As the spring sun begins to warm the earth, the plants and trees are beginning to bud and signs of new life are everywhere around us. Spring is always an exciting time of year and it is especially exciting at Child Bridge to see the increase in the number of foster and adoptive families we are serving and volunteers who serve alongside of us.
As a ministry, Child Bridge assists the Church to be more effective in being the hands and feet of Jesus, touching the marginalized in our communities. We have the privilege of providing a way for individuals within your congregations to serve the families who care for children who have come from hard places. We regularly hear from our volunteers what a blessing it is to get to know and love these children through service.
“The three short hours we give monthly seems a drop in the bucket for the benefits we receive from it. It puts names and faces to our prayers for the hurting children in our city. There are times during the month that our children will pray for the kids we had in our classroom, or ask questions about how they are doing. It's not only raising awareness in my husband and I as to the great need of loving families to surround these children, but it is piercing the hearts of our own kids as well. And serving monthly keeps them in our lives for which we are grateful.”
“We want our children to know and believe that our lives down here are not about us and our wants and comforts, but about Jesus and His desires for the people around us. Child Bridge is one way we, as a family can flesh this out.”
“My daughters and I help with Child Bridge each month in a humble attempt to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to serve and love our King. Matthew 25:40 states, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In addition, being with these foster children has been an immense blessing for us. They are each beautiful, unique, fun, creative and wanting what every child desires – a caring interaction and a safe, stable surrounding. We have shared laughter, told stories over dinner time, played games, and even worked through some tough moments. These interactions have brought joy, grown empathy, and built maturity in myself and my teenage daughters. We are so grateful for our time with these children and pray that they experience God’s love for them.”
As pastors, there are not many things that bring greater joy than to see the blessing that comes to those who are involved in giving of themselves to others. As we know, it is in giving ourselves away that we truly find life. The month of May is foster appreciation month and if you are interested in knowing how your congregation can become more involved in serving the families that care for these children, we can connect you! Please contact Child Bridge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The increase of children in need of safe homes in Montana is growing. January 2017 statistics from the Department of Public Health and Human Services noted there were 3,454 kids in foster care. Sadly, these numbers are out of date as soon as they are published.
These are kids, who through no fault of their own are removed from unsafe homes and are in need of care while family members are found or their parents get help. This is where the church gets a chance to rise to the occasion and care for those who find themselves as orphans even though their parents may be alive!
The Scriptures describe Him as the God Who is for the orphan and fatherless. The Psalmist in Psalm 68:5-6 speaks of God as a "Father to the fatherless, and the defender of the widows, is God in His holy dwelling". In Deuteronomy 10:18 He is described as the One Who, "defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow..." The prophet Hosea 14:3 echoes this when he says of God, "For in you the fatherless finds compassion".
As we speak about this need at various churches and other area events, we're encouraged by how often individuals say how they had already been considering fostering and are interested in knowing more about the process of becoming a foster parent. Child Bridge incubates the seed that has already been placed in their hearts and provides knowledge and support to them on their journey.
With needs so great in every community, Child Bridge will work to raise up 300 new foster families for kids in need.
It is encouraging for those within the Department of Family Services to see an increase in people interested in becoming foster parents. Many of those have been recruited through the local church.
If you're interested in discovering who might have this call in your congregation, consider having Child Bridge come and give a brief presentation to your congregation or small group. Contact us!
Sunday is Orphan Sunday, a time when churches pray together for orphans in their communities and around the world. Caring for orphans and widows is a command in Scripture (James 1:27), and Christians are leading the way by adopting and supporting adoptions.
On Sunday morning, many families who have adopted will stand before their churches, sharing testimonies of God's grace and provision. Their churches will rejoice with them and praise God for setting the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6).
BUT SOME FAMILIES WHO HAVE ADOPTED WILL SIT AND SUFFER SILENTLY. AND OUR CHURCHES NEED TO KNOW HOW TO SUPPORT THEM BETTER AT EACH STAGE OF POSSIBLE STRUGGLE.
AS THEY WAIT FOR A REFERRAL.We first started the adoption process in Ethiopia. For literally years we were "next" on our agency's list. It's hard to live that way for that long. We couldn't make plans to visit our families in other states because we never knew when we would get the call. My husband put off furthering his education. We couldn't make any big changes about our jobs or where we lived or tons of paperwork would have to be redone.
