For those of you who read this blog you know that our adoption experience ended tragically with our daughter, Casey’s, suicide in 2008. I chronicle the difficulties we had in raising her and the mysteries surrounding her sometimes-extreme behavior. Yet for all of the difficulties and heartache there was far more joy in being the father of this amazing child. I simply couldn’t have been luckier to have been Casey’s dad. I never had the slightest thought of “what if,” as in what if we’d had a biological child. Still, we were shrouded in ignorance and the results were catastrophic. In my as-yet-published book, The Girl Behind The Door, I share all of my lessons learned about how to do adoption right to minimize misfires in an imperfect system of creating a family.
Here are five what-to-dos in the initial phase of adopting your child. You could also call this, Five Things The Brookses did – Now Do The Opposite. One caveat here – these assume we live in an ideal adoption world, and this world is far from ideal.
Be skeptical about adoption agencies or intermediaries who sugarcoat the downside of adoption and parenting. Both sides come to this relationship with conflicts of interest that can skew judgment. In our case nothing was known about potential pitfalls with adopted children down the road, so we went in blissfully ignorant. Adoptive parents are aching for a child while adoption agencies are in the business of placing children with families. This is a noble cause, but it also risks being compromised by pairing the wrong children with the wrong families. I know ow difficult it is for adoptive parents to challenge the “gatekeepers” when they feel so vulnerable. Just prepare for a healthy dose of skepticism and ask about how best to prepare for parenting once your child is home.
Once your child has been identified, find out as much as you can about her family, medical history, behaviors, and personality. This is a “no duh” suggestion, but oftentimes reliable answers are elusive. They were for us. Could we have tried harder? We’ll never know. And of course by now once you’ve seen that first photo of your child you’re hopelessly in love. So there is a natural inclination to not rock the boat and blow the deal with too many nosy questions.
If you meet your child at an orphanage scope it out, take photos and videos. Again, easier said than done. I remember how petrified we were at the orphanage in Poland. We could barely speak let alone have the presence of mind to ask intelligent questions, a fact complicated by the fact that we (or I) didn’t speak Polish. We just wanted to grab Casey and race away as quickly as possible. We were shown to a visitation room but never saw any other part of the orphanage, and we were too afraid to ask at the risk of insulting the staffers (or our lawyer) and blowing the deal. If I could’ve had a redo, I would’ve wanted to see where Casey slept – the room, her bed, her playthings, other children she may have interacted with. How did she sleep? Did she rock herself? How was her eating? How would she spend the day? I know, easier said than done, but we didn’t even know to do.
Very important and not so obvious: Ask to take something of hers with you from the orphanage – some clothes, pajamas (even if they’re smelly or dirty), a pillow, a stuffed animal. As an attachment specialist and adoptive mother told me at UC San Francisco Medical Center, “It’s a child’s instinct to cling.” Of course we knew none of that while we dressed Casey in new, clean American girly clothes. Up till the time she met us all she probably knew was about things being taken from her – no constancy. Adoptees need that familiar attachment to the only home they’d ever know.
Once you’re home find a qualified adoption or attachment specialist. Get your child assessed. This is especially important where there are possibilities of exposure to mental health or substance abuse problems. As I’ve said repeatedly, not every adoptee develops attachment or other troubling behavioral issues, but best to chart a plan early on with the right professional. We never did. In fact, after Casey died (after being seen by a multitude of medical and mental health professionals), I visited my GP on an unrelated matter. When I told him what happened, the first thing he asked was, “Was she ever assessed?” And he wasn’t an adoption specialist.
Indeed, many of these to-do items are wish lists in a perfect world where information is freely available and forthcoming, but if you are at least armed with the right questions, you’re far better off than we were back in the darker ages of adoption.