This month marks the 6th anniversary of when two small children stood on our front stoop, accompanied by a social worker, searching for a place to lay their heads that night. They seemed tiny and scared — both defensive and hopeful all in the same breath. Within 30 minutes, the social worker had left and the two children remained. We were a houseful of strangers, my husband and I realized. We didn’t know what to do or what to say because we had no idea how deep their wounds went.
Believe me when I say, it has taken every second of those six years to uncover their secrets and to bandage their scars. Some wounds healed quickly with consistency, boundaries, security, and love. I would like to tell you that most of my children’s issues were overcome so easily, but the truth is, most of what these two Littles faced in their 4 and 6 years prior to our home scarred them in ways that love cannot fix. Three square meals a day and a bed in which to sleep, holidays and birthdays, celebrations and vacations, rules, consequences, rewards, therapies, church support — none of it was not enough to heal the burdens that they carry deep down.
My husband and I adopted our two children from the foster system within a year of them being in our home. It was an enlightening year, to be sure! Our son was 6 when he arrived with us, and our daughter was 4. As therapists and social workers, ourselves, it didn’t take long before the Hubs and I realized that we were facing more than just ADHD — more than just typical behavioral issues. When the stealing and the lying began, it was easy to chalk it up to “testing limits”. When the aggression and property destruction came, we began therapy. And by the time animal cruelty, suicidal threats, self-harm, significant violence, and sexual acting out came into the picture, we sought further psychiatric help.
Both of our children were diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). RAD is a disorder that can develop if children have not received an adequate amount of bonding with their primary care giver from conception through 3-years-old. If their needs were not met, if they cried and no one answered, if they were hungry and no one fed them, or if the parent was simply emotionally or physically unavailable to their child, RAD can occur. It changes the very neurological pathways that develop, or do not develop, in the child’s brain. It effects the child’s ability to understand and feel emotions, attach to others, develop appropriate cause and effect ideas, and limits impulsivity (among many other things). It is a disorder that seems to be one of much debate in the adoption and mental health world. Some will tell you that it is incredibly rare with very vague behavioral symptoms, whereas other doctors and psych articles profess that it is an increasingly common disorder, one with behaviors mirroring those of a sociopath. My personal goal has never been to argue semantics or debate symptoms. It has always been to parent my children in the best possible way — meeting their needs and healing their wounds as best as we can this side of Heaven.
When we add in failure to thrive, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, exposure to drugs in utero, and significant head trauma, you start to see why we are still applying bandages 6 years later! Because many of these scars are permanent, this will be our parenting task for life. I could very well be the next mother standing in a court room trying to explain to the judge and jury the ins and outs of trauma as one of my children sit behind me in an orange jumpsuit. I could very well be the next mother crying out to the media that I did everything I thought was right, and it still wasn’t enough to stop the tragedy from occurring in a school. Please hear me when I say that I pray against these things on a daily basis! I pray healing and restoration over the lives of my children with great faith. I also recognize that I’ve already sat across tables and phone lines with parents of children who have already been harmed by my kids. My husband and I have been yelled at and condemned, even publicly humiliated for choices our children have made. And yet we never excuse their behavior. We listen with understanding and let parents vent their frustrations — frustrations that any good parent should have if their children have been harmed! We give way to peaceful reconciliation when possible and we remind our Littles that their trauma does not make their actions permissible.
However, we also use this as an opportunity to discuss just how trauma can affect the brain of a small, innocent child. It provides us the opportunity to remind society that the problem didn’t start here, with my children. It started long before — often generations upon generations before. THIS is the message that needs to be told in today’s society. When we allow drugs and alcohol in parents to go unnoticed, we fail the next generation. When we allow physical, sexual, emotional, mental, and verbal abuse to be permitted by parents, we fail the next generation. When we allow political correctness to stand in the way of protecting babies and children, we fail the next generation. When we allow parents to expose their children to pornography, prostitution, crack pipes, and the buckle-end of a belt — we fail the next generation.
People ask me all the time how I deal with my anger towards my children’s birth parents. I always found that an odd question, out of all the things that one could ask an adoptive parent! And when I inform them that I do not harbor any secret hatred towards the people who birthed my kids, I am stared at with awe. By the way, this does not make me super-human in any capacity, but it does prove that when we can see the societal and systematical breakdown, we do not have room for individual hatred.
My children’s mother was abused as a young girl all the way to the present — by her parents, by men, by the Child Welfare System. She learned how abuse was a survival tool, so she adapted it to meet her own needs in life, continuing the cycle. In turn, my children’s grandmother was also abused by numerous people in her life — people who were supposed to keep her safe but who did the opposite. And if I were to take a stab at it, I would guess that her mother before her had also been exposed to trauma of her very own.
Abuse begets abuse and sin begets sin. It has since the beginning of time.
So, when we put our political pants on and take to Facebook and Twitter, it shouldn’t be to continually bash one party or the other — a president, a state, or even the parent of a child who fell through the cracks. If we want our words to count, we should rally for increased mental health services instead of yearly cutbacks. We should fight for mandated early intervention services for each child born with drugs in their system. We should pray about becoming foster parents ourselves instead of expecting others to step up and do the job. We should support and unconditionally love on parents who have chosen to foster, adopt, or raise a special needs child.
Reactive Attachment Disorder is just that… reactive. If we could join together and save the children of our society from the initial trauma, there will be no reaction to be had! If we choose to not turn our heads and act like our neighborhoods are not full of hurting children, but instead look them in the eyes and ask them about their scars, then we stand a chance of breaking the cycle of abuse. We stand a chance of being the voice for the voiceless.
Love begets love and compassion begets compassion. It has since the beginning of time. Let love and compassion begin with you.
Shivonne Costa is a counselor with an MSW from the University of Pittsburgh and the worship leader at First Baptist Church of Ellwood City. Shivonne also runs a community support group for adoptive and foster parents. Additionally, she is the founder of MommyhoodSFS.com. She lives in Western Pennsylvania with her husband, children, and pets. Striving to shed light on the current child welfare system and mental health issues, she offers both hilarious and heart-breaking truths on parenting. Her personal memoir, The Children Who Raised Me, provides readers an in-depth and riveting look in to the lives that have shaped and molded one woman into the mother that she is today, while instilling a message of hope.