As families struggle through the waiting, churches can pray for them, support them financially (forms expire and fees have to be repaid each year), ask questions about how it's going (adoptive parents want to talk about the process, even when it's hard), and just agree that it's hard before throwing out cliches like "It's all in God's hands!" (We know that's true, but it doesn't always help to be reminded of it by someone who isn't waiting for years for a prayer to be answered.)
AS THEY COCOON.Cocooning is the period after the child is brought home when he/she adjusts to a new family and a new life. Our agency recommended we not leave the house or introduce our new son to too many people for the first couple months. He had to figure out who Mom and Dad were and what that meant. It can be a lonely and difficult time, especially if the child has attachment or health issues (like stomach parasites).
As families struggle cocooning, churches can give them space. Lots of church members wanted to meet our son right away, but that wasn't what was best for him. They had to be patient as we cared for him and made the decisions we thought were best. That included not going to church for two months. Churches can provide meals (dropping them off at the door with a text that says "it's here" instead of expecting to come in the house), offering to take the other kids in the house to church or to the park so they can get away, and offering other specific help. Saying "Let me know what I can do!" isn't as helpful as offering specific help. The person you're offering to help may not have the brain power left to decide what she needs help with.
AS THEY SEARCH FOR ANSWERS AND DIAGNOSES. No adoption file tells the complete story of a child, whether that file is from another country or your county's foster care system. An orphan is an orphan because of some kind of trauma, whether that was to the mother as she struggled with the decision to keep her baby or put him/her up for adoption after birth, or that was to the child as he/she waited in an orphanage for years. And trauma leave scars, some seen and some not seen. Parents who have adopted have to do the hard work of finding answers and figuring out diagnoses so they can get the help their kids needs. This process can take months, looking for experts in certain fields and making decisions about procedures and therapies.
As families struggle through this process, churches can meet the needs of the child while he/she is at church. That may mean getting a one-on-one buddy or having some sensory toys available. That may mean a teenager uses language we don't usually hear at church to test his new youth group and see if he can get a reaction out of them. Communication and honesty are the keys to make this easier on the family, not more stressful. Church friends can also offer to do research or make a grocery store run during an especially busy week of appointments. It means you sit with your friends who are struggling without quick fixes and easy answers and remind them you are there for them and support them.
AS THEIR CHILDREN MOURN (ESPECIALLY AROUND HOLIDAYS AND FAMILY CELEBRATIONS)Even after adopted children have been home and have adjusted to their new families, there are still times of mourning. It could be brought up by a project at school ("I'm supposed to fill in my family tree but Jack who sits next to me said you're not my real parents and I can't use your names!") or a sibling's birthday when she gets lots of attention and another child feels ignored and hurt.
As parents work to meet their kids needs at times of mourning, churches can understand and be supportive. You may all be at a birthday party when one child has a meltdown. Will you stand and stare, or will you jump in to help so the parents can do what they need to do to help the child? Did they decide the Christmas cantata would be too much for their family, but would the love a plate of cookies from the reception after and a quick visit from your family to celebrate in a small way? You won't know unless you make the effort to ask! And if you hear, "It's not a good time," that doesn't mean it's never a good time to offer help. Don't give up on loving your friends well!
AS THEY MAKE THE HEARTBREAKING DECISION TO DISSOLVE THE ADOPTION.Thankfully, this doesn't happen often. No family goes into adoption thinking it will be temporary. But since we experienced it ourselves, I can tell you that the support of a church can encourage a family to heal or lead to total heartbreak. Some of the families I've met who have also had to dissolve vow to never go to church again because of how they were treated. But it doesn't have to be this way. We made the decision for our son to be readopted because of his diagnosis and the diagnosis of our other son. Our adopted son would never heal in our home. But other parents make the decision after years of abuse and secrets they kept from the church for fear of being judged.
As parents decide to dissolve or disrupt an adoption, churches can believe the parents are telling the truth. As hard as it may be to believe, children impacted by serious trauma can act one way at home and another way in public. You don't see the abuse, but you can trust the parents when they tell you it's happening. After the transition, don't act like the adoption never happened or ignore the situation. We love the son we adopted and made the decision we thought was best for him, and we prayed he wouldn't be impacted by the transition like we were. We talk about him often at our house, but rarely do friends or family members ask how he's doing (his new family updates us often) or how we're doing (some days are much harder than others). If you don't know what would encourage the family through their heartbreak, ask them. Show up. Be kind. Trust them.
Romans 12:15 says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" and that's what we're called to do as believers, friends, and church family.
