Thursday, March 13, 2008

Emily's Story

Few stories garner the rage of the adoption community more than disrupting an adoption -- whether while still in China or after returning home. Many critics of such families are long on passion but short on experience. They lash out and attack families, proclaiming that "God meant this child to be with you," all the while failing to envision the pain and struggles the family is enduring in making their decision.

I hope that Emily's Story will help bring compassion and understanding to any future dialog regarding disruption, and that rather than being critical of others facing this terrible decision, we in the adoption community will be supportive, or at least silent.


After “Sarah” (all names are fictitious) (age 13) was born, we adopted Katie (age 5) at 10 months from China. “Bethany” (age 4) joined us 2 years later at 19 months of age, again from China. Another year later, and we adopted “Emily” (age 7), again from China. Emily spent several years in an orphanage (which by all accounts was a “good” one, if there is such a thing), and then two years in a foster home. She experienced all forms of abuse and neglect during her seven years in China, but we didn’t know this until long after she arrived home. Her referral gave only glowing behavioral reports.

Our first two adoptions, while characterized by typical adjustment and attachment issues, had immensely positive outcomes and the girls integrated well into our family. Over the long haul, the insecurities that were initially present with Katie and Bethany have diminished with time, patience and parenting that promotes attachment.

After Katie and Bethany’s adoptions, we continued to feel that we would like to parent one more child through adoption. When we became aware of Emily last year, she had been overlooked many times with several different agencies due to a medical condition. After researching older-child adoption, reading attachment books, speaking with families who had adopted older children, and taking online courses, we decided that we had love in our hearts and room in our home for another child and that we would bring Emily home. In fact, from the online Yahoo groups, very little was ever shared about the struggles, adjustments and challenges of adopting older children who have lived for a very long time without love and consistency; the overwhelmingly positive older child adoption stories gave us a false sense of security that all would be well, even though the books we read and professionals with whom we spoke said otherwise. We have since learned that many, many families have stories similar to ours, but few are willing to be open and honest, because of the extreme flaming, judgment and criticism on public forums.

At that time, our biggest concern was her medical needs. While we expected emotional and attachment issues, we never dreamed the impact this decision would have on our entire family, or just how paramount attachment issues can be in an older child, particularly as they affect younger children in the home. We assumed our parenting experience, love in our home, and knowledge of adoption and attachment issues would be enough – how wrong we were.

Emily arrived home and we had a two-month “honeymoon” period with near-perfect behavior – too perfect, in fact. I cringe, when looking back on journal entries from China, about how happy she was, or how she was bonding so well. You don’t attach in 2 weeks while in China, but her initial behavior made it seem as though she was no different from any other child her age. Again, we were so wrong.

Nearly three months after bringing her home, it was as if someone flipped a switch. The rages began…three and four-hour daily rages characterized by a primal, guttural screaming from the depths of her soul, and by aggression -- kicking, hitting, biting, spitting, throwing objects, attempts to punch windows, glass, you name it. This was the beginning of a downward spiral over the next few months. We sought help from our pediatrician, psychiatrists and attachment therapists. We felt hopeful that seeing the therapist would equip us to help Emily heal while keeping our entire family intact.

As therapy progressed, so did Emily’s behaviors. We would address one issue and peel that “layer of the onion” away, only to discover two or three new layers. Ten months of our family’s life was filled with aggression, hostility, defiance, attacks on our youngest two children, sexually inappropriate behavior, self-harm, lying, and the list continues. Emily was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. One characteristic of RAD is false, charming behavior in public. So at school or church, Emily seemed just lovely and delightful. A few friends couldn’t believe our stories, until they walked in on a rage and witnessed it firsthand, or observed video that we started taping to document the daily dramas. I vividly remember one Sunday when Emily had been kicking and spitting on her sisters in our van, all the way to church. She lunged at our son with a pair of scissors from a back pack, and yet, as soon as we pulled into the church parking lot, she smoothed her hair back, opened the van door and smiled pleasantly at the other families in the parking lot, greeting them as if she was so happy. We were stunned.

My husband and I have always felt strongly about commitment – commitment to a marriage, to our children. We have also been (and still are) passionate about adoption and helping children who have been wounded. But as our home life spiraled out of control, we started realizing there was something more at stake than just the life of one little girl: that the psychological and physical safety of our other children, namely the youngest two, was now in question. It was becoming increasingly evident that it would be close to impossible to provide Emily what she needed AND maintain a peaceful and safe home for everyone else.

