Extra support makes world of a difference post-adoption 

Adopted children and their new parents often need additional support
Extra support makes world of a difference post-adoption 
Picture: Stock image

AMERICAN YouTuber Myka Stauffer was living the dream: a beautiful home and family.

In 2017, Myka and her husband James, who now have four birth children, adopted two-year-old Huxley from China. Myka’s YouTube figures soared thanks to entertaining footage of him adjusting to life in America and finding his feet in his new family. That is until he no longer appeared in her video diary earlier this year.

When questioned, the Stauffers issued a video explaining that they felt unable to cater to Huxley’s increasingly demanding special needs. So, he now lives with another family.

The backlash was fierce, with the Stauffers accused of discarding Huxley when he became too much for them to handle.

The couple’s lawyers told People magazine that the decision was difficult and but made “to provide Huxley with the best possible treatment and care.

“Over time, the team of medical professionals advised our clients it might be best for Huxley to be placed with another family.”

While we do not know the details of what happened with the Stauffers, their experience highlights the difficulties that can happen with intercountry adoption. Since 2014, the Adoption Authority of Ireland has advised prospective parents that children in need of intercountry adoption are now older or have medical problems.

Are parents prepared for the challenges associated with this? More importantly, are they given necessary supports once they bring their adopted children home to Ireland?

Following a ruling in 2010, Irish people can only adopt from countries that have signed up to the Hague Convention. Currently, this includes Bulgaria, China, Haiti, India, the Philippines, Poland, Thailand, the US, the UK, and Vietnam. A total of 707 children were adopted from those countries in the period between 2010 and January of this year.

Two major studies have been carried out looking at how well these children fare in Ireland. In a study of intercountry adoption outcomes from 2004 to 2007, 20% of the 180 children who participated were said to have persistent problems with indiscriminate friendliness. Some 14% had poor eye contact and 10% had a problem with clinginess.

One in four of the children had ongoing problems with sustaining attention. Two children had severe neurological disorders. Three had been diagnosed with disorders on the autism spectrum and one had a specific language difficulty.

A more recent study in 2016 questioned Irish GPs about their experiences with children adopted from other countries. These children were found to have higher needs than the general population, with 26% identified as having emotional, social, or mental health-related issues.

LENGTHY ASSESSMENT

Marie Porter, 51 and from Greystones, knows what it is like to worry about these issues. In 2014, she and husband Eoin adopted TJ from Bulgaria when he was two years and seven months old.

“We’d been told that children available for adoption internationally were likely to have medical conditions,” she says. “In fact, part of the application process involves filling out a questionnaire detailing medical issues you would accept and those you would not.”

The first step in any adoption application is gaining a declaration of eligibility and suitability to adopt from Tusla. In order to secure this, prospective parents are invited to attend an adoption preparation course.

This is where you discuss things like cultural differences between Ireland and other countries and potential problems your child may have with attachment, bonding and other issues.

Then you are allocated a social worker who conducts a series of assessments that can take up to two years to complete. “You are asked about your childhood, marriage and fertility issues. You present medical reports from your GP, get Garda clearance and show bank records. It’s very in-depth,” says Porter. Only then can you apply to be put on a waiting list for a child from a specific country.

The adoption process moved relatively quickly for the Porters and three and a half years after it began, they were asked if they wanted to adopt TJ. “We received a file with photos, a video, and a medical report and then went to visit him in Bulgaria,” says Porter. “He was two years and three months at that stage and had been in the orphanage for over two years.”

The final stage involved a four-month court process before they could bring TJ home. During that time, the Porters prepared to meet his anticipated needs.

“We knew there would be language issues, so we put him on the waiting list for speech and language services before he ever arrived in Ireland,” she says.

There were unanticipated problems after he arrived. “He wasn’t very stable when walking because he had spent so much time in a cot,” she says.

“He had not been weaned off baby food. We got professional help with that as we knew it could affect his speech and language development if we delayed.”

POST-ADOPTION SERVICES

At the time, there were few post-adoption support services for parents. “Once we got home, we were on our own,” says Porter.

Things have changed in the six years since then and Tusla now fund a post-adoption service operated by Barnardos. Andrew Walker is the project coordinator with the service, and he recognises Tusla alone is unable to cater for adoptive families’ needs.

Even though all adoptive parents continue to receive visits from their social worker post adoption, this usually stops after the first year and adoptive parents generally require support for much longer.

