They sat on the cream and floral plushy sofa and matching loveseat. Others pulled out the dining room chairs into the room, making a circle with chairs and bodies. Many of the grown-ups had coffee but I, as the only non-adult in the room, had a glass of water which I nervously rotated around in my hands. All eyes focused on me. The questions came slowly, at first. How did I like being adopted? What would I tell others about my experience? Did I have any advice for people who want to adopt, or any words of wisdom to share? My mother was sitting just to my left, and I looked at her. She nodded gently, and I took a deep breath. And began to speak.
My first official "job" as an Adoption Poster Child™ occurred when I was sixteen years old, in the living room of an adoptive family and fellow church members. I can barely remember being asked to come speak to this group and I was beyond terrified; but my mom thought it might be nice for "us" to share with others about our experiences. So after church that Sunday, I sat with several adoptive parents of younger kids and answered questions about how I felt about being adopted.
It was the beginning of what I’ve become today. An Adoption Poster Child™.
Looking back, I cringe when I think about what I told those parents; today it would be much different. But that’s the nature of having an extra twenty years of life’s journey carried on one’s body. I think it would take an extraordinary young person to at age 16 be able to articulate to a room full of adults on all the complexities involved in being an adopted person.
Yet this is something we are asking our young (and not so young) adopted persons all the time. To be the (literal) "Poster Child" for adoption.
A few weeks ago, I attended a work conference. About 150 of us adoption social workers gathered in the banquet hall of a hotel to begin a packed few days of workshops and seminars. Our first speaker of the day was introduced, and I was completely intrigued.
The young man presented as our first speaker is an 18-year old college student, who was adopted at the age of 15 after spending over 9 years in a state foster care system. This young man went on to earn top grades, numerous awards and accolades and now has become a motivational speaker. His presentation style was engaging and sincere; many leagues ahead of my own adolescent fumblings.
After this young man’s presentation, he opened it up for questions. Immediately, this room of social workers wanted to know how this adoptee felt about all these controversial issues that inform the work we do. How did he feel about being separated from his siblings? Did he want to change his name and why or why not? How did he feel about the foster homes he lived in? What could social workers have done different?
In summary, all his answers basically reinforced and validated the entire room. Everything was shrugged off as a "we all have our burdens" attitude and "success is a choice we make." I believe this young man is completely sincere and honest about his beliefs, just as I was many years ago. And because he is such a great representative of the positive side of teenage, foster-care adoption, he’s a perfect Poster Child™ for my profession because he is the human, living embodiment of all that’s possible and good in foster care adoption.
So why am I so concerned?
Our society places so many expectations on our Poster Children™. This young man is only 18 years old. He hasn’t finished college yet, partnered, had children. He hasn’t reached those reflective years of middle life. Because he’s smart, ambitious and articulate, I worry that he’s been groomed to be a mouthpiece for our profession. What happens if or when some day his views change? How is the Adoption Poster Child™ supposed to reach out to someone and admit that maybe their life wasn’t without its struggles?
I also worry because this young man is NOT representative of most of the kids in foster care. He’s extraordinary. And his views are definitely NOT representative of most of the kids on my caseload.
In my own agency, when there are kids who are smart and capable of speaking about their experiences, they are "encouraged" to attend events, appear on television and take part in panels to speak to prospective adoptive parents or the general public about foster care/adoption.
I struggle with this. First of all, even as an adult with many years of speaking on panels and presenting to adoptive parents behind me, it is very, very emotionally risky to put your personal and private life out there for others to scrutinize and question. There are some questions I’ve learned to put boundaries on, in order to protect my dignity.
As an Adoption Poster Child™ I’m asked all the time, by different people representing different agendas, to comment or share my story/belief/perspective. Including by this reporter who wanted to know if I knew of any "angry adoptees" willing to speak. It takes a long time to learn who to trust when asked to share your personal story.
But these kids aren’t properly trained in public speaking. The very things that they’ve experienced that make them vulnerable also make them more sympathetic to an audience.
I am also worried about people disputing their experiences and/or views. There is not a single time that I speak to prospective or adoptive parents where I am not challenged by someone, who wants to dispute, dismiss or negate my truth.
When we, as a society, ask people to share about their lives, we owe them more than a nice round of applause at the end. These kids have so little and what they have we are asking them to share. Even for those adoptees/fosterees who volunteer to share and speak — we must do everything we can to uphold their dignity.
Stories are transformative. Stories have the ability to heal, to educate, to open minds and hearts.
Those of us who share our stories willingly do so for many reasons.
Not so that others can criticize us.
Not so that we can be told our feelings are not valid.
Not to be shamed or called names or argued with.
But because we want to share our experiences, in the hope that someone else may recognize themselves in our stories —
— and know that they are not all alone.