The parents of biological children know their child’s prenatal history and most of what we might call their medical inheritance. Adoptive parents, even those who adopt “healthy newborns,” usually have far less information. They must take a leap of faith that all will be well and, that if the child has unexpected disabilities or challenges, that they will adapt and cope.
Some adoptive parents take a different sort of leap. They are aware that their child was exposed to drugs or alcohol, or was neglected in some other way, and know that being a parent to that child could present challenges—yet they go ahead.
That was the case with Kathryn and Daniel Walsh when they adopted three-and-a-half-year-old Gabriella, from the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). They knew that the little girl had been pre-natally exposed to drugs and alcohol, and they were aware that she had been in at least seven foster homes —one of which had its license to operate revoked.
On the plus side, they knew that Gabriella was finally in a decent foster home. They also knew Gabriella’s aunt and had been following the little girl’s bumpy start to life—they contacted the MCFD about adopting her when she was 18 months old.
Responding to Gabriella’s obvious need wasn’t their only motivation. “We wanted more children [the Walshes have two biological children—Griffin, 12, and Cassidy, 10], but we didn’t feel the need to produce anymore ourselves, especially when we were aware that there were so many waiting kids,” says Kathryn.
When Gabriella’s proposal finally came it was grim reading. “We were told that there was a risk that she would have borderline intelligence, she could be dependent on us for the rest of her life, and that there is a history of bipolar illness in her family.”
The couple made the decision to go ahead through a combination of realizing that all those scenarios were possibilities, not definites, and because another adoptive mom said that even if some of the possible challenges did emerge, “You will love her so much by then that it won’t matter.” During the wait, the couple also talked to Gabriella’s foster mom. She reassured them when she said, “These reports don’t talk to who this little girl is and are based on a few hours of observation. You have to look past that and see what a sweet little girl she is. That all gets lost in the paperwork.”
Though they had completed a general adoption application on the basis that Gabriella may never be able to join their family, they kept alive the hope that she might eventually do so. Their faith was rewarded 18 months later when the little girl finally became a Walsh.
When she came home she wasn’t toilet trained, she didn’t cry, she didn’t express discomfort and she spoke in whispers. Kathryn says it was almost as if Gabriella didn’t think herself important enough to be allowed a voice. From a little girl who had never been anyone’s centre of attention, this is hardly surprising.
Gabriella wasn’t so timid in all situations. She’d wave to complete strangers, wander off on her own and get herself food when she was hungry. It took play therapy and lots of attachment parenting, including allowing Gabriella to reclaim some of the babying she’d never received, before her behaviour normalized somewhat. Kathryn says she is now far more like an average six-year-old—including being noisy and argumentative!
When she came home, Gabriella immediately clicked with Kathryn, but took longer to get used to Dad—which, Kathryn says, Daniel found devastating. The family may never know why Gabriella was so hesitant around men. She also fell in happily with her new brother but less comfortably with her sister. Kathryn thinks that Cassidy found it hard to be displaced as the youngest and that expecting the two girls to share a room right off was not a good idea.
Her school experience has been mixed. She has been assessed as someone who “learns differently,” but Kathryn has yet to learn what that means. She has also been described as having “a scattering of skills” which basically means she’s good at some things and not so good at others. Kathryn is home schooling Gabriella at the moment. In September, she’ll be going to a new school. Socially, Gabriella is doing well. She has lots of friends, she loves gymnastics, dance, swimming and drawing.
Things are looking good for the little girl who was once found in her birthmom’s car while the mom was buying drugs downtown. She has a family she can rely on. The Walshes have also made sure that she has openness with birth family through cards, letters, presents and e-mail.
None of this would have happened if they hadn’t looked past the profile and found the real Gabriella.
The Walshes plan to adopt again in the near future.
by Siobhan Rowe