highly sexualized, aggressive children – and certainly none that have killed animals in the past. The caseworker assured them that these kids would be a perfect fit, and didn’t inform them completely of the reality of their behaviors.
The fit was in actuality far from perfect, and all of the behaviors the couple specified appeared about a month into the placement. Ultimately when I entered the picture it was clear that this couple was over their heads and the children needed a higher level of care. The couple was burned out, post traumatic, felt like failures, and depressed because they were blindsided and had no idea how to parent such ‘system savvy’ kids. And so, after six months of living with a very stable and loving family the kids are once again on their journey towards finding permanency in their lives. But the damage of one more failed placement was done.
The saddest part of this story is that it could have been avoided if the parents had been prepared. If families are trained about attachment issues, taught about what to expect from children who have been through the system, and the reality of raising a child with deep emotional damage and trust issues, countless moves could probably be avoided. The majority of clients I have come into my office in bewilderment over their children’s behaviors, stating that nobody told them ‘life would be like this’. They often stumble on my services through a lot of research and frustration that there is very little help out there.
Unfortunately, in the business of fostering and adopting from private or state agencies, children’s behaviors are often sugar coated for fear of foster/adoptive parents running for the hills. I remember sitting in my pre-adoptive training classes in a state of euphoria thinking that the only thing my son really needed was a loving home. The classes, literature and media were designed to tug at our heart strings and reinforced the romantic idea of fulfilling the dream of a permanent home. There was very little mention of the severe behaviors one might encounter when said child is actually in your home, let alone how to handle such a situation. Although many agencies have greatly improved their education of parents since then and have even added attachment training, things are still far from where they need to be.
In 2004, a class action lawsuit filed six years earlier was won against the Washington State Department of Children and Family Services by a large group of foster parents. The lawsuit began with the belief that children deserve better than a pinball-type existence, which described a system that bounced foster children from home to home. The class action sought systemic changes, not monetary damages. The lawsuit accused the state of violating foster children’s constitutional rights to safe and stable homes
A foster child who testified in the suit commented then,
“Growing up I just wanted to go home, and I just kept moving around. It was really hard, I had different religions, different schools, different friends, different parents, different rules – different everything. There are kids out there today going through the same thing.” Her foster parents usually didn’t know she had been abused and were ill-prepared to handle her problems, she said. Her learning disabilities weren’t discovered until she was 15, and her attachment disorder was diagnosed even later. “I had some behavioral problems, and they’d say, ‘Oh, this child is disturbed.’ Instead of addressing them, they’d just kick me out of the home.”
The extreme version of misrepresentation often happens in Russian adoptions. Many clients I have who adopted from Russia retell virtually the exact story. They flew over to Russia to meet their potential child in an orphanage. A very well behaved and charismatic child is brought out, and the director comments that the child is the ‘star’ of the orphanage. The parents agree to the adoption and plans are made to come back in a month to pick up their child. During that time they are encouraged to write and send pictures of themselves to the child. When they return in a month however, the director of the orphanage tells the parents that the child became sick and is not adoptable -but there’s another child that would be perfect for them. At that point, another child is brought out and the director says the parents must decide within three hours, as another couple is looking to adopt the child. Tired, out of sorts and feeling pressured, they adopt the child and fly home – only to discover eventually that the child has severe mental health/emotional and often organic issues like fetal alcohol.
Thankfully in this country we are more ethical in our adoption process, but I would argue that there is room for great improvement. It’s not enough to place a child into a home and expect it to work without a huge amount of support, disclosure of behaviors, proper screening of parents and very thorough preparation. The fallout of not doing this can be seen in the many failed foster placements, disrupted adoptions or even the large number of adopted children in residential settings. Even in the best of circumstances, raising these children is a difficult task; let alone ones that have had multiple placements and have come to expect disruption. We must change our approach and educate foster and adoptive families to minimize multiple placements for children and reduce their ‘expendability’.