In this issue
The Center for Adoption Support and Education Celebrates 10 Years
Divorce and Adoptive Families: The Impact of an Additional Layer
Feelings and Fears: How Search and
Reunion Resonates Throughout the Adoption Circle
Making Connections Along the Paths
for Adoption Support and Education Celebrates 10 Years
As The Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.) enters
its 10th year anniversary, we have much to celebrate. Since our inception,
C.A.S.E. has helped thousands of adoptive children and their parents.
Most importantly, we have had the enormous pleasure to watch many of
the children and teens we have worked with grow up to become outstanding
young women and men.
Our vision for the next ten years is ambitious, bright and
includes positive partnerships with the Freddie Mac Foundation,
The Dave Thomas Foundation, Casey Family Services, Jockey International,
and countless other wonderful organizations that are dedicated
to ensuring the well being of children and teens from all foster and
The progress we have made over the last ten years is the direct result
of significant investments by our founders Mike and Kathy Dugan,
our Board of Directors, the Foundation world, the business community, state
and local governments and by the support of those who know
us best: the families we are fortunate to serve. Thank you to everyone for
your continued support.
Debbie Riley, M.S.
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and Adoptive Families: The Impact of an Additional Layer of Loss
By Risa Garon, LCSW-C, BCD, CFLE and Debbie Riley, M.S.
David R., 33, was adopted as an infant. When he was 13 years old, his
parents divorced. Now a father himself, David recalls the pain he experienced
and describes feeling a sense of betrayal and a need to retreat. “The
fact that I was adopted and that my adoptive parents divorced was like
a double helping of abandonment for me: first by my birth parents and
then by my adoptive parents. In my broken heart, I divorced my adoptive
parents for breaking a commitment to me.”
For 1.2 million children under the age of 18 every year, divorce has
become a part of the American family's life cycle. While divorce has
been normalized over the last two decades, the losses inherent in this
life-changing event are profound. Divorce triggers the loss of family,
the loss of being with two parents every day, the loss of financial and
psychological security and, sometimes, the loss of a pet, school or extended
family and friends.
As the losses are experienced, the grieving process unfolds and
elicits a myriad of feelings:
denial, profound sadness,
anger, worry, relief and anxiety, confusion and, eventually, acceptance.” The
sadness and anger children feel results from a change they did not anticipate
or want, and now cannot control.
Undoubtedly, David's parents felt tremendous guilt about the break-up of their
family. Yet, like most divorcing parents at the time, they did not fully realize
the impact that divorce has on children, nor the extra layer of loss felt by
adopted children. In fact, simply recognizing the complexity of loss that divorce
has on children who were adopted is a critical step that today's generation
of adoptive parents must take in order to help their children begin the healing
Because the age of a child is among the most important variables impacting
the degree to which children experience vast emotions connected to divorce,
parents must understand that loss is processed through the developmental
lens of the child and has different meanings at varying ages of development.
Some parents think that infants don't feel a sense of loss; however,
they do. Parents who adopt older infants and young toddlers learn that
their children are incredibly sensitive beings who definitely respond
to changes in their caretakers and their environments. Infants respond
with changes in their eating and sleeping habits, while toddlers can
become confused and anxious. Successful attachment depends upon consistency,
patience and love. Should the parents' relationship be in distress and
a separation occur, it is important to recognize that infants do absorb
the tensions of their parents' loud voices and changes in posture when
being held. They can also become listless when their parents' cooing,
singing, and responsiveness change. And toddlers may exhibit greater
difficulty during changes in their routines, times of transitions and
Preschool children and young elementary school children are egocentric—the
world revolves around them. Their thinking is still somewhat magical;
therefore they may blame themselves for the divorce or believe that they
can bring their parents back together.
Children this age are very concrete. In fact, they may have heard their
parents arguing and relate it to not putting away their toys. Therefore,
they may blame themselves for their parents' arguing. Adopted children
not only ponder the break up of their adoptive parents, but may also
begin trying to make sense of why their birthparents did not keep them
and, in their egocentric manner of thinking, may conclude that their
relinquishment was the result of something they did (e.g. crying too
much, behaving badly, etc.). During a divorce, an adopted child's self-esteem
is especially vulnerable.
Divorce triggers similar worries in young elementary school aged children,
who wonder, “Where will Mom or Dad sleep/eat?” or “Will he/she be lonely?'
Similarly, adopted children often worry about their birth parents, especially
if their adoption story includes difficult information (e.g., poverty,
illness, etc.) Consequently, many adopted children are plagued by worries
about both sets of parents.
