As human beings with hopeful souls, we always look for that fairy tale ending involving hugs and laughter and riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after. It’s an ideal we pray for, but for so many who live in the world of foster care/adoption, a reality that seldom manifests itself.
Why does reunification work for some and not for others?
To understand that, we need to look backward.
Children (generally) come to domestic adoption from two different scenarios – private and foster care. Both carry a great deal of pain for everyone involved, but the residual trauma lies most heavily on the child, regardless of age.
When a child comes to adoption through a private, domestic placement, the circumstances are almost always different. (in the recent past) There are choices being made that involve the biological family. There is often time both before and after a baby’s birth for soul-searching, for planning, for prayer. There are, in many cases, interactions between the birth mother and potential adoptive family that allow for relationship building, sharing of expectations, and a general sense of peace in the final decision.
While none of those things makes placing one’s child with another family easy for biological mom, it does carry a large degree of comfort and the ability to rest in the knowledge that the child she loves is going from her arms into the arms of a family who will build on that love and provide in ways she recognizes she cannot.
These women are my heroes – those who look reality square in the face and say, “I cannot do this and, because I love you, my child, I choose your well-being over my own feelings.”
I cannot even imagine…
In the final analysis, where private (open) adoption is concerned, the parties involved will have the opportunity to decide what parameters they will set with regard to their journey. With open adoption, there is the ability to continue contact to the degree established or to create lines of communication that offer the child access to information or actual interaction. It’s not an easy road, to be sure, but it is the road taken when everyone involved puts the needs of the child ahead of their own.
Foster Care/Adoption is a whole different animal!
Before we even begin to look at what that journey entails, it is important that we recognize how it starts.
Children do not come to foster care for positive reasons. They are rarely placed into care willingly by biological parents. They have most always experienced abuse, neglect, exposure and any number of negative behaviors that have caused their removal and subsequent placement into a foster environment. They carry a high degree of trauma that will affect them for a lifetime and they end up spending time “in perpetual limbo” as they wait for a system to decide their future.
For these children, the transition from birth family to forever family is very different and often horribly traumatic.
A court system will make the decision whether or not there will be visitation with the biological family – how often, how long, where, and with whom. The birth family will have very specific goals and expectations and will be, understandably, upset, angry and hopeful. The foster family will also have very specific responsibilities that involve caring for a child of trauma, incorporating his or her needs into their lives, and providing love to someone who will quite probably push back at them with everything he is.
This is often the start of a foster care adoption.
Because the outcome for the child lies squarely on the actions or inaction of the biological parents, the road to adoption through foster care is often painful for everyone, but mostly for the kids. Children in care will endure the private battles of their parents as they struggle with their demons and are subject to the unpredictable and often mind-boggling decisions generated by a severely flawed system that views them as a docket number.
If there is a termination of parental rights due to repeated failure to meet court-ordered goals, only then can the adoption process begin. In the meantime, these children have experienced what could be years and years of additional confusion, instability, attachment loss, and trauma on top of that which they endured prior to their placement.
Is it any wonder that these kids struggle?
That isn’t always the case, of course, but is most always the case when the situation ends in termination of rights through foster care.
So, it is easy to see why, in hindsight, adoption reunification can be so diverse. For the child who has always known his story, he is able to make his choices regarding reunification with information and a sense of knowing where he comes from and who he comes from because those involved chose to provide him with that.
For the child who came through the foster care system, the circumstances are most always difficult. While records are available during the time that he is assigned to care, they become sealed upon termination of rights. Visitation that may or may not have been taking place ends and along with it a direct line to his biological story, negative though it may be. Extended family ties are often severed and the opportunity to grow up with a realistic view of biological roots along with it. And, even if the child is ultimately adopted into the same foster family with whom he had been placed, the knowledge they have with which to provide answers to his questions as he grows is limited to that which had been made available to them during the time of placement.
So what of these children when they are grown and suddenly there is a move on someone’s part to initiate reunification?
First, it isn’t uncommon for adopted children to create a fantasized ideal of what they THINK biological family may be like – especially their birth mothers. In between the expected questions like, “what was she like” and “why didn’t she keep me,” lie the fantasies of a child who has grown up manifesting unanswered questions and absentee information into an imagined reality, much like the “Annie Syndrome.” “She must have gotten a bad break.” “I know she wanted me – she probably wasn’t given a chance.” “Someday I’ll find my biological family and I’ll finally feel whole.”
