Thursday, March 12, 2009

International Adoption Myths and Truths

Only a few decades ago, adoption was considered undesirable. Most adoptions consisted of newborn infants, being adopted by families who could not have children ‘of their own’. It was a secret, involving unknown birth mothers and children who sometimes never learned that they had been adopted.

Today, adoption has become a deliberate, desired choice for families across the nation, rather than ‘second best’. The face adoption is changing fast. As of 2001, two-fifths of all adoptions were public adoptions – adoptions from the foster care system. Another two-fifths were private agency, kinship, or tribal adoptions. International adoptions accounted for more than 15% of adoptions overall. In fact, international adoptions increased from 5 percent to 15 percent of adoptions in the United States between 1992 and 2001 (Statistics from Child Welfare Information Gateway).

International adoption is becoming more and more a part of American culture. Glamorous celebrities grace magazine covers with a rainbow variety of internationally adopted children. Devastating images of children wasting away in Romanian orphanages fill our hearts with pity and a great desire to help. Sensational stories of severely dysfunctional children who endanger themselves and their adoptive families make headline news. The rapid rise in numbers and popularity of international adoption has spawned a host of myths, stories and beliefs.

Myth #1: I could never really love an adopted child as much as my own child. ‘Love at first sight’ is more the stuff of romance novels than the reality of child-rearing. When an infant joins a family through childbirth, her parents have had nine months to become accustomed to the idea of their particular baby joining the household. Her sleep patterns, movements, and temperament may already seem familiar, especially to her mother. And yet many parents still find themselves needing some time to become completely bonded to their biological infants. The reality of the baby may not match what the parents had imagined before the child’s birth. In addition, the enormous commitment involved in childrearing can come as a shock and feel overwhelming, even if the new parents have given it a great deal of thought ahead of time. With an adopted child, the bonding process often takes even longer. However, if a family is able to make a permanent commitment to caring for a child, love will almost always follow.

Adoptive fathers in particular can have trouble bonding with the idea of a child. Upon the actual arrival of the adopted child, fathers who love other children can learn to love adopted children just as deeply. Ask any adoptive family and you will soon learn that adopted children are just as much ‘our own’ as those who come to us through birth. After all, most of the deepest and most loving adult relationships consist of people who are not biologically related. Love is a choice and a commitment.

Myth #2: Adoptive parents are saints. There are many reasons for choosing adoption. Inability to produce biological children, a desire to help children, or a wish to provide a sibling for birth children are common reasons. However, the most successful, effective, and satisfied adoptive parents all adopt for the same reason – pure self satisfaction. The best reason to adopt is an ardent desire to have a child or to add to one’s family. The burning desire for more children to love and to raise drives the adoptive parent’s decisions.

Adoptive families make mistakes, shout at the children, and loose their patience just like anyone else. Just is in birth families, there can be squabbling, favoritism, disappointments, and delightful surprises as well. Adoption agencies do not expect their families to be perfect. They do expect them to be flexible, willing to learn, and deeply committed to adding to their families.

Myth #3: Adopting a baby internationally is much easier that adopting one domestically. While is true that there can be a long wait for a healthy, Caucasian infant, waiting times for babies of color, or those with even minor special needs can be far shorter. And many international programs also have long waiting times for healthy infants. What is the main difference? When parents enroll in an international adoption program, they almost inevitably will be able to adopt the particular child who is referred to them. In domestic adoption, it is not uncommon for birth mothers decide to change their minds about relinquishment, and parent their babies after the birth. The resulting pain and sense of loss for the aspiring adoptive parents is profound.

The accuracy of medical information available on children waiting for placement in other nations varies wildly from country to country, as does the pre-natal care available to birth mothers. Some areas have high incidences of birth defects caused by maternal alcohol and substance abuse during pregnancies. What can parents who choose to adopt an infant internationally do to protect themselves? Extensive research! Learn about the conditions in any country you are considering. Is alcohol or drug use common? What kind of medical information can the adoption agency provide? Interview other families who adopted through the exact program you are considering to learn how accurate, thorough and honest the information they received was.

Myth #4: We can adopt an infant of a different race and raise her just as we would a biological child. Fortunately this myth is losing its appeal. Only people who are members of the dominant ethnicity can afford to be ‘color blind’. All others have no choice but to acknowledge the racism that still plagues our society.

Trans-racial adoption is a very weighty issue, and far too complex to discuss in one short article. Parents adopting a child of a different race must be committed to discussing, supporting, and rejoicing in their child’s differences.

Only by acknowledging racial stereotypes and facing them head on can we help our children to deflect some of the they cause. Only a child who is well aware of his racial differences a proud of them can ignore being taunted in the schoolyard about ‘dirty’ dark colored skin with a confident inner voice that tells him his skin is beautiful. Even covert racism, such as assuming a daughter adopted from China will be quiet, obedient, and perform well in school robs the child of the chance to find and express his or her own character, needs, and strengths. By acknowledging a child’s race, her birth family will greatly increase her chances of success in finding her identity and happiness as an adult.

