Photo: Galit Rodan
On July 19, 2018, Katie and Mark met the daughter they hoped to adopt. Franny was standing just beyond the front door of her foster family’s home, dressed in her ballet recital outfit and eager to meet her new parents. They had lunch, chatted and played with Franny a little bit. “We were meeting our child for the first time, and we were trying really hard not to cry because we didn’t want to freak her out,” says Katie.
Franny was initially shy, but over the afternoon she started to warm to Katie and Mark (the names of the parents and children in this story have been changed for privacy reasons). As they were leaving, Franny ran up and gave them both hugs and said, “I’ve waited for you guys for a long time.” On Aug. 11, after almost daily visits, Katie and Mark brought Franny home for good. And it was only then that they realized how much work it would take to become a family.
Already six when they met, Franny had a well-developed personality. During those first weeks, she maintained the guarded politesse of a temporary house guest, eating anything Katie put in front of her and seemingly reluctant to test any boundaries. “We cared for her and we were in love with her, but we hadn’t bonded as parents yet,” says Katie. “We had to get to know her.”
For a while, when other adults came to the house, Franny would assume that they were also there to take her to yet another new home. Katie and Mark have encouraged Franny to keep pictures of her birth family, but they sense that she feels torn by loyalty to the parents who couldn’t care for her and the new parents who want to give her a different life. The little girl recently had a setback when she learned that two of her brothers, both adopted into another family, were being returned to foster care. “She feels so guilty that she has this stable home and her siblings do not,” says Katie. “We’re constantly reassuring her that this is her home, that this is her family.”
The oft-used phrase “forever family,” the idea that all previous families were simply temporary arrangements, is a pretty major nod to the instability that’s experienced by adopted kids who have already seen family life go bad, and are understandably wary and prone to mistrust.
For many adoptive parents, the arrival of a kid—their kid, who just happens to be a stranger—sparks the beginning of months or years of often hard-won adjustment. Yet those who adopt children in Canada aren’t entitled to the same amount of leave as biological parents. The federal parental benefits system currently offers 50 weeks of paid leave to biological parents, and just 35 weeks for adoptive parents.
A new campaign launched in February hopes to overturn that disparity. Adopt4Life—Ontario’s Adoptive Parent Association and researchers at Western University—are demanding equalization and campaigning for a new kind of parental leave: 15 additional weeks of “attachment leave” for adoptive parents, kin caregivers (a family member who assumes custody of a child) and customary caregivers (Indigenous family placements for Indigenous children). “For a child to trust, they need time,” says Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Adoption Council of Canada. “They have to experience transitions and routines with their new family.”
The process of a family incrementally bonding is often made more complicated by the pragmatic challenge of taking time off. Mark burned through all of his vacation days during the preliminary transition period before Franny came to live with them, so his ability to spend time with her has been limited. Katie has been home with Franny since August, but she runs out of Employment Insurance in April and will have to take unpaid leave for the balance of their first full year as a family. In addition to spending hours a day at Franny’s school, Katie also has to juggle visits with lawyers, social workers, health care professionals and visits from an attachment therapist. “Even though Franny says she feels stable, we can see that she’s not there yet,” says Katie.
Franny first came into care when she was three, but she has clear memories of her parents and eight siblings. Her birth home was full of drug and alcohol abuse, along with severe neglect. Shortly after Franny turned four, she was returned to her parents, who promptly lost their home. For a stretch, the family lived in tents in someone’s backyard. Franny describes the tents as “yucky,” noting that it was almost always damp, and soaking wet when it rained. She had to use the bathroom inside the house, but the house was filthy and the toilet often overflowed. At one point, Franny was so riddled with lice that the back of her head was an open sore.
Franny’s trauma has manifested in the form of nightmares and anxiety, along with a fierce independent streak and a reluctance to let Katie and Mark take care of her. Now seven, she’s obsessive with cleanliness, washing her hands constantly and using craft supplies to build “lice traps.” Franny’s baby teeth are rotten, and she’s behind in both reading and writing. After she was removed from her birth parents’ care, she spent three years in three different foster homes, where she was typically separated from her siblings. “It makes it harder for her to attach to us because she’s been moved around so many times,” says Katie.
Her family’s experience reflects the issues faced by many in the same position. There are currently 70,000 children and youth living in the system in Canada, and 30,000 of those children—most of whom are over the age of six—are waiting for family placements. Each of these children has a family history—often a challenging one—that affects the process of integrating them with their new family. But that reality isn’t recognized by the 35 weeks of leave, adoption advocates say. In June 2018, the Time to Attach team at Western University conducted a large-scale national survey on parental leave and attachment. The survey found that 72 per cent of adoptive parents agreed that the current leave structure did not permit enough time to bond with their adoptive children, that approximately half of adoptive children have complex or special needs that complicated the transition, and that 20 per cent of newly adopted children have a different language of origin than their adoptive family.
