Adoption visitation: A balancing act in special needs adoption

TerriBy Terri McCoy, LBSW

Whose needs take priority during the pre-placement visitation? The hopeful adoptive parents or the anxious child? While the family is eager to love and claim their new child, the child's behavior may turn negative as he/she tries to avoid the emotions of leaving the familiar for the unknown.

When an adoption disrupts, a common concern of adoptive parents is that they rushed into the placement. As an adoption social worker, I always tell adoptive parents that it will be my job to slow them down during the visitation period and to prepare them for the stress that is inevitable. I need to get them to trust in my experience and to be flexible. Also, I must balance the needs of the child, the adoptive family and the foster family. This is no small task!

Each situation is different, but sometimes just being available to assist with transportation and staying in touch frequently with all parties helps a great deal. After all, if I'm not willing to go the extra mile for these families, why would they be motivated to be an extra-mile family for a child?

It is often hard for adoptive parents to understand the potential anxiety and conflicting emotions that visitation can cause the child. Likely, they jumped through hoops for months even to be considered for adoption. In their excitement to welcome the child into their home, they forget that the child has no reason to trust them or to believe that they are any different from other families he/she has been with. They assume that one visit will be enough.

For me, it helps to equate adoption visitation with dating before marriage. How many marriages survive when a couple marries after two dates?

Having a structured, but flexible visitation plan is the best way to help the child manage his anxiety and understand that this is more than just another foster home placement.

In the foster care system, children are often moved without warning or input, with their belongings thrown into a garbage bag. What a terrible message the child receives from this sometimes unavoidable situation. Because the move to adoption is to be the final one, it needs to feel differently to the child. Draw a stair-step illustration to help both the child and family see what needs to happen before moving day and to keep track of where they are in the process.

Here are some suggestions for a successful transition:

FAMILY ALBUM - When a prospective family is selected, their first task should be to make a photo album or video for the child. Include pictures of the family, home, school, pets, etc. The child needs time to process this new information and prepare for meeting the family.

FIRST VISIT - Let the child help plan the activities for the first get-acquainted visit, such as sharing his/her life book or playing a game. The adoption social worker should facilitate the first meeting that preferably takes place in the foster home where the child is surrounded by familiar people. Leaving the responsibility for this meeting to the foster parents, who may have mixed feelings, is not a good idea!

This meeting should be structured and short to break the ice, but not overwhelm the child. Let the child ask questions that he/she has prepared in advance. Encourage the adoptive family to ask questions of the foster parents about the child's routines and preferences. See the article "Meeting the Child's Needs During Pre-Placement," also on this web site, for more ideas on this subject.

SOCIAL WORKER FOLLOW-UP - Establish a clear roles and have a communication plan for who will be responsible for arranging further visits, addressing problems and deciding when the time is right for the child to move. The social worker is the best person to handle these responsibilities.

Be prepared for the time commitment involved in supporting each party to the adoption. It is important to check back with everyone after visits to process their reactions. The adoptive family will need guidance about the child's behaviors and to process the child's reactions to the visits. The foster family will need support to help the child say good-by in a positive way.

STICK TO THE PLAN - It's important that the adoptive family not change the visitation schedule once the child knows the plan. It's tempting for them to ask to keep the child longer than planned; kids, also, will ask to stay extra days. Adoptive parents need to return the child at the arranged time, however, to show the child that they stick to their promises. Prompt them to explain to the child that they promised to be back on time. Give the child a calendar, writing in only one week of visits at a time, to lessen the possibility of unplanned changes that disappoint the child.

It can be difficult for adoptive families to accept that the number of visits varies according to the needs and readiness of the child, not their own convenience. It is important not to move the child before he/she feels safe with his new parents, and the parents have had a realistic view of the child's behavior. Whenever possible, it helps to have an extended visit, longer than a weekend.

It is a common misconception that toddlers need fewer visits than older children, when in fact it may be the opposite because they lack the verbal skills to understand what is going on.


Example: A sibling group of four ranging from 2 - 12 years old were placed in three different foster homes. The youngest child screamed whenever someone new came to the home, a remnant of being removed from birth mom by the police. The older children were moved first because they could understand where and why they were going. Then the new family spent a lot of time visiting the two year old in the foster home until they were no longer strangers and the child was not further traumatized.

