What Social Workers Need to Know When Working with Adoptive Families

Social workers have been an ever-present part of my family. Over the course of 13 years, we have parented 7 children from foster care, 5 of whom we adopted. In that time, we have had countless social workers in and out of our lives. Some have been rock-stars and stepped-up for our family and kids, advocated and pulled strings. Others have been toxic and blatantly destructive to our well-being. And the vast majority have fallen somewhere in the middle – neither appreciably helpful, nor actively working against us. Though these workers were generally decent people with their hearts in the right place, I’ve been struck by how much even caring and well-meaning social workers can be unintentionally damaging. If you consider yourself one of the good ones, you may be surprised to find some of your own actions reflected in the words below. Social workers do not have to be cruel and calculating to wreak havoc. In fact, I’ve come to believe that for some, it is in fact their compassion for the particular child on their caseload that is the main pitfall. This narrow focus creates tunnel-vision that ignores deep concerns about the child and how their behavior can impact their families, their communities and the child’s own well-being.

Social workers were our teammates for the joyous process of adoption.* And for those of us with kids who were adopted with severe emotional disorders, or those children who sadly develop them along the way, social workers become virtually omnipresent in our lives. Few families have the resources to manage such challenges on their own and are inevitably forced to look to the system to help. It is a humbling experience to admit that you don’t have the capacity, whether financial, physical or emotional to handle a child without this support. And virtually no one appreciates having people outside their families making decisions for them, judging their parenting, and having control over their lives.

Most social workers and adoptive families share much in common. We both ostensibly love kids and want to make life better for them and hope that with the right interventions the child’s suffering will ease and they will go on to live productive and happy lives. Social workers are there to be part of the adoptive families’ support system and to help access the interventions that might bring forth the change we seek. Adoptive parents generally know that love is not enough to fix whatever is wrong, but we deep down believed that with time, commitment and support, their goodness will emerge and we will all end up singing kumbaya. It is what keeps us going. Most social workers believe in kumbaya, too. So, proceeding from the notion that social workers and others (probation officers, behavioral aids, etc.) are here to help us, why do we so often feel hurt, humiliated and misunderstood after interacting with them?

It is when things start going terribly awry that the clashes between adoptive families and their support people begins. The parents gradually gain the insight that something is wrong and no amount of effort on their part is making it better. The kids really don’t seem to care about how we feel and what we think, how much we’re trying, and all that we do for them. They have suffered terribly in one way or another before we became their parents and now it’s our turn to suffer. They don’t do this because they are inherently bad or evil people. They do this because the hurt and the trauma that they suffered was so profound that their brains rewired themselves to be adept at pure physical survival, not emotional or social connection. The very thing that helped them to endure their rough beginnings is what creates such disconnect with the families who adopt them.  

The social workers who we turn to for help typically begin by going through a standard written or mental checklist that makes fairly quick determinations of what is going on. These checklists are either created for neurotypical kids or kids who have very obvious and socially-recognized disabilities, like autism or schizophrenia. This perspective is exceedingly unhelpful for most adoptive families who social workers will see because the kids often come across as intelligent, well-behaved and/or not-at-all disabled or emotionally disordered. On the other hand, the parents will often come across as stressed, frustrated and overwhelmed. The contrast seems so clear and undeniable. These kids often come from heart-wrenching backgrounds that easily move anyone toward sympathy. This background information should inform the worker about the inherent challenges that this child will be facing, because common sense (let alone science) dictates that people who have been through horrible stuff have consequences from that. In all too many situations, this information is not used to understand how difficult the situation for the adoptive family (including parents, other children, extended family and even the pets) has taken-on, quite the contrary in my experience. Their heart breaks for the kid who seems misunderstood, unfairly maligned and has angry or despondent parents without a lot of good to say about them. This empathy, combined with the way we procedurally structure cases as focusing on each individual, tends to create tunnel vision where the child is almost unilaterally not held responsible for their behavior and the parents are viewed as omnipotent beings who simply must do better and all will be well. The complexity and difficulty of caring for seriously mentally-ill people becomes lost as social workers lay out their plans for how to make it all better, often with inadequate comprehension of the real dynamics and limited insight as to what the parents have already tried. They do not really know us and often have little humility about that fact. Furthermore, nearly all the social workers who we’ve been involved with seem to be oblivious as to the ways in which these children can manipulate them, thus making them an unwitting tool in the destruction of the adoptive family.

