Like many adoption workers for the Ministry, I am most often contacted by those interested in adopting a child, or sibling group, who fall into one major category, "five or under, the younger the better." The reasons are not hard to understand. Children this age have an unarguable appeal and many prospective adoptive parents feel that "this is the one" after seeing a child's photo. There is also a common perception that the younger the child the easier the attachment process will be after placement, and the sense, or hope, that the younger child will feel more fully like "our own."
I once read a quote that said something to the effect of, "in the beauty contest that is adoption it is a grave mistake for the waiting child to turn six." To be sure, for many families, adopting a child who is five or under does make the most sense. Prospective adoptive parents who have never parented before, and young couples just starting out, often express a heartfelt need to parent a child as close to an infant as possible.
Some families feel that their biological children will do better with a much younger child joining the family. Some choose to adopt an infant or toddler with higher needs (or risk of developing higher needs) than they are prepared to accept in an older child. Overwhelmingly, these prospective adoptive parents are firm in their resolve and this clearly is the best choice for them.
However, there are a growing number of families in BC adopting children who are over the age of five, and they too have experienced the great joy and fulfilment that children can bring into one's life regardless of age. I have had the privilege of being involved in the placement of several older children and would like to share a couple of experiences. I hope it may encourage other families to consider opening their hearts and home to a child who is over five.
Mark and Anne came to my office interested in adopting a girl, age five to nine. They had adopted once before, a baby boy who is now 12, and felt they would like to adopt a little girl. They ended up adopting a sweet-natured, affectionate 10-year-old boy named Eric!
Eric had spent the last four years in one foster home, and was described as a loving, gentle child. He came from a background of family violence, neglect, and possible prenatal alcohol exposure. Mark and Anne were struck by the fact that he wanted an older brother, as well as a mom and dad. It was also important to Eric to join a family who shared his religious beliefs, which was the case with Mark and Anne. Over the next five months they got to know Eric through pre-placement visits, and this confirmed their sense that they would all do well together as a family. The beauty of this adoption was that Eric could affirm that he too wanted this to happen, and that he also felt he would be happy in their home. That elusive quality, sometimes referred to as "goodness of fit," was there for this child and his new family.
Mark and Anne are thrilled with their new son, as is their extended family. Their oldest son received some needed support through counselling as he adjusted to having a brother close in age, but he also says that it is "cool" to have a brother to play with now. Mark and Anne are careful to spend individual time with each child. Anne says that the single most important thing they did to prepare for this adoption was for her to take parental leave after placement. This allowed her the time to deal with any issues that came up without the pressure of coping with a full time job.
Part of the success of this adoption was that Eric had been well prepared. He received regular counselling before placement and his counsellor accompanied him to his adoptive home on the first visit. As soon as Eric was placed in his adoptive home, the counselling was continued for both boys.
Eric's foster parents were on board with the adoption plan. They supported Eric in his grieving that he was leaving them, and in his excitement that he was finally being adopted. Eric cares deeply for his foster family; however, his status as a foster child always meant to him that he didn't fully belong there. He wanted a family to call his own.
There is an openness agreement which allows Eric to keep in touch with his foster family and extended birth family. His adoptive parents are not threatened by Eric's attachment to others, and by loving him without trying to replace anyone they have lifted a burden from him. He is free to love his new family, without giving up his connections to the past.
Anne says they have been overwhelmed at how deeply Eric appreciates the permanency that adoption has brought him. Despite some challenging behaviours (which she points out are not unusual for a boy his age), Eric has turned out to be very much the loving, affectionate child that all the reports described. Eric has a great need for hugs and reassurance, but as Anne says, this is something they can give. This doesn't mean that Eric won't have issues to deal with as he grows older; however, he is now in a permanent home with parents who are committed to helping him reach his fullest potential.
Another recent adoption involved a nine-year-old boy, Lorne. He came from a background of family violence and had spent four years in his foster home. He has a diagnosis of Alcohol Related Neuro-developmental Disorder.
Like Eric, Lorne also had a counsellor whom he trusted and who helped him understand why he was in care. Lorne was loved in his foster home; however, he too needed the permanency of an adoptive home. Lorne was seen as an intelligent, resilient boy who loved sports. He was in a safe, caring foster home, but this was simply not enough.
Everyone involved with Lorne felt he needed the chance to truly belong to a family; to have parents who would give him their full attention and commitment for a lifetime. Like Eric, Lorne was accompanied by his counsellor on a pre-placement visit, and counselling was set up to begin right after placement. Lorne's adoptive mom and dad had never parented before, but they have proven to be a wonderful match for this child.
One very touching moment came on the day that Lorne was leaving his foster home for placement with his adoptive parents. It had been a very painful morning saying goodbye to his foster family and as we drove Lorne began to sob in the backseat, openly grieving for the loss of his birth parents and foster family.
Through his tears he said something that I will never forget. "You know, at school I would see the other kids' parents coming to watch them in concerts and at soccer games, at everything ... and I always wished I could be them—that I would have parents like that." It was good to be able to reassure Lorne that he too was going to have a mom and dad who would be there for him now.
Like Eric, Lorne has been fortunate enough to find loving parents who weren't afraid to adopt an older child. Lorne's adoptive parents are working with a counsellor, and together they will continue to deal with his issues of grief and loss. They have expressed how much they love their new son, how proud they are of him, and how happy they are to be his parents. Lorne has made friends and is so proud to have parents who are there at school events and soccer games.
There are advantages to adopting an older child: the special needs of a school-age child are often more well known than the needs of a very young child or infant; the school-age child will usually have had assessments done and his or her ability to hold it together in school (or not!) is well understood.
Adopting a child who sincerely wants to become part of a family, and who has been well prepared, is very rewarding. In many cases, families who adopt an older child have a good understanding of what he or she will be like to live with and what the challenges ahead may be. Families often don't have to wait long to be matched with an older child.
Will there be challenges? Guaranteed! After all, parenting is the great adventure, but the rewards are also there in full force. One adoptive mother called the raising of their four adopted-at-an-older-age children "extreme parenting," but she is the first to say how much joy they have brought. In fact, she is adopting again.
If you are considering adoption, why not ask your adoption worker about the older children who are waiting for a family?
by Karen Maxwell