Adopting a waiting child


Lynne Melcombe
Focus on Adoption magazine

A primer for parents and parents-to-be

I’ve read about using lifebooks to help adopted children make sense of their lives. Why use lifebooks with children before they’re adopted?

All adopted children have questions about their birth families and why they live in adoptive families. But waiting children often (if not always) have even more questions. For example, if children have been moved a lot, they’re bound to have questions about why they couldn’t stay with any of those people, the underlying question being, “What’s wrong with me?” Lifebooks reveal a lot about the way children think about themselves and what they’ll want, and need, in an adoptive family.

“Children will write things down that they won’t say to anyone, even if they’re asked directly,” says Anne Melcombe, an adoption recruitment worker with Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. For instance, a typical lifebook asks children what they do and don’t like about themselves. One boy wrote down a long list of dislikes that focused on his racial identity, revealing that he would need a family that would help him get in touch with his cultural community in order to feel good about himself.

What does a typical lifebook look like?

Some adoption publishers put together cute, cartooned pages that go into a three-ring binder. They might have sections that start off asking questions about what makes a child happy or sad, excited or bored, move on to a section on the child’s roots that might begin to stir up emotions, and go on to talking about the new adoptive family and the child’s hopes for the future.

With older girls, Kirsty and Anne might supplement the pre-made pages with some scrapbooking and, while they’re creating pages, they talk about things. They often make up their own lifebooks on the computer for little ones who can’t read yet to make it much more child-specific, using photos of them and people they know to tell the story at a level the child can understand.

Whatever the format, lifebook work can be quite painful for children in care. Therefore recruitment workers have to be both creative and patient to ensure that they’re respecting the child’s need to move through the trauma and on to healing at the pace that’s right for them.

What’s the purpose of putting young children through so much pain? Can’t it wait until they’re older?

Lifebook work can be very painful, but it can also be liberating. How can a child be open to being loved by a new family if he doesn’t understand why he is not with his birth family, and that he can’t go back to them? How can a child allow herself to love a new family until she understands that she’s not in care because she isn’t worthy of their love, but because she is?

Anne talks about one girl who was the youngest of nine children and had been apprehended at birth after all of her siblings had been taken into care. It came out during lifebook work that she hadn’t understood this. When Anne explained, she said, “You mean I might not have been safe with my mom?” Knowing that enabled her to move from “Why can’t I go home?” to “I want to be adopted.”

Why would a child who has been with a one foster family for years not be adopted by them?

When a child is taken into care, there is often no way of knowing how long it will be. The process from apprehension to continuing custody order can take years, particularly if many attempts are made to support the birth family to parent. During that time, the child has to live somewhere, and it’s a lucky child who lives in one place rather than several.

Many foster parents begin with the idea that they will never be more than a safe haven for kids in transition. Others truly intend to keep their foster children through to adulthood, but then get sick or suffer an injury, or just get older and don’t have the energy to struggle through the teen years in a way that will do justice to the child.

Why do you say that the word that best describes waiting children is courageous?

“Almost all of the stories we have come back to courage,” says Kirsty. “These children are doing things that no parent would ask their child to do, and they’re doing them almost entirely alone, without the context of a loving family or friends to support them.”

“People talk about the courage of children with cancer or children who lose a parent, and of course they’re very brave,” says Anne. “But the courage of these children is completely different. They’re doing things that would make most adults want to curl up under the covers and hide.”

“What would you call that but courage?”