ON THIS ORPHAN SUNDAY, REJOICE IN ADOPTION AND REJOICE WITH ADOPTIVE FAMILIES, BUT ALSO BE SENSITIVE TO THOSE WHO ARE STRUGGLING AND LOVE THEM WELL.
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Editor’s note: Today, we present Shannon Dingle's blog for Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week
It’s Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. It seems fitting, then, to use my post this week to share what I’ve learned as a mom walking this path and friend to many other parents on similar journeys. Two of our children see mental health professionals regularly for therapy. I expect more will in the future. And many other kids I love are also being treated, some outpatient like mine and others in inpatient settings.
Usually we parents don’t write posts like these. Sometimes our silence comes from a desire to protect our children’s stories (and I’m not sharing many details for that reason). Often, though, our own shame is driving. And? Sometimes well-meaning friends reinforce that with judgment.
So how can you love families dealing with their children’s mental health issues?
1. Recognize this as a HEALTH issue.
Mental illness is real. Brain scans show differences neurologically between those with and without diagnoses like ADHD, childhood trauma, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, to name a few. Research backs therapeutic and pharmaceutical supports as effective treatment options. This isn’t about emotions. This is about a physical injury or difference, except the brain is affected instead of the lungs or kidneys. How would you reply if I shared a diagnosis of diabetes or cancer? Push through your discomfort with mental illness, and respond to us in that spirit
2. Hold back on your views about psychiatric meds.
The internet gives us all plenty of opportunity to voice our opinions. I know you have thoughts. I do too. I also know I’ve been guilty of spewing my thoughts without considering who might be reading them. You probably have too.
But when you share articles that call our kids’ diagnoses bogus or rant about how overmedicated youth are nowadays or argue that children need more recess not therapy, we hear you. We see your words. And they sting. Because even if there’s a grain of validity there, your words feel like personal judgment. We may mentally cross your name off our list of safe people. If you’re a ministry leader or pastor, we might also cross church off our list of safe places.
3. Remind us that we’re good parents.
Good parents seek help for their kids when it’s needed. That’s what we’re doing. One former confidant wounded me in a heated moment, snapping that I had no right to offer guidance about motherhood since I have two kids in therapy. Ouch. I’m secure in our course of care for our kids, and that still felt like a gut punch. So, please, affirm our parenting. We need your kindness to drown out the voices questioning us. (And? Sometimes our own inner voice can be our harshest critic, even if no one else is passing judgment.)
4. Ask about specific practical needs we might have.
When parents are overwhelmed and feeling like they’re failing at the whole “train up your child in the way he should go” thing, we can’t usually handle open-ended questions. “What can I do to help?” Yeah, we’ve got nothing.
Here are some better questions: Can I bring you dinner? Could I pick up a load of laundry and return it washed and folded tomorrow? Can I pick up one of your other children for a playdate?
Or just offer help directly: I hear that inpatient care isn’t always covered by insurance; here’s some money we’d like to offer as a gift. (This could be a personal donation or an extension of your church’s benevolence program for helping families in need.) Here’s Starbucks. I’m ordering pizza for dinner for y’all one night this week, so let me know the night and your favorite toppings.
5. Believe us.
Most of the world sees our kids at their best. Usually, we help with that image. Rather than dishonoring our kids by sharing stories of them at their worst, we offer filtered stories and edited pictures. We might use #keepingitreal but few of us post our realest real, for good reason.
(Side note to other parents: Please, if you are sharing your kids’ worst moments online, stop. Consider the biblical concept of doing to others as you’d have them do unto you. I wouldn’t want my biggest meltdowns broadcast on social media, would you? Pause before posting. Then if you need to share, go ahead and do so privately with a trusted friend. Public posts – or even “friends only” ones – don’t preserve your child’s dignity.)
Unless we have come to you for a professional opinion, don’t try to offer a diagnosis or discredit one we already have. Believe us. Believe that we know our kids better than you do. Believe that what we’re saying is true and real. Believe that love and belonging are better gifts to offer than skepticism or critiques.
6. Remember us.
If we’ve told you that we’re seeking help for our child’s mental health, we’re saying we trust you. You’re our people. So, please, remember us. Keep texting and showing up and caring and offering your presence and holding space for us, even if we suck at reciprocating friendship right now.
After all, God created our bodies and our minds. Mental health issues don’t catch him by surprise. As his people, let’s not act surprised when they show up in our lives or churches either.
Have you walked this path? If so, we’d love it if you could leave a comment with what helped or didn’t help you from friends or your church. We can all learn from each other here.