These thoughts aren’t abnormal, nor are they out of character for an adopted child. They are, however and many times, a recipe for heartache and disaster when it comes to potential reunification involving foster care/adoptees. These are kids who so desperately need to know that they have worth – that they were wanted – that someone was willing to sacrifice on their behalf – that those in their lives whose behaviors/actions facilitated the move to foster care to begin with were impacted by the significance and turned their lives around. Sadly, this doesn’t happen in a large number of cases and, when (or if) someone makes that move toward reunification, the child, who is now no longer a child, is once again forced to endure the gut-wrenching emotions built up over a lifetime that so often leave him or her feeling anything like what was hoped for.
Hollywood and the media feed into this utopian scenario, glamorizing the whole reunification ideal as one big prime time, grab-the-tissue-box and prepare-to-feel-all-warm-and-fuzzy-inside experience. And, sometimes it is. But, for the fost/adopt child, those kinds of reunions are few and far between.
The child whose biological parent placed him willingly and who has been able to access information and answers to questions throughout his life has the opportunity to come to the reunion table with a sense of “the why.” Why didn’t you keep me? Why did you choose the family who raised me? Why did you choose to do what you did? He already knows all of that because it was provided to him when he needed it as he grew and he was able to process it as just a part of who he is. Reunification, in his case, is more of a confirmation and an opportunity to build on that knowledge.
For the fost/adopt child who has quite probably had no contact with biological family throughout his life, and often for reasons that have merit, he comes to that same table totally unarmed and with little more than what his adoptive family may have been able to share and the conjured up ideals and scenarios that are the imagined manifestation of a child’s desperate need to know and understand his story.
Tragically, and all too often, that experience is just one more chapter in trauma and loss because rarely is the reality anything close to the imagined.
Unfortunately and sadly, foster/adoptees are, in large part, met with the stone-cold reality that the same kinds of behaviors from birth parent that forced them into care in the first place are ongoing – that the answers to a lifetime of questions aren’t what was needed to find closure or even a future – that instead of a sense of peace and wholeness, there is only anger and frustration and unrest.
For the child who has struggled with demons of his own as a result of his own traumas, he may see in his biological parent a reflection of who he has become, recognizing that the statistics for children of parents who fall to substance abuse are significantly higher than those who do not.
Biological parents who have had their children unwillingly removed from their care are often in denial. While the child is growing up creating imaginary scenarios that explain away his past, the birth parent is doing the same and, when those two worlds collide by way of an attempted reunification, there is hurt, anger, disappointment, and sometimes full-blown hatred.
So, why do it?
Hope! People are inherently hopeful.
The adopted child may just want to know. The birth parent may just want to explain. Both may want more. Both may want less. Regardless, the path to reunification where foster/adoption is involved is rocky and steep.
Sometimes – many times – it is insurmountable and both recognizing and accepting that can bring either additional trauma or a great sense of release to everyone or no one.
It may very well be that true closure can only be achieved by way of a failed reunification – sadly. In exposing wounded hearts, there is always the possibility of moving toward healing, but only if everyone involved is able to embrace and respect the reality of past experiences and, most importantly, the emotions and needs of the trauma child. Can it be done? Absolutely! There are cases upon cases of successful reunifications in varying degrees, however, there are countless others who have not and will not ever know what it’s like to have their life story complete – to establish a relationship with the past – to be able to feel that the missing pieces to the puzzle have been found.
It could be that the key to a successful reunification lies in NOT pursuing the ideal that it’s the end all – that only in re-establishing a relationship with biological family can an adoptee’s story be truly complete.
If the adoption process for the foster child allowed for accessibility to information in the same way that a private, open adoption does, it would, at the very least, provide a foundation of knowledge that would be beneficial in creating a more realistic image of who he is and where he comes from, minimizing the need to grow up guessing and with the expectation that reunification is the only way by which to find closure.
We need to do better!
Reunification should not be portrayed as the apex or cure-all for adoptees – because, in so many cases, it’s not, especially for those who come from foster care.
If we are able to recognize this, then we should be able to make changes in how we provide and share information over the years, allowing for the opportunity to answer the questions that all children have and take steps toward helping develop a stronger sense of self in our kids.
In doing so, we empower them in such a way that says, “You are okay – you are whole – you are in control and the decisions are yours to make!”
In the end, we would do well to ask ourselves the same question that was asked when the journey into foster care began – what is best for the child? Only this time, we need to provide said child with the resources and support throughout his life that allow for him to understand his story both past and present and then let him answer and make that decision for himself.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it. Proverbs 3:27