Finally the day came to face the matching panel. To explain why we wanted to adopt Star and for the next official step of our adoption journey.
They asked us about our motivation to adopt, about how we would manage the needs of all three children and then finally, how had we prepared our birth children (Hannah aged 6 and Ben aged 4) for the arrival of an adopted sister with Down syndrome.
There is no text book on this (or if there is I haven’t found it yet!). So here are some thoughts on what we did (in this post I am concentrating on heart issues, next time I will write about more practical preparations):
1. Involve birth children in the adoption conversation early
We first discussed adoption with our birth children approximately two years before Star arrived. In fact we talked to them before we spoke to anyone else. At that point they were 4 and 2. So we started slowly. We spoke about children who needed a new home. We spoke about a child coming to live in our house to join our family.
Hannah (then aged 5) gave me with a picture of our family one day, it took me a few minutes to realise she had drawn 5 people, they were all labelled – Mummy, Daddy, Hannah, Ben and “Little girl”. During our assessment they got to know our social worker, Sarah. Sarah was pretty convinced that Hannah was right, a little girl was the best fit for our family.
2. Listen to their concerns and answer honestly
These ranged from practical questions – where would we all sleep, where would everyone sit in the car, what would they call Grandma and Grandad, how old would the child be (answer : younger than them.) To the profound: why can’t some children stay with their birth Mummy and Daddy? If some children can be removed from their birth parents, could they (our birth children) be removed from us?
…for the child that we hoped to adopt: not known to us, but known to God. That God would be with them protecting them, preparing them to join our forever family. And for us, that God would prepare us, our hearts and our extended family to welcome her.
4. Use every day experiences to talk about adoption
Throughout our adoption approval process, we attended courses and read about the reasons children come into care, the issues they face and about therapeutic re-parenting. For us, this was a huge emotional roller coaster of a journey.
Essentially we learnt that these precious children are likely to be brain damaged as a result of neglect, alcohol and drug misuse and also to suffer a form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which currently is largely unrecognised by educational and health professionals. Clearly this is information that as adults we need to carefully consider and pray over. By definition these children have experienced situations that I would not want to explain in detail to young children. However I believe there were some emotions that it was helpful to discuss with our birth children, we did this in conversation with them about their own normal childhood experiences and emotions.
(a) Children they know who are in “care”
In our church there are 3 amazing families who foster. Hannah especially had an appreciation of these children arriving, staying for some time and then (several of them) moving to forever homes.
(b) (Lack of) safe care in birth families
When talking about birth families we talk a lot about safety and choices. We have opportunity to explain to our children that part of being a good parent is keeping children safe: we explained that healthy food, exercise, learning and boundaries are because we love them. The example that resonated most with Ben was that we insist on holding hands when we cross the road, because we love him and want to keep him safe. (However at one point I was genuinely concerned that he thought all children who didn’t cross the road safely outside of school needed to be taken into care!)
Our choices have consequences. This is a lesson I am sure most of us as parents teach on a daily basis. However in the case of Star’s story, her birth parents repeated poor choices and refusal to follow advice or change resulted in her being removed, and not returned to their care. We are careful to refer to “bad choices”, not to any one person being bad. We also pray with our children about our choices, admit when we are wrong and ask Jesus to give us the strength to make good choices. We pray for Star’s birth parents that someone will tell them about Jesus and the forgiveness and new life that is on offer to them.
One thing that many adults and children struggle to recognise is that a newly adopted child is not necessarily going to be happy to move to their new adoptive home. They have lost everything that they ever knew, probably twice. Their new family (in our case) are strangers, the food, the smells, the house, the accent – all are different. I remember speaking with Ben (age 4) about starting school. I asked him how he was feeling and he replied “a little bit excited and a little bit afraid”. We talked about how an adopted child might also feel a bit excited and a bit afraid to meet us. And how they might behave as a result.
I find it hard to put into words the profound sense of loss experienced by a child who is taken into care and then moved to an adoptive placement.
