My husband and I adopted our daughter a little over a year ago. She came to us at age 9. She was abused, neglected, homeless and abandoned during her first four years with her biological family. Then she bounced around foster care for the next five years. She had a dozen sets of “Mom and Dad” before us. We reassure her all the time that we are her Last Mom and Last Dad.
We were chosen to be her parents in November, but didn’t get to bring her home until May. It was an adoptive placement through the foster care system, but we were in different states. We weren’t allowed any contact with her during those six months. She was actually in a group home during that time. She was moved there just a couple weeks after we were matched because her foster family was no longer willing to work with her aggression and tantrums. She was clearly a child in pain. We knew it and agreed to be her parents anyway. We felt strongly that her behavior was situational and that she needed the right environment and help to sort it out. We thought we could give it to her.
Being approved to be the parents of a child that is so obviously hurting and in need of your support, but having to endure six months of paperwork is torture. Our home and hearts were ready for her, but she was placed in a group home and didn’t even know we existed.
Once ICPC (Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children) cleared, we were finally allowed to send her a photo book and she was told that she was going to be adopted. We flew to Texas two weeks later. We met her on a Monday and visited with her for a couple hours after school each day that week. On Friday she was ours forever. Within a few short weeks, she had learned she was going to be adopted and moved to another state with people she had met just days before.
No amount of research, adoption classes or book reading can prepare you for life with a traumatized child. They call older child adoption “special needs” adoption for a reason. Her special needs are real and they are vast. Fear, anxiety, anger, grief, shame and confusion are swirling around inside her all the time. It is not uncommon for her behavior to reflect all the pain she has inside. We get it. We understand. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard or that we don’t get overwhelmed, exhausted or lose our cool sometimes.
One of the hardest parts is the isolation. It is very difficult for people to understand all that we’re going through. A loving home is not enough. Children who have been through trauma don’t just need “time to settle in.” Traditional discipline structure or parenting styles are usually ineffective with traumatized children. People become uncomfortable with the truth about how things are really going at home, so many parents stop sharing. Traumatized children often act very differently when they are around others than they do at home. Parents of recently adopted children often may start to get the feeling that people think they are the source of the problem.
Parents of kids with trauma and attachment issues need to be seen as the authority figures all the time. An attaching child needs to learn to depend on their parents to meet their needs, comfort them, keep them safe and give them affection. We have had to cut people out of our lives who refused to accept and respect our roles as parents of a hurt child.
It can even be difficult to find professionals who “get it.” Teachers, pediatricians and mental health providers might not take the parents concerns seriously because the child doesn’t show them the pain. They save that just for their parents. Our daughter is on the honor roll at school and has won awards for her positive behavior choices. The school wants to drop the IEP for emotional disability that we carried over from her last school in Texas. The month before they brought this up, we had to call 911 because she was having such an epic meltdown due to big feelings brought on by Mother’s Day that we weren’t sure of our ability to keep her safe. All three of us wound up with bruises, scrapes and scratches. All inflicted by her. She caved in the roof of my car. She may not show it at school right now, but her emotional needs are high.
We have had no luck in finding a therapist in our area that understands trauma and attachment. We tried three different mental health clinics. Bad therapy is worse than no therapy. Therapists in the past have not been helpful. In fact, we have to do a lot of work to keep some of them from being harmful.
We work hard on our own at helping our daughter process her past and her feelings. Therapeutic parenting has been very effective and she has made great progress. Unfortunately, getting medication for her anxiety prescribed without weekly therapy sessions is tricky. Her pediatrician won’t prescribe anxiety medication and other resources are extremely scarce. This is a common scenario for families who do not live in or near large cities.
The challenges are often glossed over when agencies are recruiting parents for children in foster care. I think it is important that people understand this journey is difficult, will change your life in every way and that you will likely have to face it on your own. Older child adoption is doable. It’s worth it. Progress, hope and healing are attainable. Our daughter shows us this every day. We have not regretted becoming her parents for a moment.
Rachael Moshman has a Bachelor’s in psychology and a Master’s in education with focuses in early childhood, infant/toddler development and special needs. She has been a resource, trainer and mentor for area childcare workers and preschool teachers, as well as for families of young children for many years. Her greatest accomplishment is becoming the last mom to an amazing little girl through foster care adoption.