Core issues are the basic issues that underlie everything people deal with in life. Understanding how these issues affect the permanency triad (birth family, child and permanency family) is vital when working with each of them. If the root causes of a behavior aren’t dealt with, long term healing won’t occur. Let’s look at each of the seven core issues and how they may impact the different members of the triad.
Grief and Loss
Birth Family. Regardless of whether a birth parent makes a plan for their child to be placed in an adoptive home or if their parental rights are involuntarily terminated by the courts, birth parents live with the loss of their child for the rest of their lives. For some, it is a feeling that a part of their body is missing. Birth parents frequently experience depression, physical issues or problems with relationships, which makes it difficult for them to hold down a job or stay in a significant relationship. Even for parents who took part in selecting the permanency family and who receive updates on how their child is doing, the feelings of grief and loss remain. However, birth parents can move forward and make meaning out of their grief and loss so that it does not define them.
Child. Grief is an issue for every child in care. Grief for children is the disruption of a bond, and in any foster situation, significant bonds are disrupted or broken, making foster children more emotionally vulnerable when other losses occur. And other losses do occur:
- Loss of relationships
- Loss of objects that give comfort
- Loss of a secure familiar environment
- Loss of self
- Loss of skills, abilities, competencies
- Loss of familiar habits and routines
Many behaviors seen in adoptees are linked to the feelings of loss connected with their birth family. For children placed at birth, they may notice no one else in the permanency family looks like them and wonder who they do look like, why they were placed for adoption, and if their birth parents ever think about them. Frequently, a child goes through a grieving process when they become old enough – about 8 or 9 – to understand the loss involved in their adoption.
For children placed through the child welfare system and who know their birth family, that sense of loss comes from no longer being with them. Even though the child had to live with the results of the poor decisions made by their birth family, the child still grieves for their loss. They continue to love the absent birth parent.
Loss for children is not just about their birth family but is also about their siblings, their pets, their friends, their school, neighborhood, favorite toys, favorite food, traditions, and the list goes on. How a child reacts to their loss and deals with their grief depends on their developmental age and who they are psychologically; not all children cry or act out or turn to drugs and alcohol or run away. Many simply have no idea how to deal with their feelings or where to turn for help or even what triggers them. A smell, a favorite food that isn’t prepared just right, a TV commercial, anything can remind a child of how life was previously and intensify the present feelings of loss. Resource parents can help with the grieving process by supporting the child and helping to identify the feelings and emotions. Permanency parents need to acknowledge this loss in order to help the child with those feelings.
Permanency Family. Many families who provide permanency for children have themselves suffered losses as a result of infertility. Building a family through birth is an option many families may want. However, for some permanency families having birth children was not an option. Permanency families may also experience loss of a child placed in their home if that child is reunited with their birth parents. Depending on the age a child is placed with them, permanency families may feel the loss of not being able to parent children at various developmental stages. As a result, when families experience issues in their placement, some of the issues and thoughts about these losses may surface and will need to be addressed or considered. Successful families learn to deal with those issues in the context of their current family and the child in their home. They understand that families are formed in many ways; parenting is a hard and rewarding job.
Birth Family. The birth family experiences three types of abandonment:
- Physical Abandonment
- Emotional Abandonment
- Spiritual Abandonment
Birth parents often feel a keen sense of abandonment for the child who was once part of their lives and is now a part of another family’s life. Whether the adoption plan was made voluntarily or not, the birth parent is left feeling separated and isolated from someone for whom they had strong emotional, physical and even spiritual ties. This happens even if the child was placed at birth. Not only do they feel a sense of abandonment by the child, but they often feel abandoned by the system, perhaps also by their extended families and even their friends. With time and help, birth families can learn to work through those feelings and reconnect with some of the aspects of their life.
Child. For the adoptee, their feelings of abandonment center on the people they believe should love them the most – their birth family. Because children tend to be egocentric in their outlook, a child placed as an infant may come to the conclusion their birth parents felt something was wrong with them and therefore decided to place them for adoption. For the child who was in the foster care system, the feelings of abandonment can come from their belief that their birth parents did not love them enough to make the changes they needed for reunification to occur.
