The part of adoption no one wants to talk about

photo: Arkansas Times

photo: Arkansas Times

If you don’t follow me on social media, you might have missed my head exploding earlier this month when the story of State Rep. Justin Harris (R – West Fork) broke. Harris and his wife adopted two daughters from foster care. The details are in dispute as to why, but things seem to have soured, so he “rehomed” them. Turns out Harris is not that good at picking places to live. The dad in the new family sexually assaulted one of the girls. It’s an appalling story.

Had you been near me, you might have heard dishes breaking when allegations of demon possession and exorcisms surfaced. Then there was the screaming and swearing when it became clear how he’d used his position to get his way, even when professionals connected to the case advised against the adoption. It’s maddening, heartbreaking, heinous stuff.

I cannot tell you how much I want this to be an isolated case. But it’s not. The Arkansas Times has done exceptional work on this story. Reporter Benji Hardy is to be commended for his chops getting this issue to the public. There is much more coming. The problems are deep and wide.

I took this story way too personally. As an adoptive mom, I find myself intensely protective of adopted children. All of them. As if they were all mine to love. It’s not sane or rational. It’s just how I feel.

The discussion around this story has managed to bring up some big feelings in me. I completely lost my business on a woman one night in a Facebook exchange. We don’t know one another. We’ve been introduced at parties. I can’t remember any particular small talk we ever made, but it’s possible we have.

Her offense: she said out loud (or typed where everyone allowed by privacy settings could see) what a lot of people think: that adoptive kids are somehow second class kids. If you want something real, biology is where it’s at. DNA makes a family.

The thing is, most people know that we’re an adoptive family. So they’re not stupid enough to say things like that to my face. Because I have this tiny tendency to overreact when I think my kid is in any way being attacked, belittled or made small. I for saying he’s in any way less than some other kid.

But the hard truth is that the truth is hard. A substantial number of people think that. After I get over the flash of mamma bear anger that inspires in me, I am profoundly sad for them. Anyone who limits love will miss out on so much in this life because real love is always more and never less.

If you can only see one kind of family, one kind of way, then the joy and hope that so many non-typical families can bring will pass you by. You’ll never know how it feels when your heart opens up a little more inside your chest and you feel an attachment that DNA could never understand and cannot limit. It’s a thunderous moment. Why someone would choose to miss out on that is baffling to me.

The other nobody-really-wants-to-talk-about-it issue this brings to the surface is that not everyone is cut out to be a parent. If you’re one of the people who somewhere deep down thinks adopted children are second class to biological children, you REALLY shouldn’t be an adoptive parent.

This is where good intentions run smack into reality, in an unhealthy way. Over the past few years, there has been a movement, particularly in the evangelical community, but in the Christian community at large to get serious about what church people like to call “Orphan Care.”

Let me be clear, I think this is a very good thing. I know some of the leaders of this work in Arkansas. They are good people. They are doing the Lord’s work, no doubt in my mind. While they are dreamers, thank God for that, they are also realistic about their goals and how to accomplish them.

But here’s where things can go off the rails: if you tell a group of religious people that God wants them to do something, then show them happy blended families as an end result of that something that God wants them to do, at least a small group of those people are going to get delusional about what that process is going to be like.

I know some very well-educated, well-intentioned families who made some naive decisions about growing their families through adoption. Blending biological children and adopted children, particularly when the adopted children have intense emotional needs, is ridiculously hard on a good day.

Believing you can somehow pray the problems out of your new family members without extensive therapy and other services is a recipe for disaster. Thinking that you are “saving” these children from the foster care system sets up a dynamic that is not healthy for parent or child. It’s exhausting to be a super hero every day. It’s equally tiresome to be reminded routinely of your unequal status in the family.

I was talking to a father who has four biological children and two adopted children. I mentioned some advice we’d been given about stacking families and birth order. He stared at me in shock for a moment, “I wish so badly someone would have told us that when we started this.” His family went through some serious growing pains that didn’t have to be as hard as they were if they’d understood why birth order matters and how disrupting it needs to be avoided if possible, but definitely addressed if it happens.

He loves all his kids the same. They would never walk away from any of their children. Their family has the luxury of being reasonably well off with access to therapists and aides. But even with the resources he and his wife had, they were not prepared for how unrelentingly hard and how long transitions can be. I just can’t help but think, if it’s this overwhelming for them and they’re set up for it, how much harder must it be for people with fewer resources and less education?

