Thoughts from an adoption social worker


Janice Isaac
Focus on Adoption magazine

Recently I received another “one of those calls out of the blue” that all social workers occasionally receive. This call was from an adoptive family that I had worked with in the past and hadn’t heard from for almost seven years, as they had moved from our region.

The family had adopted their daughter at age five and she came to their family with numerous challenges, such as abandonment, seven foster placements, inappropriate sexual behaviours and separation from her sibling. There were a lot of ups and downs with this placement, but I always felt that the family loved this little girl, could always see her potential and were committed to this little girl.

Making commitment stick

However, as her attachment to this family increased so did the girl’s anxiety and she escalated her behavioural acting out with some pretty difficult challenges. The family struggled, to the point that a Ministry protection social worker was involved. The child, at the young age of seven, was placed in a residential treatment centre to stabilize her, and the family felt they were receiving pressure from the Ministry to relinquish this little girl back into Ministry care. The family fought the Ministry to the point of going to court to maintain guardianship of their daughter. The family kept their commitment to this little girl, made the almost weekly five-hour drive to visit her at the treatment centre, were involved in counselling at the centre, learned a different parenting style, phoned their daughter regularly to tell her they loved her and were not going away, and they sent her love notes weekly.

Some months later, their daughter returned home and there was a huge change in her attitude. There were still challenges but things were improving. A few years later, the family left the area and, like many families I have worked with, I often wondered how they were weathering the teen years.

The phone call I received, almost seven years later, made my heart smile. Their daughter is doing fabulously. She is very attached to them, at the top of her class at school, is a mentor to peers and, “according to her proud parents,” their daughter’s I.Q. is almost genius level and she wants to be a marine biologist. As a family, they talk together a lot and the parents have asked their daughter what was it that made her stop her open defiance and begin opening up to them. She told her parents, “I knew you were not going to leave me.” So simple! But so difficult for families to sometimes do!

Some families don’t make it

We educate our families about the importance of not personalizing the child’s actions and how important it is to maintain your commitment to a child, no matter what. However, to live the daily, and sometimes hourly, challenges of those persistent and intensely personalized behaviours a hurt child will direct towards a parent can induce strong negative emotions the parent never imagined they had. It can make even a sane parent feel crazy, do things they never thought possible, and at times want to give up. Some families do not make it. I am happy to say that this family did, and for all the tears and trials of parenting a hurt child the payoffs can far exceed the heartache. This call was just another reminder to all of us of the power of commitment to a child.

Even with all our professional experience, knowledge, and education, placing children for adoption with a family is still a leap of faith. You can never truly know which family will stick with the child throughout the worst, and sometimes I am surprised. You hope you assessed the family right and trust they’ve been honest with you, but in the end you just take a deep breath and hope the family have the determination and confidence to stick out the difficult times and get the support they need to make it work.

During the challenging times, I always remind myself that the majority of older child adoptions do work out and our children all deserve the possibility of being one of those in the majority. From an outsider looking in at adoptive families, the family may not look or act like a “normal” family; those of us who work with them always need to redefine our definition of success. The above story of commitment reinforces my belief that there is always hope and a family for the hurt child.

Janice Isaac is an Adoptions Social Worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

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