Real life: What makes a good adoptive parent?

Are some people just not suitable to be adoptive parents and when deciding, do social workers have too much power?

June 8, 2009 / Independent.ie

English parents Phil and Amanda Peak were recently turned down for adoption. Why? They were too sad. Their beloved sons Arron and Ben had been killed in a car crash the previous year at just 10 and eight, and the social worker said they must wait at least two years before they could be considered.

That seems harsh, especially as the adoption process can take up to five years, but Emer O'Carroll, a social worker with Ireland's Adoption Board, can see the sense in the decision.

"You can only imagine the enormous grief that the couple is going through," she says. "And if you are grieving that whole attachment process with a baby can be difficult. Adoption must, always, be about the child."

Grief, she says, is an aspect in all adoptions.

"There are, always, huge losses. There's the loss of the children the couples assumed they would have together. They may have been through all the fertility treatments. They have to get over the stress and the grief of that. Couples need time to move on and to think, 'well, I could love a child who will not look like me, and may not have my talents.'"

Time

The adoption process, in Ireland, can take anything up to five years. Minister for Children Barry Andrews hopes to cut the waiting time for international adoption down to two years, when his Adoption Bill 2009 becomes law.

A bit of time, though, is necessary, O'Carroll feels, to give couples time to adapt.

"There is so much to cover and to think about," she says. "The issues being explored are so personal and deep. People need to go through the process to make that conscientious decision about whether adoption is right for them and right for their potential child. The administrative delays can be frustrating, but that time can be valuable."

There are five set standards that adoptive parents need to meet. In brief, they must: safeguard the child, promote their development, value their original nationality and culture, recognise the impact being adopted from overseas might have, and make sure they receive any specialist help and support.

What else are social workers looking for in a couple?

"We look at their background. What, from their own situation, are they bringing to parenting? What have they learned from their childhood about discipline and love? What will the couple bring to parenting from their own relationship? Are they financially stable? If they have smaller incomes, are they able to budget?"

With international adoption, though, it is about much more than parenting.

"Those children have additional needs, and parents need to be able to meet those needs. They have to rear that child with a knowledge of their adoption, in an age appropriate and sensitive manner. That can be hard, when they don't know the child's background, and don't know what their circumstances might have been."

Unbearable

Parents have to attend a preparation course before being assessed by a social worker from the relevant branch of the HSE. Some parents find this process unbearable. Shane Downer, CEO of the International Adoption Association, says, "Most social workers are good and fair, but there are some elements which are introducing bias and fear in the community.

"One lady has beaten cancer and is six years clear. She was told she has to be 10 years clear before she can apply for adoption. There are people who are afraid because all the power is with the social workers. They are afraid to speak up for fear they will be discriminated against."

On May 1, Ireland's bilateral agreement with Vietnam ran out. While this situation is being reviewed, around 275 couples who have registered to adopt from Vietnam have been left in limbo. They are finding that an intolerable situation.

Karl Stewart is one of the lucky ones. He and his wife Martha are the parents of Minh (seven) and Cam ly (two). They only had a two-year wait.

"We'd been married for four years when we decided to adopt," says Karl. "IVF was not suitable for us, and adoption felt right. Both of our families have adopted people in them; they'd be in their thirties now so the concept is not alien to us.

"We took the preparation course in Drogheda. There were six long sessions held on a Friday. The course was more about the adoption process, choosing a country and explaining what you will face as an adoptive parent, than about parenting. It was good. It made us think about the needs of the child.

Support

"It was definitely helpful though not all of it felt relevant to us. It was good, too, for getting support. We had lunch after the sessions with the other parents, and before we had our children we'd meet every Thursday. Three of the group have since adopted from Vietnam and our children have a good bond as well."

The three home visits were helpful in the main too.

"The social workers look at your home and ask you to plan what kind of community your child is growing up in. That was good. It made us think, 'what is around us for a child?' We thought, 'how close is the doctor, and how near are our friends?'"

Some of the questions did feel sensitive.

"We each have recliner chairs, and that seemed to be an issue," says Karl. "We felt, maybe, we were expected to sit on the couch and hold hands."

After producing financial and medical records, the couple were cleared by the HSE. They then got their declaration form from the adoption board. After this, they sorted out all the legal papers associated with bringing a Vietnamese child into Ireland.

These days the Helping Hands Adoption Mediation Society deals with all Vietnamese applications, but back then, it was up to the couples to find a lawyer in Vietnam.

