Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Costs of Special Needs Adoption - Part III

Earlier this week, I wrote on the financial and social costs of special needs adoption.  Today, I am going to cover a topic that I find difficult to write about -- the emotional costs of special needs adoption.

For me, personally, the emotional price of our adoption has been far greater than the financial and social costs combined, though the three are closely tied together.

Sometimes, it can feel as though fostering or adopting special-needs children is like riding five separate roller coasters at the same time.  Each coaster peaks and valleys at different places along the track, and one can easily feel torn to pieces by the conflicting events and resulting emotions.

The first, and most obvious, roller coaster is the one parents ride as the case unfolds.  With any given child, cases can take any number of twists and turns.  If the child is placed as a foster child, parents rarely know how long he will remain in their home.  Will he remain through the holidays? for his birthday? through the end of the school year?  The uncertainty frequently creates an emotional wild ride, as families make plans, then cancel or reschedule them, based on the outcome of their child's case.

If reunification efforts are being made, even if a family is hoping for the child to return home, they are still difficult to watch.  Rarely the path to reunification is straightforward.  Birth parents are not always successful in jumping through the hoops laid before them.  Although it might seem easy for a birth parent to comply with the typical requirements to get sober, find a job, seek counseling, attend parenting classes and maintain appropriate and safe housing, it is rarely that straightforward*.  They try, fail, try again, and sometimes give up.  Social workers and courts give them more and more time, and the wait becomes frustrating for everyone.

It doesn't matter whether a family is hoping to adopt or hoping for reunification, because it's the not knowing that makes things emotionally difficult.  How do you plan your life not knowing whether you'll be packing up a child's belongings, or making a forever home, days, weeks, or months from now?

The second roller coaster is the one that follows the child's progress.  It doesn't matter if the child is considered special needs because of educational, behavioral, mental health, medical or orthopedic concerns, because the ride is the same.  Parents have to locate and fight for appropriate services, many of which are hard to find and even harder to fund.  Once the services are in place, parents often find themselves holding their breath as their child struggles through the maze of educational, behavioral, mental health and medical interventions which are not always successful.

The third roller coaster is the ride connected with a family's finances.  Although wealthy families can usually afford needed services, and low-income ones qualify for free programs, it is the middle class families who really suffer.  Parents wonder, worry and struggle to pay for programs and services for which they are "too rich" to qualify.  The stress of trying to secure funding or to manage insurmountable debt to pay for expensive interventions can be huge, since most middle class families don't have a vast bank account upon which they can draw.

The fourth roller coaster follows the emotional highs and lows that accompany the social costs of special needs children.  Professional relationships can be undermined, personal ones strained, and even marital relationships can implode under the sheer weight of a child's problems, if they are severe enough.  At the times when families need the most support, they can find themselves dealing with both the practical consequences of not having resources to fall back on, but the emotional ones as well.

Finally, the fifth roller coaster is the most difficult ride of all.  This is the one that follows the ups and downs of the child's emotional development and his relationship with his family.  If a foster or adoptive child has serious emotional, behavioral or mental health challenges, parenting him can often not be very much fun.  It can be incredibly difficult to like a child who rages, tantrums, damages one's home or property, or becomes violent.

Parents who find themselves struggling to like or bond with their foster or adopted kids can find themselves wrestling with an array of difficult emotions.  Society teaches that one should always like and love one's children, and parents who don't end up feeling guilty.  They may desperately want to like or love their child, but because of outbursts and negative behaviors, it can be incredibly difficult to build that bond.  Guilt and shame can make them feel like failures, and the grief of not having the family they had hoped to build can be overwhelming.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I have found the emotional costs of special needs adoption to have been the most difficult to bear.  I feel like our family has tried to do the right thing, only to realize that perhaps it wasn't the right thing to do after all.  We've tried to build a family, but more often than not it feels like we have failed. I am disappointed, not only for myself, but for my child as well.  It's clear that we all hoped that the adoption would have resulted in a happier ending than what we've seen.

And perhaps, with some of the emotional, mental health and behavioral challenges our child is facing,  the reality is that her ending simply can't be as happy as we'd like.  It's a bitter and disappointing realization to arrive at the conclusion that even if our child had been placed in the perfect family, she would still be struggling with educational, emotional and behavioral problems.  Her life was unnecessarily made hard, and it grieves me to no end.

Next up: The Physical Costs of Special Needs Adoption

* And this assumes that the social workers are acting in good faith, which doesn't always happen.


  1. I think that confronted with aggressive and destructive behavious, any parent would ask themselves the same questions you do.

    In general, arents do NOT love their children no matter what. But fortunately, most parents never come to a situation where they come to realise it.

    Take parents of drug-addicts. Addict needs money for drugs, steals from parents, threatens parents (kills parents) in order to get the money: it would be unhealthy not to call the police in this situation and not to throw the children out.

    Any parent has a right to his personal integrity and the integrity of their belongings. If the child cannot respect this, measures have to be taken.

  2. This is why it is so important for foster/adoptive parents to be open and flexible and able to change and grow. I have been impressed by a number of adoptive parents (Claudia and Baggage come immediately to mind) whose blogs I've read over the past few years, who have demonstrated a high level of insight and self-development in response to the needs of their children. Not everyone is able to parent these children. Unfortunately, those who should not are not always screened out during the application process.

  3. I can definitely see where the emotional toll is brutal. I know how hard it was to just go through the process to get licensed. It was a flurry of excitement and defeat and excitement once more that ended in an explosion equivalent to that of a nuclear bomb. It's a complicated ordeal to foster and/or adopt.

  4. The emotional cost on those of us with children who are from the system or not ours biologically is greater than many people can imagine or want to imagine.

    Our son was so far behind educationally when we got him that it was scary. Getting him on track educationally requires me to stay at home and homeschool him (the schools in our area are nothing to brag about), and slowly guide him along.

    Financially, it costs us more than we could imagine. He qualifies for insurance through the state due to his emotional/mental health needs, but little else.

    Mentally? Some days it's draining. Some days it's not. It's a coin toss.

    Emotionally? Some days I want to cry, especially when he rages. Some days I think he can help it, other days I wonder if he could help it if he tried. I just don't know.

    His birth family. His biological mom causes many of his rages, and is a trigger. She calls non-stop, then she doesn't call for weeks. When she does call, he feels like the main reason she calls is to interrogate him regarding us (The Parents). No one in his family even bothered to call him this year to wish him a happy birthday for christ sakes.

    At the end of the day though, they are just our kids (we have two). They may not be ours biologically, but we try not to look at them that way. We love them, and that's that.

    For those who judge us based on how we see things, or how our children effect us... Until they walk a day in our shoes and actually experience the child(ren) we have in our homes first hand (and not go just off a rant, a release, a post, or whatever), I really think they need to keep their mouths shut.


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