Shannon Dingle serves as a Key Ministry church consultant. Shannon, her husband Lee and their six children live in Raleigh, NC.
As I’ve been speaking at more conferences across the nation in the past year, I’ve met many of you. I love connecting face to face, but I know many of you will never get a chance to interact with our team face to face. That’s one reason we’re launching virtual special needs ministry roundtables.
That’s also why I’m sharing the lists of stats I used in presentations. First, I offered figuresabout the prevalence of disabilities and mental illness in the US. Then I followed up with a post listing research related to special needs in the church. And now it’s time to look at the intersection between adoption and disability.
In recent years, more churches are launching adoption and foster care ministries, and pastors are exhorting their members to be serious in their care for vulnerable children and families. I’m completely in favor of that! But I want us all to be wise to this reality, presented by the U.S. Census Bureau: “it appears that adoptive families are more likely than others to face the challenge of dealing with disabilities among their children.”
One important note about language: For the purposes of clarity, in this post I will use phrases like “adopted children” below. While the wording makes sense in this specific context, I am not modeling the normal, everyday language you should use in talking about families like mine. I just refer to my kids as my kids, not my biological children and then my adopted ones. Sometimes it is helpful to compare the population of children who were adopted or are fostered to the demographic of children growing up in their family of origin, particularly in summarizing current research, so that’s why I’m making the distinctions below. In the church, we live in the fine balance of welcoming all families without capitalizing on any differences while also being sensitive to some challenging realities faced by foster and adoptive families due to disability, grief, and trauma. In other words, my family wants to be accepted like any other family would be, but showing loving care to us involves being aware of our unique dynamics without defining us by them.
Based on US Census data from 2008[i] [ii],
Church, we have a great opportunity to show love! The need is great. Kids are hurting. Adults are too. Families are struggling. The first step in being able to help is understanding the need.
Jesus met people where they were, and so can we.
[i] Americans with Disabilities. U.S. Census Bureau, 2010:http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p70-131.pdf
[ii] Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2010. U.S. Census Bureau.https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p20-572.pdf
[iii] Adoption USA: A Chartbook Based On The 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents. US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved fromhttp://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/09/NSAP/chartbook/doc/chartbook.pdf
[iv] McKlindon, K. et al. (February 2011). Adopted Children with Special Health Care Needs. Adoption Advocate, a publication of the National Council For Adoption. No. 32. Retrieved fromhttps://www.adoptioncouncil.org/images/stories/documents/ncfa_adoption_advocate_no32.pdf
[v]Intercountry Adoption, Bureau of Consular Affairs, US Department of State. Health Considerations. http://adoption.state.gov/adoption_process/how_to_adopt/health.php
[vi] McLaughlin, K.A. (2013). Trauma Exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a National Sample of Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 52(8). 815-830.
[vii] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition. Retrieved from http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
[viii] National Child Traumatic Stress Network.http://www.nctsnet.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/edu_materials/ComplexTrauma_All.pdf
[ix] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition. Retrieved from http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Today, Shannon Dingle continues her series examining adoption and the church. In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Today, she looks at the second of five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families…Become Trauma and Attachment-Informed.
Adoptive and foster parents know about trauma and attachment, so their churches should too.
But what does that mean?
Attachment is the act of bonding, usually focused on the child bonding to his or her adoptive or foster family but also applicable to new parents bonding to their family’s new child. Children who have been adopted or who are in foster care don’t have the typical attachment process of biological children. Even a child adopted at or soon after birth spent months in the womb hearing a different voice than the mother they went home with, and research has shown that bonding of a child to mother begins with those first sounds and smells in the womb and soon after. For children who have learned not to trust adults (for example, if trusted adults have abandoned them or died or lied or hurt them), attachment can be even harder. This affects behavior, nutrition, learning, self-worth, and more.
Trauma includes a constellation of previous experiences a child has that could have a negative effect, including abuse, neglect, loss, grief, starvation, medical mistreatment, and being witness to violence. That’s a long list, isn’t it? And it’s not comprehensive. Every child is different, and so are the responses of each child to their own trauma histories. That said, research shows that trauma can impact children’s developing brains. Research indicates that childhood trauma is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD, early trauma leads to changes in brain chemistry and development, and institutionalization of children leads to higher rates of lasting sensory processing issues. And that’s just the tip of iceberg on what experts have to say about the effects of childhood trauma.
So, church leaders, what can you do to become trauma- and attachment-informed and to then use that knowledge to serve adoptive and foster families well?