All of this is so shocking to the parents who know their assessment is false. This negative interpretation of the parents while simultaneously denying legitimate concerns about the child then becomes a vicious cycle. Once an agency’s judgment is made, anything and everything that the parents do or communicates with workers is viewed through the lens of dysfunction and further confirms the social worker’s initial analysis (i.e. confirmation bias).  

My own experience over these past few years has taught me how incredibly destructive this dynamic can be as it essentially destroyed my family as we had so carefully nurtured it over many turbulent years. My two oldest, very challenging kids who had a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis since before we adopted them spiraled out-of-control in their older teenage years. And yet there was no substantive help that might have saved us or at least salvaged some of the goodness that we all had worked so hard to achieve. The heartbreak of what has happened to my kids as a result of ineffective social services is driving this article forward. This writing is extremely personal. And yet, to a more or less extent it is nearly universal to adopted families with complex kids. Most will thankfully not endure the level of pain that we did, but many will endure more.

This lack of support for families is one of the greatest moral crises facing social service agencies – and that is that by ignoring the very real concerns about the behavior of traumatized kids, agencies deny them the help they need and put them and their adoptive families at risk. Moreover, when others hear of and see our situations, it reverberates out as a negative feeling toward adoption and hampers recruitment of adoptive parents. These are issues that human services must grapple with in order to do right by the kids in the system, the parents who sign-up and the community at large of which these kids are a part. Here is my open letter to you, social workers –

#1 – We desperately need your help.  

Life with an emotionally disordered child, particularly one with attachment disorder, is profoundly hard. And, it is excruciating to say that because it often feels like saying this out loud is just not ok. But whether or not social workers want to acknowledge it, this is the truth. I was a very prepared parent, theoretically, before I adopted. I had read all about everything I could for years and attended hours of training. And yet nothing could have truly prepared me for the actual experience of parenting traumatized children with severe emotional and behavior disorders. When every trick and technique we have heard of has not worked, we need reinforcements to keep enduring this difficult journey as best as we can, for ourselves, our struggling child and our other kids.

It is a well-known fact that parents of kids with any degree of special needs will have higher rates of stress, depression and anxiety than parents of non-disabled and neurotypical kids. Since adopting from foster care or overseas orphanages is typically called “special needs adoption” it should not be a mystery that the families who adopt these children will be subjected to personal challenges as a result. Families of adopted kids are also highly susceptible to secondary trauma, which is the stress that can arise when someone continually interacts with others who have been traumatized. This secondary trauma is difficult enough, but when it combines with our kids’ intense emotional and behavioral dysregulation, the magnitude of the it all is substantially compounded. We experience extreme and near constant behavior challenges, some of which would look and feel a whole lot like domestic violence if our child were an adult. The family can even be left with post-traumatic stress disorder from it all. One fairly mild, but daily issue that I struggle with is that every time my phone rings I have an anxiety response since I never know how my day or my entire life could change as a result of a call.

Rather than making is feel like we are inadequate or are personally failing for experiencing distress, show us genuine concern, normalize our feelings, and treat us as people who also deserve your concern. Acknowledging our kids’ struggles and the real challenges we face parenting them can go a very long way toward easing the tension between us. This need for understanding is especially true for the other kids in our homes. The siblings are dealing with incredibly high stress levels, often with abusive or at least disruptive siblings that make their lives harder and sadder than any kids’ life should be. When my youngest three kids expressed concern for their safety because of their siblings, their worries were entirely ignored. This fear and toxic stress can have lifelong consequences, and they deserve your warmth and advocacy just as much as the child on your caseload.

#2 – We need to be believed.

Most of us present one way to the world and another way to those closest to us. But for children with severe emotional disorders, the difference is like night and day. They can turn on the charm and show their absolutely impressive best sides to you, while five minutes later becoming unimaginably cruel to us. I know that this is hard to believe when someone seems so endearing and your heart breaks for them anyway. You want to see the best in them and truly believe that if their parents did that too, they would be cured. This complete split in how they treat their families and people who are safely emotionally distant is quite well documented in the population of kids we have adopted. The sweet, delightful kid you work with is not the same person in our houses and it’s not because we are uncaring or incompetent. Remember, we had a period of time where they treated us like that too and it switched when they got too close and the emotional stakes were too real.

