Understanding and Supporting the Unique Needs in Kinship Adoption
By Ellen Singer, LCSW-C
Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc
Kinship adoptive families are formed both by choice and often out of necessity. A family member (adolescent child, niece, cousin, etc.) has an unintended pregnancy and another family member agrees to adopt the baby - to keep the child in the family and/or often times filling the dream of a single or infertile couple who are happy to step up to the plate.
In addition, with the increasing number of children who cannot remain in their homes, child welfare agencies rely heavily on grandparents and other relatives to become foster parents for their kin. Kinship care is as old as time in most cultures. And with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), whose purpose was permanency planning for children -- with the goal of moving children from foster care into permanent adoptive homes -- kinship caregivers are being asked to make their centuries old informal raising of children, legal and formal through adoption or risk losing the right to raise them.
When the kinship adoption is the result of the voluntary placement of the infant/young child by the birth mother, the challenges are not dissimilar from open adoption arrangements. In both types of families, where there is often, ongoing contact with the birth mother, it is critically important that the child be told the truth about the relationship. Whereas most kinship adoptive parents are honest as they explain the child's adoption story, other parents fear that the disclosure will hurt or confuse the child and hide the truth to "protect" the child.
In these situations - for example, in an open adoption, the birth mother is known only as a "friend". In kinship adoption, only the new relationship resulting from the adoption is known to the child (sister, aunt, cousin, etc.) The "secret" invariably impacts family dynamics with discomfort and tension that parents think the child won't notice, but does - and may cause the child to worry needlessly as he imagines all kinds of possible catastrophes. Equally damaging, the disclosure of the truth at a later point in time can be traumatizing to the child, and destroy the trust between adoptive parent and child.
When children are removed from their birth parents and placed with relatives, the decision to adopt carries with it many significant changes and challenges for families. The post-adoption success of these families depends a great deal on two things: 1) assisting families in the decision-making process through careful planning and consideration of the lifelong issues in kinship adoption in the PRE-ADOPTION phase and 2) on-going support and other services post-adoption as well as knowledge of how to access those supports and services.
Caring for children who have been traumatized by the loss of their parents, as well as abuse, neglect, etc. may present emotional, educational and behavioral challenges that are extremely stressful-understanding the help these children need and accessing appropriate services is no small job.
Kinship adoptive parents especially of older placed children need to understand the grief, loss, confusion and loyalty issues faced by the children. - Laura Manson was unprepared for the intense grief her eight year old niece, Diane experienced when the mother's rights were terminated and she was told she was going to be adopted. "She refused to call me "Mom" for at least a year. I never pushed it and always tried to convey the message that she could love us both. However, inside it was hard for me to understand her loyalty to a mother who had left her alone for hours on end while she prostituted herself for drugs." Laura adds, "I was also the bad guy, refusing to let her birthmother (my sister) take her out on school nights after she consistently brought her home late. Over time, Diane stopped trying to hurt me by telling me she was going to live with her birthmother as soon as she turned 18. When she saw she couldn't push that button, she learned that the only competition going on was in her mind. We are now very close."
In reality, especially as children reach the age of majority, some children in kinship adoption may desire to live with their birth parents and wish to take care of them. Adopters must prepare for feelings of loss, betrayal or having "failed".
Setting boundaries as Laura tried to do is not easy. Kinship adopters lose the assistance of their caseworker and the court's role in setting limits and handling boundary issues with regard to the relationship with the birth parents. This can be quite a challenge. These families may still be very much in need of professional assistance to set boundaries, manage the relationship with birth parents, including how to appropriately involve and include birth parents in the lives of the children over time.
This is especially true for grandparent adopters who in addition to challenges with regard to setting boundaries, are dealing with their own feelings -sadness, guilt, anger -- about what is happening to these birth parents - their sons and daughters. They are coping with the stigma of being seen as responsible for the difficulties of the birth parents ("the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.") If they are feeling blamed or blaming themselves and/or feeling guilty, or extremely angry - all these feelings can have a negative impact on the children if they are not handled appropriately. Open conflict with the birth parents who are their children or son/daughter-in-laws, and/or belittling the birth parents to the children can certainly create terrible stress for the children. Such stress can exacerbate the normal feelings of loss, grief, confusion and loyalty issues the children experience.
Grandparents adopting their grandchildren are confronted with practical issues related to their energy and physical ability to keep up with their children. Identifying sources of respite care can be critical. And of course, while all parents should identify guardians for their children in the case of their disability/death, grandparents are realistically concerned about what will happen in the event of illness or death and must identify secondary guardians who will take over.
Whether the result of voluntary or involuntary placement, despite the challenges, kinship adoption is a wonderful adoption option.RESOURCES
National Adoption Information Clearinghouse
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