Just say no to romanticizing adoption and foster care. Can there be beauty there? YES! But is it borne out of hard places? YES! God calls us to care for unparented children, so we should be willing to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” but we aren’t serving anyone well if families dive in after being presented with a glamourized version of the realities of adoption and foster care.
Give high fives instead of hugs. Okay, that’s not a firm rule, but please resist the desire to shower our kids with affection. Ask us first. That might sound harsh or like we’re helicopter parents, but the reality is that our kids might not understand who to trust or how to know what love is. God designed children to learn about love for the first time in a family environment: the womb, then their parents’ arms, and so on. Those moments of early feedings and middle of the night soothing develop a child’s brain to know that mom and dad are their secure sources of affection.
Sometimes well-meaning folks forget that many kids in adoptive and foster placements never learned that. One of my children showed this to the extreme with what experts call “indiscriminate attachment.” In layman’s terms, she would willingly go with any adult, with no preference for me or my husband. For her to learn healthy attachment, she needed us to be the main sources of affection.
Same goes for food and gifts. Once again, ask us first. Kids learn to trust and attach to caregivers through nourishment (i.e. food) and provisions (i.e. gifts). Getting those from us and from others can be confusing, especially at first.
Let us enter children’s ministry on our timetables. In other words, be flexible. Understand that our kids might need to be with us more and in the nursery or Sunday school less, and please help us navigate that reality for the season in which it applies to us. Be willing to change some rules if they don’t make sense for us. For example, the nursery program for our ladies’ midweek Bible study program is run by a precious woman who gently pushes moms to go to their own small groups instead of lingering, and that works for most kids. But when our youngest cried so hard she ruptured a blood vessel in her eye when we finally started putting her in the nursery? We both knew that wasn’t working for our family, and we adjusted accordingly.
Don’t say, “Oh, every kid does that.” We feel dismissed by those words, and they show that you don’t get it. Let’s return to the previous example. Did my daughter’s reaction look like typical separation anxiety? Yes. Was it? No. Many of the attachment- and trauma-related behaviors for kids in adoptive and foster families might look like the usual kid behaviors, but they’re different.
Respect our children’s privacy. To love our family well, you don’t need to know the specifics of our children’s history with attachment, trauma, and life in general. Some families choose to share limited information, but most of us consider our children’s stories to be theirs to own and share on their own timetables.
Finally, understand that every family is different. Every adoptive and foster family deals with attachment and trauma differently, so this entire list might not apply to all the families in your church. So be willing to listen and learn from us before acting based on assumptions.
By reading this post, you’re already showing great love for the adoptive and foster families at your church because you care enough to learn a little about how child development might differ for our kids. Thank you for that.
This post concludes Shannon Dingle’s blog series on Adoption and the Church. In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Her series can be accessed in its’ entirety through this link. Here’s Shannon…
I love adoption. You don’t become the mother to six children, four by adoption, without loving kids and loving adoption.
I think sometimes when we celebrate adoption, when we observe Orphan Sunday in our churches, and when we make glossy brochures or memes based on our children or families, we fail to acknowledge that any beauty is born from loss or pain. I cringe when people talk about our adoptions as some great thing that Lee and I have done for the children in my home. I cringe because no one talks about my two childbirths, both of which were challenging at the end of difficult pregnancies in which my body was stretched literally and figuratively far beyond what I ever thought it could be, no one says anything about what a great thing I have done with our first two children in making that sacrifice.
That’s because it’s what we do as parents. We sacrifice, both in adoption and in birth.
We sacrifice for our kids as we lay down our lives for them. And, especially when they are new to our family and demanding and reeling from the realities of life, be that as a newborn or as a newly adopted teenager or as a foster child just dropped off for the night, they don’t show a whole lot of gratitude. And? Please hear this next part: We don’t and shouldn’t expect them to.
Please, church leaders and friends, be careful how you portray adoption and foster care. Especially in front of my children, who – like most kids – don’t want to be singled out as different or as being or having been needy at some point in their lives. Especially to other people in our church who while well intentioned might not be prepared or equipped to say yes to adoption or foster care, maybe not ever or maybe just not yet. Especially when so many Christian messages imply or outright present adoptive parents as the savior when we have only one Savior (and it’s not us).
It doesn’t help my children to be, from the pulpit or in the hallway at church or anywhere in between, frequently reminded that some people view them as a charity case. Because while some of my children were once legally classified as orphans, they’re not orphans anymore. They’re kids, simple as that.