Older elementary school children want things “fair and square,” and
50/50. Middle school pre-teens have a strong need to be just like everyone
else. It may not feel “cool” to be part of either an adoptive or a divorced
family. To hide their feelings, they will often reflect that neither
fact of their lives impacts them at all. At the same time, away from
their peers, they may be afraid of spending time alone, which may happen
more often after the divorce. They may worry about how their friends
will get in touch with them, and may resent the time they have to spend
transitioning from one home to another. Since pre-teens this age are
often dealing with many changes and may be disorganized, transitions
may pose a great deal of difficulty for them.
For adopted teens, anger related to their adoption may be heightened
at this time. They often want more sophisticated answers to their questions
about their birth families and reasons for placement. Many feel angry
about the fact that they were not in control over decisions made about
their lives. Such feelings can certainly be exacerbated when adoptive
parents make the decision to divorce.
After divorce, older teens in high school may become care givers. They
may want to reassure their parents that they are all right and may worry
about their parents and younger siblings. It is important to realize
that they are still children, have feelings of loss and need structure,
love, and communication. Children may test their parents to see if they
will still be there for them; reassure them that you will – not only
with words but with your behavior.
During this extremely difficult time, parents have to co-parent with
the ex-partner he or she may prefer not to have contact with. In addition,
parents must grieve while still taking care of children. And, while most
of us clearly understand grief relating to death, the losses experienced
during divorce are often glossed over. Adoptive parents experience feelings
of loss, grief, guilt and concern about their children, and often struggle
with intense feelings of pain around having let down their child's birth
parents and everyone involved with the adoption process.
Evidence suggests that when grief is not processed, overwhelming emotions
interfere with rational decision making. We see parents sometimes using
children as pawns to deal with their pain and fear of losing them. We
see children with headaches and stomachaches, older children acting out
or withdrawing. If we don't help parents and children learn how to cope
with grief and provide support to them, multiple problems may develop.
When a family experiences a trauma like divorce or death, losses that
are associated with a child's adoption often compound matters. Sometimes,
adopted children grieve more about the loss of their birth family than
about the divorce. How children grieve depends upon their experiences,
their personalities and their temperaments. It is imperative that we
help all children understand that it is alright to feel whatever they
are feeling around these complicated losses.
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Feelings and Fears: How Search
and Reunion Resonates Throughout the Adoption Circle
Years ago, when Allison was 31 years old, she decided to try and find
her birth mother. When she shared this with her therapist, she
was met with surprise. Allison now laughs at the outdated suggestion
that she was looking to “replace” her family. “I loved my family! My
desire to find my birth family had nothing to do with my adoptive family,” Allison
explains. “I wanted and needed to know where I came from, who I look
like. I had so many unanswered questions inside of me.”
Believe it or not, the negative reaction to Allison's desire to search
was not unique at the time. There was a time when the desire to search
for birth parents was viewed as pathological (e.g., something went wrong
in the adoptive family and/or the adoptee.) Today, search and reunion
is a common part of the adoption experience, as adoptees are increasingly
reuniting with birth family members, both in domestic and international
The laws in many states have made it easier to obtain identifying information,
and other states have put into place systems like confidential intermediaries
(located in both private and public adoption agencies) to assist in the
search and reunion process. Even so, the U.S. lags behind many countries
like England and Canada which give adoptees the right to full identifying
information once they reach the age of majority.
The Internet has been used to connect adoptees
with each other, and provide a forum for discussion between all parties
touched by adoption, as well as search assistance.
The movement for reunion has grown internationally as well. Adoption
agencies, adoptive parent and adoptee support groups have promoted birth
land tours and have assisted adoptees and birth parents to reunite – from
Korea, VIET NAM, Russia and other Eastern European countries, Guatemala,
Colombia and other South American countries.
What happens during search and reunion is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon.
The complexity of emotions that surround searching, being found and reuniting
cannot be overstated. The process is uniquely individual. Yet, there
are common concerns, fears, and questions that all members of the adoption
circle share. For this reason, it is helpful for everyone in the adoption
circle to share, understand and properly prepare for this often life-transforming
BIRTHMOTHERS who are found may be upset because they have kept the birth
of the adoptee a secret from their families. They may have many fears
about how meeting their birth child will impact the dynamics of their
current family – especially children they are parenting. Contact with
the child they placed for adoption may bring them back into a past that
is filled with painful memories. For example, Sara, 35, married with
two children, had several visits over the course of a few years with
her birth mother. Ultimately, her birth mother, who refused to participate
in counseling, told Sara that it was just too difficult for her to maintain
her secret and stay in contact with her, and so she cut off the contact.
Despite her pain and disappointment, Sara does not regret her decision
to search. “The information I obtained – my medical history, my ethnic
background – is invaluable to me. I no longer spend time fantasizing
(about my birth family). I completed an important emotional challenge
in my life and feel a sense of peace.”
