April Dinwoodie: Welcome to Navigating Adoption: Presented by AdoptUSKids and brought to you by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, and the Ad Council.
While every child has a unique adoption journey, it’s important to acknowledge that every adopted child experiences trauma. As we’ll hear in today’s episode, “How to Give Grace,” trauma brought on by loss and grief often goes unrecognized. We’ll learn from our family, Amber and Kimberly, and our foster care professional just how important it is to recognize trauma and to extend grace by looking beyond behavior to help children heal.
Amber: There were times where Kimberly would catch me smoking. I was like, “Oh my goodness, hi,” trying to throw everything behind me. She still was very supportive of me and that meant a lot to me.
Kimberly: All those other behaviors, part of it was just survival. You’re just going to get through your day however you can. When you’re 15, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.
April Dinwoodie: Hi, I’m April Dinwoodie, your host. As you’ll hear, Amber and Kimberly have had a real dedication to each other right from the start.
Amber: Mom, do you want me to go?
Kimberly: I think it’s your story, so I think you should lead out.
Amber: Okay. I’m Amber and I went into foster care when I was 15 years old. I had met Kimberly probably a couple of months before that. We hadn’t known each other too long–through acquaintances, through the church we went to, but the summer before I went into foster care, I had been a part of her small group at a church camp, and we shared a lot about our lives, and we got really close through that experience.
Kimberly: I think Amber had come to figure out that I was someone that she could trust.
Amber: Whenever we came back from church camp, I confided into Kimberly about things that were going on at my house. I felt empowered by her believing in me and believing what I was telling her. I took that and went to school and got the ball rolling and ended up in foster care.
Kimberly: The day that Amber went to her school counselor and disclosed the abuse type of thing that was going on in her home, she was in our local shelter for three days.
Amber: Kimberly, as soon as I told her my plan and what was going to do and what I felt I had to do, from the get-go she was just very supportive. She immediately started trying to figure out what she could do to help and how to get me taken care of and make sure I was OK.
Kimberly: There was just something in me that just wasn’t going to let her have the same experience that I had had. I had gone into foster care and very much felt, at 17, like just everyone had given up on me. I just wasn’t going to let that happen to her.
When she was taken into care, I reached out to the social workers and said, “We would love to have Amber come stay with us if she needs a place to stay, you don’t need to place her with strangers or take her away from her school district or any of those things, we’re willing to help.” I had four children, and my son was already out of the house and in the Air Force and I had three teenage daughters at home that were all in high school. They knew Amber as well. My family and I went through the initial process to be approved. They considered us a kinship placement just because I already had a relationship with Amber.
Amber: I had to kind of adjust to the rest of our family, my dad, and my siblings. My sisters were really great. They really welcomed me right away, but having someone as a mentor and as a close friend is different than having them as a parent. There were little things that I had to learn along the way.
Kimberly: At that time, it just didn’t dawn on me that there would be life lessons that were taught to my kids at a much younger age, just life skills.
Amber: I thought I was very self-sufficient and moving into a house full of like functional people taught me how little self-sufficiency I actually knew. That was a big thing in the transition was just learning how to actually take care of myself and take care of my things and be respectful of the things in the household and of the people.
Kimberly: Amber didn’t realize that she needed to brush her hair on a regular basis. She didn’t know how to load a dishwasher or really even properly wash dishes by hand. I think just basic personal hygiene was something that we talked about, manners and being courteous and different things, not to say that she was rude or anything like that. Amber was a great kid before she came to me.
Amber: Being adopted even after I aged out was really important in solidifying my place in the family. I had already known, pretty early on, that these were my people, and they were my family and they were going to be the ones I drove home from college every weekend to see.
I think having just that these are my people, my birth certificate has mom and dad and their names. Even though I knew, in my heart, who my mom and dad and my siblings and my family were, that was still just a really important move for me to be able to see that in writing and have that recognized in a court of law.
Kimberly: There’ve been a lot of times when I’ve heard people say to me and other foster parents, “Oh my gosh, what a blessing you are to this child.” Amber was the blessing, before she got to me, when she got to me, after she got to me. I didn’t make Amber a blessing. She was already a great kid. She was already a great person. What she didn’t have was a great chance. Every time I hear that it just goes all over me because the reality of that is the blessing is the child.
