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Alternate Childhood Experiences Compared: Kids Need Families

from Spring 1994 Adoptalk

by Kimberly Hunter

An article comparing the experiences of different people who could not be cared for by birthparents seemed like an ideal component of this "Invest in Families" newsletter. When the time came to recruit someone to write a piece on adults who were adopted as infants I eagerly volunteered. Moments after the assignment was made, doubt set in. What do I have to say that is valuable to others? After all, isn't my story really pretty bland when compared with that of thousands of older children and special needs adoptees?

I called in the experts — my brother and sister, Todd and Linda (who are twins), my husband, Scott, and my sister-in-law, Ann. All of us were adopted as infants. When I put the power of our collective consciousness together, I discovered we had a lot to say. In fact, Ann has already been "published" on this subject. During high school she interviewed classmates who were adopted and wrote an article about taking pride in adoption for her high school newspaper.

None of us had any memory of being "told" we were adopted. Our status was something that we always knew, and no one recalled feeling insecure when they reached an age where they could comprehend what being adopted meant. Todd and Linda share the same first memory of knowing they were adopted — looking through their "adopted child's baby books," which our mother diligently maintained, despite the distractions of being a farm wife with a two year old and newborn twins to care for.

Another common experience for all was daydreaming about what life might be like in another family. Ann and Linda believe this is pretty common for all kids, not just adoptees. Ann said one problem with adoption is that older siblings don't always have time to prepare for a new arrival. For example, if Scott had more time to adjust to Ann's imminent arrival, he might not have made as many demands to take her back to Des Moines, where she came from.

I think the most fascinating aspects of adoption are the way it brings people together, and the occasional passing thought that a person I encounter on the street may have been responsible for bringing me into this world. When Scott and I consider the families we have been blessed with, we wouldn't have it any other way. Yet, the possibility exists that with the switch of case file, we could have been raised in entirely different settings, with an entirely different cast of family characters. The latter sentiment about people I meet on the street is just a curiosity to me, while my brother is really bothered by it. Out of all the adoptees interviewed, Todd is the only one who expressed a desire to find his birthparents. He hasn't done so because he knows Linda is not interested, and it would be too hard for him to not share information with her. The cost is also prohibitive — his adoption agency in Iowa told him a court order would be required to open his case file, and it would cost $300. The cost to obtain his medical history alone is $50. Todd thinks it is not fair that he would have to pay to obtain any part of his history.

Finding medical information was a common concern for everyone. I obtained mine during college, when a family history paper assignment gave me the inspiration to get it. Ann recently sent a letter to Lutheran Social Services requesting her information. Scott and Linda both would like to obtain information on their medical backgrounds but have not acted on it yet.

Todd and Linda agreed that having a twin sibling is nice because it's good to know there's someone who has shared experiences with you from day one. Todd thinks he and Linda are closer than he and I are because of their blood relationship. Linda enjoys telling people she's an adopted twin because it's unique. The response she usually hears is "So he's really your brother?" That's the point where Linda explains the definition of the term "twin."

Everyone was grateful for the decision our birthparents made, and attributed this attitude in part to the open approach our parents had about adoption. It's hard to imagine what life would have been like in a home with struggling birthparents or perhaps only one parent present. The concept of moving through the child welfare system as a foster child or orphan is pretty terrifying. As Scott says "I'd like to find my birthparents for only one reason — to say thank you."

Life in the Foster Care System — Shane's Salter's Story

Shane Salter's outward confidence belies the fact that he spent almost his entire life in the foster care system. The experiences of Shane and his brother Keith provide a grim reminder of what's wrong with the system.

At age four Shane and Keith were left alone in the basement of a brownstone apartment building in New York City. Shane went out on the street and found a policeman, and he and Keith were placed in an emergency foster home. Their case goals were determined one year later — a long term foster care placement until reunification with family members was possible.

When Shane was five, he and Keith were placed with the foster family they would live with for seven years. Their foster father was himself a product of an orphanage, and Shane called his foster parents Mom and Dad. Salter has good memories of this family, who treated Shane and Keith no differently from their older birth son. However, every time Shane saw his name on paper or heard it he knew he was different, not a "real" part of the family.

At age eleven Shane was told he would be getting a permanent home. He also inadvertently discovered he was "hard to place" because of his age, race (he is black), and sibling status when pictures of he and his brother appeared in a local newspaper. Shane and Keith had not been told about the article, and Shane was horribly embarrassed when a classmate told him about the news story.

Eager to join his "forever family," Shane was always on his best behavior during visits with his prospective adoptive family. He was angry with his foster parents because they didn't want to adopt him, and felt rejected and lonely.

