Talking to Children about Adoption Assistance
from Summer 2004 Adoptalk
by Rita Laws, Ph.D.
Rita Laws is the mother of 12 children through adoption and birth, a NACAC representative in Oklahoma, and the author of numerous books and articlesmany pertaining to adoption and parenting. Below she offers her perspective about sharing adoption assistance information with adopted children.
For years, a friend of mine who has adopted several children with special needs maintained that her kids had no business knowing anything about adoption assistance contracts. I have always had a different view. I have been open with my children about this information. My children have overheard conversations in which I assist other families who need adoption assistance. They know I am indirectly helping waiting and adopted children by directly helping their potential and present adoptive parents.
When my friend's daughter brought in the mail one day and accidentally opened her own adoption subsidy check, the teen assumed the worst. At 16, she was a typical adolescent who regularly viewed her mom more as an enemy than an ally. Further, she had no concept of how much it costs to raise a child. As my friend tried to explain the why and how of adoption assistance, her daughter barely listened. She simply insisted over and over that her mother buy her a car "with all these checks."
Personally, I would rather have control over when and how the information is communicated. If we say nothing to our children, it may seem that we are ashamed or embarrassed about accepting assistance. Assistance has enabled me to adopt multiple times, and I am proud of the assistance I have negotiated for my children just as I am of my self-employed income. Between the two, I can pay the bills. If I communicate pride, my children will share that feeling.
Deception and Adoption
In North America, we have a long, sad history of lying to adopted persons, through outright lies and by withholding the truth. Throughout most of the 20th century, birth mothers were told to keep their experience secret, and adoptive parents were encouraged to pretend that their adopted children had been born to them. I have a second cousin who found out he was adopted when he was in his 50sat his adoptive mother's funeral.
There is power and healing in the truth, and social work philosophy is slowly moving in that direction. Adoptees' birth certificates are still a strange hybrid of truth and lies, but social work professionals now encourage parents to tell their children about being adopted, and open adoption is more prevalent. In fairness to our adopted children, we must also carefully share other information that, left unshared, could hurt our children or undermine our relationship with them.
Why We Have Assistance
Without a doubt, it is in our nation's and world's best interests to promote the healthy development of well-adjusted children. Children are a priceless societal resource. For this reason, as our government has determined, adoption assistance and Medicaid are practical investments. The support encourages parents to adopt children from foster care and keep those children healthy and out of emergency rooms.
In my state, Medicaid handles basic medical care, nothing fancy or experimental, but that is blessing enough. Sometimes, when I use the card, I say "Thank heavens for Medicaid." My children know that Medicaid takes care of medical treatment and medications so we can spend our money on groceries and other necessities. Recently, my 17-year-old son had his wisdom teeth removed. He asked afterward, "What would this have cost without Medicaid?"
I replied, "Several thousand dollars."
He smiled and repeated my words back to me: "Thank heavens for Medicaid."
Honesty, Developmental Appropriateness, Compassion
Just as we can find honest and appropriate ways to convey difficult or even painful information to our children about past abuse or neglect, we can also find honest ways to convey complex information. Adoption assistance, Medicaid, and other adoption services can be hard for children to understand. On the surface, it may look like mom or dad is being paid to parent.
Few children have any concept of what it costs to maintain a house and raise a child. If an adopted child learns that Mom is receiving several hundred dollars a month to care for her, the child may think Mom receives a small fortune. And if Mom is so rich, why is the child not getting her share of expensive toys and video games?
It might be easier to lie in the short run, but lying to the child or withholding information about his or her adoption assistance is not wise or ethical. The answer is to convey information to your child a little at a time, honestly, compassionately, and in a developmentally appropriate manner.
Real Life Examples*
Jake and Gina adopted Joseph in infancy. Joe's special needs included pre-natal heroin exposure and an orthopedic condition. Joe was five when Gina first heard the term "adoption subsidy." At the time, she and Jake were struggling to make ends meet and pay for their son's health insurance. They immediately applied for post-legal adoption assistance and later signed a contract. On Joe's behalf, the state issued a Medicaid card and a $360 per month subsidy.
Joe always knew he was adopted. His adoption lifebook-scrapbook was one of his favorite bedtime stories. His parents frequently told him how he joined their family and that he was a joy in their lives. After obtaining assistance benefits, Gina added that the Medicaid card was another blessing. Now the government was helping to pay medical billsa wonderful "gift" given to some children who are adopted. Joe could easily understand this simple idea.