April Dinwoodie: For this episode, “How to Give Grace,” we are talking to Debbie Riley, the CEO and co-founder of the Center for Adoption Support and Education, CASE. Trauma, grief, and loss are three foundational elements of adoption that don’t always get the attention they need. Debbie, I want to start with how you describe grief and loss as attached to adoption.
Debbie Riley: Our children who have been separated from birth families and birth family extended family members and people and places and things that were so important to them. Those separations, those losses, come with a lot of pain and a lot of angst that often is minimized, is misunderstood, and not addressed, not given an opportunity for expression.
April Dinwoodie: I know we don’t like talking about it, but why is it so important that we do acknowledge and validate those losses?
Debbie Riley: This loss is so different than any other loss that I’ve supported as a therapist that I think society sees differently. I think that it’s less socially recognized. We celebrate the fact that we are providing an opportunity for permanency for children. It’s lifelong, it can be intergenerational, and what I’ve learned is that there are very few rituals or ways to commemorate the loss.
If we think about our own life experiences where we’ve been faced with a significant loss, or we’re supporting someone through a loss, we tend to struggle with how do we approach the individual? What do we say? How are they going to feel? Are we going to make them feel worse if we talk about it, if we acknowledge it?
I see that we’re not comfortable in articulating thoughts and feelings around loss. We don’t have the words. We don’t have the experience, or if we have experience, we don’t know how to build upon those experiences.
April Dinwoodie: Why is it so important for parents to acknowledge that grief and loss?
Debbie Riley: It’s critical that parents acknowledge, affirm, and find ways to communicate with their children around the grief and loss. What’s different in some ways about this loss, it’s ambiguous and that, often, there’s no closure. Sometimes I think parents don’t feel like they have to attend to it as they would the kinds of losses that they’ve experienced because there’s been finality in the losses that they’ve experienced.
For most of our children, there isn’t really finality. It’s not that the birth parents or birth family members are no longer here–they didn’t die. It makes it ambiguous because there’s uncertainty around that loss, and there’s a potential for reversing that loss. That there could come a time in the adoptees’ life that they will have a different connection or reconnect with those that they’ve been suffering their losses of.
April Dinwoodie: There’s been a lot of conversation on this podcast series about the “both” “and” of adoption. It’s about looking at the things we want to celebrate about a new family connection, the extension of a family, but it’s not without a deep, very purposeful dive into some of the harder parts like grief and loss. How can understanding the grief and loss lead to healing for the child and also some healing that parents have to do as well?
Debbie Riley: I think if the parent can wrap around that no matter how much our children love us, feel safe with us, that they’ve lost significant people and other things in their life, historically. They’re coming into this with some pretty profound loss, then to understand that, with any loss, there’s a separation. That separation creates a lot of anxiety and fear, and with a separation, there is a grief.
We’re not affording our children, young adults, adoptees, the opportunity to really have a safe place, an affirming place, to acknowledge those powerful feelings of grief. My belief is that it’s very difficult for children, particularly children coming from foster care to embrace new attachments when they haven’t been given the opportunity to grieve the ones that they’ve been separated from.
April Dinwoodie: Now that we’ve laid a good foundation for why loss and grief must be acknowledged, what does grieving look like for a child, and what happens if those losses are not grieved?
Debbie Riley: Children grieve through behaviors. It’s very unlikely that a seven or an eight-year-old is going to walk out of their room and come into a kitchen and sit down with a parent and say, “I’m feeling really sad today because I’m thinking about my birth mom,” or, “Next Saturday, Sunday is Mother’s Day and I’ve been making a card for you, and it’s making me feel sad because I’m thinking about my birth mother.”
They will show you, through behavior, their grief, and often it looks like misbehavior. They may be disrespectful. They may slam a door. They could say something hurtful to you. It is how they’re showing us that they’re in pain.
My experience has been that, too often, we run to deal with the behavior, but we never look at what’s underneath. If we lifted it up a bit, underneath are children that are grieving. It’s hard, it’s hard for professionals like myself to sit with that grief and that pain. It’s even harder for parents because the job of a parent—I think I spoke about this earlier—is to try to fix everything, to take away the pain.
In adoption, we can’t take it away. As you said earlier, we can affirm and we can support the feelings and the grief, but we can’t take away those separations that have occurred and the impact of those separations.
April Dinwoodie: Debbie, isn’t there real science behind this in terms of the impact of grief, loss, and trauma on the neuro-biological development of the brain?