Good resources include: Inside Transracial Adoption by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall, and the PACT website at

Myth #5: We can adopt an infant of the same race and raise her just as we would a biological child. Adoption has been referred to as a ‘primal wound’. Adoption can be seen by the child as the ultimate rejection, especially without explanation and support from her adoptive family. In past generations, families often hid adoption from their children, or surprised them with the shocking news that they had been born into another family as the child grew older. Today we understand how critical it is to raise adopted children with the understanding of how they came to be a part of their families.

Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew by Sherrie Eldridge and Raising Adopted Children by Lois Ruskai Melina are excellent guides for families in talking to their children about adoption.

Myth #5: Older children have special needs and/or attachment disorders. Cases of severely traumatized children hurting others and adoptive parents abusing or even murdering out-of-control, unattached children make headlines nationwide. It is no wonder that there is widespread belief that adopting any child out of infancy represents great risk to the happiness and even the safety of an adoptive family. Older child adoption is regarded with fear and suspicion.

Physical, medical special needs are usually documented before parents accept the referral of a child. Developmental disabilities are often become evident and recorded in children entering the toddler years and older. Our public education system can support children with a variety of learning disorders. What really terrifies most adoptive families is the specter of emotional disorders, particularly attachment disorders. The issue most families fear the most is Reactive Attachment Disorder.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is a complex psychiatric condition that affects a small number of children. It is characterized by problems with the formation of emotional attachments to others that are present before age 5.”

A child can develop RAD in response to traumatic neglect or abuse during the earliest years of life. They do not develop the capacity for love, reciprocity, and empathy that make up much of human interaction. A child with severe Reactive Attachment Disorder can be a danger to family pets, family members, and even himself. Children affected by the disorder require specialized therapeutic parenting techniques. Love is simply not enough to heal the RAD affected child.

While Reactive Attachment Disorder certainly does exist, it is not a common condition. Attachment is a continuum or spectrum. Children who have experienced trauma are more likely to have trouble trusting and loving their adoptive families. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that children can develop attachment issues simply by becoming older. The trauma that causes RAD occurs in a child’s early years.

Most of the written research available about international adoption of older children is about Eastern Europe, with a small amount of information about the Asian countries. Many of these children were born into families where alcohol, drugs, and parental neglect or abuse were common factors. They may have been kept in orphanages where their basic needs for love and stimulation were never met. They may have been passed from home to home, losing family after family as is common with traumatized children in the U.S. foster care system. Children displaying attachment disorders almost inevitably have suffered obvious traumatic events.

Older children who have not suffered great trauma have several advantages in international adoption. They can be willing and deliberate participants in their own adoption process. They may have memories of their homelands and the conditions there, which alleviate feelings of being unwanted by their birthparents. A good program will be able to tell parents a great deal about the temperament of an older child, assuring the best ‘fit’ possible for child and adoptive family.

When adopting older children, parents must be even more diligent in researching each specific program. Learn about orphanage conditions. Insist on interviewing many families who have adopted older children from the orphanage and learn About the accuracy of the information they were given. Ask about a visitation or child pick-up policy. If the orphanage you are considering does not welcome visitors while others in the country do, be suspicious! Learn how the children are prepared for adoption. Do they know why they are in the orphanage? Do they understand adoption? Will you be allowed to speak with your child’s caregivers? If video or photos of the facility are available, scrutinize the faces and body language of the children. A child can wither from lack of love and joy just as surely as he can starve from lack of food.

The vast majority of older child adoptions are successful. Plenty of advance research and self-education can help families assure their own success. An excellent place to begin is by reading Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child by Trish Maskew.

Myth #6: Adopting out of birth order is a bad idea. Adding a new child to the family is always a major upset for existing children, no matter how the new child arrives. But asserting that adopting out of birth order is always a bad idea makes no more sense the advising young women never to date men younger than they are, making the assumption that happy marriages consist of an older husband and a younger wife. Positive sibling relationships are based upon the temperaments and needs of the individual children involved. Adding a very dominant child who is older than the bossy oldest child already in the family is quite likely to cause trouble. Adding an easy-going, submissive oldest to such a family rarely causes problems. Replacing a youngest child (who enjoys his position in the family) with a new ‘baby’ can cause extreme jealousy.

When deciding what age child will work best for your family, consider the temperaments of children already in the home. Know how much information you will have about the new child’s temperament. Most importantly, prepare existing children thoroughly. Talk about the different feelings they will be likely to have about their new sibling, including the fact that siblings can be very angry at each other one day and best friends the next. Invite them to ask questions and share feelings before, during, and after the adoption. Assure each child that although the household will change, he will always have some individual time with his parents.

