Adoption-Related Complex Trauma

Also called Cumulative Trauma – The research is definitive. Adopted kids are not only traumatized by the original separation from their parents, they may also have been traumatized by the events that led to them being put up for adoption. In addition to that, foster care itself is considered an adverse childhood experience.

I recently wrote a blog titled “It’s Simply NOT the Same.” Though the traumas may originate similarly, the outcomes are not the same because just like any other person, no two adoptees are exactly alike. That should not prevent any of us from trying to understand that adoptees carry wounds, even if the adoptee is unaware that the wounds are deep within them.

It is not uncommon for an adopted person and/or the adoptive family to seek mental health services due to the effect of the adoptee experiencing traumatic events. Unfortunately, for psychology and psychiatry clinicians, adoption related training is rare. In my all things adoption group, the advice is often to seek out an adoption competent therapist for good reason.

“What does an adopted baby know ? She knows her mother, she knows her loss, sadness and hurt, she knows that those who hold her today may be gone tomorrow and that she will be the only one left to pick up the pieces that no one seems to think are broken.”
~ Karl Stenske, 2012

The reasons a child is put up for adoption or relinquished are many – an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, often compounded or driven by a lack of financial resources (poverty) or no familial support to care for a child. Becoming a single parent may simply seem too daunting to an unwed expectant mother. Sadly, for some, a chronic/terminal illness or certain diseases may lead the mother to believe she cannot provide proper care for her baby. Certainly, prolonged substance addiction and/or severe mental health issues (which may be related to addiction) can cause parental rights to be forcefully terminated by child welfare authorities. Adoptees who come out of the child welfare system (legal termination of parental rights by a court of law) cannot legally be returned to their birth families due to safety or other reasons that are considered serious.

Adoption is not always a success. Disruptions and dissolutions do sometimes occur.

Disruptions can happen after the adoption has been finalized when the adoptive parents then experience difficulties with their adopted child. The adoptive parents may have difficulty finding support and the resources they require to deal with the issues that come up.

Risk factors leading to a higher rate of disruptions are: older age when adopted, existing emotional and behavioral issues, having a strong attachment to their birth mother, having been a victim of pre-adoption sexual abuse, suffering from a lack of social support from relatives causing the adoption to occur, unrealistic expectations surrounding the adoption and the child on the part of hopeful adoptive parents, and a lack of adequate preparation and ongoing support for the adoptive family prior to and after the placement.

A devastating occurrence is a dissolution or breakdown. This applies to an adoption in which the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and the adoptive child is severed, either voluntary or involuntarily. Usually this will result in the entry or re-entry of the child into the foster care system, or less commonly a second chance adoption, or even the private transfer of the child from the adoptive parents to a non-vetted receiving parent.

Adoption has been subject to both positive and negative assumptions related to the practice and this is of no surprise to anyone who has studied the practice of adoption for a period of time.

There are 6 main assumptions about the practice of adoption –

[1] Adoption is a joyous event for all involved – known as the Unicorns and Rainbows Fantasy in adoption centric communities; [2] adoption parallels genetic birth experience and a biological family life – which close observation and mixed families (who have both biological and adopted children often belie); [3] once adopted, all of the child’s problems disappear and there will be no additional challenges – rarely true – and often attachment or bonding fail to occur; [4] creating a family through adoption is “false,” only biological families are “real” – this goes too far in making a case because many adults create chosen families – the truth is as regards children, family is those persons we grow up with – believing we are related to them – in my case, both of my parents were adopted and all of my “relations” growing up were non-genetic and non-biological but I have a life history with them and continue to have contact with aunts, an uncle and cousins I obtained through my parents’ adoptions; [5] the adoptive life is better than the biological life the child had or would have had – never a known assumption – more accurately, the adoptee’s life is different than that child would have had, if they had not been adopted; and, [6] closed adoptions are in the best interest of the child – this one was promoted with the intention of shielding adoptive parents from original parents who regretted the surrender, from the child who might yearn for their original family and often in some cases to shield a person operating unscrupulously, such as the baby thief Georgia Tann who sold ill-gotten children. Popular media has reinforced both the positive and the negative messages about adoption and many myths and stereotypes regarding adoptive families and birth parents are believed in society as a whole.

