Welcome to this installment of my Adoption Interview Series. I periodically post interviews with people involved with all aspects of adoption, and I hope you will enjoy learning about them as much as I have. Please let me know if you would like to participate or would like to suggest someone else for me to interview.
This week -
How has your life been touched by adoption?
My first contact with adoption was at the age of nine, when I was adopted. Although the concept was introduced to me prior my adoption, I really didn’t understand what it meant.
As a social worker for the last thirteen years, I have had lots of experience working with children and families going through adoption.
Please tell us about your , including the titles in the series.
When I was placed in foster care at the age of five, a number of people tried to explain to me what was happening to me in words that I could understand. But, at the end of the day, I knew two things about foster care; I was not with my mom or brother and that I was in a home with strangers. On most days, I felt alone and powerless.
Over the years, I have seen a theme emerge; communication is difficult for children in care. And that the behaviors that children display can easily be misinterpreted as many of the children in care do not always communicate their needs the way we would expect. Because of poor modeling, trauma, mistrust, age, etc. a child may not have the words to tell you what they are feeling or thinking. Often a child’s misbehavior might be their way of trying to tell us something and we are missing great opportunities to get a child to open up.
With confidence, I can say that all of us want children to feel comfortable talking about how they feeling and what they are thinking. But, how do we get them to the point where they feel comfortable talking to us? And if they do, is their trust in us going to be rewarded. In other words, if they open up to you, are you going to really listen to what they are saying? You have to also remember, that many children harbor a belief that if they tell you things - bad things will happen. For example, they might believe that because they talked about what was going on in their house they had to leave or maybe someone blamed them for breaking up the family. So sharing feelings doesn’t always equal something good.
With this in mind, I started brainstorming about ways to reach out to children in a safe and non-threatening way and to help a child communicate about how they are feeling. I thought about how much of an impact books have on us. So, I researched children’s books that were available and although I found that there are some really great ones, I felt that there was something missing in them.
First, I couldn’t relate to the characters or their situation or there was too much feel good stuff versus thought provoking situations. With Robbie, his reason for entering care was due to abuse, but also because his mother couldn’t take care of him properly and she needed additional help.
Robbie was created to fill the gap, and I believe that this series, will not only help children, they will also help the caring adults in their lives.
The books in the series are: “Robbie’s Trail through Foster Care,” “Robbie’s Trail through Adoption,” “Robbie’s Trail through Open Adoption,” “Wanting to Belong,” “Meeting My CASA,” and “Moving to Another Foster Home.”
Do you have a favorite Robbie Rabbit book?
I actually have two favorites, and they are “Robbie’s Trail through Foster Care,” and “Robbie’s Trail through Adoption.” I like these two because they really highlight some of the emotions that Robbie (or a child) may be going through when coming into foster care, and adoption.
Often, children aren’t able to tell us what they are feeling and instead, they share their feelings through their behaviors. These behaviors can be misread, and if we are focused just on correcting the behavior, versus finding out why the behaviors are occurring, we could be missing a great opportunity to help children verbalize their feelings.
One of the things I love about what you've done is that Robbie Rabbit is more than just a series of children's books. You've also developed Activity book(s) and Adult Guides. Please tell us about those.
When researching books for children in foster care, I found that some of the books did include discussion topics for an adult to go through with a child, but I know from my own experience and from being around children, that interactive activities tend to have better results. When you think about the activities that children do in school, even as silly as some of them seem, they tend to help the child learn. With this in mind, the activities in the “Robbie Rabbit” series are interactive and require action from both the child and a caring adult. There are also themes to the activities in the books that will allow the child to better understand the things they can control and can’t control; identify people in their lives that they can talk to; use words to tell others how they are feeling; and to build their self-identity.
The adult guide helps caring adults to create situations where children feel comfortable talking with them. Plus, it gives starter questions and advice on how to get a child engaged in the activities.
Having a child read the books and do the activities by themselves will not help a child to feel more comfortable about sharing their feelings with others. It is so important that a caring adult be a part of this process.
I imagine that your own experiences with foster care and adoption inspired the Robbie Rabbit books. I'm curious, how or why did you decide to feature a rabbit rather than a human child or another animal?
I initially considered making Robbie or the character in the series, a human, but the more I thought about the best way to reach children, it seemed more appropriate to use animals. Plus, because of the sensitive material, I believed that it would be more difficult for children if the characters were human. It also allowed me to create cultural differences without creating a stigma for a child or family of a particular race.
I used a rabbit to represent Robbie because they are the most cuddly and non-threatening animals I could think of. Rarely, are rabbits seen as evil or mean. Of course, after I had written the first two books and had them illustrated, I came across another Robbie Rabbit character that is evil and I hope that if kids Google Robbie the Rabbit they don’t come across pictures or videos of that character.
