Meeting the child's needs during pre-placement

By Terri McCoy, LBSW

TerriSeven year old Matthew was living with his third set of foster parents. His latest social worker was due to visit. As always, he planned to ask her how soon he could go home. From the look on her face when she arrived, he could tell something was different. And indeed it was! She told him the judge had decided that Matthew would not be able to live with his parents again. Matthew punched his fist into the wall, then slumped on the floor sobbing. In his despair, he heard something about being adopted, but he didn't have any idea what that meant and he was too upset to ask. 

Can you imagine feeling that your world is spinning completely out-of-control?

When a child first enters the foster care system, everything in his life changes. Adults the child doesn't know suddenly are making decisions about every aspect of the child's life, including where he can live and who his parents will be! In my practice, I have known many "Matthews." They have all struggled with a feeling of being helpless and hopeless. I have used several techniques designed to engage the child in the adoption process and help him/her regain a sense of mastery over themselves and their environment. Rather than just feeling victimized by the decisions of others, the child can actively participate in planning his/her future. 

After a Termination of Parental Rights, the child's first need is for information and explanations. What is happening and why, needs to be explained in language that makes sense to a child. Sugar-coating the parent's problems will only make the child think she was responsible for the break-up of the family. For example, the child knows if her parents did drugs, left her and her siblings alone, or abused them. Be honest about this information as you talk to the child.

It can help to have the child define what a parent's job is and what children need. Discuss how parenting is an important job and why the parents were not able to do it. Perhaps they were too young and didn't know what kids need, no one ever taught them how to keep children safe, or they had grown-up problems that got in the way of taking good care of their children. Explain that because the parents were not able to change or fix their adult problems, it is not going to be safe for them to care for their children. 

Time to Grieve
Secondly, the child needs his caregivers (foster parents) to respect his grieving process, and stick with him through his anger and despair over losing his parents. Children often show their emotions through their behavior. This can make it difficult for foster parents to hang in there until an adoptive placement can be made. When children know they are leaving, they try to hurry the process along because it is painful. They misbehave so they can leave angry and pretend it doesn't hurt. The foster parents and the child will need lots of support during this time including increased communication and visits from the social worker.

Saying Good-bye
Goodbye visits with birth parents can help a child begin to accept the reality of the Termination . . .if the birth parent is able to take responsibility for his/her problems and give the child permission to love new parents. If this is not possible because the parent is absent, a letter or video tape may serve the same purpose. The social worker will need to work with the parent prior to the visit to help script what the parent should and should not say. This can be a very emotional meeting and should only be held with the social worker present! If the parent is too angry or unwilling to accept responsibility, a goodbye visit may not be in the child's best interest. Grandparents or foster parents may be able to give the child permission instead.

Active Preparation
Next, structuring the child's "waiting for an adoptive family" time in a positive, proactive way can give the child a needed measure of "control" over his life. It can be helpful to literally illustrate the steps to adoption, including getting pictures taken, doing a video tape, or making a book about "me" to share with adoptive parents. Have the child talk about his hopes and preferences for a family. Drawing a "wish family," or creating one from magazine pictures, is a good way to engage the child.

These and other activities are included in a book titled "My Adoption Workbook," available on this web site. Life books or memory books can also be made during this period.

In my work at a residential treatment center, I conducted adoption preparation groups for waiting children. We focused a lot on the reality of adoption vs. the fantasies that children have. The "wish family" activity is very effective in a group. Together the children made up the "best-coolest-most awesome" family they could imagine, followed by a discussion about what "real" families look like and expect from their children. 

I also took the children on field trips to dispel their fears, including a visit to an adoptive family to talk to the parents and the adopted children. My favorite family to visit was a lower-middle class family with a mother in a wheelchair, a father, and their adopted son who was in high school. The children came away with a renewed understanding of how all families are different and that love was more important than a fancy house. They could see the child's pictures all over the wall and recognize how much the parents loved their son. 

Meeting A Family
When an adoptive family is selected, share information with the child about them through a photo album or video tape. Prior to meeting a family, help the child develop a list of questions to "interview" the parents. This gives the child a safe ice-breaker for the first meeting and again, gives him some control over an anxiety-producing event. Be sure to include questions about rules and discipline to assure the child that the new family will not hurt him. Give some choices, but let the child help decide what activity he would like to do at that first meeting such as showing off his room, sharing his life book, or displaying his talent at shooting hoops. The first meeting is best held at the foster home. The child will feel safer with people he knows and it will help facilitate a cooperative relationship between the foster parents and adoptive parents. See my article "Adoption Visitation: A Balancing Act" for more ideas about the visitation process.

Of course, final decisions about adoptive placements must come from the adults who are looking out for the child's best interest, and the child needs to know that. The trick is to allow the child control over smaller decisions during the process. The child is more likely to feel invested in the new family if he/she has helped to "choose" them. 

About the Author:
Ms. McCoy has been an Adoption Specialist in Iowa for 27 years, practicing in both state and private venues, including a residential treatment center. She has authored "My Adoption Workbook," and co-authored "The One and Only Me" Life book and "The Real Me" teen life book .