Archive for May, 2012

Understanding the Science of Child Neglect

Time Magazine has an excellent article this month about the physical and psychological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. While most people know intuitively that being abused or neglected as a child puts the child at risk for psychological and behavioral problems, many don’t realize that the effects are actually have biological origins and have been proven by studies in both monkeys and humans.

Severe, chronic stress is bad for the health of both children and adults, but children are especially susceptible to long-term damage because in very early childhood (from birth to about age 3) the human brain develops faster than at any other time in life. When children are exposed to chronic, severe stress, they have elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has been linked to both physical and mental illnesses throughout life. I wrote about this in this post in March 2011, but it continues to amaze me that a child’s environment has such a huge impact on his or her later health and development.

The article also references the groundbreaking research of Harry Harlow regarding the importance of attachment (read: love!) and the studies on the effect of neglect on children in Romanian orphanages. The Romanian study showed that children who were placed in foster care rather than an orphanage developed normally, including having, better attentional skills and a 9-point higher IQ on average, compared with children sent to Romania’s famously stark orphanages. Follow-up studies found that the children raised in the orphanage were more than twice as likely to develop mental illness, compared with the foster-care group. Perhaps most chillingly, more than half of the orphanage group was diagnosed with at least one mental illness.

While these studies are absolutely heartbreaking to read, they were revolutionary in changing the way orphaned and abandoned children are cared for in the United States and many other countries. Make no mistake: seemingly warm and squishy concepts like love, trust, cuddling, soothing, and providing a secure and interesting environment are scientifically proven to be not just important, but crucial to normal child development. If you think the work you do as a parent is not important, science begs to differ.

All this is not to say that if you have adopted a child who was abused or neglected earlier in life, that all is lost. The research simply highlights the importance of getting help for abused and neglected children as early as possible. Parents of children with a history of trauma should educate themselves fully about how to help their child at home (The Adoptive and Foster Parent Guide by Carol Lozier is an excellent resource), and the help of an experienced therapist is also highly recommended. Some children may need medications such as antidepressants to help reverse the chemical changes caused by early childhood trauma. Support is available, and the sooner it gets to the children who need it, the better.

To read the Time article, click here.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Celebrity Adoption Profile: Jillian Michaels

Talk about a busy new mama: After waiting almost two years to adopt, former Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels brought her two-year-old daughter Lukensia home from Haiti just days after Michaels’s partner Heidi Rhoades gave birth to the couple’s baby boy, Phoenix, on May 3. With two little ones under age three, Michaels might not have to hit the gym to stay in shape for a while! Congratulations to Michaels and Rhoades on their beautiful family.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Happy Mother’s Day from The Vaughan Firm

Yesterday I went to a conference for infertile couples to talk about adoption and assisted reproduction law. I met a lot of couples there who long for a child to love, and who are doing mountains of research to make that possible. They’re reading medical journals about IVF. They’re learning about the Hague Convention for international adoptions. They’re cleaning their houses with a toothbrush for home studies. They’re learning how to hire professionals that they trust. They’re learning about attachment and bonding. On this Mother’s Day, I want to say to these women: I am talking about you, too. Because all that work you are doing to lay the groundwork for a child to come home? That’s mothering. All the worrying that you do at night? Mothering. All that research about reducing risks? Mothering. I know it doesn’t feel like it counts right now, but it will. And I want to honor you on this day.

I also want to honor the brave birth mothers who have placed their children for adoption because they believed that was the best thing for those children. Doing what’s best for your child even though it hurts? That’s mothering.

I want to honor the adoptive mothers who now hold the children they dreamed about. Loving a child and raising that child day by day, for life? That’s mothering.

I want to honor foster mothers who open their homes and their hearts to children in need. Giving children a safe place in tough times? That’s mothering.

No matter how your children came to you, or even if they’re not quite there yet, please accept my warmest wishes on this Mother’s Day. A person with the heart to love and welcome a child is a very special person, indeed.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Ashley’s Moms (and their blogs)

In my travels on the web this week, I ran across the most remarkable adoption website I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s perfect for National Foster Care Month. Ashley’s Moms are Erica and Rebecca. Erica, Ashley’s birth mother, gave birth to her at 19 and later lost custody of Ashley after becoming involved in an abusive relationship and spiraling into drug abuse. Rebecca adopted Ashley through foster care when Ashley was 9 years old.