Debbie Riley: Yes. We know a lot about the impact on trauma on the normal developmental experiences of children are then disrupted. We know that trauma can overwhelm the brain, and whether it’s in utero or early in the years of the child’s development, and any positive early experiences can really be trumped by traumatic events. Again, the separation from parents is the most traumatic event for children.
April Dinwoodie: Oftentimes, grownups and parents look at the behavior and not what is driving that behavior. How can parents get more in tune with what may be manifesting in behaviors that’s really rooted in grief, loss, and trauma?
Debbie Riley: I think parents can become more in tune by first acknowledging that our children are grieving, and that loss, as you said before, is just a part of adoption. Then understand that, oftentimes, you will see the grief through certain behaviors. If your child is going along and things are pretty stable and they are who they normally are, and then one day they wake up and you begin to see some [adverse] behaviors or you see that they’re withdrawing, or maybe they’re more anxious, or maybe they’re crying over something that’s just ridiculous like, “Why would they cry over this?”
Any change in behavior from the norm may be a red flag to say, “Well, something’s going on, and it is likely that maybe what I’m seeing is something in relationship to grief. I’ve learned about that. I’m aware that our children will grieve at different times in their life around these losses.”
April Dinwoodie: Once you see that a child is outside of their normal operating system, is activated, is anxious, is sad, and there’s not a real driving force that you can see, what are some things that parents can do?
Debbie Riley: I think you pose questions, open-ended questions. “I noticed that you seem so sad today and yesterday, can you tell me maybe a little bit about what that’s about, or could it be that, in fact, you were supposed to have a call with your birth mom on Wednesday and it didn’t happen? I’m just wondering how you’re feeling about it. Or could it be that Sunday is Mother’s Day, and I know on Mother’s Day I think about your birth mother. I’m wondering if you think about her?”
Recently, I was supporting a family who’s parenting [and] just received custody of their grandson. They shared that he just blurted out, “I hate you and I wish I wasn’t here. Why can’t I be with my other grandmother?” I asked the mom, “What did you do and what did you say?” She said, “I didn’t do anything.” We had a conversation about what that meant to him by not saying anything, and what it meant for her in feeling like she didn’t know what to say.
I think that’s where parents get stuck. “If I ask them how they’re feeling and they tell me, then what do I do? How do I make them feel better?” What the kids tell me all the time is, “I just wanted somebody to listen.” They’re sometimes wiser than we are. It’s like, “I know you can’t fix this for me, but at least let me have my feelings and affirm them for me.”
April Dinwoodie: What are some things that parents need to do in order to understand this healing process that they’re a part of and that they need to go through as well?
Debbie Riley: Many of the parents that we’re also supporting have not resolved some of their previous losses, particularly when you are working with individuals or couples who came into adoption around infertility, where they’ve yet to mourn or grieve the loss of a child. I know I’ve worked with so many women who went through infertility treatments, had many miscarriages, and never gave themselves the permission, or they weren’t supported to acknowledge the power of that loss.
When you have these unresolved losses and you have a child that’s grieving, then you’ve got two parties in the same place and it’s really hard for one to help the other. We always say to the parent, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” We have to be able to help individuals and couples acknowledge their own unresolved losses and help move towards some kind of healing so they can be available to their children’s losses, and also recognize how one triggers the other.
April Dinwoodie: That leads us to this very important conversation about connections to family of origin, the birth family, and how parents can commit to openness as a way in which to continue on that path to healing. How do you help families keep those connections – even when it’s challenging to family of origin and birth family – so that a child, a teen, a young adult can heal, make relationship with the family that is still, in many ways, connected to them?
Debbie Riley: Some children may have never met the birth family but their connection, emotionally and psychologically, is just as strong as if they had been with them or had a physical relationship as well.
I think it’s also helping parents address their fears around the connections. I see that often as a barrier, that I’m afraid that I’m competing with someone else for the child’s love and commitment and connections. I’m afraid that if I open the door, that they can’t love more than one person, or I can’t share them with more than one person.
They feel really threatened, which then creates a challenging situation for the child or the teen where they feel like they’re then struggling with these divided loyalties. “If I let my adoptive parents know that I really want to spend more time with my birth dad, are they going to be upset with me? Are they going to think that now I love him more than I love you all and maybe I don’t even want to be with you anymore?”
There’s just a lot of misperceptions and, I think, fears that have to be addressed around this so that we can provide, again, a safe, emotional place for these connections to be nurtured and grow and ebb and flow. They will ebb and flow from time to time in the lifespan of an adoptee.
