As Family Preservation Counselors in the ASAP program, we work with children and teenagers adopted from the state foster care system. Almost every one of our clients experienced significant trauma before being removed from his or her birth family and placed into foster care. Their stories of horrific abuse and unthinkable neglect would likely shock most people.
Yet, as devastating as these events are, time after time, when conducting trauma assessments, I have noticed that a majority of children continue to cite their most traumatic experience as being in foster care, or changing homes so many times.
For children in foster care, everything in life is temporary, conditional, and unknown. Each placement could be the last, or it could be just another stop in a long and sad journey that no child should ever have to endure. The unspoken message is: You can live here, as long as you act a certain way. You are staying with these people for now, but you will probably have to move. You will be taken care of, but we don’t really know where you belong yet. In adoption, we say, every day a child is in custody is a day of childhood lost. Given these circumstances, it makes sense that the transient and unpredictable life of a foster child is what is often most traumatizing to that child. And that is why one of the most profound and important missions that adoptive families have is the idea of claiming a child. Claiming is the process by which adoptive families embrace a child as a full-fledged member of the family.
Adoptive parents have many different ways of outwardly making a child feel claimed. Finalizing an adoption and giving the child the adoptive family’s last name is the primary act of claiming in the adoption journey. Since parents who adopt from foster care weren’t able to name their child at birth, sometimes they give the child a new middle name, which is often a name that carries a special meaning to them. Adoptive families may take new family photos to ensure that their child is included in the pictures or they may decorate the child’s room in a more personal way. They might begin to celebrate the child’s adoption anniversary, or “gotcha day,” to emphasize the importance of the day the child joined the family. They will certainly begin calling the child my son or my daughter, and will eagerly anticipate the day that their child returns this sign of claiming by calling them mom or dad.
Most of all, though, the concept of claiming is achieved not through a series of actions, but from the way adoptive families surround their children with a sense of commitment, security, and belonging. Feeling claimed means that a child feels included, accepted, and loved in a permanent way. There is no caveat or clarifying adjective. They are not a foster child; they are simply, someone’s child.
When a child feels claimed, the unspoken message of adoption becomes this: “For better or worse, you are one of us. No matter what, you can never not be one of us ever again. Our lives are now inextricably interwoven, and thus, what affects you affects us, too. We are your people. With us, always, you belong.”