And it doesn’t help the rest of the church to be faced again and again with the romanticized version of adoption. It would be disrespectful to my children to share all of them details of the battles we have fought behind closed doors and on our knees to present the happy, well-adjusted, sweet family of eight our church body sees walking through the doors and filling an entire row in the worship center. None of this is for the faint of heart.
So might I suggest something? Might I suggest that we begin to preach about adoption in the same way that we preach about marriage? We tend to talk about marriage as this beautiful thing, this covenant commitment before God, this institution that needs to be safeguarded. To that end, we require pre-marital counseling, we examine or at least mention the reality that many marriages do end in divorce, and we talk openly about how hard marriage can be. As we balance the beauty and the hard, we stress the importance of marriage. We don’t worry that our messages will scare people aware, because we know we speak the truth and we believe there are great rewards in the midst of great difficulties in marriage.
Why not do the same with adoption and foster care? When we say yes as a church to caring about vulnerable children and families, let’s also say yes to talking about related challenges too. As we address the topic of divorce before couples say “I do,” maybe we should proactively address to topics of disruption and dissolution of adoptions before families step forward to that covenant commitment. Just as we share the realities that marriage requires much work during some seasons of life, or all seasons of life, could we also affirm that parenting through adoption or foster care requires a lot of us too?
It’s easy, relatively speaking, to host Orphan Sunday at your church. It’s harder to say yes to children from hard places the other 51 Sundays of the year, plus an occasional week for Vacation Bible School and other days here and there. It’s harder to say yes if you come to the realization that one special needs ministry coordinator did, as shared on my friend John Knight’s blog: “At Bethlehem we have a disproportionately high number of the last three [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and reactive attachment disorder] mostly because of so many adopted children in our church body.”
I love adoption. And, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you do too.
Let’s show it by loving even when it requires us to change and even when it isn’t picture perfect for some glossy advert and even when the broken is looming bigger than the beauty.
In other words, let’s love like Christ loves.
By Shannon Dingle
A reader gently asked me this, and I immediately understood what she meant. I’ve written about trauma and attachment difficulties, and I’ve written about permanent brain changes resulting from institutionalization at an early age. I wrote a whole post about how “all kids do that” dismisses the hard histories that have shaped some of the behavioral responses our children show. I’m speaking soon at the Global Access Conference about the special needs of foster and adoptive families.
So, yes, I can see how it might seem like I’m saying that kids in foster or adoptive placements are broken while other kids are whole. That’s not what I’m saying, though, so I want to take a moment to clarify.
We are all broken. In Genesis 1, we see a perfect world in which everything God created was good. In the absence of sin, everything in the garden would have stayed good and pure and right and perfect. In the garden, adoption and foster care would never be necessary because no parents would die or be unable to care for their children or get sick or abuse their offspring or be coerced into giving up parental rights or neglect the ones born to them or give birth to a child outside of a loving and safe family environment.
But then we know what comes later in that book and what effects the first sin and all the ones that came after, including yours and mine, have reaped on this world. The need for adoption and foster care is one result of the brokenness of this world, and those of us parenting children who entered our home through adoption or foster care see daily the impact of that particular kind of brokenness.
But all of us are broken. I see the impact of other kinds of brokenness when the daughter who grew in my womb comes home in tears because someone made fun of her hair and when a healthcare professional rudely said “What’s wrong with him? Get it together, hon,” to my son whose sensory issues were manifesting a meltdown that didn’t seem age appropriate. I see it in the slumped shoulders and quivering lips of my dear ones when I lose my temper and yell at them instead of respectfully addressing whatever issues are at hand. I see it in our marriage, when a disagreement can escalate because I tend to shout more because that’s what my family did growing up while my husband withdraws more because that’s the behavior he learned at home.
It’s true, though, that I often write and speak specifically about brokenness in adoption and foster care. That observation is valid. We at Key Ministry are seeing an increase in the number of families telling us of challenges in church involvement after adopting and foster care, an uptick in the number of churches asking for help in including these families well, and – in Steve’s case as a child psychiatrist – a rise in the number of families seeking professional help for the children who entered their homes through adoption or foster care. At the same time, we’re seeing positive stories shared without the challenges (often because sharing those wouldn’t be respectful to the children involved), sermons about the need for orphan care with no comment on the difficulties that may arise, and memes that romanticize and glamourize the brokenness that leads to adoption or foster care.