Sadly, I know through my work with children in the child-welfare system that stories like Ashley’s are not uncommon. What is uncommon is the alliance that Rebecca and Erica forged. They now have an open adoption in which Erica is treated like the member of the family that she undisputedly is. Both Erica and Rebecca have wonderful, honest blogs about their adoption experience – the good and the bad. I especially love this description by Erica of a Seder dinner that she attended at Rebecca’s house:

I was a little nervous about being the “birth mom” at the party. I happy to say, once I was there, that thought never crossed my mind. I wasn’t the “birth mom” but rather, just a family member! I was welcomed by everyone there, and when Rebecca shared the nature of our relationship, everyone at the table just smiled and acted as though this were perfectly normal. At that moment I realized this is normal, it is normal for our family, my family, the one I share with Rebecca, her husband, her daughter, my boys, and our daughter, Ashley. We are no different then the family next door, except, perhaps, we’ve chosen to be family, we’ve designed it ourselves, without knowing what the final outcome might look like, but to us, it’s perfectly beautiful.

What Rebecca and Erica have is not possible in every foster-care adoption, but I encourage you to let their story stretch the boundaries of what you believe is possible. The world would be a better place for children if more families opened their arms wider in this way.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Baby, Baby, Baby.

In the course of my work, I go to a lot of adoption-related websites, and I just realized that almost all of them share the same trait that really irks me: They all very heavily use photos of cute newborn babies. Cute newborns in hats. Cute newborns in baskets. Cute newborns with teddy bears. Cute newborns snoozing in someone’s arms. Enough already with the newborns!

Why does this bother me so much? There are a few reasons. First, the photos are clearly meant to tug at potential adoptive parents’ heartstrings, and I know from talking to my clients how viscerally painful it can be for them to see babies. To me, there’s something unsavory about using that emotional raw spot to get paying clients. Also, the proliferation of cuteness seems to imply that cuteness is a good reason to adopt a baby. I bet you know how I feel about that! Finally, the photos almost never show the broad, beautiful spectrum of real adoptive families. Easily 99 percent of the photos on adoption agency and matching websites are of white newborns, which doesn’t do justice to the wide variety of races, ethnicities, and ages of adopted children. Wouldn’t it be great to see these sites celebrate the whole spectrum of families?

Is it just me? Tell me how you feel about the abundance of cute newborns on adoption websites. Did you react differently to them before, during, and after the process of adopting a child?

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

“It Will Happen For You” — Encouraging or Unwelcome?

I was interested to see a post today on Adoption Voices, where a member wrote that it’s very upsetting to her when people say “don’t give up! Adoption will happen for you if you hang in there.”

Lara writes:

While I know it’s meant to be encouraging, I’ve come to really hate these statements – because nobody can honestly guarantee an adoption will happen. Even with a match, we’re all painfully aware there are no guarantees, until a judge declares it final. We can’t trust an agency, lawyer, or fate. We just hear what we want to hear – from those who have been blessed with adoption. But for how many of us does it NOT happen?

Lara’s post surprised me, because I have often heard (and sometimes given) this advice in the adoption community, and I think it is basically sound. After all, if you don’t stop trying, it’s true that eventually you will adopt successfully. However, Lara is perfectly correct: for some people, “giving up” is the right decision. If you have reached your emotional limits or the adoption journey is just too hard on your family, it is healthy and appropriate to stop. I can think of other situations, such as financial difficulty or a serious illness in the family, that also might be perfectly good reasons to decide that adoption is not a good fit for you after all.

I still think that saying “you will be able to adopt if you don’t give up” is a true statement, but as all things in life, it’s important to think before you speak. If someone has made the difficult decision to stop trying to adopt, telling them that they could have a baby if only they were more persistent is likely to hurt them more than it helps. But for those who are on the long road to adoption and just feeling tired and discouraged, it could be just what they need to hear.

What do you think? Has anyone ever said this to you about adoption? How did it make you feel?

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

May is National Foster Care Month.

May is National Foster Care Month. Over 400,000 children are currently in the U.S. foster-care system, and about 30,000 of them age out of the system each year without ever being adopted. The bottom line: We as a society need to do more to support families and children, both to keep kids out of the system and to offer them the services they need once they are in the system.

If you are a foster parent, thank you. The love and support that you give to foster children makes a tremendous difference in their lives. I believe that getting each foster child in a loving family that is educated about how to best meet children’s needs is the best hope we have, as a society, to end the cycle of abuse and neglect.

Of course, being a foster parent is not for everyone. If it’s not for you, know that there are many other ways that you can help foster children. The organizers of National Foster Care Month have created this list of things you can do if you have a few minutes, a few hours, a few weeks, or a lot of time to devote to helping kids in foster care. I especially love the idea of mentoring and tutoring foster children and those who have aged out of the system and are on their own for the first time.

One sentence that struck me as so important on the National Foster Care Month website is this: “Many children would not have to enter foster care at all if more states provided support and services to help families cope with crises early on.” I am a firm believer that supporting children means supporting families, and the best way to help at-risk kids is to keep them out of the foster care system in the first place, by providing services such as mental health counseling, parenting support and education, job-search assistance, low-cost child care, etc. When budget issues are up for debate in your community, let your legislators know that these services are important to you.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

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