Most of these kids have been exposed to a level of loss and betrayal that many adults will never experience—and all during the period when they’re forming their first impressions of the world. That kind of abuse and neglect can make a permanent imprint on a developing brain, says Mary-Jo Land, a psychotherapist in Priceville, Ont., who also serves as a consultant on attachment to the Time to Attach campaign. “In the early years, our brain forms in the context of attachment,” she says. “So if a child is experiencing frightening or neglectful parenting, or multiple changes in caregivers, that child’s brain architecture is literally being formed to adapt to that life experience.”
Feeling “safe” and cultivating the ability to form healthy attachments is part of a development process that takes place in the crucial first few years of life. Infants are primed for dependence, and the reaction of their caregivers provides them with a narrative that can shape the rest of their life. If a parent is responsive and provides comfort, a child can learn that the world is a safe place. But when a child experiences violence or neglect, when they’re punished for crying or permitted to go hungry, the lesson is also clear: You can’t trust those closest to you.
In other words, kids who are removed from either traumatizing or temporary homes and placed with a “forever family” aren’t just being asked to live somewhere new. “We’re talking about reorganizing the brain to develop pathways for trust, connection and reaching out for comfort,” says Land. “So it’s about iteration after iteration of small, nuanced experiences of kindness and regulations in tiny, tiny steps. That process is a completely unique thing to every family, but nothing else can proceed until the child begins to feel safe. And we know that the older the child, the more trauma and the more placements, the harder it is to attach.”
A difference in family histories can also lead to a divide between adopted children and their parents. As Land points out, most adoptive parents have not had a history in the child welfare system, nor have they been adopted from orphanages in the developing world.
“Most of them haven’t had any lived experience like that of the child they’re adopting,” says Land. “So it’s not just about trying to parent a child who’s at first a stranger to you. Adoptive parents have to go through a really rigorous process to ensure that they are emotionally and financially stable enough, but they don’t really know what it’s like to be frightened, neglected or abandoned by their parents.”
When Colleen and her husband first picked up a picture of four siblings—ages three, five, seven and nine—at an Adoption Resource Exchange, a conference where prospective parents can view the profiles of children awaiting homes, in southern Ontario in 2011, they knew they had to bring them home. Colleen already had two biological children, but suddenly they were a family of eight.
The four siblings had recently experienced an adoption breakdown, having been returned to care after a year and a half with a previous “forever family.” In addition to that particularly acute trauma, Colleen soon learned that all of the children had previously undiagnosed fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Within two days of their move-in date, the house was engulfed in chaos. “When I say it was 24 hours a day, people think I’m exaggerating, but other adoptive parents know,” says Colleen.
The children were also prone to highly destructive fits of rage and frustration that could be triggered by the smallest things, like not getting a preferred cup at dinner. They punched holes through drywall, smashed furniture and ripped handles off doors. They frequently attempted to run away, one bolting through the front door toward the highway, another through the back door toward a field. The youngest, in particular, often sobbed through much of the night. The eldest, skeptical that this arrangement could possibly be permanent, had Colleen note the 18-month mark on a calendar—the point at which their previous adoption had broken down. “He decided that if we get to that date together, then he’ll trust us,” she says.
In addition to shortened parental leave, some adoptive parents also receive less social support than their biological counterparts. This, too, can complicate the process of settling in. Adoption is seen as a noble act, but almost certainly less celebratory. The months leading up to the awarding of legal custody aren’t full of approving nods from strangers giving up their seats on buses to pregnant mothers. Baby showers, gender reveal parties and balloon bouquets are less common.
“People are happy to come by and see cute babies, but when people stop by and watch a child attack you, they really don’t want to come back for coffee,” says Colleen. “You get a lot of likes on Facebook when you post a picture in front of a courthouse about making your adoption final, but people would prefer that you keep it heartwarming. They don’t want to hear about how hard it is.”
Eight years later, Colleen and her family are in a much better place, but they’re still working to overcome her children’s legacy of trauma, abuse and rejection. A stay-at-home parent, she spends hours a week on the phone—with teachers, doctors and administrators—who are helping her to transition her children, some with developmental delays, to early adulthood. “Our three-year-old came to us believing that she’s unlovable, that no one would want to keep her around and that she’s just a bad person,” says Colleen. “That takes everything you’ve got. How are you supposed to wake up early and go to a board meeting or work a late shift at a hospital after that? We took these kids from their parents to do better for them. Giving them to ill-prepared parents who are exhausted, who don’t have support, and then telling them to return to work is a recipe for disaster.”
While at times they’re overwhelmed, Katie and her husband haven’t had to deal with any diagnosed physical or mental disabilities, or any major trauma-related behavioural issues—and that makes Franny an anomaly in the broader adoption landscape. The family plans on using up their nest egg, pooling all their available resources to help ensure that Franny can be a happy, healthy and well-loved little girl.
“We have a child with no major developmental difficulties and it has still been so challenging,” says Katie. “This time together has been so valuable, but we still need to figure a lot out. And not everyone is as lucky as us.”
But every day, little by little, they’re more like a family. Katie can remember the first time she really felt like Franny was her daughter. “She got really mad at me for something and she still called me Mom. I was like, okay, we’re there.”