Do I love adoption and foster care? Yes. Do I think the church ought to be involved in both locally and globally, as well as family preservation efforts to prevent their need? Certainly.
But I also want to make sure we’re telling the whole story. I’m not saying “don’t adopt” or “stop it with those memes” but rather standing in the gap between Hallmark movie versions of adoption/foster care and the hard realities that sometimes persist after placement. I’m saying “we’re all broken, but it seems like we’re glossing over this kind particular kind of brokenness.”
As Christians, we are people of the Truth, so let’s act like it by telling the whole story and loving children and families in the midst of both the beauty and the brokenness of adoption and foster care.
This week at the Global Access Conference, presented by Joni & Friends, Shannon will be leading a session titled The Special Needs of Foster and Adoptive Families. There she will share five specific ways your church can make itself a safe place for these children and teens, drawing from her experience as a special educator, a disability ministry leader, a church consultant for Key Ministry, and a mom of six children, four of whom joined their family through special needs adoption.
By Key Ministry
In Part Seven of our blog series…Dissecting the DSM-5…What it Means for Kids and Families we’ll take a closer look at the decision to redefine the diagnostic criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Following this post, we’ll next look at the new companion diagnosis related to pathologic care in early childhood…Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder.
When I read through the new criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder, I found myself hard pressed to think of any condition in which so great a disconnect exists between the way it is defined by academicians and community-based clinicians.
Beginning with the publication of the DSM-III-R in 1987, two subtypes of RAD have been recognized…an emotionally withdrawn, inhibited type and an indiscriminately social/disinhibited type. In the DSM-5, the term Reactive Attachment Disorder has been reserved for the emotionally withdrawn, inhibited type. The indiscriminately social/disinhibited type is now referred to as Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder and considered a separate condition.
The new criteria for RAD are as follows…
A consistent pattern of inhibited, emotionally withdrawn behavior toward adult caregivers, manifested by both of the following:
The child rarely or minimally seeks comfort when distressed.
The child rarely or minimally responds to comfort when distressed.
A persistent social or emotional disturbance characterized by at least two of the following:
Minimal social and emotional responsiveness to others
Limited positive affect
Episodes of unexplained irritability, sadness, or fearfulness that are evident even during nonthreatening interactions with adult caregivers.
The child has experienced a pattern of of extremes of insufficient care as evidenced by at least one of the following:
Social neglect or deprivation in the form of persistent lack of having basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation and affection met by caring adults
Repeated changes of primary caregivers that limit opportunities to form stable attachments (e.g., frequent changes in foster care)
Rearing in unusual settings that severely limit opportunities to form selective attachments (e.g., institutions with high child to caregiver ratios)
The care in Criterion C is presumed to be responsible for the disturbed behavior in Criterion A (e.g., the disturbances in Criterion A began following the lack of adequate care in Criterion C).
The criteria are not met for autism spectrum disorder.
The disturbance is evident before age 5 years.
The child has a developmental age of at least nine months.
Specify if Persistent: The disorder has been present for more than 12 months.
Specify current severity: Reactive Attachment Disorder is specified as severe when a child exhibits all symptoms of the disorder, with each symptom manifesting at relatively high levels.
What don’t you see in the criteria that you’d expect to see, based on the common understanding of RAD in the therapeutic community and the broader culture? Any description of the pathologic behaviors that generally lead adoptive and/or foster parents to seek out mental health services for children in their care!
When I’m asked to evaluate kids because a parent or professional suspects RAD, the child is usually exhibiting some combination of problematic behaviors from the following list:
The question of whether attachment disorders can reliably be diagnosed in older children and adults has not been resolved. It is clear that central attachment behaviors used for the diagnosis of RAD, such as proximity seeking, change markedly with development. Defining what behaviors in 12 year olds, for instance, are analogous to proximity seeking in toddlers is difficult. Even developmental attachment research has no substantially validated measures of attachment in middle childhood or early adolescence, leaving the question of what constitutes clinical disorders of attachment even less clear.