The term “adoption-related complex trauma” is rarely used in discussing symptoms and behaviors. It is more common to see terms such as “developmental trauma” or “complex trauma” to describe the psychological effects found within the adopted population.

The terms complex trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder have been used to describe the experience of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an personal nature such as sexual, physical, verbal abuse or of a societal nature such as war or community violence. These exposures often have occurred within the child’s caregiving environment and may include physical, emotional and/or other forms of neglect and maltreatment that begin early in childhood. In the case of infant adoptions, the trauma is non-verbal but stored in the body of that baby – not conscious but recorded.

Some of this content has been sourced from a long dissertation titled Treatment Considerations For Adoption-related Complex Trauma. Anyone interested is encouraged to read more at the link.

Clueless

“Hey guys.I’m a single woman who’s plan was to start applying to adopt/foster in my state. Sad story was that my social worker said that I wasn’t allowed to receive any government help like 0. I have to have a job which that’s mandatory at least with this agency. And I’m not complaining about having a job either or I’m still planing on working at some point the thing that caught me off guard was her response to government aid must be 0. Yes all the way from food stamps to government funded apartments that’s a huge No, causing disqualification to apply. I spoke with my therapist and since I have bipolar 1 she told me that it would be best to postpone the plan of adoption/foster care all together for now, my therapist even said that she does not want me to feel sad if at the end foster/adoption care is not an option for me even if I truly wanted to make a difference, since the agency is strict on keeping government out of the picture.
Any thoughts?
Advice?
Does this sound fair or unfair ?”

It’s hard to know where to start . . .

Not surprisingly, came this satirical response –

Um. Totally unfair. You should totally be jobless and on government assistance because you’ll get PLENTY of money to live on saving these kids from their parents on government assistance. If you take like 8 kids at a time you’ll make serious bank, and BONUS if you take some older kids with the younger kids you never have to do anything because the older kids can do all the cooking and cleaning and diaper changes! Yay! Also, f**k this bitch.

More to the point, came this one –

Someone sounds like they need to get their own life in order before, erm, “helping” (themselves to someone else’s children)…

And even more to the point –

Yes, it is very reasonable. FYI, they may also want to talk about your being bipolar, review your meds and/or want to talk to your therapist or get a statement from them that they recommended you would do well with foster care. Here’s the thing: all of the kids in foster care are going through big time trauma. They need someone who is financially and emotionally stable to help them through it.

In a lot of cases, poverty and mental illness have a lot to do with why the kids came into care. It’s kinda hypocritical to take them out of that just to place them right back into it. For example, the case plan might say that the parents have to get a job to get the kids back. So in the meantime, they stay with you, but you don’t have a job?

It’s great that you want to help, but what do you mean by foster/adopt? If you’re getting into foster care to adopt, just don’t, you won’t have the right mindset and it will not be good for you or the kids. What do you mean by your agency keeping government out of the picture? Foster Care =government, so I’m not really understanding that.

And finally –

She should talk to all these birth families who lose their biological children for bipolar disorder and because they were seeking mental health help and were in poverty or disabled. This post makes me angry because it seems so out of touch with reality.

Foster kids are not a prop or little adventure to embark on. You can’t just (or SHOULDN’T just) be a foster parent because you randomly decide you “love kids” and “it’s your calling.”

You can’t just decide you’re gonna be a foster parent when nothing in your life is in order to do so.

Mental health, unemployment, needing to rely on the system….. these are some of the causes for kids to be removed from their biological parents.  Our society would be better off extending the services and finances to the natural families so that they can keep their own children.

Gratitude

Sadly, there seems to be an unreasonable standard that expects an adoptee to be grateful to the people who adopted them for having saved them from a worse fate.

Generally speaking gratitude is an important spiritual practice in my own life but I get it.

In truth, while parents are mostly grateful to have received the children born to them and to have the complicated, difficult and ultimately satisfying job of mentoring the next generation into the ways of the world until they are able to navigate it on their own, that does not mean that their children are obligated to be grateful to their parents for having done what parents are supposed to do.