If you treat us like we are deceitful, untrustworthy and uncaring, you cut off your own capacity to help. If you frame the problem as lying with the parents, you do not have to seek out services, resources, programs, etc. to help the kids. With this mindset you do not have to show the parents compassion or concern, because they are the problem. You do not have to hold the kid accountable for their behavior, because the parent is either lying or exaggerating, and really, the poor kid only did it as a cry for help because the parents are so awful. This line of reasoning is not lost on these kids. Kids who have been through trauma are exceedingly skilled at sizing people up, including their social workers. If they see that the workers blame and do not believe the parents, the disturbed child will see this as a green light to behave however they want. Thus the child’s behavior grows increasingly worse and the cycle intensifies. My daughter’s behavior became so unmanageable and it got to the point that she would routinely threaten me with telling social workers things that she admitted (to me) were lies.

#3 – You might be one of the only persons who we can talk to.

Most adoptive parents of high-needs kids have the same experience – friends and family fall away. The challenges are just too hard for people to process, so avoiding it is much easier. And venting to people can bring forth the inevitable, “You did this to yourself!” comments, as if choosing to adopt difficult kids was so stupid that we are not deserving of their compassion. Or even better, “Why don’t you just get rid of them?” as if they are a dog who can brought back to the shelter. Most of us have therapists, but the immense emotional load of it all cannot be neatly contained to a once a week session for an hour. And when we are talking with you, we are generally talking about our kids, thus triggering what can be an avalanche of emotion pouring out. If we are lucky, over time we make connections with other adoptive families or other real friends who can be there for us and that helps a lot. But sadly, through various times in my life, I had no time for friends anyway because the behavior problems were all-consuming and social workers were my main lifeline outside of my house.

#4 – We expect that you will be educated on these issues.

Over the years, we have found such an unimaginable lack of basic education on matters related to trauma, prenatal exposure and attachment that the process of trying to educate and explain becomes draining. We are turning to you as an expert. We expect that you will know as much or more as we do about these issues.  We should not be your teacher. We have enough on our plates.

That being said, we have likely spent years doing a deep dive into a lot of ins and outs of our particular child’s condition that, very understandably, you do not have the time or energy for.  But even with intensive education, unless you are an adoptive parent, you cannot really understand what it it like to live this life, which is where #2 “We Need to be Believed” comes in. You need to have a really solid understanding of the basics and some humility. And when we bring our knowledge to the table this should be welcomed and not threatening. Once when I was trying to defend myself as being knowledgeable on a particular issue about which the social worker and I disagreed, I was told incredibly derisively “We know you know a lot.” as if I was simply trying to one-up her. The facts were denied and no further research was done. If you disagree with us about a particular subject, Google it yourself before you assume that we don’t know what we are talking about and dismiss us.  

#5 –  When we tell the truth about our lives and our children, this does not mean that we do not love them or lack commitment.

Dealing with what our children do day in and day out requires love and commitment that runs very deep. You are the one who is here to help us, right? So, shouldn’t we be able to tell you everything that is going on so that we can try to get the help we need? In my experience, telling social workers about what is really going on at home backfires and gets used as ammunition against us to further cement the workers’ original views of the family. This atmosphere creates self-censorship as the adoptive parents come to view most social workers as either not helpful or detrimental.

Hearing the litany of difficult behaviors and situations pouring out of our mouths due to weeks, months or years of pent-up frustration pushes social workers’ buttons. You feel bad when we do not describe our problems delicately and with an effusion of niceties explaining how we do love them and understand that the terrible things they have been through are the cause of their behavior. Let’s just get this out there – we understand the root causes, we are profoundly empathetic of how sad their story is and we are committed to them. But we are living this and we are frazzled (to put it mildly), so knowing the underlying cause really does not make it easier and we do not have the emotional energy to tiptoe around your feelings. Can we just have an agreement that if we have stuck by our kid for years and keep trying to parent them that we do in fact possess all the good stuff that you expect, but that it is not coming across in our time of crisis? And can you acknowledge that love and commitment are not enough to solve the problems we are facing?  