Children with abandonment issues often struggle with feeling insecure, and they may feel they don’t deserve to be loved. These children need to understand fully why their birth parents decided to make an adoption plan, why their birth parents’ parental rights were terminated, and why the behaviors of the birth parents are not transferred to them. Children need to understand fully that their own gifts and abilities make them separate, different people than their birth parents. The support of their permanent family can help children learn that not everyone leaves and that they are worthy of love. Children also need help from their family to identify these feelings in order to overcome the behaviors caused by them.
Permanency Family. For some of the families providing permanency, feelings of abandonment surface when their child’s behavior becomes challenging. Their friends and family may not understand why the permanency parent doesn’t just “return” the child, and as a result they start to distance themselves from the rest of the family. The permanency family may also feel abandoned if their agency isn’t responsive to their needs for support and help in dealing with their child. Families can start to feel isolated and think they are the only people in the world dealing with these issues, which can affect their ability to parent the child effectively. They may begin to lose their sense of security in parenting, thus allowing the child to feel no one is in control. Reaching out to other permanency families can help parents understand both their child’s behavior and their response to it. That support can lessen feelings of abandonment.
Birth Family. In the eyes of the birth family, identity is an issue that changes. Even parents who make the plan of adoption before their child is born experience parenting that child. The time the birth mother carried the child in the womb can be a time of incredible bonding, and parents realize they are forever connected to this child as a parent even if they will not be the parent who raises the child to adulthood. After their parental rights are terminated, they lose this identity in the eyes of society. Some birth parents start feeling remorse over their decision of voluntarily placing their child, while others may feel guilty for not making the changes necessary to prevent the courts from involuntarily terminating their rights. They may also struggle with feelings of failure or worthlessness, and their family and friends may reinforce these negative feelings. Birth parents need support to understand that they will always be the birth parent of the child no longer in their physical care; that child will always be a part of them and will always be important to them.
Child. A child’s physical characteristics are determined by their genetic makeup. Removing a child from their birth family does not change how the child looks, but it does impact how a child views him or herself. When a child is with their birth family they know the rules and their role within the family. When a child is in care, they continue to identify themselves as part of their birth family while they wait for reunification, even though the rules, their role and the environment are completely different. For the adoptee, it becomes more confusing. Unless they are in a kinship placement, no one may look like them. Traditions, food and community are not only different but will never go back to what the child knew and what they used for their identity. Changing a child’s name further removes them from their original sense of identity. A permanency family needs to respect the child’s history and embrace it. The permanency family should talk to the child about the birth family’s rules and traditions; when possible, they can be incorporated into new rituals to help a child feel respected and retain an aspect of their identity.
Permanency Family. For the adults in the permanency family who didn’t have children before a placement, their identity has changed from that of an individual or couple to one of family. They have gone from the spontaneity of being child-free to thinking about their activities from a child’s perspective in addition to their own. They have also taken on the tasks of being role models, providers, healers and protectors. These families may also have to deal with changes within their circle of friends as they socially become more involved with other families who also have children.
For families who have adopted children from cultures other than their own, permanency families share in the child’s original culture. This is more than just the physical makeup of their family; it also includes their family rituals, the possibility of changing their place of worship or even their community to one more inclusive of their child’s culture.
Frequently, society’s view of whether parents are “good” or “bad” depends upon the behavior of their children. Providing permanency for a child with behavioral issues can change how the parents are viewed by others who don’t understand why they can’t control their child. Permanency families need the support of competent professionals to help them understand that their child’s behavior does not reflect on their parenting. That support can help them understand their new identity as a family and that it does not depend on others’ opinions.
Birth Family. At one time, single birth parents didn’t really have a choice about placing their baby for adoption, especially if they were minors. For some birth parents it was a secret they kept for the rest of their lives, even from the person they married or the children they had later on in life. Some birth mothers subconsciously decide to get pregnant again shortly after they place their child in an effort to replace the child they lost. However they handled the situation, the feeling of shame may remain with a birth parent for the rest of their lives. Even though society is more open today, birth parents still have difficulty deciding to make an adoption plan for their child. They may feel they have let down both their child and their families. For the birth parents who had children placed due to their inability to keep the child safe, they also deal with the knowledge that other people know about their “failure” as a parent. With help, birth parents can learn to deal with their feelings of shame so those feelings do not dominate their future.
