From the beginning, Sean Simpson* knew that the adoption of his two children aged three and five would not be easy. Both children had experienced dreadful neglect and physical and sexual abuse from their birth parents.
When Sean talks about the adoption of his two children, he is honest and philosophical. He loves his children and is proud of their achievements. Yet this is no adoption fairy tale. The little girl that he and his ex-wife adopted at five years old—at age 11 lit fires in her bedroom and attempted to set her parents’ room alight. The fire caused extensive damage to the house and to the stability of the family. Though the marriage continued for five more years, eventually Sean and his wife April divorced. Sean believes that the stress involved in parenting Hannah was one of the main reasons that the relationship gradually disintegrated.
“There weren’t any lovey dovey moments with Hannah, and we both experienced feelings of grief when we realized that this was not going to happen,” says Sean. “There was more affection with her brother Jason, and I think that reflects the different levels of damage they came out of their birth family with.” The children were apprehended by the MCFD at ages six months and two-and-a-half years. Hannah has no official special needs diagnoses.
Sean describes the day he stood up in court, shortly after the fires, and relinquished his parental rights over Hannah, when she was 11- years-old as devastating: “That was a terrible time. Standing up in court I felt like an abject failure. It was like someone had died.”
Though, in a sense, the disruption of the adoption did represent the death of his dreams of parenting this child, it did not mean the end of the relationship between Hannah and her father. Hannah may have had to leave their home, but she never left her spot in this father’s heart or his involvement in her life—she still calls him Dad, and he still considers himself to be her dad.
Sean believes that setting the fires, though not a conscious decision, may have been an escape route for Hannah. “I think she was relieved when she left the family. In a foster home there isn’t any expectation of attachment. To her it was a relief that she wasn’t expected to open up to anyone or to let anyone see her vulnerability. She was full of fear. The fires were not about us: they were about her needs.” He says that she appeared to take the return to foster care in her stride: “She’s very guarded and closed. She will never really let you in. She is never wrong and never vulnerable.”
Hannah eventually lived with eight foster families before she left the care of the government. Since then she has married. Sean jokes that one of the reasons that the relationship is thriving is because Hannah’s husband takes direction very well! Sean helped arrange the wedding—and the young couple now work outside Canada but will soon return to give birth to their first child. They may live with Sean on their return.
Hannah has some Aboriginal heritage and in her teens she made an important connection with a native high school coordinator.She attended Aboriginal events and ceremonies and was very attracted to Aboriginal spirituality. Sean believes that this connection was important to this young woman who normally found it so difficult to find a place in which she was comfortable.
Her brother, now 17, lives with Sean and is doing well. Sean believes that though damaged by his birth parents—he has Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE)—the shorter time he spent with them helped him to more easily accept his new family. He hopes to be a computer programmer, and Sean fully expects him to become one. The relationship between the siblings has never been especially easy, but they remain in contact and Sean says that there is a strong connection there. After Hannah left their home, Sean and Jason visited her every week in her foster family.
April has weekly contact with Jason but rarely sees Hannah.
Sean feels that he was properly informed about the children by the social workers involved in the adoption and he attributes blame to no one. April and Sean met several other special needs adoptive parents before the adoption, and there was a six month visiting period with the children prior to the children coming home. He does, however, comment that on one occasion, when things were particularly stressful, he had to threaten to relinquish the children in order to receive respite services.
Sean and April were heavily involved in a SNAP (Society of Special Needs Adoptive Parents) support group and the support and mentoring they received there was invaluable. He suggest all families who are experiencing similar parenting problems seek such support. He is still involved with the group and gains great satisfaction from being able to share with other parents.
This father talks about his experience with frankness, humour and in a remarkably positive way. He believes that he survived the experience of the adoption disruption, and all that led up to it, because he “really bought into the concept of not liking the behaviour but loving the child.” He sees the success in this story rather than the failures. “We gave Hannah six great years. She herself says that we gave her a good foundation. She might be dead now or on the streets if we had not made the connection we made.”
He also feels that even though the parenting experience wasn’t what he would have hoped for, he has learned much from all that has passed. “I was given the opportunity to care for them. There’s been a lot of grief,” says Sean, “but no regrets.”
All families face crises. Most overcome them and remain a cohesive group of individuals with lifelong bonds. Despite the challenges that this family has faced, and a legal termination of parental rights, they are still very much a family.
*Names have been changed.