Problems developed shortly after the adoption. Shane and Keith's adoptive parents had an older birth son who grew increasingly jealous of the time his parents were spending with his new siblings. Shane often called his former foster parents to cry, and began a pattern of lying and acting out in his adoptive home.

Two months after the placement, Shane's social worker came to school and told him he and Keith were moving the next day because things weren't working out in their new home. The adoptive parents said it was Shane's fault for disrupting their lives. Shane attributes the failed adoption to inadequate preparation for the adoptive parents.

Shane and Keith moved to an emergency foster home for a year. On one of Shane's visits to his social worker that year he was told the mother he had only dreamed about had been dead for three months. She died one month after the failed adoption, and no one had told him because of the other disruptions going on in his life. Shane was shocked and angry that no one had told him. His foster mother at the time said he had no reason to cry because his mother never did anything for him anyway.

At age thirteen Shane and Keith were offered the option of group homes. The boys accepted and were sent to different facilities. At age fifteen another adoptive family was identified for them, this time in Rochester. Once Shane entered the home he decided to reject his new family before they could reject him. He ran away several times, and eventually requested that he be returned to the city. Shane was moved, while Keith stayed in the home. Keith eventually left that home and went to another family who adopted him.

Back in the city and in another foster home, Shane accidentally met his birth father. He ran away from the foster home to be with his father. Shane discovered that his father was a drug dealer, living in a condemned roach-infested building. He ran away, back to his social worker, Mr. Pointer, who found a group home for Shane.

Fearful of ending up like his father, Shane worked to turn his life around. He found God and took advantage of every government program that was available to him. He graduated at the top of his high school class, and went on to get a college degree in human services. Initially he wanted nothing to do with social work, but came to the field after a disappointing stint as a hospital administrator.

Salter says he is "living proof that all foster kids don't wind up dysfunctional or in jail." His case demonstrates the importance of early permanency planning, more culturally sensitive recruitment of foster families, and faster recruitment processes. Too many potential adoptive families are lost because the home study process is so slow. Children desperately need families, and while Shane found the inner strength to survive, he thinks many others may not without help.

Salter is the father of three biological children and one adopted child. He learned to parent by pulling the best aspects of all his "homes" together. He and his wife (who was adopted as an infant) started talking about adoption while they were dating, and adopted a seven year old son a few years ago. They quickly learned that children need more than love. Shane had to scale back on the academic pressure he puts on his other kids because his adopted son is not as capable. The adoption also caused Shane to re-live some of the problems from his youth, such as his fear of rejection. He still wishes he had been adopted, and that he had known his birth mother. Salter would like all his old foster parents who knew Shane the liar and thief to see him now.

Reflections on the Orphanages of the 1920s

The interviewee's first name only is being used here to protect his privacy.

In the mid-1920s Vic and his older brother Ray were sent to live at St. Joseph's Orphanage for approximately four years. The boys' father died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and their mother raised three children until her small business failed and she had a nervous breakdown. The daughter, Dorothy, went to live with friends of her mother, while the boys went to St. Joseph's.

Life in the orphanage was "no fun," according to Vic. His mother's friends would come to visit and bring candy and fruit for Vic and Ray, which the nuns would take away as soon as the friends left. Vic remembers being beaten almost every day with a ruler across his knuckles. Different transgressions called for different levels of discipline — 10 swats with a ruler for this, 15 for that. His hands were always bloody, chapped and sore.

Vic thinks the regular beatings made him meaner — the more times he was hit, the tougher he got until he figured they couldn't hurt him any more. He's sure the treatment he endured would be called child abuse today.

The 75 boys housed at St. Joseph's also attended school at the orphanage. After classes dismissed at 1:30, they all went to work. Vic's job was to do laundry and to go out and get newspapers for some of the nuns. Ray tended gravesites at the cemetery across the street from the orphanage. On Memorial Day and the 4th of July sold flags at the cemetery and brought the money back to the nuns.

The children ate mush three times a day — cold or boiled mush for breakfast and lunch, and fried mush for dinner. They ate on tin plates and cups, and each boy washed his own utensils after every meal and set his own place at the table.

Ray went back to his mother when he was about 14 years old. Vic stayed in the orphanage a little longer since he was younger and couldn't quite care for himself yet. Vic says he was an angel after he left the orphanage because he didn't want to go back. He did dishes for his mother, shoveled snow, and hauled coal into their apartment and ashes out.

The brightest memory Vic has of the orphanage is of the firemen and policemen coming to visit every year to take the children out for a picnic. They would come dressed up in their uniforms and take the kids out for rides on their equipment. Vic recalls "they were the greatest guys."


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848
e-mail: info@nacac.org
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