Also, please quit asking me to tell you about the good things. Though there are lots of good things about my kid, you are not here because of the good things. You are here because things are awful and we need help. Either ignoring or minimizing our stress or berating us because you believe we should handle it better is simply inhumane and seems to me to go against everything you went into this line of work for in the first place. Give us some support to make our lives a little more manageable and this will give us emotional space to be able tell you what we love about our kids and the good things that help us keep putting one foot in front of the other.

#6 – We don’t speak social work.

You have your own specific acronyms, and ways of speaking and understanding things, just as all professions do. But when you are talking to us, please consider that we are not always going to know what you mean. For example, I once kept asking a question in a meeting to clarify the county’s position and they kept answering over and over again, “We don’t have an open case for your son.” I could never understand what that meant, but vitally needed to understand in order to know how to proceed. Our lives were dangling by a thread and they kept repeating the same unhelpful phrase!

Break things down into language that everyday people can understand. Do not assume that we know what programs are available, what certain phrases mean or what it takes to qualify for this or that. In addition to not speaking your language, we also do not understand your procedures. We are generally intelligent, thoughtful and reasonable people, who truly want and very much need to know what is going on. Always being in the dark feels so frustrating and disempowering when what we need is less stress in order to be the best parents we can be.

#7 – No, we are not triggering them.  

Ok, let’s be real. Sometimes we do, just as any parent will occasionally handle a situation poorly.  

But, these children do not turn into raging, mean, or out-of-control persons because we are in general doing something to them that makes them that way. The main trigger is that the children are re-enacting a heartbreaking cycle whereby their fear of intimacy is the trigger. Adoptive parents love their kids and want warm and caring relationships. This attempt at closeness is frightening and triggers their deep-seated trauma from all those disrupted and abusive relationships that came before their new parents ever arrived on the scene. Similar to how loud noises like fireworks can set-off a veteran’s PTSD, simply loving our kids sparks their pain. Ironically, a common accusation from social workers is that we insufficiently love our children and that is why they struggle. This claim is particularly cruel because we often feel completely trapped in the cycle of our own desires to connect, our child’s push back, and the social workers naive opinion that we need to love them more. This judgment from workers can make us feel guilty and thus try even harder, and then we get even more castigation from our kid. We cannot exist in the same space as our kids and not trigger them, let alone actually try to parent them.

This whole article is written with the caveat that I do very much realize that there are troubled parents out there that are fueling the fire and it is challenging for you to sort that out. And certainly parental resentment does not help any situation. But more often than not, you are seeing a parent who is at the end of their emotional rope after a very long journey of attempting to connect with their child, find resources that will help, reading every article they could find, trying out every recommendation and completely exhausting themselves all the while feeling like no one has their back and nothing works. At a certain point we have got to shift our focus somewhat to self-preservation. When it feels like we’re doing all the work and our kid does not seem to be substantively trying to make their own lives better (particularly once those kids reach the older teen years), it would be foolish to not attend to our own needs and the needs of our other kids. See the “Sorting out Family Dynamics” section at the end of this article to help you determine what is going on in a family, because certainly no decent person wants a child, no matter how difficult, to live in a situation where they are being mistreated. But social workers must tread carefully lest they do more harm than good.

#8 – Yes, we have skills.  

We have read more than you could possibly know, called and talked with anyone we could, watched videos, taken trainings, and turned our values and our way of thinking inside out to try to make things better. There are things that can make a bit of a difference around the edges of particular situations, but parenting these kids requires the very long view. Things may not get better, ever. Or things might not gel until the kid is a middle-aged adult. With less troubled kids these techniques can work amazingly well and really turn stuff around. But with the hardest kids often nothing seems to truly effect change. Chances are, if you spoke to us about all the various methods we use to diffuse this or that situation, we could run circles around nearly any parent of a neurotypical kid. We have to be flexible, adept, and self-reflective to even have the slightest hope of making life bearable. Please talk to us about what we do, what we have tried and what we know, rather than telling us how we need to do better. We can work together to brainstorm potential solutions, bringing together your resources and knowledge with our experience with our individual child.

#9 – Your meetings can be painful and often feel like a waste of time.