I think the thing we have to remember is that yes, we are all called to orphan care. But not everyone should adopt. Not everyone should adopt right now. But everyone should support families.

Supporting families can mean providing birthday cakes for foster kids. It can mean giving foster parents an afternoon off while you babysit. It can mean supporting legislation to ensure foster and adoptive families have the resources they need. It can mean volunteering with groups who help foster kids who aged out of the system get life skills to live independently and productively.

It definitely means supporting measures to build healthy families from the start, so fewer children enter the system. It absolutely means praying for struggling families, no matter how they were put together. It means doing something, anything, just doing.

There must be structural change in DHS to prevent another situation like the Harris family’s abysmal (yet apparently marginally legal) one. But there must also be a change in our community. There must be a change in our approach to building healthy families from the start. There must be change in how we view adoptive families. There must also be a change in how we educate well-meaning people who want to help.


8 thoughts on “The part of adoption no one wants to talk about

  1. Kerri, this was an awesome blog post. I have a lot of experience working with foster children, adopted children and their families, protective services cases, and etc. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. It is not easy to blend a family but yes, it can be done. Also, adopted children are NOT second class citizens. DNA is not what makes a family. Would someone feel that their step-children are “lesser than” because they don’t share DNA with them? If so, they don’t need to marry someone with children that is for sure.

    You made many wonderful points. I applaud you for being the ferocious and proud mama that you are. I think it is wonderful that you are supportive a non-traditional families. We need more advocates who are. I love the ideas you offered for ways in which friends and families can support adoptive/foster parents. I would add that sometimes birth parents can use that kind of of support too when they have issues with their children.

    I was also encouraged to see you stand up and say that not everyone should adopt. Most people don’t understand that but it is true. Parenthood is not easy and sometimes the emotional baggage that adopted children bring with them can be overwhelming. Not everyone can deal with that extra load. Love is not always enough. I have seen that many times. Adoptive parents want love to fill the void and the pain that their children have but sometimes it just cannot. That can be so very heartbreaking.

    Thank you again. This was an excellent post.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I am unable to have biological children and considered adopting. I did not, for many reasons, one of which was that my then-husband and I were never in agreement about some things. I’m glad we didn’t. I felt guilty for not adopting because WHAT GOOD CHRISTIAN WOMAN WOULDN’T WANT TO GIVE A CHILD A HOME!?!?!?! I’m over that now. This good Christian woman didn’t, and she is happy about that decision. I give in other ways.

  3. Thanks for writing this! As an adopted kid this disturbs me. Children are not pets that can just be given away. I know there are different kinds of circumstances in adoptions but I think that you should honor your commitment to parent the child. Thank goodness my parents did

  4. We were adoptive parents. I say “were” because the dear little girl we adopted after having her as a foster child for 6 years, never did adopt us back.
    No, the state never told us any of the things you feel are true. They only told us we were her last hope; she was not in an insane asylum b/c there were none that were state approved that would take a 4yo.
    No pressure.
    We did our best. As the mom, I was never really asleep. The only time I could take a shower was at 4 a.m. Miss that and miss the shower.
    What they did not tel lus and what they quite likely did not know, but what I now can clearly see was this:She was a RAD child.
    We nearly died. Our family did what it did and was what it was according to her whims. Watch the movie “The Miracle Worker” and dial it down just a notch, and you can picture us.
    Although I would never call her second rate, I will say the part of her that knew how to do family was broken and did not work. She never did join us. We had to place her in a home for wayward girls after 11 years, at age 15 (she would not keep her clothing on in front of the boys/men in our family) and they, although they were big name and very famous, called us and said they could not handle her.
    We said, “We know. That’s why we appointed you.”
    Now, at age 43, she is in drug rehab and playing nice with us. We fear what she wants. I cried myself to sleep last night because I am too old to try again with her.
    Just saying.

    • I am so very sorry for the pain you feel. The thing that is clear from all of this is how much you love her. It seems as if her spirit is so broken she cannot show you love back.
      I want to be clear that placing your child in skilled care when you have exhausted your personal abilities is a loving, caring choice. It’s sometimes all a parent, adoptive or biological, can do.

      • Thanks for your clarity! We knew we had to replace her, ourselves, and we paid for her care in that place. Even today, the scars hurt. But I knew (or hoped) you would get it.
        Yes, broken.
        So few can we share this with and so few then can see … Thanks again. 🙂

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