Child. Children tend to see the world as revolving around them. They see it as their fault when things don’t go right in their family – “mom and dad are fighting because I broke the lamp.” The adoptee can feel shame about their adoption. Children placed at birth may wonder why their birth parents didn’t want them. The child adopted out of foster care may deal with additional issues – why wasn’t I more important than the drugs (alcohol, paramour, etc)? Why didn’t they give them up for me?
Joining a family as an older child means a number of people know you are adopted, and therefore people must think you are a “bad” child or come from “bad seed.” The adoptee has little control over choosing to share the fact they are adopted. Many children report feeling they have a neon sign over their head saying “ADOPTED,” and they are sure everyone knows about their past. When their friends talk about events in their past, the adoptee frequently remains quiet and hopes no one will notice or ask questions.
As children develop, they need to be reminded that the events in their past are not a reflection of them. They need to be reminded of this even if they are not verbalizing these thoughts. In addition, adoption needs to be dealt with openly and respectfully in the home to limit a child’s self-imposed shame as well as the shame that might be as a result of society.
Permanency Family. Shame has many implications for permanency families. Families who deal with infertility can often feel shame over the fact that they have not been able to conceive a child and can feel judged by others. Sometimes the shame exists because of the child’s behaviors or even the parent’s reaction to those behaviors. For example, the parent who is law-abiding may be embarrassed to have the police show up at their house, to have everyone look at them in a restaurant, or to be sitting outside the principal’s office. Beyond the behavior, a parent can feel shame because they do care what society thinks about them as parents even though they know their child’s behavior is linked to a past that didn’t include them. Also, sometimes in the heat of anger, parents can feel shame and embarrassment by their own behaviors. They may react to their child’s behavior and then wish they had handled the situation differently. Families need to recognize these feelings and understand they are normal. Support from other permanency families and competent professionals can help with this.
Birth Family. Loyalty is the willingness and unwillingness to engage. Birth parents often struggle with loyalty and knowing that it is okay to let their children go and live with another family. Birth parents look at this as giving up on their own children. In helping birth parents deal with loyalty, we can use Adolescents & Families for Life: A Toolkit for Supervisors, by Robert G. Lewis and Maureen S. Heffernan. In the section titled “Unfinished Business,” Kay Donley Ziegler describes several steps to disengagement.
1. Identifying significant attachment figures
The teen’s memories, the life book, life line, genogram or other tools may be used to determine which attachment figures were the most powerful in a child’s life, particularly relationships that seem to stand in the way of the child accepting new family ties.
2. Preparing the parent or other attachment figure to talk with the child about troubling issues
Saying good-bye to one’s child is a devastating experience for nearly every parent, even when their own behavior created the loss. The prospect is so painful that it is not unusual for parents to fail to appear for “final” visits with their children in care. One or more sessions to prepare the parent, guidance in what to say, and the opportunity to bring a support person can help the parent meet with their child face to face. They should be helped to create a video, audiotape or letter that conveys the intended message.
3. Giving permission to form future attachments
Whether delivered personally or by some other means, a few key points must be made, crafted to the particular situation at hand: assuring the parents’ continuing love and affection (if true), the parent accepting responsibility for not being able to care for the child, and a clear statement that the parent wishes the child to have and love another family.
Child. Regardless of the level of abuse and neglect, children often remain loyal to their birth parents. They may be angry about what their parents did to them, but negative comments from others about their birth parents frequently evoke an emotional reaction. Children in care and those placed with a permanency family often struggle with loyalty issues. They’re afraid if they identify with their permanency family, they are being disloyal to their birth parents. Until a child understands it is okay to love both sets of parents, this conflict will interfere with the adoptee attaching to the permanency family. Permanency parents are very important in helping the child understand that loving one set of parents does not diminish the love for another set of parents.
Permanency Family. For the permanency family, many issues about loyalty can emerge in their relationships with their nuclear and extended family. Many of these families feel their extended family does not have the same sense of loyalty to their children, who entered the family through adoption, kinship or permanent legal custodianship, as they do toward a child who entered the family through birth. This can cause conflict within the family when issues of loyalty appear, especially when cultural differences and behavioral problems also exist. A permanency family may discover issues of loyalty between their birth children and adopted children. For instance, a birth child might not be willing to stand up for an adopted sibling with friends at school when behavioral problems occur. When issues of loyalty arise, honest and open communication can help a family move past the situation with a better understanding of each other.