I know that you have to have the meetings. We get that programs require you to sign off every so often for having seen your client. But please know that we are likely dealing with quite a few different social workers, support persons, doctors, therapists, school officials, etc. and we have a lot of meetings that we need to attend. So please show us respect by coming to the meetings with resources in mind that might help us. Actually bring the research about programs or options that we have asked you to bring. Listen to us at the meeting when we tell you what is going on and help us come up with solutions. Be open to hearing what we have to say. Do not give us a list of things to do that we are already doing. Your role should not be to create even more work for us, but to help us with the existing unmanageable workload. And though it should go without saying, if you are taking notes, create accurate notes of the meeting that reflect our position. I once asked 3 times for something to be written down only to have the meeting end without it ever having been entered into the minutes. Another time we mentioned something that we had tried and did not work, but the notes indicated that we had “refused” that option. Both these times it was very disheartening and added to our lack of trust.

#10 – You are not our child’s friend.

You are our child’s social worker. You are not their friend or their parent. They have parents already and those parents are working very hard to manage an exceedingly difficult situation. When you approach interactions with our children from the perspective that the most important thing is having a positive relationship between the two of you, you inadvertently damage our parental relationship because you put on those empathy blinders that do not allow you to even see, let alone confront deceit, poor behavior, manipulation and destructive dynamics.

We do genuinely want you to have a good relationship. We want you to be friendly. But please understand that our children are ill and what they need most are healthy parents with resources to manage the chaos. We need for you to not continually undermine us because you want to have the warm and fuzzies with your client. Educating yourself on attachment disorder will help you understand that the number one, most important thing you can do to help that child heal is to back up their parents. When our kids work to triangulate you against us, realize that you’re being played and by allowing that, you further their illness. When our kids swear at us, say cruel things to us and work to humiliate us in front of you, speak up on our behalf. You do not have to upbraid them, but an even-keeled “That’s not a kind way to speak to people.” or, “Let’s set some ground rules about how we communicate.” would go a long way toward making it clear that you will not be manipulated, that you support their parents and you will not play their game. Further, when they lie to you, an equally even statement that you are aware of the lie, without engaging in an argument about it also creates the appropriate professional boundaries. During one particularly unpleasant meeting where I was trying to rally resources, my daughter repeatedly laughed at me, called me a “crazy b****” and said “f*** you” at a table with 5 professionals, including 3 social workers, her probation officer and her behavioral aid. Not a single person showed the slightest support for me, reminded her we were there to help her or that my suggestions were things that she had said she wanted. No one even gave me an empathetic glance. I was profoundly embarrassed and frustrated with how much they had fed into her worst tendencies. They were signaling that it’s ok to treat people poorly, which is what our kids struggle with the most and it furthers their destructive worldview that adults are incompetent and therefore untrustworthy. Your silence as our children lie or berate us is complicity.

#11 – You continually undermine us.

You set meetings with them without even bothering to tell us, thus keeping us out of the loop and making us play catch-up. You buy them things that we have said “no” to. When they have been behaving terribly and break the rules, you take them out for ice cream or fancy coffee. When we say what our family’s values and rules are, you tell them that we are controlling, overbearing and that we just do not understand them. When the kid makes unreasonable or inconsistent demands, you practice cognitive dissonance that these new entreaties do not contradict what they previously claimed they wanted. Then you judge us for not jumping at every whim, as if the only thing holding this kid back from mental health is our not signing them up for yet another activity.  You feed into their dysregulation and unwittingly undermine our relationship with our kids. When you do these things you are actively working against us and making our already very difficult task of getting them to take us and our parental authority seriously so much harder.

#12 – You have enormous power over our lives and that is frustrating and scary.  

There are so many programs and treatment options that we cannot access on our own because they require a social worker to make the call. We know that you are sometimes very busy with your all-too-high caseloads. We know that you have a life, trainings and other cases. and cannot always respond as quickly as we would like. But, please realize that we can be in crisis and waiting is crushing. If we are impatient, overwhelmed or rude, please try not to take it personally or as evidence that we are unstable. We are normally kind people. But things are out-of-control and you are the gatekeeper for the things we need to possibly bring sanity to our lives.  