“Many children are significantly affected by their time in institutional care,” says Walker. “They need help with sensory issues, speech and language, and emotional regulation… These problems can be persistent and difficult for parents to manage, even into later childhood.

The preparation process provided by Tusla is great, but there is only so much preparation that can be done for a theoretical child, especially one with special needs. The reality is quite different, which is why post-adoption support is essential.

Rosemary Walshe from Enniscorthy is the Information Officer with the Thai Adoption Group, a support group for people who have adopted children from Thailand. She knows many families who have availed of Barnardos’ services.

“Pre-adoption services here are thorough, with social workers giving a realistic view of the challenges you will experience along the way but it’s afterwards you need most help,” she says.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the child: they have been taken away from everything they have ever known and moved to a completely new environment with a different language, different smells, and different people. It’s no wonder they can be traumatised. It can take time and help for them to adjust.”

Parents can struggle too. Walshe suffered from post-adoption stress after she adopted her first child. “I went from full-time employment to being at home with a two-year-old who wouldn’t leave my side,” she says. “I felt I would be seen as a failure or criticised by social workers if I looked for help. Thankfully, I had friends who supported me and one of our social workers saw I was struggling and helped too.”

REWARDING AND CHALLENGING

Peadar Maxwell is a senior psychologist at the Child and Adolescent Psychology Department in the HSE in South Wexford and has has worked with hundreds of adoptive families and agrees that parents need ongoing support.

“Adopting is rewarding, challenging, life-enriching, and a lot of work,” he says. 

It is often a more complicated road than other parenting experiences.

He reassures parents that most issues can be resolved with time and help. “If you are worried about your child, talk to your GP, public health nurse or social worker,” he says. “It could just be a normal part of the journey to attachment, a journey that takes time. If it is more than that, you may need professional help. But do not be afraid. You and your child are embarking on a wonderful road and you may just need some guidance along the way.”

This was certainly the case for the Porter family. “One of the stipulations of adopting a child is that one parent has to give up work for the first year,” says Marie Porter. “That year allowed me to focus on helping TJ adjust to his life and make sure he got the help he needed to catch up to his peers. Now, he’s a happy and bright eight-year-old who we’re lucky to have in our lives.”

Walshe does not think what happened to Huxley would unfold in the same way here in Ireland. “I would hope parents in Ireland are better prepared to cope with such issues and given the necessary supports to look after their child,” she says.

She and Porter are representative of the vast majority of adoptive parents, for whom adopting brings untold joy into their lives. “All I can say is that adopting has been the most rewarding experience for us,” says Porter. “I just wish the process was faster so that more people could do it.”

LONG WAIT

It took Rosemary and Robert Walshe from Enniscorthy 12 years to become parents to Anna and Jarun. 

Rosemary and Robert Walshe from Enniscorthy with their adopted children Anna and Jarun
Rosemary and Robert Walshe from Enniscorthy with their adopted children Anna and Jarun

“We started in 2002 and the process was pretty gruelling,” says Rosemary, 51. “Anyone hoping to adopt needs to be prepared to answer questions that will stir up deep-rooted emotions and be challenging to answer.” However, it was not the questioning she found most difficult; it was the waiting. Having started the process in 2002, the Walshes were finally matched with Anna in 2007, when she was two years old.

By the time they tried to adopt again, waiting times for China were too long. They tried Vietnam but Ireland temporarily ceased its adoptions from Vietnam during the process, so they had to start again, this time choosing Thailand. Their waiting finally came to an end in 2013 when they adopted then three-year-old Jarun from there.

The Walshes were prepared for possible medical issues. “You have to fill out a form listing the health issues you would be willing to accept in a child,” says Rosemary. 

That was emotional because we had to be honest about what we could realistically cope with.

Both Anna and Jarun required speech and language therapy, and one of them has hearing loss and now wears hearing aids.

“Waiting lists are long so it took time to get them into the health system, but once they were in, they got great support,” says Walshe.

She and her family have also found support groups to be invaluable. “We’ve attended workshops and events over the years organised by the Irish China Contact Group and the Thai Adoption Group (TAG), both of which support families, pre and post adoption,” she says. 

“These groups of parents share information and recommendations and have helped me so much. That’s why I now volunteer with TAG.” She urges prospective adoptive parents not to have any illusions about adoption.

 “Don’t go in with rose-tinted glasses like some celebrities seem to do,” she says. “It’s a tough road with lots of twists and turns and sometimes heartache but it can bring such joy and fulfilment.”

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