Birth Family. Birth families struggle with their parental entitlement and the decision to relinquish this to the permanency family. These struggles can lead to long-term problems. Studies have shown that birth parents tend to have issues with future relationships and mental health problems. Their fear of becoming too close to someone else is very similar to the issues the adoptee may deal with in his or her adoptive family. Birth parents can benefit from competent professional support to help them develop a secure attachment style. Being shown respect for their role as a birth parent, especially by the permanency family, can also help with attachment problems.
Child. A child’s ability to attach to others is impacted by all of the core issues we are discussing here. The child who appears to attach quickly to the permanency family may not be attaching at all but just going through the physical motions associated with attachment because they feel this is expected behavior. Having a history of abuse or neglect may make it more difficult for a child to trust a new adult enough to attach to them. A child may start to attach and then pull away and seek safer ground only to, hopefully, take another tentative step forward in the future. The impact of the abuse and neglect may lessen as time goes on but will always be felt by the adoptee. Adults who are consistent, caring and predictable help a child with attachment problems. The permanency parents need to be honestly caring and supportive, accepting the child as they are. The permanency parents will need to initiate a relationship and continue to engage in that relationship, even if the child is not yet ready to engage. This will allow the child to attach at their pace and to the degree they are able at the time.
Permanency Family. Attachment can be an ongoing issue for a permanency family. Thoughts and worries about a child who is not attaching to the parent or other family members can present many problems. Issues and problems arise with a lack of attachment, inappropriate attachment and appearing well attached to one family member and not with others. Permanency parents may wonder what they are doing wrong. Permanency families might even feel embarrassed when they think their child is not attached to them and how others might perceive that lack of attachment. Permanency families must understand that attachment can not be forced, but that they can do things to help encourage it.
Birth Family. Sometimes birth parents can have control in making a permanency plan for their child. Birth parents who voluntarily place their infant frequently help select the family who will raise their child. Even after selecting the family, a birth parent can drag their feet or change their mind completely about relinquishing their parental rights so the adoption doesn’t happen. For the parents involved with the child welfare system, they may feel they lost all control over their lives and their children once the courts became involved. Birth parents can try to retain whatever control they have by refusing to relinquish their parental rights even when they know it would be best for their child. Families involved in involuntary termination need to be allowed to discuss their losses and have support during this period from the county children and youth agency or the private agency working with their child. Studies indicate that birth families who are not given the opportunity to talk and process their grief can suffer physically, emotionally and spiritually from the unresolved issues. Birth families who receive this type of support and respect are better able to regain control of their lives and move forward.
Child. Everyone enjoys having control over something in their lives, even children. For children, control is often expressed through behaviors. Children living in out-of-home care often have experienced neglect or abuse in their past, which leaves them feeling insecure about adults meeting their needs. In addition, a child in foster care has little control over the decisions made about their future, including the ones that separated them from their birth family or which permanency family will become theirs. As a result, children can take on an attitude of, “I’m not going to allow anyone to tell me what to do.” Children use a variety of behaviors to challenge authority, such as testing limits and escalating their behavior in response to consequences. What appears to be defiant or oppositional behavior is really a fear of being out-of-control. Permanency parents should not engage in power struggles with their child as they will not win. A better strategy is to allow their child control in acceptable areas.
Permanency Family. In some areas, permanency families have complete control while in others they have limited control or none at all. They decide if they want to proceed with the family profile process; they also have final say about which child or youth is ultimately placed in their home. In other areas they have less control, such as the time frame required by agencies to complete required pieces of the family profile; if or when they will respond to a family’s request for more information about a child; when an agency will make a placement decision for a child, or what decision was made. Families also don’t have any control over how fast – or slow – the legal process of terminating parental rights will move. And permanency families often find out quickly that they really don’t have complete control over the child placed in their home. As mentioned earlier, children can exert some control over a situation through their behavior. Most parents understand it will take time for a child to learn to trust and start attaching, but they don’t always realize how long it can take or that they can’t make the process move any faster. Parents also can’t protect their child from their struggles over their feelings in connection with their birth parents. Parents talk about feeling helpless when they want to make the child’s pain just go away. Families need to begin to understand what they can and cannot control in any situation. This is probably one of the most difficult lessons to learn, but once families learn to identify the controllable factors in a situation, they will start gaining control over their lives and feel more empowered as a parent. Reaching out to other permanency families can be a great help with understanding what they can and can’t control.