April Dinwoodie: What would you say is some of the most inspiring work you see in supporting families and teens and young people who are in this extended family of foster care and adoption, what’s helpful for you?
Debbie Riley: One piece that’s helpful for me is maintaining connections or considering connections. I see children struggle less when the connections are made available or can continue, particularly around their own sense of identity and sense of self-esteem. I understand that parents fear, it’s not safe. Oftentimes, something might happen in a birth family where the decision or someone makes the decision that the child is not safe in this environment anymore and they move into care, but people change and people grow. Maybe that birth parent was in a really bad place then but 5 to 10 years later, they’re in a whole different place with this incredible opportunity to be able to have a relationship and to open those connections.
April Dinwoodie: Yes, the safety of children is the centerpiece of all of this, but there are also ways to keep connection to family of origin or birth family in conversation. Just because someone had a challenging life experience or made difficult decisions that may have resulted in the separation or relinquishment, they could have had different character traits that are points of pride, that are really amazing to know about and connect to a child in a way that is a celebration of where they come from.
Debbie Riley: It’s really an integration. I talk about this very intricate beautiful tapestry of what are all the blending threads that help make up the child – where they came from the past, the present, and the future. You’re right, there are some… The kids will talk about this. I’m aware that there are some really negative characteristics that I don’t want to connect with about my birth parent, but there’s also some things that they have given me that’s very positive that makes up who I am that I want to embrace, I want to cherish, I want to honor.
I think that sometimes it’s hard. It goes back to the earlier question about what parents can do is, I’ve heard parents say over and over again, “I can’t even begin to think about being open about openness or really forging these relationships when that individual hurt my child so badly, I can’t go there.” We’re saying, you need to go there. That yes, there were some maybe not so good things, but you need to give your child the opportunity to learn what are some of the positive things about their birth parents or birth family members because if only the negative is what they know, that’s the only thing that they can integrate into their sense of self.
April Dinwoodie: Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about the benefits of leaning into complexity versus turning away from it?
Debbie Riley: What I would say is that when you’re struggling as a parent, maybe you know what the course is that you have to take but when you start walking the path, it’s scary, it’s unsettling, the foundation doesn’t feel solid. I want parents to know that there are competent supports out there in the community now. And you asked me what I feel really excited about. We now are seeing the value of what we call adoption competent mental health supports. You can’t do it alone and you don’t need to do it alone.
I think we have to do more and more to communicate that there are professionals out there that know how to guide and that it’s not a sign of weakness or parental failure when you do so but rather, I think it’s just bringing another person along the journey to help enrich the process. What a privilege and honor it is to be able to do that.
April Dinwoodie: Debbie, thank you for doing that work and all you do and for all you know and for the leadership you embody.
Debbie Riley: Thank you. I’ll just end on this, is that we need to be open to hearing from those with lived experience and I think about where did I learn everything that I’ve learned that I’m talking to you about today. It’s really from those with lived experiences from the kids in the families that I’ve worked with over the past 30 years, it wasn’t from a book. I’m sharing with you what they’ve taught me and I’m passing it on, and I really appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts today, and thank you for that opportunity.
April Dinwoodie: I want to thank Amber and Kimberly for continuing their conversation with me because it’s this sharing and vulnerability and information that will help educate others about foster care and adoption.
Amber, I’m going to start with you. It seems to me that you and Kimberly were building a relationship long before you were adopted, that your relationship actually began when you were in church camp attending the small group meetings in Kimberly’s home. What was it about Kimberly that made you say to yourself, “This is someone I can trust and confide in?”
Amber: Having Kimberly and her family show me kindness even though I was the exact person that they would not want to hang out around. I wanted to push anyone that was doing something productive with their life. I wanted nothing to do with. [chuckles] They still showed me so much kindness and allowed me in their home.
There were times where Kimberly would catch me smoking by the trash can on the main street and she would just pull up and still it wasn’t like, “What do you think you’re doing?” It was like, “How are you doing, Amber? How are things going? I miss you. I can’t wait to see you at my house for the next small group.” I’m like, “I’m not stupid, I know she just saw what I was doing,” but there was no judgment or anger or punishment, there was just grace.
Kimberly: I’d like to say something about that, just from my perspective, and I mean, this isn’t going to be a shock to Amber because she’s heard me say it before. From her viewpoint, that looked like I became this different person when I moved in, and I don’t think that’s what happened at all. I think that she became who she always was. I think that Amber is naturally a rule follower. I think that Amber is naturally a very good student and highly motivated, and very ambitious, extremely intelligent.