Nevertheless, there have been reports that many oppositional or aggressive older children, especially those who have been maltreated or raised in institutions, have RAD (Levy and Orlans, 2000). The diagnosis of RAD in these reports is based on an expanded set of diagnostic criteria for RAD; the additional criteria overlap with the disruptive behavior disorders, including conduct disorder (CD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and attention-deficit disorder. Claims that many children with a diagnosis of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, in fact, have RAD highlight the problems with diagnostic precision in this area (Levy and Orlans, 2000). In effect, DSM-IV-TR criteria have been largely transformed by groups of clinicians such that psychopathic qualities such as shallow or fake emotions, superficial connections to others, lack of remorse, and failures of empathy are viewed as core features of RAD (Levy and Orlans, 1999, 2000). There is certainly evidence that some maltreated children exhibit both disruptive behavior disorders and disturbances in interpersonal relatedness. Historical accounts of so-called ‘‘affectionless psychopaths’’ detail the challenges that children deprived by institutionalization are alleged to present (Wolkind, 1974), although this construct was never validated. Furthermore, foster and adoptive parents who care for such children can become overwhelmed by managing remorseless aggression. Although some of these children may have met criteria for RAD as young children, few are described as either indiscriminate or inhibited in their social relationships.
There are two significant problems with the trend toward stretching the criteria for RAD to extend the diagnosis to older children. First, diagnostic precision is lost when signs such as oppositional behavior and aggression are viewed as aberrant attachment behaviors in older children. To say that these children do not have ODD or CD because their behavior is better explained by negative attachment experiences is to suggest an etiological pathway that can be neither proved nor disproved.
Second, untested alternative therapies, loosely based on the proposed etiological model for RAD in older children, have been developed and implemented, sometimes with tragic results.
So…what are we to make of the severe difficulties with emotional self-regulation and behavior common among foster and adopted kids if their difficultiesaren’t because of attachment problems? Why might kids adopted from orphanages or placed in foster care exhibit severe behavior problems?
Genetic predisposition: Let’s consider why newborn babies are placed in orphanages or consider why children are placed in foster care. We know that women with ADHD engage in more risky sexual behavior. They’re more likely to be impregnated by men with ADHD. Impulsive sexual behavior is common among persons with Borderline Personality Disorder…we know that the complex patterns of behavior associated with borderline personality are strongly inherited. Parents with serious mental illness may have more difficulty appropriately caring for children.
Effects of trauma and neglect upon brain development: I would very much encourage our readers to download this excellent monograph from Harvard University… The Science of Neglect-The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.
Abuse and neglect can contribute to the development of personality disorders in adults.
The child’s placement occurred because of their disability: In the case of Russian orphanages, a recent report in the Washington Post claimed that “Children in Russian orphanages are almost certain to have at least one disability.”
There are many reasons why children adopted from orphanages and children in foster care frequently exhibit severe problems with conduct and emotional self-regulation. Effects of trauma and neglect upon brain development combined with genetic and environmental influences appear to be responsible in most instances…as opposed to a primary attachment disorder.
By Shannon Dingle
Recently the AP reported that for the first time in more than 10 years, foster care numbers rose slightly in 2013 and more sharply last year. We should be unsettled by this news, which you can read in full here. But how can we respond?
First, these numbers should break our hearts. More than 415,000 children are in limbo, waiting to see where their future will go. Of those, 108,000 are available for adoption and waiting for a family to say yes to them as a son or daughter. Yet for more than 22,000 kids in 2013, that day never came as they aged out of foster care as adults without a family of their own. If those numbers weren’t hard enough, 14% of children in foster care live in group homes instead of foster family. And 4,500+ foster children are unaccounted for as runaways, unable to deal with life in foster care but who knows what they are going through now that they are on their own and particularly vulnerable to child trafficking and other dangers.
But more than breaking our hearts, these numbers should move us to action. If one family from every three churches committed to adopt one child and those three churches committed to support that family, there wouldn’t be children waiting to be adopted in foster care. Sure, there would still be temporary placements and other similar constructs, but the foster care system as we know it would be destroyed.
By the church.
Imagine that. Imagine if the church was known more for reflecting Christ like that instead of reflecting hate or intolerance. Imagine if we called families to adopt or foster and rallied around them as they say yes, with the support of one or more area churches, knowing they may need reinforcements and respite as they do battle with their children against previous traumas and fear triggers. Imagine that.
Better than just imagining, though, engage with ministries who are working to make that a reality. Some include The Forgotten Initiative, ALL IN Orphan Care, Tapestry, and The Hope & Healing Institute. If you know of others, no matter how large or small scale or how local or global the efforts, please leave a comment on this post or our Facebook page to share who they are and what they do. We’d love to share the good work being done by others in the kingdom of God!
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
In order to provide you with high quality, current content that is relevant to your journey, we’re proud to announce that we’ve partnered with several child welfare leaders including Key Ministry and their blog Church4EveryChild! You’ll have the opportunity of learning from dynamic thought leaders in Special Needs Ministry.