Also, as the gatekeeper, you are the one who gets to decide if we “need” something or we do not. No matter how much we feel that something is crucial, you can decide, with no consequence to your own life that this is not something we should have. We hear “no” far more than we hear “yes”. We feel that social workers really do not understand what is going on and how desperate we are for any lifeline that tells us that somehow things will be ok. When you deny us what we’re asking, please understand that this is “just business” to you and to us it feels like a hot knife slicing through us. We are told “no” so often that it feels traumatic to even ask and these denials can be enormous blows. Try to muster some empathy when you deliver the news.

Some of you can also decide that we are so much to blame that our kids need to be taken away from us or that our kids need child protective services from us. These threats are always looming, as it’s a common refrain now among adoptive parents that it is simply a matter of when CPS will knock on our doors, not if. We know that things look crazy. We know that you may to not understand decisions we have made. We know that our kids can lie and manipulate you into thinking we are monsters. You are our support and yet we are terrified of you, with good reason. My friends and my online support communities are chock full of story after story of chilling experiences with social workers in general and child protective services, in particular. If you are under-trained, overly naive or naturally inclined toward parent shame, you are a threat. And yet we have to reach out to social workers for help for the very reasons that you might turn it into a CPS case. We are trying to get help. Talk to us, try to understand us, try to give us some benefit-of-the-doubt. We are the ones who adopted these high-needs kids, cut us some slack as we try to manage the impossible. Don’t just tell us what we shouldn’t do, but help us figure out what to do instead. If you don’t have any answers for us, as has happened a number of times over the years, you truly have no business critiquing.

Our kids have already been through a lot with social workers and are much more vulnerable than kids who have never been removed from their parents. Taking or threatening to take a child from their adoptive parents, their so-called “forever” family can inflict such severe emotional trauma that kids may not ever recover. Even having a visit from a CPS worker can be intensely anxiety producing as the children often know all too well where a CPS case can go. Remember these things as you move forward with concerns. See my list of “Sorting Out Family Dynamics” that I discussed previously and is at the end of this article.

#13 – You get to go home.

We don’t. This is our home. This is our life. At the end of your long, stressful work days trying to make the world a better place, you get to go home to a quiet house or to your attached children, where your pets and other vulnerable children are not being abused, put your purse or wallet and car keys down without thinking to lock them away, and shrug off the day’s worries. For us, our homes often feel like prisons. We have to be hypervigilant about where our kids are and what they are doing, hide our things to keep them from being stolen, practice self-centering techniques before we even walk in the door to interact with our child and desperately work to create a sense of safety and well-being for the other kids. We steel ourselves for the various broken and missing things we will inevitably find and the cruel words or dangerous behaviors that will be literally or figuratively thrown our way. Through this we have to try to find some tiny bit of joy that makes a family a family. Next time you go home, imagine for a minute what that might be like before you are so quick to dismiss our concerns as just “normal” kid behavior.

#14 – You cannot imagine our grief and our guilt.

It is near universal that when anyone becomes a parent they begin to imagine all the future milestones – losing their first tooth, starting school, prom, graduation, wedding, grandchildren, etc. No matter the age when we adopt our kids, we do the same thing. But for those of us with severely emotionally disordered kids, our lives do not quite pan out the same way and almost inevitably produce grief. The grief is from both our loss and more significantly knowing that our kids will not have those same cherished memories that many kids have. We adopted them filled with hopes and dreams, even those of us who realized that the road would be hard and long. But the road can seem so much harder and so much longer than we could ever have anticipated. We have to be able to take in this ever-present grief and somehow shrug it off to survive. We cannot stop to really process how sad it all is because we have got to keep moving. But do not doubt that the grief is there behind the scenes and makes day-to-day life harder.

Often co-mingled with our grief is our intense guilt. Raising a child with special needs seems to inevitably bring this on as we often second-guess and agonize over so many of the decisions related to our children’s care. Often our lives are so impossible that absolutely nothing feels like the right thing, particularly when we have no help. And yet decisions have to be made, somehow things need to be managed, the needs of everyone must be reflected upon, and it all falls onto our already frail shoulders. Many times even what feels like the only choice still leaves us reeling. When my son’s needs were too high to safely keep him home, we made the decision to place him in a residential treatment facility. I knew it was the only thing we could do, but it tore me apart every single day and nestled grief and guilt down in my soul.

#15 – We need you to be honest and acknowledge your mistakes.