I think that Amber has always been all those things, but it’s very, very hard to live in that when your entire environment doesn’t just give you a fair opportunity to grow and nourish and flourish in that, and all those other behaviors, part of it was just survival. You’re just going to get through your day however you can, and when you’re 15 and there’s no support and you’re ill-equipped, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.
I made so many mistakes at 15, I made some this morning and I’m 53, so I mean, it is what it is, right? We’re human. I think it’s important that– maybe I am just saying this for Amber, I don’t know – she didn’t become this great person the day she moved into our house, she was already this great person. All we did was give her a place to be who she really already was.
April Dinwoodie: Amber, it sounds like Kimberly is the type of person who has shown up for you time after time, which seems especially important after you entered the foster care system and every time you had to go to family court. Would you be willing to share how you were feeling during these very difficult times, or Kimberly was there and supported you in those moments?
Amber: Yes. Kimberly supported me at every court date. She was always showing up and not even just showing up, but showing out if I needed it. You know what I mean? Being adopted after I had aged out was a new beginning for me and for my family. Actually, it’s funny. I have the day that I moved in with Kimberly and then the day that I was adopted, I have both those dates tattooed on my feet. As my path. Those two days were significant contributors to the path I ended up walking down.
April Dinwoodie: I love that. Then, Kimberly, just real quick on that, how did that make you feel when Amber tattooed those two very significant dates on her body as a way to honor that path forward with you as her mom?
Kimberly: It’s still very emotional for me to know that decisions that we made were so significant to her, that those dates matter as much to her as they matter to me, because I feel like those are the days that my daughter came home. I hate that the path to get here was so hard for her, but at the same time, I look at where she is in her life right now and all the things that she’s doing in her daily life right now, and I just have so much pride.
I’m so proud of who she is and the way she lives her life and the things that are important to her, and the way that she’s making a difference in the lives of other kids who are going through trauma just like she did. I have this mantra that I have come to live my life by and that’s “don’t waste your pain”. That’s what I try to do, and I see her doing that and I tell her all the time she is my favorite overcomer. She is my absolute favorite overcomer.
April Dinwoodie: Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that. With that in mind before we close, Amber, where have those two feet taken you? Where are you now? What are you doing? How are you contributing to the world with your amazing self?
Amber: Actually, while I was adopted, I was currently a student. I went on a debate scholarship and I graduated with my bachelor’s in criminal justice. I actually went on to get my master’s degree in behavioral science. I just graduated with that, and currently, I’m a child welfare specialist for the state of Oklahoma. I’m a CPS investigator, and I am hopeful to one day get into law school and do some policy work at a federal level for child welfare.
I’ve completed a lot of goals. I always say I’m two degrees down one to go. It was always a really great thing because the statistics are just so discouraging when you look at how many kids who age out are able to graduate and finish school. I’ve always wanted to just encourage other kids who are in my position. A lot of times when you first get into foster care it’s like, “This is as bad as it can get. You’re at the lowest. It can only get better from here.” I always try really hard to give that support.
April Dinwoodie: What a lovely sentiment, Amber. Can I just say, wow, you certainly have accomplished so, so much in your professional life. Outside of a career what’s life like when you’re not working?
Amber: I’m engaged to be married, I’m planning a wedding. We just bought our house.
April Dinwoodie: I knew there was more.
Amber: Yes, it’s all paid off and everything, so that’s great.
April Dinwoodie: I love that so much. The two of you, now we know some things to look forward to. We have a wedding, we have a new home, we have lots of things to anticipate. Kimberly, what are you most looking forward to as you continue to take these steps forward as mother and daughter and family?
Kimberly: I think like most moms, I’m just looking forward to sharing her wedding day with her. We recently had a beautiful day together where we bought her wedding dress and that was a huge highlight for me as a mom to be able to do that for her. I’m excited to experience the wedding and to just be with her as she grows as a wife and hopefully someday as a mom, because I think she’s going to be an incredible parent. I’m also really excited to just witness, so being her mom it’s just a great gig.
April Dinwoodie: Thank you both for what you have shared in this conversation and what I know will be an inspiration to so many that have listened.
Kimberly: Thank you, also.
April Dinwoodie: If you are interested in adopting a teen from foster care, AdoptUSKids has adoption specialists ready to guide you through that process right now. Learn more by visiting adoptuskids.org.
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