A non-profit adoptive family support center
Serving families, professionals and educators since 1998

 

E-Newsletter - Mar 2008

In this issue

The Center for Adoption Support and Education Celebrates 10 Years

Divorce and Adoptive Families: The Impact of an Additional Layer of Loss

Feelings and Fears: How Search and Reunion Resonates Throughout the Adoption Circle

Making Connections Along the Paths of Parenthood

Ask Ellen

 The Center 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 adoptive backgrounds. 

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.

Sincerely,

Debbie Riley, M.S.
Executive Director

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Divorce 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 process.

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 separations.

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 adoptions.

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.

COMPLEX EMOTIONS
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 experience.

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 these concerns.

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 and reunion.

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Making Connections Along the Paths of Parenthood
By 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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Ask Ellen
by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C 

Dear Ellen,

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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18 March, 2008