Waiting for forever


Lynne Melcombe
Focus on Adoption magazine

Anne Melcombe and Kirsty Stormer are adoption recruitment workers for Wendy’s Wonderful Kids.A North America-wide program, WWK was started by the Dave Thomas Foundation to find homes for waiting children and is administered in BC by AFABC. Anne and Kirsty do child-specific adoption recruitment; they match families to the needs of specific waiting children.

Part of their work is family-finding — using phone calls, emails, Facebook, and other methods to track down relatives who might be interested in adopting the child. If that doesn’t work out, they move on to searching for non-related families from their network or from among those who have applied to MCFD to adopt. At the same time, they work on preparing children for adoption using tools such as lifebooks to assess what children know about why they’re in care, explain what adoption is, and find out what children want in a forever family. Finally, they assist with the child’s transition to their new family.

If there’s a single word Anne and Kirsty would choose to describe the kids they work with - it’s courage.

“By the time we start talking to waiting kids about adoption, they have been through so much already,” says Kirsty. They may have unresolved trauma from when they were removed from their parents, attachment issues from multiple placements, or prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs leading to difficulties with school work and making friends. They may have had multiple losses, complicated by visits with biological family that can create more anxiety and confusion.

When Anne and Kirsty start talking to them about adoption, it means they have to add more into their lives — moving, starting a new school, adjusting to a new community, making new friends, and adjusting to new parents.

When they begin working with a child, an important first step for Anne and Kirsty is assessing whether the child even knows why s/he is in care and can’t go home. This may seem strange, but children are often taken into care under chaotic circumstances. Workers who don’t know what the future holds may try to minimize the child’s trauma by talking as much as possible about the here and now. With large caseloads and workers changing positions, the need for follow-up can get lost.

Finding the truth

But even when children have been told why they’re in care, and adults think they understand, the child might only have heard and held onto a small piece of the story. Children in care often keep things to themselves, so it can take some time for adults to realize that a child has taken one small piece of information and interpreted it in a way that makes sense only to them.

“I worked with one little girl who was taken into care, when she was quite young, for a long list of reasons including neglect,” says Anne. “Among other things, her mother had mental health issues and was inconsistent in buying and preparing food. When I first spoke to her about adoption, she became increasingly impatient and finally demanded, ‘Why doesn’t somebody just go and help my mommy get the groceries?’”

Finding the truth of what and how much a child understands takes time and patience. Part of Anne and Kirsty’s job is to use tools such as lifebooks to assess what a child knows and fill in the gaps. According to an article in the February/ March 2009 issue of Focus on Adoption, “A life book isn’t a baby book, a scrap book, or a photo album [although it can include elements of all three]. A lifebook is a detailed account of a child’s life that helps that child make sense of the past and prepare for a successful future.”

Children need permanency, and foster care can’t provide that

For many kids, an additional barrier to getting ready for adoption is the length of time they’ve been with one foster family. Kirsty talks about a little girl who had lived with the same family for eight years, since she was an infant. “The first time I met her, she screamed, ‘Get out of my house. I don’t want to see you. I’m not being adopted.’ And who can blame her? Imagine being married to someone for eight years, and then being told that you have to get a divorce and some stranger will choose your new spouse. Then imagine moving in with that person after only knowing them for a little while. What if they decide they don’t want you, or you don’t like them — what next?”

Helping kids move forward is not only about taking time; it’s also about timing

At first, this little girl wouldn’t even talk to Kirsty, so Kirsty just took her out to do fun activities, like going to the park or bowling. Slowly, she started talking and one day she asked, “Why have you told me about adoption when you don’t even have a family yet, and it might take ages to find one?” Kirsty replied that she wanted the child to help her find the right family. Did she want there to be other children in the home? Did she want to live on a farm or in the city? Did she want to have animals?

“I think she was so brave even to think about it,” Kirsty says, “but she soon teared up and asked, ‘Why can’t I just stay where I am?’ After doing this job for three years, I still hate that question. It’s so hard for kids to understand, especially when they’ve been in one place for so long; from their perspective, that is their forever family.” But children need permanency, and foster care can’t provide that.

What finally changed for this little girl? “I don’t know, exactly,” says Kirsty. “I worked with her for nearly a year, and every time we did lifebook work there were tears. One day I showed her a video of the family that hoped to adopt her, and it was like a light bulb went on. But it was really just a result of laying a foundation and doing very slow, gradual work with her.”

Moving forward

Helping kids move forward is not only a matter of taking time but a question of timing, Anne says. “I had a boy in his mid-teens who came into care because his father was abusing his mother; she gave her son up to stay with her husband. No one could have explained this to him as a younger child,” she says.

“But, by the time I worked with him, he was able to hear that his mother had been so badly abused as a child and had such low self-esteem that she couldn’t imagine taking care of herself without a man. That’s a difficult concept for a lot of adults to understand; it’s a credit to the boy that he was able not only to find compassion and forgiveness, but to let go of self-blame and move forward. And the only thing that could get him there was time.”

“That’s not only important for the kids to understand,” Anne says. “It’s important for the adoptive parents to know that, too.”

Read part 2 here.