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Life Work With Children Who Are Fostered or Adopted

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From the Cover of Life Work with Children Who Are Fostered or Adopted by Joy Rees:

“This new book from life work expert Joy Rees explains the value of effective and meaningful life work with children who are fostered and adopted, and how best to carry it out.

This book will help social work professionals, foster carers and adopters understand the many aspects of life work, and to consider the important contributions they can all  make to this task. Life work is about helping children know and understand their personal stories and the life experiences that have shaped them. Enabling children to reach their potential and achieve the best possible outcome is the common goal, and this is best achieved by using the collaborative approach to life work advocated in this book.”


Grade:

5 hoots out of 5

Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 5 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]


What Our Family Thought:

This book provides caregivers and professionals with information about life work (also known as life story books, life journey work, etc). The author breaks down the specifics of the definition of the term life work, as well as going into clearly understood purpose for the importance of a life story book. She states, “The fundamental purpose of life work with all children in care is to help them understand their history and to gain a sense of their identity.” Next, Rees explores theoretical framework, having “thorough knowledge of child development, including brain development, attachment theory, and developmental trauma.” Each stage of developmental age is explored in relation to how to tackle life work at the different developmental stages, what is developmentally appropriate. The next section in the book discusses the importance of the child’s team and their knowledge of their story/development/life details. These important people in the child’s life can help make sure every detail they know can be recorded and documented for the child’s life work. The information gathered can really help the child put the pieces together in the future, pieces of their story that they may not have any information about. This section of the book seems to have the most detailed examples of what can be used to create life work for a child: Preparation and processing, observation, listening, and play, memories, memory books, and boxes, photographs, life journey work, therapeutic stories, child appreciation days, life story books, later life letters, contact,  and finally, adoption and care records. The appendix in the book has sample questionaires for caregivers/case workers to fill out, sample later life letters, and suggested reading lists for adults and children.

This book has done a wonderful job of explaining the why’s as well as the how to’s to help professionals as well as caretakers help create life work for children in foster care or adoption. It stresses the importance of coming together as a coordinated team for the sake of the child’s story, helping the child have a more thorough documentation of their past, for them in the future.

A quick and easy read, this book is for sure worth sharing with others in the adoption and foster care community. It isn’t just perfect for the foster/adoptive family but also therapists, case workers, judges, teachers, etc.


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4 Tips for Recognizing Positive Changes in Foster & Adoptive Kids

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I spend very little time on Facebook because I find myself distracted and losing time because of interesting and inspiring videos and posts. One such post was a video about a little squirrel who had been rescued. Her arms had been caught in a trap, and she ended up needing to have them amputated. The man in Turkey who took her in named her Karamel. The YouTube video entitled “Rescue Squirrel Without Arms Makes Her Dad So Proud” follows her recovery, from her rescuers not knowing whether she would survive all the way to having a prosthetic that allows her to run and play outside.


Here are some quotes from Karamel’s “dad” in the video:

“But she really wanted to survive.”
“She’s a strong willed squirrel.”
“Our daughter with wings of hearts instead of arms.”
“Who said she can’t get better and move around like this? Who said you can’t run again? Who said I should put her to sleep? People told me I should have her put down, but how could I? She wants to live.”


This little squirrel clearly had a will to survive. While many doubted her, she showed strength and determination. She overcame great obstacles, and everyone who sees her can see it! We can see her arms are missing. We can see her running around, strong and beautiful.


The Great Battle Unseen in Foster/Adoptive Kids

Karamel’s story is inspiring, but the reality is that often in life, obstacles and the conquering of them are not always so visible, which leads to little appreciation of an individual’s will and efforts. This is especially true in the lives of foster and adopted children. The casual observer has no clue how their bodies have been damaged by the trauma they have endured. Because it’s not visible to the naked eye, people do not appreciate the fight they have to have to simply make it through a day. People view their behaviors as disobedience, defiance, and just downright brattiness without understanding the ways trauma has damaged their brain and neurological functioning.

[**Shared with Jasmine’s permission]
At the end of this past school year, I asked my daughter, Jasmine, if she would be going to the good behavior party and then tickled her knee and asked if she was invited to go. She exclaimed that she hadn’t even had a single “minor’s log” in all three years of middle school. I know she had never been in trouble in middle school because I didn’t even know that’s what whatever their behavioral infractions were called. She then said she was scared about high school. I teased and asked if she was scared she was going to all of a sudden become a bad girl. (I know…we don’t really use that terminology…I was just teasing, and she knows that.) We quit joking and went on to talk about her real concerns, and I told her she has come a long way. Her teachers would think I needed psychiatric help if I told them what a typical school day was like her first three years of elementary school.

At my son, Matthew’s graduation party, a family friend made the comment that Jasmine had grown up so much and that she could not fit in a backpack anymore. Huh?? What? I thought it was a weird comment until the individual gave the context of picking Jasmine up from school (probably 1st grade) after getting a call that she needed to be picked up because of her behavior, and neither Darren nor I could go get her. When this family friend entered the classroom, Jasmine was trying to hide under a desk inside her backpack.