I remember not long after our preparation course on the subject we watched the film Frozen as a family. At bedtime Hannah (aged 5) was upset about the fact that Princess Elsa and Anna’s parents had died and they were left alone in the palace. We started talking about who looks after children if their parents die (and they don’t live in a palace with servants to take care of them).
I asked her: “what sort of people do think would look after a child if their Mummy and Daddy died?” (I was angling towards grandparents, aunties and uncles.)
She met my gaze with her big brown eyes and replied:
(Wow – that took my breath away.)
(f) Their adopted sibling’s journey so far
About a fortnight before matching panel I read the book “Nutmeg gets adopted” to Hannah and Ben. It is the story of a Squirrel named Nutmeg and her journey from a neglectful birth home to her forever adoptive home. Hannah could easily recognise the characters “Nutmeg” was like Star, “Beth Badger” – the concerned social worker, and the “Wise Owl” – the judge, who thought carefully and made the final decision for Nutmeg to be adopted. This book pulls no punches. Nutmeg’s birth family nest is a frightening place. At one point Nutmeg’s birth mum does not get out of bed and so the nest has holes in and her little squirrels fall out and get hurt. They don’t have enough food and big scary adults squirrels come over and frighten the little squirrels and she does not insist that they leave.
This was probably one of the hardest things I did on our journey. I held my lovely boy as he sobbed for Nutmeg the squirrel, the fact that she couldn’t go home, the fact that the scary, fierce squirrels kept visiting, the fact that Birth Mum squirrel just couldn’t or wouldn’t change.
5. Encourage them to talk to other (safe) adults
For our children these were young people from our youth group, school and Sunday school teachers and Godparents. We wanted them to have safe spaces to express their hopes, excitement and fears. As we approached Star’s arrival we met with Hannah and Ben’s teachers. They then understood what we were telling the children and why. They also understood the uncertainties we faced. At this point the children knew there was a little girl, that we had to go to lots of meetings to make sure we were the right family for her and she was the right little girl for us. We explained this is terms of needing 3 “yes-s” (Matching panel, final decision maker and mid introductions approval to move).
A week before the Easter holidays Hannah excitedly whispered to her teacher that we had 1 more “yes”. (“Only 2 left” she whispered, eyes alight with excitement.)
Two days before they broke up for Easter holidays, we got our 2nd “yes” and they proudly and with great care went into school with a photo of their new sister. (Apparently this led to many interesting discussions in their classmates’ homes as their parents insisted that I was not pregnant. One can’t really walk around the school playground with a sign saying “expectant adoptive mother”!)
6. Discussing Down syndrome
I started this conversation with Hannah sat on our bed one morning.
“Hannah,” I said, “how would you feel if the little girl had some problems learning to speak and we needed to learn to sign to help her?”
She looked at me as if I had just asked her an incredibly simple maths question
“we would just learn, wouldn’t we?”
(if it had been an insurance advert with meerkats she would have added “simples”).
One week before matching panel the school had an assembly about Down syndrome. We had just explained to Hannah that the little girl had Down syndrome. She came home so excited and inspired by everything she had learnt. You would think it had been planned by someone almighty and all knowing …..
As I reflect on this I realise we prayed a lot about God preparing the children’s hearts. However there were somethings we never had to persuade them of, because they already knew:
All children are precious to God
God cares about children in foster care
Part of being a Christian family is looking after people who are in need. (Their issue was not, why would we adopt a child, but rather, why would we only adopt one!)
God dearly loves children with Down syndrome and they are precious in his sight.
We did not tell them Star’s name or share her photo until a week before matching panel. This is because even at that point there was still significant uncertainty about whether she would be placed with us. We wanted to be careful to guard their hearts and not have them fall in love with her and then it all be halted by the courts, social workers or the panel.
I remember their excitement at seeing her photo for the first time and knowing her name. (They still had a 3 week wait from this point to finally meet her.)
The next day Hannah was sat playing with her toys on her bedroom floor. She had our photo of Star in her hand and was talking to her dolls.
“Look,” she said, “this is my sister, Star, isn’t she BEAUTIFUL!”