When Joe was eight, he got a brand new bike for his birthday. When he asked his mom how they could afford it, she explained that the state sent a small check each month to help with the cost of Joseph's food, clothes, and school supplies. With the money they saved on these items, they were able to put some money aside to pay for the bike.
When Joe was 10 and asked how much the "helpful check" was, his dad told him that this was information he would receive when he was older. "Someday, we'll sit down and teach you how to make a budget and plan your spending," his dad said. "We'll show you our family budget and our income and spending."
At 13, Joe asked why adopted kids got to have Medicaid. Gina explained that Medicaid coverage made it possible for more families to adopt children by covering medical costs for kids who had special needs. And adoption is simply a good investment for all of society. Children are the future.
Before Joe left for college, his parents showed him their budget and discussed concepts like saving and economizing to help him handle his money. By this age, Joe had a better grasp of what things cost. He had been working part-time to maintain his car, and was mature enough to realize that the adoption assistance payment was helpful, but no windfall. Most of all, he was grateful that his parents had always been open and honest about every aspect of his adoption.
In another situation, a mother was relieved that her timely explanation of adoption assistance to her daughter Jennifer prevented possible trauma. Jennifer's parents, after a bitter and angry split, divorced when she was a teen. Her dad left town. When she ran into him at a grocery store five years later, she was a mother herself.
After meeting his grandchild for the first time, Jennifer's father attempted to drive a wedge between his daughter and her mother by saying, "I think your mom just adopted you for the money, to get the subsidy payment. That's something you should know."
Jennifer was shocked, but was prepared to respond. 'First of all, Dad," she replied, "it was both you and Mom who adopted me. And secondly, Mom told me about the subsidy long ago. Now that I have a child, I can sure see how a parent could get rich quick on $275 per month."
Later, she and her mom were able to laugh about the conversation in the grocery store, instead of cry. Full disclosure is like a vaccination. It can prevent all kinds of pain.
Recently, Jennifer asked her mom to look up current subsidy rates. She and her husband were thinking about adopting a child and wanted to know if the assistance could make it possible.
Information Sharing Reminders
- The sooner you begin to share assistance information with your child, the easier it will be for all involved. When you start sharing early on, you can start small, and add detail as warranted. You don't ever have to lie; you can just share the truth in developmentally appropriate ways. Example: Every once in a while, when a subsidy check arrives, say something to your child like, "Oh, good, the adoption assistance is here. Let's go to the grocery store. And on the way, we'll stop and pay the electric bill." This simple statement conveys the truth about the purpose of adoption assistance. No lecture is required.
- Chronologically or developmentally young children do not need specifics. Simple explanations work best: "The Medicaid card helps us pay for doctor visits." "Extra money helps us to buy clothes and food, and save money for back-to-school shopping."
- Parents are best equipped to decide when more detail is appropriate for a specific child. When making the call, consider your child's ability to trust you or anyone. Children with trust issues, for example those diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, often do not believe what their parents tell them. The abuse they suffered early on makes trusting any adult difficult. Such a child probably would not handle detailed subsidy information well because she cannot trust the truth of what she is told.
- When broaching the topic of assistance and Medicaid to older, more developmentally mature children, appeal to their interests. Teenagers, for example, may be able to appreciate how oil changes and tune-ups help cars to stay "healthy," and how taking the car to a mechanic at the first sign of trouble can prevent more costly repairs later on. A child who is enamored with the family dog can probably understand how regular vet check-ups and shots can keep the dog from needing expensive emergency care. Older children can also understand simple economics; if you spend all your money on one thing, you cannot buy anything else.
- Until your child understands the value of money firsthand (for instance, after she gets a job, buys her own clothing and food, or pays rent), detailed discussions about the exact amount of the assistance payments are not necessary or appropriate. High school is the ideal time to begin teaching a mature teen how to write and keep a household budget. Your budget from the previous month, including all income and expenses, can make for a practical economics lesson.
For adoptees, knowledge and truth really are powerful. They can keep the adoptee from being manipulated or having his life-view hijacked by someone who has information the adoptee doesn't. Many adopted persons will also tell you that secrecy and deception hurt, even when well-intentioned. Happily, we don't have to omit the truth. We only need to present it in the right way at the right time. As adoptive parents, we know that adoption assistance is not about money, but about being able to appropriately care for our children and address their special needs. If we are clear about this, our children will be too.