Are your books relevant for adoptive families who have not experienced foster care?
Definitely! By reading the books, they may get a glimpse of what may happen. If they can anticipate some of the emotions that a child may experience, they will be better prepared to help a child. It also will give them a chance to recognize some of the pitfalls that parents may fall into.
Visitors to your website will see that training is an important component of what you do. Would you give some examples of the kind of groups you train and the feedback you get from those you train?
I have trained youth who are transitioning out of foster care, and professionals who are involved in a child’s life. I have conducted trainings with foster parents on helping children in care feel as if they belong. I also have spoken with residential care and child placing agencies about some of the emotional transitions that children go through while in care. Court personnel, such as CASA’s and GAL’s also have heard me talk about the challenges of youth as they transition out of foster care, creating life-long connections, and the emotional impact of foster care on children.
Some of my feedback is that people appreciate me sharing my personal and professional experiences and helping them have a better understanding of how to work with children in care. They have also appreciated my non-judgmental approach, and humor, which helps when dealing with such an intense topic.
It seems that more and more people involved with adoption are now seeing the need for adoption reform. What are your thoughts on that? What things (if any) do you think need to change, and what ideas do you have for the best way to go about changing the adoption industry?
I would love for there to be consistency across state lines when doing adoptions. Although many states require similar training for their families, the rules can change from one state to another.
One area that I see a lot of problems occur, and have heard from foster/adoptive families, is the idea of con-current planning. Many courts and state policies require that there be dual goals for a child. The first is to work towards reunification, and the second towards another permanent arrangement such as adoption. Unfortunately, case workers are not trained on what this looks like, and some courts are vague about what they require. Children may be placed in adoption eligible homes, while the state works towards reunifying, yet they also are communicating with the adoptive families that the child or children will be available for adoption with them if reunification doesn’t occur.
Unfortunately, the initial placement could have occurred quickly and even though the initial match factors were there, no one can officially staff this family until the goal changes to adoption. By that time, the children may have been in the home for several years, and what happens if the team determines that this family isn’t a good match for the child? Or, if there were siblings involved and there was never strong efforts made to find a home for them together. Now, years later, workers are trying to identify homes where all of the children can be placed together, which may cause another disruption and another loss for the child.
Better training and consistency with court requirements should occur to help so the above situations can be reduced.
What type of support do you wish you had had when you were a child in foster care?
My siblings and I were abandoned by my birth mother when we were four, five and six. For us, one day things were going along as they normally did, and then one day, everything changed. I didn’t talk to my birth mother again until I was 32 years old. In-between, I continually asked myself, what happened? Is she okay? Why would she just leave us? I also lost my brother after coming into foster care, and after my adoption, I lost my sister.
Unfortunately, because I did not display any outward signs of trauma or distress, nor did I exhibit anger or negative behaviors, people assumed that I was okay and that I was adjusting to the situation. No one took the time to help me understand what was happening. The system missed the boat on providing me with counseling to help me with the unresolved issues in my life.
One of the things I didn’t realize until recently, was that I actually lived three different lives. The first one was with my biological family until age five. Then, as a foster child until age nine - and finally, as an adopted child. In each one of these situations, I lost a little more of the “original Adam” as I like to call him, and adapted and changed to be accepted into my new situation.
So, what could have been different...a qualified therapist to help me with the trauma of losing my family and better training for those who were in my life. It seemed as if nothing existed prior to me coming into foster care and that my life began at age five.
There were definitely things that the state could not control, but there were plenty of things that they could have. For example, I only saw my brother once during the three years I was in my foster home. They could have ensured that I was having contact with him. By the time I saw him again, he was a stranger to me.
My adoptive family did a wonderful job after my adoption of helping me connect with my brother and sister. They created opportunities for the three of us to get together to celebrate holidays and birthdays.
Please add any additional thoughts you want to share, Adam.
Of course, I would love it if everyone bought copies of the Robbie Rabbit series. But, these books cannot cover every aspect or every scenario that a child may have faced or will face, but it is a starting point. The characters in the books give the child and caring adult a place to start.
These books aren’t the end-all-be-all, and I am sure people will find areas that need improvement or they may feel they don’t apply, but they are another tool to use when working with children in care.
By helping a child communicate his/her feelings, sharing one-on-one time together, building an open relationship, and creating an environment where a child feels safe to talk to you, I believe it will strengthen a child’s future.
Thanks, Adam, for sharing with us!
Click here to purchase Sally's , What I Want My Adopted Child to Know: An Adoptive Parent's Perspective, in or formats.