The first step is usually a training class. In Florida it is MAPP (Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting). Other states have PRIDE. Our classes were from 9 a.m.- 3:30 p.m. for six consecutive Saturdays with homework assigned after each class. The classes covered possible reasons children may have been removed from their biological parents, expectations for foster and adoptive parents, behaviors to expect, role playing of ways to handle difficult situations, looking at your own strengths and challenges, and more. While attending MAPP classes, we were also preparing for our home study. A case worker met with our family at our home several times to compile the home study, which is a detailed, written report of the family, background, home and type of child you are seeking to adopt. Once you have completed training classes and your home study has been approved, you are ready to start your search for a child!
Here are some tips for finding your child and settling into your new life as a special needs parent:
1. Be open and honest with yourself. Really think about what your family can handle. We started out being open to a girl between the ages of 4 – 8 with up to mild special needs. After much consideration, we decided we could be open to a girl between the ages of 4 – 13 with up to moderate special needs. There were many children we knew we could not parent once we were sent their profiles. We were chosen as the “backup family” for a little girl we knew we would have to say to once we got more info about her needs.
2. Be proactive. Don’t wait around for someone to call you. You will never be able to adopt a child if you leave it in someone else’s hands. Search the photo listings/Heart Galleries every day. Inquire about any child or sibling group that you think might possibly be a good match. Inquiring does not imply a commitment on your part in any way, so it doesn’t hurt to find out more. Scan your home study and email it to any case worker or agency contacts you can find when searching the photo listings along with a description of your family and the child you are seeking.
3. Be assertive. If someone doesn’t respond to your email, call them. If they don’t return your call, call again. If you aren’t getting anywhere with them, call someone else.
4. At the same time, be mindful that most caseworkers are incredibly overworked and overwhelmed. Be polite in your interactions, even when you are frustrated.
5. Be prepared to spend lots of time on the search. Searching for a child was like a second full time job. Hours were spent each day viewing photo listings, submitting inquiries and emailing caseworkers.
6. Learn to read between the lines. Photo listing descriptions are written in a very positive light. Something like, “Susie would like to be the youngest child in the home.” might mean, “Susie has a history of acting out physically or sexually against children smaller than her.”
7. Be organized. We inquired on around 200 children in five months. Keep a log of inquiries and various interactions with case workers and agencies. (By the way, we never heard back from anyone on the majority of our inquiries.)
8. Consider searching outside of your state. Interstate adoption is doable, especially when following the above tips!
9. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Read up on reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and attachment issues in general, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ADHD, emotional delays, anxiety and depression. All are common in traumatized children. A child from the foster care system is a traumatized child and there will most likely be attachment issues. Read the behaviors associated with the different disorders. Decide if you can handle those behaviors and don’t feel guilty if you can’t. When you read children’s files or histories, ask yourself, “If these behaviors/needs/challenges never improve, would I be okay with that?” If the answer is no, then you are not the right family for the child. But, you still must be prepared for anything. The impact of abuse and neglect could take years to show up. All of the child’s special needs may not b known at the time of placement.
10. Have a good support system in place. The process of finding our daughter was extremely stressful, overwhelming, frustrating, disappointing, sad and lonely. We didn’t get responses on the majority of our inquiries. We received case histories detailing such horrific abuse that it left us speechless. We were considered at match meetings (the final round of selecting parents for a child) three times and not chosen. This is an emotionally exhausting process, but if you hang in there you will find your child eventually. And then you will really need a strong support system because raising a traumatized child is harder than you can possibly understand until you are doing.
11. Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page about everything before your child comes home. Many traumatized children will try to drive a wedge between parents. Take time to spend alone as a couple to stay connected.
12. Keep the child’s world as small as possible. Too many people, activities and things can be extremely overwhelming. Keep things as simple and calm as possible. Your child may need things to be this way for a long time.
13. Have as much lined up as possible before your child moves in: doctor, therapist, dentist, school, childcare, etc. Make appointments once you have a move in date. We waited until she arrived home and had to wait months for some appointments.
14. Make attaching and connecting to the child your first priority (after safety). Make sure consequences, rules, discipline, etc. does not get in the way of bonding, attaching and connecting. Parent to their emotional level at that moment. Some times our ten year old is stuck at three emotionally and needs to be parented as you would a three would. Read up on therapeutic parenting techniques.
15. You are going to be exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, question your sanity and parenting abilities, in tears, stressed and more. It is hard. It is so challenging. Your family and friends probably won’t understand. Do your research. Talk to others who have adopted traumatized children, especially those with the same sorts of behaviors and needs. Find a way to get yourself support and make sure your own needs are being met. Make taking care of yourself a priority.
16. I tell myself this all the time, “They call it special needs adoption for a reason!” Children from the foster care system will have special needs and need a unique style of parenting.
Our story: My husband and I decided to add a child (our first and only) to our family through older child adoption. We completed MAPP classes in June 2009. Our adoption home study was approved in July 2009. We immediately started inquiring about children we saw on photo listings. We were chosen to be the parents of a 9 year old girl in Texas in November, 2009. We met her in Texas in May of 2010 and the three of us arrived home in Florida a week later. The adoption was finalized in November of 2010.