Cindy's experience was quite different. Her birth mother was thrilled
to meet Cindy, 25 at the time. After exchanging phone calls
over a period of months, Cindy's birth mother invited her to visit (she
lives in another state.) Her birthmother explained that she had decided
not to search for Cindy because she felt she had no right to do so and
was fearful of intruding on Cindy's life and, possibly, being rejected.
The two have been in reunion for 10 years. Cindy admits that she still
sometimes worries about the continuation of the relationship because
as the two have gotten to know each other, inevitably – as in most relationships,
the differences between them create tension and potential for conflict.
However, they do their best to handle these challenges. It is not uncommon
for adoptees and birth parents in reunion to seek counseling to address
Adoptees who are found may experience initial resentment. Complex feelings
may result because of a lack of preparation, feeling out of control,
and/or not being emotionally/ psychologically ready for the complexities
of a relationship with the birth family. Michael, 18, felt overwhelmed
by his birth mother's desire for frequent contact. “She should have waited
for me to contact her when I was ready. She did not think enough about
my feelings.” Counseling helped both Michael and his birth mother, Ann,
to address their feelings and have a much better understanding of each
other's needs. “We were able to stand in each other's shoes,” says Ann.
Painful as that was, it helped us to develop empathy and respect. I think
we would have ended the relationship, otherwise.”
It is not unusual to experience many starts and stops in the searching
process on the part of ADOPTEES. There is tremendous emotion – fear,
fantasy, excitement – all rolled up together. For example, Leslie wondered
why her birth parents had not tried to find her. She longed to meet her
birth parents, felt angry and hurt, and concluded that her birth parents
were probably not interested in meeting her. As she came to understand
more about the complex emotions that birth parents experience, she was
able to consider other possible explanations and recognize that it was
her own understandable fear of rejection (“a second time”) that was contributing
to her reluctance to search.
Some adoptees worry about what they will find if their search is successful.
Will the birth parent be someone they can relate to? Will their expectations
post-reunion match the adoptee? (e.g. birth mother wants more of a relationship
than the adoptee does?) That was Melanie's experience. She liked her
birth mother but did not feel they really “clicked.” While she wanted
to maintain contact, she could tell that her birth mother was disappointed
in the lack of closeness that they had. Sam discovered that his birth
mother was deceased. However, he went on to develop relationships with
his birth father, birth siblings and other extended relatives who were
able to give him the gift of learning about his birth mother through
their stories and memories.
When it comes to search and reunion, many adoptees (even adults) feel
a loyalty conflict between their love for the adoptive family and interest
in their birth family. Even when adoptive parents don't express any negative
feelings about searching, adoptees are often concerned about their parents'
feelings and reluctant to put their own needs first.
In her very first counseling session, Lynn stated that she anticipated
her adoptive mother would think, “Aha! If she finds her birth mother,
will she be spending next Thanksgiving or Christmas with her instead
of me?” While some adoptive parents do have knee-jerk reactions
of fear and jealousy, the fact is that many adoptive parents' fears of
search/reunion are often reflections of their concern for the well-being
of their children. For example, Lynn 's mother articulated many of the
same worries as adult adoptees when she participated in counseling.
She did not want her daughter to be hurt -- either by rejection or by
learning something painful about her birth parents and the adoption story,
or by the needs of the birth parent. .
Laura Romano, now an adoption social worker is one of the three women
featured in Las Hijas- a documentary that focuses on the search
and reunion stories of three internationally adopted girls from Colombia
. Laura notes that her journey was indeed a life-changing phenomenon. “I
would not be the calm, confident person that I am today without this
empowering, immensely fulfilling experience.” Laura wants the adoption
community to understand that “the choice to search is critically
important. We (adoptees) don't get to choose being placed for adoption.
The decision to search is the one choice we do get to make.” Laura
emphasizes that the decision to search is uniquely personal to every
adoptee. Laura's twin sister, for example, who has very different feelings
with respect to reuniting with her birth family and connecting with her
cultural heritage, has not gone to Colombia or met her birth family at
this point in time.
ADDRESSING THE NEEDS
Given the normal, predictable, sometimes challenging and overwhelming
emotions involved in search and reunion, it makes sense that preparation
for all parties is key. While adoptees and adoptive parents can find
appropriate counseling and support groups, birth parents that are found
usually have had no preparation for the contact. It is so important for
birth parents to locate resources to help them process this new opportunity
and help them make thoughtful decisions about how to proceed. Some adoptees
may turn to a third party to make the contact with the birth parent on
their behalf. When this is a professional, co-author of Children
of Open Adoption and Their Families Patricia Dorner suggests, that
person can assist the birth mother with feelings and decisions around
the contact. Some adoptees and birth parents in reunion decide to get
to know each other slowly by phone calls, letters and e-mails before
arranging a face-to-face meeting. Of course, others arrange to not only
meet each other, but meet extended family as well. It is not at all unusual
to need ongoing support and counseling for guidance in working out the
nuances of these new relationships and incorporating them into one's
life. The unfortunate challenge also comes when one party wants to continue
the contact, and the other wants to stop at the meeting. Whatever the
outcome, support is critical. It is validating to talk to others about
your experience and know you are not alone in the unique journey of search
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Along the Paths of Parenthood
Ellen Kahn, Executive Director – Rainbow Families-DC
The DC region is home to a significant number of GLBT people, many of
whom are planning to bring children into their family, as well as thousands
who are already raising children.