"We found one, and he said, 'I have a referral for you. There is a child as soon as your paperwork is in order.' He sent us an email with a photograph. It was, 'Bang! Here we are.' It was the first time the process had felt real."

They collected Minh two hectic months later.

"We spent the time getting what was needed and telling family and friends. We met other couples and met their children. And we practised changing nappies and doing all those things you are not taught in preparation classes.

"We flew to Hanoi, and 48 hours later Minh was delivered to us. It was fabulous. She kept and held eye contact. It was an emotional time. We learned from her foster mum all that we could."

Karl and Martha didn't rush into a second adoption. They wanted time to work out what was best for the three of them.

"It was a couple of years before we filled in the forms and did the assessment again," says Karl. "When we got our declaration Minh was starting school. We decided to put the whole thing on hold so that she would not have too much disruption."

The second time, dealing through Helping Hands, Karl and Martha travelled to Vietnam with five other couples. They took Minh with them, and took her back to her province. The time the sisters met is a moment Karl will never forget.

"You have an immediate bond with the children and that bond just grows and grows," says Karl. "The fact they have been adopted from abroad is just another part of their story. Minh is fully aware of where she is from and has opened up a whole new world for us.

"Something as simple as learning a few words of Vietnamese and trying out Vietnamese cooking. It's a recognition of our children and where they are from and they love that kind of thing."

Aoife Kelly and her husband Stephen Homan brought their little girl Cham home a month ago. And Aoife's heart breaks when she thinks of the couples who have not been so lucky. "It took us five years to go through the process," she says. "There were times when we thought it would never happen."

Aoife had a head start when it came to the process of adoption. An adopted child herself, she knows exactly how it feels to be brought up in a family who are not related to you.

"I was fortunate," she says. "I had certain issues when I was growing up, but I did meet my natural mother, and my parents were very supportive."

Even so, Aoife found the preparation course useful.

Invasion

"It made you think about racial issues, and that was good. My main concern was that it was run on a Friday," she says. "Stephen is self-employed and I have my own PR company, but it was an invasion into our working life. The course ran every second Friday for three months. You were expected to drop everything, and that's tough."

The social worker's visits proved pretty invasive.

"They want to know everything about your relationship and how you relate to your friends and family. That's understandable. They questioned your faith too. They asked did you think evil could be innate in some people. That was difficult to answer on the spot. They saw us both on the first visit, but the next two were individual. It was a bit like Mr and Mrs.

"The paperwork was difficult too. If you'd lived in a country for more than six months you had to get police certificates and checks in each one. I'd lived in three, and Steve had been travelling around, and had to get an affidavit to say he had not committed any crimes in any of the countries."

None of that mattered as much as the waiting, though.

"Everything kept being delayed. It was like waiting for Godot," says Aoife. "We had a setback along the way but we got a referral from Helping Hands on December 22, 2008, and on the second of April we were told to be in Hanoi by April 9. It was chaos. We rushed around getting the paperwork in order."

Meeting Cham made it all worthwhile.

"We were totally overwhelmed by this little being. We immersed ourselves in her and didn't leave the hotel bedroom for the first four days. We hugged her, cocooned her and established a bond.

"Cham is a dream baby. Having her is wonderful. There is a smile on my face that has never been there before. All the stress and the strain of the past five years has simply dropped away."

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The powers of social worker

The articles starts with an interesting question: "do social workers have too much power?", but in my opinion fails to really answer that. Instead of an investigation into the power of social workers, it ends up being a personal interest story, with a few indications that the decision of the social worker is ad hoc at best and whimsical in some situations.

What I found interesting was the following:

There are five set standards that adoptive parents need to meet. In brief, they must: safeguard the child, promote their development, value their original nationality and culture, recognise the impact being adopted from overseas might have, and make sure they receive any specialist help and support.

Which immediately brings into question how those can effectively be measured and how we can discriminate between those that genuinely support those notions and those that have only prepared themselves to pay lip service. It is one thing to say you recognise the impact of being adopted may have. It's another to actually do that.

While I don't want to dispute these five standards, I wonder if it is possible to actually make an assessment of all or even any of these five? As much as we may want to, the means to do so are limited. Intrusiveness does not make an assessment effective, it simply makes it intrusive. A rigorous assessment may require intrusiveness, but intrusiveness doesn't mean rigour. So the question remains, are home studies actually improving the safety and well-being of children, or do they actually create a false sense of security?

What power do social workers really have? They have the power to approve or disapprove, but do they actually have the power to make an informed  decision? Is it in the power of a social worker to do so?

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