Explaining a child's individual story
One of the roles of an adoption case worker is to support adoptive families by looking at a child’s individual story and find ways to explain to them why they’ve come into care.
Ms Hayes says this can be done in a variety of ways.
“We might use general conversations but with prompts, including games, photos of the birth family, photos of when the child met their adoptive parents, and books that discuss adoption. For some children, we might write a social story for them about why they’ve come into care, or why they can’t live with their ‘tummy mummy’ anymore and why they’re living with their other mother,” Ms Hayes says.
“There have been children I’ve worked with for whom a ‘before, now and after’ life story has been very beneficial. There might be a story about why they’ve come into care, and then a different social story about why the plan for adoption has been chosen. Then there’s another social story that I put together and leave with the parents to show their child in the future, at a time the child starts to ask more questions, and so the parents have more information to have more difficult conversations moving forward.”
Talking to siblings about adoption
When it comes to discussing adoption with the sibling of an adopted child, or a family friend, Ms Hayes suggests that children don’t need a lot of explicit detail.
“Often they just want answers to questions such as. ‘Why are they living with us and not their parents?’ and, ‘Does that mean I’m going to not live with you one day?’ and ‘Will I have to go and live with another family?’. Not only do they want to know where the adopted child came from, but they want to know why the child is joining the family. We’d start by encouraging parents to start pointing out different family types in the community,” Ms Hayes says.
“For example, ‘Not everybody lives with a mum and dad. Some people just live with a mum, some people just live with a dad. Some people live with grandparents, some people live with step parents, some people have two mums, and some people have two dads.’ It’s about showing children that there are lots of different ways families can look.”
Further to this conversation, Ms Hayes suggests talking about the fact that the job of a parent is to keep somebody safe. Children need to know that the ultimate job of a parent is about keeping your child healthy, happy and safe.
“You can tell the child that when a parent tries really hard and can’t keep a child healthy and safe anymore, then they need to find a family who can. And we often talk about a judge who makes that decision, because we don’t want kids to think mums and dads have made that decision; it’s very important for the child who has been adopted and also for the sibling that’s welcoming that child into the family.”
Talking to children under age 5 about adoption
But how much is “too much information” when it comes to talking to children aged five and under about adoption?
According to Ms Hayes, children don’t need too much information and it’s not until a child begins school around the age of five that they start to notice differences between themselves and their peers.
“It’s not until the age of around five that children might start to ask questions such as, ‘Why don’t I live with my mum and dad?’ or ‘Why do they get to live with their mum and dad?’.
Prior to that age, most children are happy with whatever explanation you give them and most of the questions are more about, ‘Am I safe here?’ or ‘Am I going to stay here?’,” says Ms Hayes.
“So much of what underpins our work is open communication. It’s very different today compared to a number of years ago when closed adoption was practiced – today it’s all about ensuring that the children have access to information and access to their identity as they grow older.”