Yesterday, I covered some of the financial costs that arise from fostering or adopting special needs children. I had a number of really excellent comments, which I plan on writing about later in the series, so if you don't normally bother to read comments, it's worth backtracking and taking a second look at that post.
Today I am going to examine some of the social costs that come from fostering or adopting special needs kids. For many families, this is the one area that can be hugely "expensive." Although it's often easy for people to say, "it's only money," when it comes to the extra financial expense of special needs adoptions, it's a much different thing to take a cavalier attitude about the relationships one has with friends, family, co-workers, and community members.
What makes the social costs so high is that most families do care what people think of them. Although there's often an immediate social bonus when one mentions that one is a foster or adoptive parent ("you must be a saint for taking in those poor children") that social bonus can vanish once people discover that the children aren't the angels they assumed they would be.
Although it's absolutely unfair, parents are often judged by the way their children behave. If their kids are rude, disrespectful, throw public tantrums, get in trouble at school or in the community, steal, lie, set fires, or are cruel to animals, outsiders frequently believe that these shortcomings are due to a failure in parenting. Most people simply do not understand that these children were damaged before they were placed in their foster or adoptive home, and no amount of good parenting (at least in the short term) will fix all behavioral problems. If a child has intellectual or mental health issues, there's no guarantee that those problems will ever be cured completely, if at all.
In addition to being judged by outsiders, parents often have to contend with well-meaning outsiders trying to give advice. It's very common to find oneself on the receiving end of good-intentioned, but completely unhelpful, suggestions. People will say things like, "that kid just needs a good spanking," "you are being too soft on the kid," or "you are being too hard on the kid, lighten up!" They don't understand that just because discipline technique x worked on their kids, that it won't work equally well on a special needs child. (Parents of biological children with special needs, such as kids with Asperger's Syndrome, experience this too.)
Once confronted with not-so-helpful advice, parents often find themselves with several problems on their hands. First, if the suggestion was made in front of the child, parental authority has been undermined by a well-intentioned outsider, and a control battle with the child can often ensue. Even if the suggestion was not made in front of the child, the parent still has to find a graceful way not to accept the advice. People don't always take kindly to rejection of their meant-to-be-helpful suggestions, which further increases the social costs for the parent.
Not only does one become a "bad" parent because one has unruly children, one becomes even worse for not following helpful advice.
If the disapproval of others and unsolicited "assvice" from strangers isn't difficult enough, one frequently has to deal with people who simply ignore one's parenting rules. These well-meaning friends, extended family members, teachers or other professionals think that they know best, and try to treat the child as if they were "normal." This type of undermining can come in the form of privileges or activities that a child isn't normally allowed, or in some cases, the breaking of a family's dietary rules. It's easy for outsiders to let a child do (or eat) something "fun," when they fail to realize their actions could have an affect that lasts for days.
The trouble caused by people who undermine or ignore a family's rules is huge, but worse, it undermines whatever relationship might be in place. The well-intentioned outsider feels resentment because the family is so strict and doesn't allow their child to have a "normal" childhood, and the parents feel resentful that their boundaries weren't respected. Often, what were formerly strong familial and communal ties become strained, as the resentments and lack of understanding perpetuates the problems.
Unfortunately, the social costs that can come from special-needs children aren't just limited to what outsiders see. Often, the problem is made worse by the children themselves. The reality for most foster and adoptive parents is that it isn't a matter of if there will be a false allegation made, it's really a matter of when and what kind. Even if a family is lucky enough to escape a child welfare investigation, a child's complaining about his or her foster or adoptive parents is enough to bring them down in the eyes of others. People want to believe children, and they often forget that kids, especially those coming from traumatic backgrounds, will lie.
It's not at all uncommon for children who have spent time in the foster care system to manipulate adults. They will pit adults against each other in acts of deceit, manipulation and triangulation, and they'll sit back and watch the drama unfold. They will create discord between parents, teachers and professionals, painting their parents as unreasonable, cruel or unfair.
And the outsiders believe them.
What's worse is that as the number of allegations (whether investigated or not, and whether substantiated or not) increases, outsiders start to wonder if there really is something wrong with the family in question. Surely their child wouldn't complain so much or behave so badly if the parents were doing a good job.
Once one's reputation as a "bad parent" starts to circulate, it's only a matter of time before friends begin dropping off of one's social calendar. Social contacts can dry up, respite providers disappear, and even trusted friends will sometimes find reasons not to return phone calls.
Eventually, a child's problems can reach the point where the social price ends up trickling down and affecting their social life as well. Although the child may be charming and well-behaved with strangers, stories of the "nutbar" parents circulate, and the "good" parents stop allowing their kids to socialize with the children of the "bad" ones.
Once a family's social supports start to dissolve, couples find themselves in an increasingly difficult position. Troubled children are often masters at pitting one parent against the other, and it's not uncommon for parents of special-needs kids to find themselves in conflict with each other, or even filing for divorce.
Now it's only fair to point out that these social costs (just like the financial ones I described yesterday) don't affect every family so severely that their entire social network collapses and they file for divorce. However, it can and does happen, and people fail to consider the possibility ahead of time. I'm also not trying to say that you should never adopt a special needs kid.
Just know that, if you do, there can be consequences, they may be profound, and you need to be prepared.
Next up: The Emotional Costs of Special Needs Adoption
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