What I’d Do Differently if I Were Adopting a Child Right Now
By Paula Schuck
Photo © DelanahBanana/Twenty20
Feb 24, 2021
I love my children to the ends of the Earth and back.
But 19 years later, after adopting two babies from foster care (one of whom later was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), and spending years as a volunteer parent resource support person at a local children’s aid agency, I now know that they require more.
So, when is love not enough? And what can you do about it?
This type of intensive parenting is not simple. It is financially, physically and emotionally draining. You know how people say things like, "I wouldn’t change a thing" about their experiences? Well, I would actually change a few things.
Of course, I do not regret adopting. This is not about that and it is not about being disgruntled. It’s about child-centred systems that often are anything but focused on the best outcome for children, and supports that I believe are inaccessible and not supportive.
As Paula Schuck knows all too well, finding support for kids with disabilities is challenging. Even at school. Read that here.
Our Adoption Journey Starts Here
Adoption was the only way we were going to become parents, period.
I am and will always be grateful to both sets of my girls’ birth parents, and I am thankful for the social workers who helped us become a family, but the reality is that adopted children need more over the course of a lifetime.
They sometimes need more therapy, more support at school and more medication than other kids. And yet, at the moment an adoption is finalized, often all of that falls away. In my opinion, sometimes what's required is lifelong support.
Learn From Me
Here's what I know as a parent who has adopted two beautiful children. As an adoptive parent, you might be consumed by fear, but also fall in love daily because so many kids need homes.
Meanwhile, you're going to be demonstrating, with some regularity, that you are worthy of caring for a child.
Once your early placement period begins, you may worry as I did about imposter syndrome. Then there was the worry that my children, not yet legally adopted in court, a process which can take years, could be removed at any time.
As I see it, you will forever be proving to someone that you are worthy of receiving a child, because adoption is a tremendously emotional time for everyone involved.
And if you're anything like me, there's the extra worry of whether speaking up before the ink is dry on the adoption papers might lead to self-sabotage.
How much do you know about invisible disabilities? For some information on what it's like to live with one, read this piece.
Stats, Stats, Stats
And then there are the statistics you'll read.
Like how 12 to 14 per cent of adopted children in the U.S. between the ages of 8-18 are diagnosed with a mental health disorder each year. Numbers that are very similar in Canada, but a little harder to track — just five years ago, The Adoption Council of Canada said that no organization tracks Canadian adoptions by any criteria.
For years we struggled trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was happening with our youngest daughter. Eventually, through numerous experts, geneticists, psychologists and psychiatrists, we found out she had sensory processing disorder and FASD. Our kids also both have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and anxiety disorders. From what I’ve seen, many other children who are adopted have attachment disorders, trauma, oppositional defiant disorder, depression and a wide range of other illnesses.
Would I Do Things Differently? Yes.
Lately I think about what I would do differently now, so we would not have to struggle as much. And here's what I've come up with:
I’d establish ground rules for support immediately, even before we left the courthouse on adoption day.
Kids who arrive in their forever families through the foster care and adoption system have much higher rates of special needs and disability, as well as mental health issues. And yet, it feels like CAS and Ontario government ministries rely on new adoptive parents not knowing how to frontload the supports before they sign the final adoption papers. I believe the current system sets expectant parents up for failure.
I would also clearly state to CAS and the Ontario government that they need to provide support immediately. If I had to hire a lawyer to make that happen, I would do it before we left the courthouse.
The reality for many new families is that adopted children and youth often struggle with undiagnosed special needs, attachment disorder, FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) and mental health issues. That often requires years of intervention and therapy.
Many of the adoptive parents I know quit their jobs so that only one parent worked. The loss of income is dramatic and a huge stressor on new adoptive parents, which puts families at risk.
We have spent years advocating for educational, psychiatric and learning assessments. Our limited health care benefits in my family cover none of that. If you’re in my situation now, please note that you could expect lengthy waitlists for essential services, and invoices may amass that are now paid out of your grocery budget.
You might think so what? You chose to adopt. And yes, we did.
But that again is not the issue. When parents need to quit jobs to be able to parent, and they lose benefits and spend hours of every week hunting down support covered by OHIP, negotiating waitlists and more, I see that as unsustainable.
Kids don’t choose to be put into care, to be adopted, and they certainly don’t choose trauma, attachment issues, mental and physical illnesses.
What do you do if the deck feels stacked against you? Embolden your kids to be health care self-advocates like this mom did.
If This Sounds Like You
If you are going through the process right now, do your due diligence.
Get all the information you can in preparation. Gather every last detail about their birth family, as one day they will want it. Get photos where possible. Not all adoptions are open and sometimes the lack of information is a hard pill for a child to swallow.
Ask for copies of everything in their files. It will help when you are seeking answers should a medical issue come up at any point in the future. Ask children’s aid, or the adoption agency, to be a partner in finding therapy and treatment for your child. Get the commitment in writing. This costs the government agency much less than the burden of a child returning to foster care, or adoption disruption.
Connect with other adoptive parents immediately and maintain those connections. They will be a lifeline for everyone. It costs nothing to find those people, and when your family and your neighbours are all questioning why you adopted at all, they will be there to commiserate and help solve problems.
Peer supports are the best at providing real concrete answers, such as which child psychiatrist understands adoption and also FASD — information that was important for our family.
I also advise getting to know the law. Read about permanency so that you can answer your child’s questions confidently when they ask (and they often will): “Can my birth family show up one day and take me?”
Join a few adoption advocacy groups, get on their email lists and bookmark them now.
Here are three I recommend, but there are more. They help by offering advocacy tips and letting you know what is possible. If you need financial assistance to support your child, they can answer questions about that process.
- NACAC.org is a North American organization that advocates, supports, educates and inspires so that every adoptive family thrives and every youth in foster care finds a permanent and loving, culturally competent home.
- Adopt4Life in Ontario is a newer organization with a growing body of resources in Ontario. They advocate and provide guidance for caregivers, kin and adoptive families.
- AdoptOntario provides education, webinars and more for youth and caregivers.
Adoption is a lifelong process, not a date on a calendar. It will be so much harder than you thought and yet also truly rewarding. Your family will probably need more support over a lifetime than others typically do. Stack the deck in favour of success for all of you. Take the rose-coloured glasses off before you leave court and create a roadmap for success.
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