February 13th, 2010
We got ‘the call’ last week. The one we had been expecting, but the one we hoped wouldn’t be needed.
Our brother-in-law in the UK asked us to have his children, a boy and a girl aged 11 and 10. He has been struggling to look after them since his wife died in 2006.
I wanted to write this blog as a way of capturing this roller coaster of a ride that I suspect we are in for. I’m going to try to be as non-judgmental toward my brother-in-law as I can, and I’m going to change the names of the people involved so they have some sort of privacy. This is not a blog I propose to share widely, but some friends and family might like to keep up to date with progress.
So the children, lets call them Hansel and Gretel and lets call their Dad ‘Norman’. Their Mum, lets call her ‘Carol’.
So, how did we get to this point? Well, in the early 2000s Carol found a lump in her breast. She got some treatment, and it seemed that she was in remission. A few years later, another lump appeared, but this time things were not good. Hansel and Gretel were small children when she had the first round, and not much older when she became sick for the second time. They were just 7 and 8 when she died.
Norman loved Carol very much and their relationship had lasted a very long time, but it was not a calm one. They had been married twice, divorced and then separated. The children were supposed to bring them together, but that just didn’t happen. Norman is very open about his views on not wanting children.
About 8 months before Carol died, she called Norman and asked him to come back to nurse her and take care of their children. He agreed and did a really good job of this, leaving behind his new lady and her two grown children.
When we last saw Carol, it was about two months before she died. Her body was dying and her mind was slowing down. I remember the confusion she experienced getting school clothes for Hansel and Gretel. It was so very sad. Hansel and Gretel talked very openly about their Mum’s illness, and we shed some tears with them. Norman’s way of dealing with the situation was to run to a timetable in a very black and white way.
We offered as much support as we could, but the miles between us didn’t make it any easier. We gave them a ‘book of the month’ card so that he could encourage them to read. We urged them to call us if they needed help. We sent cards and we called.
Norman let the children finish out their school year and then moved them to join his new lady and her family. The adventure began for them. Blending two families together. Getting a new home to house them all. The first Christmas we got a lovely email from them telling us about all their adventures in the new house. We were so pleased that at last there was some happiness for them.
I’ll be honest, we probably didn’t keep in touch as much as we should have in that following year. We just assumed that because we hadn’t heard from them, all was well. Alas, this was not the case.
In September of 2008 we started to hear reports that Hansel and Gretel’s behavior was causing problems in the new household. They were not responding to the parenting provided by Norman and his new lady. The older children were getting fed up with how the younger children were behaving in their shared areas. The view of the behavior was that it was purposeful and that the intention behind it was to ruin the family life that Norman had created for them.
We called and tried to work out what was going on. We offered advice and we sent some parenting books that had helped us with out own children. We kept in touch and tried to monitor things from afar. Christmas came, followed by the new year. In the early part of the year, we got a message via the wider family network that all was not well. Norman had asked another sister to have Gretel. Gretel’s behavior was seen as the main problem, and by getting her out of the house it was felt that things would be workable. The sister agreed but asked for some financial support. Norman refused, so things went back to the way they were.
In March or April, things reached fever pitch for a second time. This time another sister was approached to have Gretel. Again, she was seen as a problem child. The second sister lives in Europe where English is a second language. The sister asked for financial help to put Gretel into a private school for a year where she would learn the language. Again, Norman refused and the situation resumed.
In May or June, Norman called Social Services and asked that they ‘take his children away’. He and his lady were at their wits end. The older children were very unhappy. Hansel and Gretel’s behavior was very difficult. Norman and his lady’s relationship was under pressure.
Social Services did an assessment and deemed that while the children were not in immediate danger, they were being emotionally bullied. They set about working with the family to help improve the situation. The children were seen on a fairly regular basis at school and at home. The parents were also visited and offered support. Part of the process was regular meetings involving a wide range of professionals who came across the family in different settings. These meetings were (and are) very draining for the parents, especially for Norman’s lady, as she never expected to see herself in this situation.
The wider maternal family tried to rally round to help. Norman was very antagonistic toward them and he had tried to cut himself off. They battled through this and took the children for school holidays when they could. Norman put obstacles in the way and was unhelpful when it came time to do things like pick up and drop off.
For me, this was the time when I knew something needed to be done to really help this family and our nephew and niece. I set up communication with Norman and explained that I had no history with him. I explained to him that my goal was to help him turn his family around. We offered (for a second time) to have both children fly out to the US. He finally agreed that we could have them for the summer.
The children arrived in mid July and stayed until late August. It was not an easy time. They were very needful of attention. They are loud and they get especially loud at dinner time and into the evening. Their table manners need some work. They push boundaries and buttons where they can. They fought with each other, and our own son, and I found myself being very protective of them, almost to the detriment of my son. I felt like I was sharing myself out between the various people in the family, without having time to recharge my own batteries.
We implemented simple household chores and a reward program within the first few days of them being here, and they took to this very quickly. We rewarded them with trips out, everything from a trip to the library to a ‘big’ trip to Legoland. They responded well. My Mum helped out by having them for one day per week, and she observed a change in their behavior from the beginning of the visit to the end. It really wasn’t easy, but it was working.
Soon the visit was over and I was very sad to have to drop them at the airport for their flight home. For weeks afterwards I would walk past their now empty rooms and get a wave of sadness and longing wash over me. I effectively took a long vacation from my business while they were visiting, and getting back into it was hard. But life goes on, so we went into the Fall with the hope that the long break for the family would help them get centered and recharge their batteries ready for the new school year.
We kept in regular contact, calling every two weeks or so. I also set up email communication with the older children, and via them, their Mum. I spoke to the social worker involved and got her view on the situation. I kept the wider family informed and tried to smooth out the tension and unhelpful accusations. ‘Our focus is Hansel and Gretel’, I reminded them when Norman was being difficult.