Myth #7: ‘Twinning’ is a mistake. ‘Twinning’ (the placement of a new child the same age as a child already in the adoptive home) is often reflexively discouraged by adoption professionals as bad practice. However, the advisability of ‘twinning’ depends enormously on the temperament of the children involved. Two dominant children of the same sex and age is not a desirable situation for those wishing to minimize sibling squabbles. But two easy-going children or one submissive and one dominant child could become the best of friends. As with breaking the birth order, parents must consider the needs and strengths of the specific individuals involved.

Myth #8: Adopting multiple children at the same time is unwise. Children who already have a deep and loving bond with another child are much more able to bond with their new families. Leaving behind a homeland, language, and culture is a monumental loss for internationally adopted children. Being allowed to stay with a beloved sibling or a friend from the same orphanage is the greatest gift imaginable for an adopted child.

It is true that adopting a sibling group is more work and stress for the adoptive family, but generally only for the first few weeks. The initial adjustment period and bonding with the new family is much easier for children who are comforted by the presence of a sibling. Stress and trauma of leaving all familiar surroundings is minimized.

On the other hand, teaching new house rules and supervising more than one new child can be exhausting for new parents for the first few weeks. Children from developing nations who are unfamiliar with technology such as flush toilets and electricity can present a distinct challenge, as can children suffering from emotional trauma.

Long term benefits of growing up with a sibling of the same ethnicity, race and experience are immeasurable. There can be no greater aid in an adopted child’s need for identity then the constant presence of someone ‘just like me’ in his or her family.

Adopting multiples becomes less advisable if the new children have moderate to serious emotional, developmental, or physical special needs. The stress of multiple special needs children introduced simultaneously may overwhelm the new family. To avoid such a situation, parents must learn what needs their new children have, and know their own capacities.


Many things in life are uncertain, even when initially one is careful, and thinks the path ahead is clear. Surprises abound! John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Birth children can turn out to be a joy or a trial. The same is true of adopted children. If you are a person who values family, wants to raise children and thrives on interaction, then adoption is a path worth considering. If you do the proper screening and research, welcoming older children into your home, including those from another country or race, might just turn out to be one of the best decisions you ever make.

Renaming the Older Child

Internationally adopted children face a host of dramatic changes when they arrive in their new homes. New families, a new culture, and new language. Sometimes parents choose to give their new child a new name, either because of pronunciation issues, to help them feel that the child is more ‘theirs’, or simply because of personal choice. However, changing the name of an older child can have profound psychological effects.

Many adoption agencies and adoption books make no reference to the psychological implications of changing an older child’s name. I’m not referring to a baby or an infant, who has a pre-verbal concept of him/herself. For an older child, her name is a part of who she is.

Much of the reading I have done teaches that when we change the name of an older child, we are sending her a message that we are not truly adopting her, as her own person, but rather that we are expecting her to become the child we actually wanted in the first place. Changing the first name of an older adopted child can be experienced by that child as a message of profound rejection, however unintended this message may be. This is the opinion of all of the mental health professionals I have spoken with about this subject. The subject of changing the names of older children is even assigned as major discussion topic in the MAPP (Model Approach to Permanency Planning) foster parent training method, a methodology used by many social service agencies across the United States.

There are certain circumstances where it is almost necessary to change a child’s name; I once read online about a Haitian girl whose original name was ‘Jemima’ – hardly a suitable name for a person of African descent in the United States! An infant whom we placed was named "Dieusete" - a name unprounoucable for most Americans. I myself had a foster daughter who at sixteen felt the need for a new first name in order to distance herself from the horrific abuse she had endured with her original name. She chose to actively use the disassociation from self that a new first name brings an older child as a therapeutic measure. However, these are exceptions. For many of our children, their names were expressions of love from a beloved birth parent’s lips, and they are a very real way for our children to accept, embrace, and feel connected to their Haitian heritage.

A name can be a part of a child's self-concept. My oldest Haitian daughter's name is Myrlande, which is pronounced "Mee-lahnd". When she first came home at age ten, people kept calling her "Meer-lahnd". We discussed changing the spelling of her name, but never quite got around to doing it. Now, at age fifteen, Myrlande is proud of her exotic French name. She is quite comfortable with correcting mispronounciations, and has no interest in changing the spelling. For Myrlande, her unusual name, difficult spelling and all, is part of being the proud Haitian-American woman she is becoming.

What if your older child has a name that is extremely difficult to pronounce, or if you already have a child in your home with the same name? Nicknames are quite common in Haitian culture. Before your child comes home, check with his caregivers to learn if your new son has a nickname that he can use in your home. Several of our families have chosen to add the nickname as a new legal first name and kept the child's birth name as a legal middle name.

It is important for parents to be aware of the very serious nature of changing the name of someone with a self-concept, a heritage, and a past life of her own. This is especially critical for any child who may already be struggling with attachment and grief issues. It is going to be even harder to attach to her new family if she ‘isn’t really herself’ anymore. Letting a child keep her own name gives her the following messages:

1. We really wanted YOU in particular.
2. We respect you as a developed, unique person.
3. We respect your birth mother, your culture, and your heritage.
4. We do not deny your past and your life before you met us.