I can scarcely believe that this is a line I need to put into this article. But I cannot deny my reality that a handful of social workers who who I have interacted with over the years have lied to us or about us and made significant mistakes that were never acknowledged. Some social workers even fail to inform the pre-adoptive family up front the challenges the child is facing, which sets the entire situation up for failure, though thankfully this was not our experience. Social workers, like all of us, are fallible humans and will make mistakes. But we need to trust you because the repercussions of you either baldly lying, withholding essential information, or manipulating us to obfuscate the truth can be devastating. In this power imbalance, you hold the cards. We have little recourse when you do things that create harm.

A social worker who was supposed to arrange for a desperately-needed respite weekend for us cancelled it with no consultation with us and without acknowledging that she had in fact been the one to cancel. I later inadvertently found out, but was so jaded I didn’t even say anything to her about it. Nevertheless, when she discovered that I knew, she accused me of going behind her back and shed all responsibility for the deception, then abruptly dropped my daughter’s mental health case. This was a huge blow as it cemented for me how destructive even a kind and caring social worker can be and it severed my already strained trust in the system’s willingness or capacity to help. Though this was far from the most egregious issue we have dealt with over the years, it was the final straw and to some extent is what inspired this article. This example is also one that I think many workers may be able to relate to because I believe that she made the decision to cancel respite thinking that she was doing the right thing. But the myopic focus on the specific child on her caseload, empathy blinders and unintentionally allowing herself to be manipulated by my daughter combined and led to serious consequences for the well-being of both my daughter and our entire family.

#16 – You hurt the kids.

No, of course you would never hurt them on purpose. You are trying to help. But by failing to recognize our inherent challenges and by doing the things I have outlined on this list, you need to accept the reality that you are hurting them. What kids need the most is to know that they have competent parents who will set limits, who will be able to withstand their manipulations and guide them toward more authentic interactions. They need to be called-out on misbehavior so that they can learn the rules of society. They need to figure out how to navigate life in a way that helps them succeed, because the world does not care that they were abused as kids once they turn into adults. Society will hold them accountable just as it does every other adult. They need to figure that out while they are young and before the stakes are so high. Parents of mentally ill and attachment disordered kids are doing everything they can to teach them how to be as successful as they can. But when social workers come into our lives and not believe us, tell us how wrong we are, undermine us and our parental authority, and empathize with the kid to the point that they can do no wrong, they are unconsciously buying into a destructive mindset. For our kids to get better, they need us to be rock-solid. It is through family relationships that these kids have hope. When you disagree with us, that discussion needs to take place privately and NEVER in front of our kids. Social workers will come and go, but we will always be there. You are not their parent, we are, and the best thing you can do to help them is to help us with the excruciatingly hard task of standing by them.

If our kids are too violent, destructive or dangerous to themselves and others that they cannot live at home, they still need families. We are their family. You would never tell the parents of a Down’s Syndrome child that if they cannot effectively parent him or her at home that you will find that child new parents. Society would be outraged. And yet, this is the false choice you present adoptive families with – either we endure the impossible and dangerous or we give up our children. Our kids need us to be their advocates, their guidance, their “home” – even if they cannot live there. Taking these kids away from us and taking us away from them simply because we are scared for our safety is immoral.

No kid deserves to be raised by social workers, especially if there are parents who are there for them. And this is all the more true because social work is a profession which has a high turnover rate. Having recurrent changes in workers further disrupts the attachment cycle of the children. Most of the kids logically invest little in these relationships because they are quite aware of the attrition rate and the need to protect their heart because once they start caring for a social worker, it is often time for them to leave. Over the course of 4 years of my son receiving case management, he had fifteen different workers from a number of different units at the county. By the time he turned eighteen he did not even bother to learn most of their names.  Also, each new worker has the nearly impossible task of educating themselves on the child, their case and their history while simultaneously making life-altering choices that may not at all be in the kids’ best interest. These kids need stable, consistent and dependable social workers who work as a team with their parents to achieve the best possible outcome.

