Tuesday Topic: Contact with Previous Neglectful/Abusive Caregivers

Thank you to each one of you who contributed to last week’s Tuesday Topic: When You Don’t Like Your Child.  I was hesitant to present the topic,  but it clearly was significant to many of us.  The responses were encouraging and insightful; I hope if you haven’t read them, you’ll take the time today.
We get another opportunity this week to serve a fellow adoptive mother.  I encourage many of you to take a moment and respond to her Tuesday Topic question:
How do adoptive parents navigate previous relationships in a child’s life when the relationships were abusive/extremely neglectful?  And the child wants to continue to maintain the contact and still cares for/loves the previous caregivers.
Our daughter keeps in contact with her foster parents from another country, but as we have learned more, we now know how much she was physically abused and neglected by the mother.
As a social worker I know that abused kids still love their abusive parents–but I am finding it difficult to navigate as the adoptive parent.
There are many of you who may be dealing with similar situations.  I would love to see us have a good discussion, so please share your thoughts, even if you aren’t sure that you have an answer.  Even sharing your own struggle can be helpful.
I still plan to respond to last week’s topic from my personal perspective, but my days have been filled in unexpected ways.  Russ and Isaiah arrived safely home from Kenya at midnight on Thursday.  Friday was a jet-lagged, slow-moving day, but it was just good to have them near.  My sister called that day because our father had suddenly gotten very ill and was hospitalized.  I talked off and on all day to both of my sisters, and decided to head to Seattle in the morning.
Isaiah left for Rotary Youth Leadership camp early Saturday morning and we packed for the trip.  Eby missed Russ something fierce while he was in Kenya, and it showed in his behavior, so we took Eby and Little Man along with a plan to keep Eby close.   The six hour drive went by fairly quickly and we were able to see nearly all of my family.  We even made it to my niece’s senior dance recital.  Sunday my Dad was discharged from the hospital and we headed home, knowing that I’ll be returning in a week for medical appointments for Honeybee and Dimples.
Have a great day, friends.  I have two appointments and piles of clothes covered with red Kenyan mud to tackle today.

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Linda
    July 3, 2012

    We have been navigating contact with the birth family for over a year now. We adopted our two youngest from the foster system. They have been in our home for over nine years and are now 12 and 14. They both knew the birth family and had visits until their birth mother failed to attend the visits because she had a felony warrant for her arrest when they were about 4 1/2 and 6 years old. But because of the birth family's involvement with drugs, gangs, neglect, sexual abuse, and violence, our plan was to only have mail contact until the family could prove they were stable and drug and gang free. This was all changed when, through odd circumstances, our daughter came in contact with an older birth brother. At that time, she kept the contact with the birth family secret from us, and planned to run away to the birth family. After over a month of odd behaviors, she finally admitted meeting with some of the birth family at our park. She had threatened our son if he told us. The birth family now knew where we lived and our names, so my plans of keeping them protected went out the window.

  2. Linda
    July 3, 2012

    I still worry about the family's gang influence on our kids. I'm hoping that by not letting them be alone with the family, that the kids will stay away from gangs. The mother usually shoos all the young men hanging around their house when we come. I also homeschool the kids so they don't get involved with gangs at school. So far the kids don't believe the family has gang ties, and just think they like to wear the colors for fashion and have a lot of friends. In the meantime, we try to educate them on the problems tied to gang membership. I try not to directly accuse the birth family of anything in front of the kids, but try to teach them in a round-about way. I made the mistake the other day of saying that I learned the reason the family was being tried together, regardless of who actually stabbed the girl. My daughter was angry that I would say that her brother could stay in jail after the trial because to her, he wasn't guilty of hurting anyone and had nothing to do with the fight. They were all family, not a gang. So anyway, it's hard to inform and protect, yet not mention anything that might be negative. But I guess people in divorced families have to do the same, though most kids in divorced families haven't been hurt as badly as my kids were by their own relatives.

    We have bathed our family in prayer this past year and have asked for wisdom and direction. Though it has added extra stress, my kids aren't living in a fantasy world where they move back with the birth family and live happily ever after. By encouraging supervised contact, they see that they are loved by both families, though we have the responsibility to raise them and they are better off here. If I was to do it my way, we would still be contacting each other through the foster agency. But I see that in some ways it was better for them to see the family now, with our protection, than if they were 18 and jumped right into the birth family's lives on their own.

  3. daysofwonderandgrace
    July 4, 2012

    Three of my girls were internationally adopted from foster care. Each had a very different foster family. I immediately connected with one of them, feel more positive than negative about another, and am rather ambivalent about the third. I pretty quickly realized, though that my own feelings about these families had nothing to do with how my girls felt: they each without reserve loved their foster mother. Or for the two who came home as infants after only several months in their care and have no real memories, they loved the idea of their foster mother. (In other words, their feelings were not necessarily the outgrowth of actual memories.)

