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Wednesday, 27 January 2021
Moving Children Abruptly from Foster to Adoptive Family Print

Someone is finally speaking up about the potential damage of moving a child—including an infant—too abruptly. In her new book, Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience after Neglect and Trauma, Deborah Gray writes, “There is evidence that moving infants abruptly causes a massive disequilibrium in neuroendocrine regulation, with potential for long-term effects. (Dozier, 2006.)” For some infants, the effects are immediately apparent, with obvious expressions of grief. Other children seem to transition smoothly by outward appearance. Having witnessed an almost flawless adjustment in my own child, looking back I now believe what I saw was shock. Not surprisingly, “it is not possible for children who are in shock and denial to form a smooth attachment to a new psychological parent, or attachment figure.”

Gray reports on a 2006 study out of Harvard University showing that “over half of the children in foster care leave with an anxiety disorder. They have twice the rate of traumatic stress as compared to Vietnam veterans.” Since “in therapy, children reference sudden moves as among their most difficult problems when working through grief and shock,” one naturally comes to the conclusion that in order to reduce the impact of adoption trauma, one must find a way to transition children less abruptly. Gray explains, “Moves that are done abruptly, and especially those that include trauma, lead to pathological or complicated grief,” a grief in which there “is no completion and children continually mourn, [remaining] highly reactive to reminders of their loss.”

Nurturing Adoptions includes an entire section dedicated to best practices in “moving children with as little damage as possible.” Because “there are specific damages to the emerging personality when children lose their homes and attachment figures,” we recommend that every adoptive parent and professional—especially the social workers who are actually involved in decision making—read Gray’s book, taking particular note of the recommended moving schedule for children. For infants 1-4 months, Gray suggests a transition time of six days, outlining what the role of the adoption parent and the foster parent should be on each day. Infants 5-10 months should be transitioned over ten days.

Infants 11-24 months need ten to fourteen days to create a safe transition. Notably, children “moved too abruptly at this stage can get locked into [the] protest “No” stage; or they may feel reluctant to attach again.” Gray only briefly touches on something of immense consequence to many families adopting internationally, where children are leaving their foster families between the ages of nine and fifteen months. “Typically, the social worker should try not to move children who are in a six-month window of attachment, which is an exclusive stage between about nine and fifteen months of age,” …assuming that “the baby is in a safe, nurturing, and securely attached relationship with the caregiver.” (Our bold.) She goes on to explain that in order “to determine whether the baby is in that exclusive window, social workers can note whether the baby usually cries or fusses when the caregiver walks out of the room or has progressed to the stage in which he knows that the caregiver will come back.” The potential damage from moving a child between the ages of nine and fifteen months is something that every adoptive professional and parent needs to be aware of.

Preschoolers, age 24 months to 5 years, should optimally experience fourteen to twenty-one days in transition. Gray goes on to talk about older children, details of which can be found in the book. For each age level, birth & up, she outlines precisely what parents and foster families need to do on each day of the transitional period. She points out that a less abrupt transition also serves to honor the work of foster families. Under many current practices, foster parents are impacted by the abrupt removal of children—often well-loved children—from their families. A better transition gives them time to feel comfortable with the adoptive family. Currently, the child's transition from foster family to adoptive family often just becomes a front row seat to watch adults mourn--or stoically attempt to hide all emotions from the child—neither of which is the optimal situation. Imagine instead a transition where the foster parents have learned to know the adoptive parents enough to trust them and to send the child off with confidence that the child has already begun to establish a bond.

So where does this leave us? I believe this leaves us with immense hope; hope that changes to the way we transition children can lead to more secure little individuals. It won’t be easy to change the system. But our little ones are currently suffering the effects of a system that is not designed in the best interest of children. And the potential damage can be life long.


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