OVERNIGHT VISITS - Encourage a number of visits on neutral ground (public outings) before the child stays overnight with the new family. This is particularly important for children who have been sexually abused. Whenever possible, take the child to visit the family's home before the first overnight, so he/she can be assured that the home is safe.

Develop a "What If" plan with the child and adoptive parents. (Found in "My Adoption Workbook" available on this site.) Discuss what the child should do IF . . . he/she wets the bed, wakes up in the night, doesn't like a particular food, gets scared, etc. Let the family know what to do if the child gets sick, has a temper tantrum, or wants to return to the foster home. This lets the child know that everyone is working together and that problems don't have to be a big deal.

SKIP THE GIFTS - Instruct parents to refrain from buying lots of gifts for the child as it sets an unrealistic precedent. A gym bag or suitcase to use for visits would be a good idea. Parents should avoid over-entertaining the child. Going to a movie just means two hours of not talking or getting to know each other. Instead, the family should include the child in their normal family routines, including chores, as soon as possible. Parents want the child to like them so they often make the mistake of treating them more like a guest. Routines provide a feeling of predictability and safety for the child.

RULES - Children will accept the new parents' authority more quickly if they establish rules at the start. Parents should start with strict or narrow limits until the child proves his ability to follow their rules. This is for the child's safety as well as that of others. This allows the child to experience success and gain more privileges over time. This doesn't mean that parents have to give the child consequences for forgetting a rule, but use it as a teaching time. Parents who give too much freedom, give the child the benefit of the doubt before letting him develop a track record, or expect more than the child can handle, are setting the child up for failure.

Example: One family that adopted a 12 year old boy from residential treatment insisted that 12 year olds were old enough to stay home alone during the summer while the parents worked. After being in a restrictive setting, this was too much freedom for the young man to handle. Within a few days he had stolen from the convenience store and started a fire. He was clearly telling the parents that he needed more adult supervision!

KEEP IT SIMPLE - The primary goal of visitation is for the child to develop a relationship to the adoptive parents, not to strangers. Adoptive families should avoid overwhelming the child with relatives or family friends during this time. The child's anxiety may also be raised by putting him in unfamiliar surroundings or activities where he doesn't know what to expect or what is expected of him. This could be shopping, church, funerals, parties or any large gathering. Parents should prepare the child for new experiences ahead of time by explaining what will be happening, who will be there, and what they expect the child to do.

It is not recommended that the family take a child on a vacation trip during visitation. If the family has a vacation scheduled, they should take it without the new child and start or resume the visitation afterward. The child is not being cheated out of fun—he/she doesn't know the family well enough to feel safe in unfamiliar territory. Adoptive placements have been known to fail because the family put the child into a situation he/she could not handle.

Example: An African-American child lived in a group home (with mainly Caucasian staff) for several years after being abused by his birthfather. In spite of advice to his prospective adoptive family, they took him to a family reunion on his second visit, arguing with him first about getting his hair cut and what to wear. This was the first time since his removal from the birthfather that he had been in a group of African-American people. When left alone with children who teased him, he reacted in self-defense by biting another child. The family was embarrassed in front of their relatives and backed out of the adoption shortly afterward. 

(How many mistakes did this family make? Whose needs were they trying to meet?)


MOVING DAY - When all the steps have been followed, the adoption social worker, as the professional, should decide when maximum benefits of visitation have been reached. Planning a moving day is the next step.

Children have a hard time saying good-by and need the help of the adults to do so in a positive manner. The child's teacher could help by having a party, letting the child's classmates write "good wishes" or make a poster with their signatures. Suggest to the adoptive family that they help the child plan a "thank-you" gift or card for the foster parents. A candle ceremony can be performed to symbolize for the child his/her ability to love many people including birth family, foster families and the new adoptive family. (This ceremony is described in "My Adoption Workbook.")

Loving day is the start of a new adventure for the family. For social workers, it is then that, as the song says, "We've only just begun." The real joy and satisfaction comes from helping a child and an adoptive family meld into a new family unit and knowing that you have been an important part of it all.

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.