    It seems like each one of them needed a hero figure in their early life story; each girl latched onto her foster mom as that figure. I think that maybe unconsciously they are reacting to being sent away from (rejected by) their own birth family/culture by cherishing the idea that somebody back there loved them. They only have “faces” to put on two people who knew them in their birth country: their social worker and their foster mother. And I noticed from early on that both my girls (who have the developmental capacity to talk about it) believe that without qualification, their foster mother was an angel who could do no wrong. And I decided that in light of that, I would simply bite my tongue and withhold my reservations until they are older and interested in talking more about the ambiguities in their stories —not unlike we have not yet talked about the deep ambiguity in their birth family stories.

    I don’t know if that was the “right” thing to do because it felt to me like I was participating in perpetuating their fantasies. But I also didn’t feel like there was any good way to enlighten them, now, without making them doubt their self-concept that they were/are loveable children and that most people in their birth country are basically good, loving people. So it seemed like a lot more than the realities of their time in foster care were attached to this fairy god-mother foster-mom fantasy.

    We were able to return to their birth country as a family and reunite with their foster mothers a couple of years ago, when they were 3, 5 and 6. That made me really glad that I had withheld my reservations because what I saw was that regardless of the ways I wish their time in foster care had been different, the foster mom’s reaction to seeing them again lived up to their fantasies. The foster moms were tender and loving and engaged; they brought gifts and cried and exclaimed over and over again how beautiful the girls were and how much they had grown. It was pretty much a Hallmark card kind of reunion.

    And as I watched it I realized that these women are real, multifaceted people. Despite the care for one of my girls I would call sub-standard, seeing her foster mom interact with her, I saw that her foster mom genuinely loved her—despite the circumstances that colored the months my daughter spent in her care. And while I as the adoptive mom was left to try to pick up and piece together the harder parts of those formative months in my daughter’s life, my daughter as an infant internalized the truth (accurately in her case) that her foster mom loved her. It’s the old analogy about a glass: what I see as half-empty my daughter sees as half-full.

  4. Chrissy
    July 8, 2012

    We have adopted three children, currently ages 2 and under, through foster care in the states. Their biological mother (they are siblings) is currently incarcerated and writes me (through post-adopt) on a regular basis and begs me for pictures and updates. I agreed to send her updates as I could (there are days I can't even go potty, let alone sit down and write a letter). My concern is for when she is released and for when the children are older. I know that she wants contact…I'm just not sure I want to expose these little ones to anymore trauma than they've already experienced. My priority has to be for the well being of my children. I'm grateful that I have a few years to figure out what I will do!

    Here is where my heart is divided: Their biological mother made horrible choices. I deal with the consequences of those choices EVERY DAY and I'm exhausted. Then, I think of how horrible her very own upbringing was…and my heart melts a little.

    All this to say, I'm not sure what I am going to do, or how much contact I am going to allow. I'm just praying that God will make it very clear for me.

  5. Jenny
    July 17, 2012

    I have a slightly different perspective on this since I've not yet managed to adopt any children, only foster. Also, almost all of my kiddos have been older, so they come to me with significant history with their families. I take kiddos who have come from severely abusive or neglectful situations. I currently have a 12yo and 10yo who were abandoned then prostituted.

    Interestingly enough ALL of my kids have fierce loyalty to their bio parents, despite the fact that they were treated terribly by them. I've learned that it is very important to them to still have a relationship with their parents, no matter how healthy that relationship is.

    In light of this, we actually encourage the kids to make supervised phone calls with their parents if it can be appropriate. If phone contact can't happen, we encourage them to write letters, send pictures, and make cards. We communicate with the parents to let them know how their kids are doing. We also try to help the parents get plugged in at a church and with a mentor. All of this puts us all on the "same team." Once we're on the same team, there is not as much anger towards us as foster parents either from the kids or the parents and we're able to start bonding and creating a safe relationship with each of our kids.

    None of our kids have ever been reunified with their parents. They've all gone to live with other family members. Thankfully, though, because we've been willing to work with the parents and encourage healthy communication, we've been able to speak a lot of life into both the parents and kids and see a lot of healing come in their relationships. We've also been able to stay in contact with all of our kiddos because their family knows that we're rooting for them as a family and we're not just trying to get their kids to be loyal to only us.

    These are only my thoughts as a foster mom. I'm not sure how exactly I would handle things differently if I was ever able to adopt one of my kiddos. Every situation is so different. I DO know, though, that these relationships are important to the kids, especially as they get older. I also know that healing CAN happen even in the most unhealthy of family relationships.

    Praying for wisdom for each of us!


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