Even though I know all the science behind how trauma has compromised our kids’ biology, brains, and behavior, I often fail to recognize their vast improvements and achievements. Improvement takes tons of time, consistency, unconditional love, therapies, interventions…It is easy to forget how a typical day went 3…5…8…10 years ago. And it’s even worse with the general public when they weren’t around to see how far kids have come, they minimize the obstacles, or they fail to understand what they are up against. They fail to think about how they would respond if their entire worlds were ripped out from under them, even as adults with rational and logical thought. They make flippant, ignorant, and damaging comments like:

“They have a stable home and family. They just need love.”
“They should be grateful.”
“They look fine.”


So what needs to be done:

  1. As caregivers, we need to find ways to REMIND OURSELVES of our children’s progress, whether it be through journals, photo journals, or something! When days are rough, or we are aggravated by an ongoing issue, we can look back and gain some perspective.
  2. We need to PRACTICE SELF-CARE. Compassion fatigue, where one is continually in the fight with a person and gets worn out and starts to lose their sense of empathy for the person’s experiences, is very real. Once we have compassion fatigue, we lose perspective on the why’s of a child’s struggles and just become angry and aggravated with the child and not the situation. We lose sight of the why’s of our journey and our goal to help and come alongside the child as a member of their team.
  3. We need to educate ourselves on how our children have been impacted by their past, ACKNOWLEDGE it, and be willing to be life-long LEARNers, ADAPTing to new ways of parenting and guiding our children.
  4. Finally, we have to ADVOCATE for our children. We have to continually EDUCATE those in our child’s lives about the impact of trauma, the fight our kids have to have to survive, and just how amazing they are!

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When Children Are Property

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When birth parents experience the removal of their children by child protective services, they tend to have a few different reactions:

  • Work the Plan – Work Hard
    They do everything in their power to reach the goals the agency has given them in order to be reunited with their children. They come to all scheduled visits and court dates. They work really hard and show a great deal of care towards their children.
  • The Dangling Carrot Feeling 
    Some birth parents work their parenting plans and always show up but seem to not be able to meet the agencie’s demands. They may feel helpless, as if the agency keeps dangling their children as a carrot out in front of them, but they cannot ever do enough, and though they care endlessly for their children and desire them to be back at home, they may eventually give up.
  • Not Present
    Some birth parents, due to addiction or other reasons, do not show much interest in parenting. They do not show up to visits or court dates. They do not work toward their case goals.
  • Competitive Winner
    There is a very small group of birth parents who appear to have a different attitude. These parents fight hard to retain their parental rights, but they seem not to care about how their children are cared for but solely about winning the case. They seem to view the child as property and simply appear to want their “property” back, but they do not act in the child’s best interest or meet the child’s needs.

All parents whose children are removed are being faced with such an invasive and stressful situation, which many people have difficulty understanding. These responses are all valid and have reasons, but the one that seems to be most troublesome is the response that a parent cares only about the child as a piece of property. It is very concerning for all those involved.

BUT, this blog is not really about birth parents. I want to challenge foster and adoptive parents to question whether they are exhibiting a similar response and to consider the potential consequences.


A Challenge to Foster/Adoptive Parents

Foster and adoptive parents can be just as possessive. As with birth parents, their reasons are often valid, BUT the results can be equally harmful. Adoptive parents have often fought so hard to help the children in their home. They may have been directly involved with birth family members during the foster care or adoption process, and it may not have been a pleasant experience. There is often a tendency for foster and adoptive parents to say the child is theirs and theirs alone once the birth parents’ rights have been terminated or adoption has been finalized. As a result, they often do not acknowledge that the child had beginnings apart from them. They may not acknowledge the child’s loss or the loss of the birth family (immediate and extended). They may cut others who love the child (or who would like to know and love the child) out from the child’s life.

These thoughts and actions have the potential to hurt the child by:

  • keeping them from information about their identity which they may need to develop in a healthy way, and
  • keeping them from developing or maintaining healthy relationships with birth family members.

The reality is that research and story after story tell us that openness in adoption is the best for all involved. There are different levels, which is necessitated by each situation and by what is beneficial for everyone involved. It is not always comfortable, and sometimes there has to be a time of healing and little contact after termination of parental rights or adoption finalization for everyone to heal, process, and gain perspective.

There is a beauty that comes from sharing our children with everyone who loves them. There is a quote that occasionally floats around Pinterest and Facebook:

“He is mine in a way that he will never be hers, yet he is hers in a way that he will never be mine, and so together, WE are motherhood.”

I did a little surfing around and found that this quote was made by birth mother and adoption advocate, Desha Wood. When we can acknowledge that a child belongs fully (in different ways) to their birth and adoptive families, we can develop relationships that only serve to make our children happier and healthier. On one of our recent Monday Caregiver Check-Ins, Allison Douglas (foster/adoptive parent of 4 children and professional at Harmony Family Center, Knoxville, TN) shared about a birthday party they recently had for one of their children. There were several birth and adoptive family members there celebrating the child. She shared how natural it was for her child to introduce all these people to friends and introducing both his moms as “Mom” and all other family members simply by relationship, and not necessarily differentiating between birth or adoptive relationships. I loved a similar moment at a party where one of my kids had one arm around me and one around their first mom and leaned over to kiss each of our cheeks and say, “I love you, Mom” to each of us. My kids belong as much to their birth families as they do to our families.

On the other hand, I have seen enormous hurt when an adoptive family claims a child as theirs and theirs alone and needlessly cuts out siblings, or birth parents, or other extended family members. Adoptees and foster children are done a great injustice when the foster or adoptive family acts as if the child’s life began with them and leaves out any part of their personal history before placement.


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