Tending troubled transplants


Siobhan Rowe
Focus on Adoption magazine

How to handle the tough job of parenting a child who has never experienced proper parenting.

When Ethan’s foster mom, Julie, found a knife under his pillow she was extremely alarmed and immediately put in an urgent call to his caseworker

The reason 10-year-old Ethan went to bed accompanied by a knife, rather than a teddy bear, was because he’d lived in a birth family where drug deals, violence, and abuse were the order of the day. Ethan hadn’t been able to rely on his parents to protect him, so he had learned to protect himself.

Armed with this knowledge, Julie gave Ethan a whistle and told him that he could use it whenever he felt scared at night and that she would come immediately. When Julie eventually proved to Ethan that she was trustworthy, they traded the knife for the whistle. Ethan’s foster mom had given him a new safety tool and, most importantly, she’d included herself as part of the solution.

In many foster homes, and in some adoptive homes, Ethan’s unusual bedtime companion would have triggered panic and maybe even his removal from the home. The solution that Ethan’s foster mom found was based on several vital factors: easy access to Ethan’s caseworker, information about Ethan’s past, a willingness to decode the reason behind his behaviour, and a simple solution that respected Ethan’s history.

All disruptions are equal

Ethan is what Dr Richard Delaney would call a "troubled transplant." These are the children who are bounced between foster and birth families in a seemingly endless and extremely damaging cycle. Delaney believes that such moves can be as damaging to a child as the reason the child was removed from birth parents in the first place. He calls any move for a child a disruption. Though foster moves may not be seen as momentous as a move from a birth or adoptive family, Delaney insists that all disruptions are equal.

Delaney presented at the Stand Together conference (a conference for foster parents, adoptive parents, and social workers) in April 2009. He explained that children who enter foster care in the US and Canada have more significant emotional disturbances, or mental health problems, than they did in the past, and that the children who wait longest to be adopted are those with the most severe mental health problems.

Delaney’s insightful and, despite the subject matter, very amusing presentation, explained how social workers, foster parents, and adoptive parents could mitigate some of this damage to help keep placements intact.

Facing facts

As we know, significant behavioural problems can spell disaster for a foster or adoption placement and, for this reason, Delaney urges that full information on a child must be given to foster and adoptive parents who, he says, are the special forces in terms of caring for North America’s troubled kids. He noted that sometimes this crucial information is not provided for confidentiality or legal reasons. "If you want to avoid creating a situation where you have a built in disruption, you have to give full information on the child," insisted Delaney. As well, simple acts like social workers immediately returning foster or adoptive parents’ calls can make a huge difference. He described one US department of social services where foster placement disruption rates fell just because foster support staff started making extra calls to foster parents, instead of just responding to calls that they received. He recommended social workers using Internet technology like Skype to communicate with families if they simply don’t have time to make a home visit.

Not normal parenting

As well as providing foster and adoptive parents with proactive support and full information, Delaney also had much to say about the sort of parents "troubled transplants" need—normal parenting isn’t good enough. Delaney explained that these kids need authoritative not authoritarian parents, and that parents must have the backbone for the job—not a rigid backbone, but one that is flexible and adaptable.

One of the strongest messages from Delaney’s presentation was that the past is a strong player in a child’s present and that if we think moving a child into what we know to be a safe, happy, family is the solution, we are mistaken—the child’s painful yesterdays will always be present, and entering a new home may result in the child’s behaviour worsening, at least for a while.

According to Delaney, rather than establishing who’s boss and laying down household rules, the first order of the day, when a child joins a family, is to make that child feel welcome and safe. Many children have learned to provide for and protect themselves and suddenly encountering a competent parent can be mystifying for them. For these reasons, parents need to pay homage to a child’s history of survival and become creative.

Interpreting behaviour

Understanding food issues

When a child has been deprived of food and gone hungry in the past, food issues rarely disappear just because the child’s need for nourishment is satisfied in a new family. A child needs to learn, over a period of time, that the food they want will be available and that parents will provide it. Putting a full plate in front of a child, or telling the child to “just ask” if he or she wants food, won’t remove that child’s constant anxiety about food.

One mom discovered that her child (who experienced extreme neglect) was stealing food at school. Instead of punishing her, Mom persuaded the teachers to do something different. The little girl was sent to school with a backpack filled with food and a list of its contents. When the child ate some of the food, the teacher replenished the backpack. This portable pantry reassured the child that there was enough food and that adults would take care of her need for food. As a result, the stealing stopped.

Delaney explained that children he has worked with have peed in Ziploc bags, in the back of cars, or in a bottle at night. The usual explanation for such behaviour is that the child was scared to leave his or her bedroom because it would leave him or her open to abuse, he or she may have been forbidden to leave his or her bedroom at night, or there may even have been no toilet in the home. Some children Delaney has worked with were forced to pee in containers so that adults could use the clean urine for drug tests. Peeing in the bed is also a highly effective way to keep unwanted people away at night.

Delaney described one child who covered his hair in his own excrement—though distressing for all around him, that child had actually found an effective and logical way to keep everyone at a distance. Instead of an angry reaction, the boy’s foster mother reassured him that, in her house, no one would be touched if they hadn’t given permission. Another foster child Delaney mentioned couldn’t sleep without the dirty diaper bucket in her room—another effective strategy to keep dangerous people away.

Not all children, said Delaney, display their feelings so openly. Some children behave perfectly—at least in front of new parents. Josie, an eight-year-old girl from South America who, before being adopted, had lived on the streets and been prostituted, was a model child. What puzzled her new mom and dad though, was that the normally friendly family dog had suddenly started to growl and snap. After a visit to the vet, they discovered that the poor animal had scar tissue in his ears and nose—Josie was attacking the dog. Possible explanations for this contradictory behaviour could be that Josie felt that she had to be perfect for her new parents, or her faultless obedience may be have been because she was fearful of parental figures. In cases like this, it’s important to look at what’s missing—even if it’s bad behaviour.

The main message of Delaney’s presentation was that, though a child might behave in a shocking way, the way to interpret such behaviour is through the clues provided by the child’s history.

Delaney’s presentation, based on three decades of working with troubled children and social services departments, was interesting and convincing. Parents who struggle with caring for hurt kids, could benefit greatly from learning more from his books and DVDs.

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