In October, we got a frantic message telling us that the children had been taken into foster care. I was furious with Norman. Why hadn’t he called to ask for help? Why didn’t he tell us things were getting bad again? And I told him this.
The time difference is difficult so I was calling early in my day to speak to the social worker to find out what was going on. Oh, and the social worker only works three days per week, so if you miss the time slot or you forget the day or she’s not there to take your call it can be a long wait. So I’m calling about this very difficult and emotional subject while driving my crew to the job site. Thank goodness their English isn’t so good!
Anyway, the children were not taken into foster care, they just had gone to a foster carer for a week over the half term holiday. I was assured by the social worker that the children were ok and that everything was being monitored. I asked how much longer the situation would be allowed to continue, and I was told that Social Services were getting towards the end of their ‘helping the family’ phase.
Norman was being seen as uncooperative. We were told before the summer visit that there was to be a ‘Family Group Conference’ where the wider family would have a chance to put a plan together to help the family with short term needs, and plan for any possible long term needs. Norman refused to take part in such a conference if it involved the sisters or the brothers. I again approached Norman and offered to be a go-between. He accepted.
Before the Christmas vacation, we planned for the children to go to the two sisters for a week each, with time at home for celebrations with the family. Norman was happy, things were going well. The children sounded chipper and excited about the holiday, and their trips to see family.
For the first week the weather didn’t cooperate with a snow storm causing huge traffic problems around the channel crossing. One sister’s husband became sick and needed to be hospitalized while the children were there. Norman was unhelpful with regard to the pick up, and insisted that the sister make the 6 hour trip both ways. The second sister’s visit was more equitable, with a mid point drop off and pick up done by the lady and her daughter. No phone calls to check that the children were ok, especially given the very bad snow conditions on the road, and the huge traffic jam that lasted 7 hours. Whatever. The children are our main focus, right?
My next phone call to Norman was a frustrating affair. He complained about the cost of picking up the children and the inconvenience it had caused them. He was angry with social services, and because things had been going well now for a month or so, he felt they should ‘get off his back’. I was pretty angry at his comments, but explained that social services had some specific requirements that he needed to meet before they would consider removing themselves. We ended the phone call with an uneasy truce, and I spoke to the children who were, as usual, quite chipper and upbeat.
Finally the Family Group Conference was arranged. The coordinator was so impressed that we had achieved some form of consensus and that the meeting was to go ahead. The wider family had been polled for the help that they were willing to offer, and we were all ready.
A week before the conference, Norman called us with that fateful call.
Needless to say, the situation is not as straightforward as it sounds. We had to reach agreement with Social Services (what is best for the children?), the children’s needs and wishes were to be taken into account, and the different offers on the table need to be matched to these so that we could come up with a plan. And once that was done, we have to face the realities that are the whole legal process. Not just the UK’s legal process but the US legal process and their immigration process.
So while there was agreement at the meeting that the children come to us, this is not a clear cut plan. Its not a given that we can make this work. There were questions about timing and questions about telling the children, and what to tell them. All of these unanswerable because we just don’t know if its possible.
At this point I went into overdrive, researching and researching the possibilities and the possible hurdles. I was working late, and waking early, constantly monitoring email, making early morning phone calls and pasting together explanations of the different phases.
Social services threw their own spanner into the works when the social worker announced at the end of the Family Group Conference that this was now considered a ‘private arrangement’ and that while they would help support the children through the transition, their role now was done. I asked that the meeting notes be amended to express my concern that this was not in fact the case and that we would need them to move forward and help us with the adoption.
You see, both the UK and the US are Hague Convention countries, so any kind of adoption is highly regulated and each step needs to be done just so. Add to this that the US immigration service has its very own definition of an ‘orphan’ -
The definition of an orphan used for US immigration law that applies to non-Hague Convention Adoption is a child who has no parents due to death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by or separation or loss from both parents. A child is also considered an orphan when his sole or surviving parent is unable to take proper care of the child and has released the child for emigration and adoption. “
More guidance on the definition of the term ‘orphan’
Foreign countries that have government adoption agencies or boards often will provide reports on the adopted child’s living conditions and means of support. If these agencies conclude that the sole parent cannot provide proper care consistent with local standards, USCIS will accept the determination.
I also found some very discouraging statistics on the number of children adopted in this direction:
The U.K. is not considered a country of origin in intercountry adoption. There are few children eligible for adoption in the U.K., with a long waiting list of British prospective adoptive parents. Most intercountry adoptions are by legal residents of the U.K. who adopt in third countries. Only sixteen British orphans have received U.S. immigrant visas in the past five fiscal years. The information provided is intended primarily to assist in rare adoption cases from the U.K., including adoptions of British children by relatives in the United States, as well as adoptions from third countries by Americans living in The U.K.
I spoke with two US adoption agencies: the first one told me that I would have to have a UK ‘placement agency’ before they would agree to take us on; then they said that the home study is a mandatory step and it would take at least one month to complete this; and the second agency told me I would have to speak to the US Immigration’s Hague Convention Adoption Helpline and get a verbal OK before they would take us on. She cited a case where another family completed all the steps only to be turned down by US Immigration.
So, it was not looking good by Thursday evening.
On Friday, I finally spoke to a US Immigration attorney and he advised me that we need to get pre-approval from US Immigration. He asked me questions about the case, and said he thought it was possible. We are due to meet him on Thursday.
I also spoke to the Inter Country Adoption specialist with the children’s local Social Services. She said she thought there had been other children that had been adopted by US-based family from the UK.
So, as of today we have the following irons in the fire:
So many questions and uncertainties! And all along we have two children who are living in a really difficult situation, never mind the rest of the family there.