Trying to manage the issues occurring in our home seemed, at times, hopeless. How do you hold a raging child for 3 or 4 hours while two preschoolers are running around, needing mommy, and sobbing in fear and lack of understanding over why their older sister is breaking things and trying to hurt mommy? How do you read stories, play with, and rock your preschoolers while a very ill 7-year-old roams the house, leaving a path of destruction, and hurting the other children repeatedly? How do you assure your children that home is a refuge, when life at home is filled with violent events that you would never allow your children to witness on television? How do you explain to a 4-year-old why big sister tried to choke her with a seat belt, pushed the 2-year-old down the stairs, or smeared urine and feces all over the bedroom? How do you explain to your other three children that our family is a safe place, when Mom and Dad are sporting bruises and scratches inflicted by the 7-year-old?

And so, as we sat in the therapist’s office, we asked her the question that I’m sure therapists and social workers hate to be asked. “If this were your family, what would you do?” After a pregnant pause that seemed to last an eternity, she responded by saying, “You are losing ground with the other three children faster than you are gaining it with Emily. I think you need to seriously consider all options and what is in the best interest of the entire family.”
We spent about a month on our knees before God, seeking direction, exploring the depths of our souls as parents, as Christians, as adoption advocates. We stripped away our selfish desires for a peaceful home and easier parenting roles, and we realized that while we were personally willing to sacrifice for Emily, our family dynamic did not lend itself to giving her what she needed to heal. We could not possibly give to her the amazing amount of time and attention that she requires and still give to the other three children what they need to feel safe and secure and to have a normal childhood. All medical professionals involved agreed that Emily needed to be in a home with no other young children, and that what she needed was parents who can devote to her 150% of their time, resources and attention to her. We could not do that, without sacrificing the well-being of the other three.

We were blessed to identify a family who was at a different stage in life, who has different home circumstances, and who can give Emily a shot at becoming a whole, healthy individual. We believe they can provide the most potential for her wounded heart to heal. After spending time in one another’s homes, Emily moved to their home a little over 9 months ago. While I wish I could say that she is doing significantly better, she is not, which confirms for me the decision we made. But I do know that if she has a shot at healing, it will be in her present circumstances. As for our other three children, they all have had to work through the trauma of Emily living here -- the youngest girls are still afraid, nearly a year later, of Emily coming back to “hurt them.”

For those who would crucify my husband and me for our decision, I wish they would take the time to envision a daily life filled with what I have described here, and then some. So much occurred in our home that wouldn’t be appropriate to even share on a public forum, since doing so would compromise the privacy of Emily and our other three kids. We have tried to be open with our story (not online, but in real life), so that we can hopefully provide support and encouragement to other families who struggle with severe post-adoption issues; they do exist, regardless of what the rosy reports on yahoo groups are!

And YES, we wholeheartedly believe in adoption, but realize more now than ever the need to get these babies out of orphanages and into homes long before they lose the capability to trust and love.


Anonymous said...

I admire you for making the right choice for your family in a very difficult situation. You have my support.


I blog at:

Anonymous said...

You are so right about adoption forums. No one there wants these stories to be shared. I was ridiculed, shamed, flamed and banned for trying to share general details of our struggle with other potential adoptive parents.

Anonymous said...

Thank You for sharing your story. I admire your courage.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story. My husband and I adopted a five-year-old from China. After bringing her home, and taking her to the pediatrician and dentist, we were informed that she was most likely seven or eight years old. We believe she has RADS, although she has not been formally diagnosed. We went through the whole list of symptoms: "overly good", superfically friendly to strangers, no close friendships with same sex, very jeolous of sibliings, lies, lies. lies, dishonestly..on and on. She has not been severely violent but I have caught her trying to hurt her siblings. Now 13 years later, she is still the same person, although she dropped the overly good behavior. In her words, "It was not getting her anywhere." I also feel as though I was lied to by the adoption community. Why can't we be honest with each other, and then we can be better prepared to make the right decisions. I had three other children when she was adopted, and it was very hard on them. Especially her sister, who was also adopted. Thank you for your story. God Bless you for making the only decision you could to save your family. I hope that one day my daughter will find happiness as well as the daughter that you had to part ways with.