Our paths to parenthood vary. Some of us have children from previous
heterosexual relationships, some have children conceived through donor
insemination or surrogacy, and some are adoptive parents.
With the growing number of GLBT-headed households, the increasing number
of GLBT people who pursue parenthood, and the many neighborhoods and
communities in which we live, work and play, the need to connect with
and learn from one another is greater than ever.
GLBT-headed families are diverse and our needs and experiences differ
greatly. What does bond us, however, is that our children are being raised
in families that are still considered to be “non-traditional.”
Rainbow Families DC (RFDC) is an organization that provides support,
education and social programming for GLBT-headed families, prospective
GLBT parents, and our supportive allies. Although society's attitudes
have progressed favorably toward GLBT equality, many people remain biased,
uninformed, and sometimes hostile to our families.
In fact, you would be amazed at the questions and commentsothers
ask children and teens in GLBT and adoptive families. We are pleased
to have The Center for Adoption Support and Education present
their nationally acclaimed W.I.S.E. Up! sm Program at this year's Rainbow
Families DC Parenting Conference on Saturday, April 26 th . W.I.S.E.
Up! will help parents to empower their children and teens to decide if,
when and how to share private information about their adoption.
We hope you will join us for our signature event. This year's conference
will feature a keynote address by Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the
National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and dozens of other workshops
in three primary categories: Paths to Parenthood; Educating Our Children,
Changing Our Schools; and Supporting Our Families.
Our workshops will cover a wide range of issues, including those that
are of specific interest to prospective adoptive families and adoptive
parents with children of all ages and life experiences. We are
happy to work closely with community partners, like C.A.S.E., who will
share their expertise by presenting workshops to RFDC conference attendees,
and help to spread the word to families that might not yet be connected
to RFDC, but want to be!
To register for the conference, and to learn more about RFDC,
visit our website at www.rainbowfamiliesdc.org
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by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C
My partner and I are adoptive parents of a two-year-old daughter. We
worry about the difficult questions and comments about our family that
she will inevitably face. Can you give us some advice about how to prepare
her to handle this?
Adoption presents many challenges for families. All adoptive families
struggle with society's bias about being "second-best" to biologically
related families. Gay and lesbian adoptive families face an
extra layer of challenge. They not only have to cope with the
challenges presented by adoption, including racism if the adoption is
transracial/transcultural, but certainly discrimination by people who
do not approve of their sexual orientation, known as heterosexism.
These challenges are certainly difficult enough for parents
to handle, but when put on the children, it is especially troubling.
To meet this challenge, gay and lesbian adoptive families strive to
develop resiliency in their children in the face of unkind questions/remarks,
including those related to their adoptive status.
As Amber Adams and Kristen Benson wrote in “Considerations for Gay and
Lesbian Families,” ( Family Therapy magazine Nov./Dec. 2005), “Children
are teased and discriminated against in our culture for many reasons,
including gender, skin color, the size and shape of their bodies, their
names, and the way they talk. Considering the presence of teasing and
even bullying that occurs in schools, it seems children of gay and lesbian
families may actually be better prepared to face these struggles than
other children….many may have developed coping strategies to help their
children adjust and thrive in a heterosexist culture. Some…prepare their
children through open discussion about sexual orientation and the possibility
of experiencing heterosexism…and encourage their children to learn that
(people's negative attitudes) has nothing to do with their inherent worth.”
Rita, parent of 9-year-old Jackie notes, “Our conversations with Jackie
have been much more about adoption than about our sexual orientation.
Early on we helped Jackie understand that some people will not respect
our family and that they don't matter. We've protected her as much as
possible by lessening the risk of her being hurt by the choices we've
made about where we live and what school she goes to. But we cannot protect
her from the very personal pain she feels about the losses inherent in
adoption. In this, we're like every other adoptive parent who must validate
their child's feelings and be there to help them work it through.”
Come to the Rainbow Families conference where Ellen and VANESSA MARSHALL
from C.A.S.E. will be presenting a workshop for parents on WISE
Up! For more information, see our calendar program page or visit
their website at www.rainbowfamilies-dc.org.
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