EMN Mailbag: “Should I disrupt this adoption?”

Adoption is the sweet fruit that miraculously falls from bitter trees.” (The Call to Adoption, p.153).

I was up early this morning, thinking and praying about a letter I received from a distraught mother, and the little boy she and her husband adopted from Guatemala… we’ll call him “Juan.” This mother “Melody” has a chronic illness, and three biological children who are all under the age of 10. Still, they wanted to adopt. The family labored for three years to bring little Juan home … then discovered he had a history of sexual abuse and neglect. 
Melody writes:

But learning about it after we had been financially and emotionally invested for almost three years, it just seemed to fuel our desire to help and save him. We also had received numerous reports from social workers and doctors in [Juan’s country] assuring us that he was a “well adjusted boy developmentally on target.”

Once they got the little boy (4-1/2) home, it was a different story. The boy had severe attachment issues, and was acting out especially toward their only son, age 5. The five year old is showing severe signs of stress, including sleep disruption and self-soothing to the point of injuring himself. A very sad situation, in which the parents are feeling trapped and betrayed by the agency who made the referral knowing the boy’s history.

Here is how I responded to Melody … Feel free to chime in with your comments as well. Please note: I am not a psychologist, and these remarks are based strictly on what I’ve observed and from other adoptive parents, and what I’ve read in books about attachment and abuse. I strongly urge anyone in this situation to get some professional assistance.

*  If the social worker’s story about “horrific neglect and sexual abuse” is credible, you have every reason to be alarmed. Children with a history of sexual abuse do best in homes where there are no young children in the home. This is for the adopted child’s sake as much as the other children’s. Predatory behavior in a child with a history of sexual abuse in a home with young children is a very good reason to disrupt an adoption. Here is a website that can help you if you want to explore disrupting the adoption.

*  If you do decide to keep Juan, until you are satisfied he is not going to act out sexually toward your other children you must NOT allow the children to be alone together even for a minute, and certainly not at night. Install alarms on bedroom doors and cameras, and arrange your household so that an adult is physically present to Juan every waking moment (I’d suggest having him sleep beside you, too).

Try to distinguish between expressions of grief and loss and “bad” behavior. Also, try not to project too far ahead about his behavior, as children can and do get better with time. Juan may need some kind of acceptable outlet for his feelings, such as a punching bag or other physical outlet. This little guy has lost a great deal in his short lifetime (I know you already know this, just affirming what you already know). He does need to express his feelings — but without putting other family members at risk. 

Keep the child’s developmental age in mind — young children tend to “live in the moment” and think very concretely. At 4-1/2, Juan may not be capable of verbalizing the “whys” of his behavior. If he is affectionate one moment, and combative the next, try not to regard it as “manipulation.” It may very well be that his expressions of affection are genuine, at that moment. Every little kid needs love, and there may be times when he is genuinely letting his guard down simply because without that love, he will die. For your sake, it’s crucial that you find ways to enjoy each other, or family life will become a prison.

Give family members the opportunity to bond on their own timetable, without forcing intimacy. As long as he isn’t hurting one of his siblings, I’d let Juan form friendships at his own pace. He is undoubtedly VERY jealous of your son, who has always had your attention and love. Instead, focus on spending time with Juan, finding ways to enjoy him independent of your other children.  

*  Unlike biological children, the “labor” of adoption takes place after the birth — and yet, it is no less critical to the bonding process. You may well need help from an attachment specialist. … Again, if you decide to keep Juan. But this is a decision you must settle once and for all. The boy will know if you are conflicted, and will continue to act out.

*  Above all, you must take care of yourself, and accurately assess if you are physically and emotionally up to the challenge of parenting this child.  At the very least, you may need to find some supplemental help in the home, to help care for the other children while you do the work necessary to bond with your new son. If you do not invest your time this way, right now in the beginning of the placement, it is very difficult to recover this lost ground later on.

Some books you might find helpful:

“The Call to Adoption: Becoming Your Child’s Family” (Jaymie Stuart Wolfe)

“Raising Adopted Children: A Manual for Adoptive Parents” (Lois Melina)