You went into this line of work with good intentions. But you also hold so much power over our lives that you can easily destroy more than you help. Adoptive parents are essential to society’s ability to make right what has happened to kids who need families. Without us they are doomed to lives of instability with no one at their side through thick and thin. And yet, we often come out feeling like we are being pulled under with the weight of it all and social workers are pushing the life preserver ever out-of-reach. No amount of good intentions, initiative or education on your part will fix all that is broken with the funding and support systems for adopted kids and your own exhausting workload. But with appropriate humility, knowledge and perspective, you can be the lifeline that our families so desperately need. So much misunderstanding can be avoided through open and honest dialogue. Supports can be more effectively targeted when accepting the reality of our kids’ challenges. Providing opportunities to give the parents a break, which is best practice for any caregiver, could go a long way toward helping us recharge our batteries. We realize that resources are often few and far between, but at least not feeling under attack from you, we can a bit more easily weather the storms. Lowering the overall stress levels of the family can allow more opportunity for all of the family members to put their best selves forward. And even if the child does not change their behavior, other family members have more emotional bandwidth to endure.     

I keep thinking about the line from the Dave Thomas Foundation adoption recruitment posters that reads, “You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a perfect parent.” This sentiment should not simply be a tool to recruit new adoptive families. Once we commit and make them ours, we need social service agencies to have our backs so that we can be as successful as possible. Adopting is an exceedingly isolating experience because the vast majority of average people cannot deal with the complexity of mental health and interpersonal challenges that it brings. Social workers have the capacity to deal with it and help us carry our burdens. You went into this with the desire to help people because you are able to handle emotionally heavy things. You can be a part of the solution to creating and sustaining successful adoptive families. I hope you are up to the challenge because our kids deserve it.  

 

Sorting Out Family Dynamics:

When a child is troubled, it can be challenging to sort out what is going on. When parents seem angry it can be very easy to assume that the reason the kid is struggling is because the parents lack capacity. However, troubled kids, particularly those with attachment difficulties are able to manipulate social workers in a way that most kids would not. Workers must be clear-eyed about this dynamic when entering into the situation, lest they make entirely wrong judgments that can exacerbate the problems.

This list is an attempt to help social workers and other support persons begin to sort out what is going on, to help them move away from simplistic explanations and move toward a more science-based, holistic and comprehensive assessment.

  1. How many years has the child been living with them? Especially if this is a few years or more, the parents are well past the “honeymoon” phase and have been laboring in the trenches to manage the situation, thus demonstrating their commitment.
  2. How long has the child exhibited the troubling behavior? By the time that you, the social worker comes into this family’s life, these parents may already be pretty emotionally taxed through lack of support. Helping the family have a break is essential. Especially if this behavior predates placement with this adoptive family, parental incompetency should be viewed as an unlikely cause of the concerns.
  3. How much training have the parents had? If they have had extensive training already, it is doubtful that more of the same will help and pulling in additional resources should be explored.
  4. What parenting techniques, therapies, programs and alternative ideas (weighted blankets, essential oils, massage, etc.) have been tried? It is crucial for you to know what they have tried before you make recommendations about what they should do. Also, parents who have explored a wide array of things are obviously working hard to make things better and should be acknowledged as such. Adoptive parents cannot be expected to “fix” all these challenges. If a number of interventions have been tried, shifting into a management mindset might be more beneficial to all parties rather than continually seeking the silver bullet.
  5. Are the child’s behaviors consistent with their diagnoses and trauma histories? If they are, it is not reasonable to blame the adoptive parents as if they have created the disturbance. Kids with RAD have a wide number of quite extreme behaviors that have been well-documented through the scientific literature. In addition, RAD is one of the most difficult diagnoses to treat.
  6. Are there other children in the home who are not troubled? If other kids seem ok, this might be a clue that the parents know how to parent, but their child is disturbed. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that whenever any member of a family is experiencing psychological difficulties, others in the family can develop their own challenges. If other kids seem stressed, be open to the possibility that it is living with their siblings’ disturbance that can be the cause.
  7. What is the parent doing to support their own well-being? If the parents are taking some time to manage their mental health, then they should be applauded. If they are not, it might be because there is literally no time or capacity to do so. Helping this family have some time and space to do self-care could be one of the most important things you do to help them succeed.

 

*To be clear – not all adopted kids have emotional/behavioral problems. Many are well-adjusted people who function just fine without any intervention from the “system”. This article is ONLY about adoptive families who are dealing with severe emotional/behavioral problems, typically attachment disorders, prenatal exposure, severe trauma, etc.

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