An adoptee has a complicated situation.  They are expected to give up any attachment to the people who gave them birth, allowed to have the basic details of their identify changed and more accurately falsified and then expected to be forever grateful to the strangers who took them in and raised them.

This is not a realistic expectation.  I understand so much, so much better now, that learning about my own parents’ adoptions has also encouraged me to learn more deeply about all aspects of this human practice.

The Baby Thief

I was surprised today to learn there may be a new “Georgia Tann” movie coming based upon the first book I ever read about her, The Baby Thief by Barbara Raymond.  One of my favorite actresses, Octavia Spencer, has optioned it.  I should not be surprised because it is a story that returns time and time again.

The story is personal to me.  My mom was adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from the Memphis branch that Tann was in charge of for decades.  The book is hair raising.  I read it just one month after my dad died, only four months after my mom first died.  All I could think of as I read so many horrendous and tragic stories was “thank god my mom and her brother ended up with the Dittmers”.

The truth is it was a comfortable placement.  My grandfather was a banker, my grandmother a socialite.  My mom disrupted their fondest hopes and dreams for her life when she conceived me out of wedlock while only a junior in high school.  Thus my mom was never a debutante nor did she marry “well”.  Instead we grew up the working class children of a oil refinery worker.  Even so, we had good enough lives.

My grandmother was over the moon happy about both of her Georgia Tann babies, considering them to be geniuses and brilliant.  As my mom grew up, tensions occurred.  I understand, having spent some one-on-one time with my grandmother when she took me to Cambridge University in England with her for a summer session.

My grandmother was always very concerned about her body image.  Her mom and sister were rotund Missouri farm gals.  Not my grandmother, who artistically made herself into a remarkable woman.  So my mom never felt she lived up to her adoptive mother’s expectations.  Turns out biology gave us big bones and stocky frames from our Arkansas/Tennessee farm stock.

My mom died believing she had been stolen from her parents due to the stories she consumed about Georgia Tann and her methods and the odd circumstance of being born in Virginia but adopted as an infant in Memphis Tennessee.

Octavia Spencer with author, Barbara Raymond

After Good Housekeeping ran an article written by Raymond, she received many letters from people asking her if she could help them find their child who had been stolen.  She decided to research and write a book about Tann.  She placed ads in newspapers and received 900 replies.

Because of Tann’s ties to Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and Memphis political Boss E H Crump, as well as other important people around town, she was able to falsify birth certificates as well as hide or destroy records.  In my mom’s adoption file, I found clear evidence that Tann was certainly not above fudging some details.  Tann’s efforts to hide her criminal activities were instrumental in the extensive use of sealed adoption records all over the United States.  I have my mom’s records (which she was denied in the early 1990s) only because Tennessee decided to make them available to the victims.

 

What’s Love Got To Do With It

This may be a bit off topic but this morning I was contemplating that when I was yet younger than my son who will turn 18 at the end of this month, I had already married.  Inconceivable to me now.  Today I thought – what were my parents thinking ?  We had all the trappings – church wedding, cake, reception – totally traditional.

So I thought – they were afraid I would end up pregnant like my mom ended pregnant with me before she married.  They wanted to break the cycle.  And I did.  Then, I got pregnant by the end of the year I had married.  It was intentional and neither myself nor my ex-husband regret having our daughter.  As he said to me not all that long ago – “We got lucky.”  Even though our marriage failed.

I cannot imagine my son being expected to support his family and be independent at the age he is now.  But we were expected to do that very thing.  My parents had been expected to do that as well – my dad 18 and my mom 16.  Having grown up middle class, not privileged but not in abject poverty, fed on the illusions TV portrayed to me – I had unrealistic expectations and expected too much of us.

It’s no wonder the marriage failed.  When I wanted a divorce, my ex-husband told me he would never pay a cent of child support to me.  That proved to be true as well.  What happened is – he ended up supporting her through most of her childhood, when as a single mom, I could not.  I wasn’t going to fight with him in court to get support out of him for the rest of our lives as “parents”.  But I paid a high price – as I wasn’t able to raise my own child, to be there for her everyday, and it was not without suffering on the part of my daughter as well.