Kids are Not Dogs, and the Adoption System Shouldn’t Treat Them Like They Are

I’ve “adopted” many rescue dogs in my life. None was more traumatized than Sunflower, a 2-year-old pit bull. She was missing an ear and had scars all over her face, including a slashed throat with scar tissue underneath, impacting her breathing. When we met her at a Petco adoption event, she was a shivering ball of fear. We had no idea what her personality would be, but we felt sorry for her and took her home. 

She quickly developed an insecure attachment to me. If I were out of her sight, she’d shake and cry. When I re-entered the house, she’d practically mall me with excitement. She was deathly afraid of men, even my husband. She was also afraid of anything that looked like a weapon, such as brooms. 

However, within six months of her adoption, she had settled in and decompressed. She was loving, cuddly and playful. She earned her Canine Good Citizen certification and is now an all-around great dog who loves all members of our family. 

Foster care adoption of human children is “sold” to be much like our experience with Sunflower. No matter how traumatized the child, once they are in a loving, stable home, they will blossom and all will be well. That’s what we’re told. “All they need is love.” Or as the foster care billboards say, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.”

While I believe animals are sentient beings with a range of feelings and emotions, and their experiences certainly impact them, children aren’t the same as dogs. Our human brains, psyches, early attachments and development are far more complicated. Even a healthy child or newborn taken from a loving home and put into another will be traumatized by the separation from their biological mother/primary caregiver. Read “The Primal Wound” (and yes, we need to reduce these separations, but that’s a topic of a previous blog). By the time a child is 5 years old, 85-90% of their brain is fully developed. The majority of a person’s physical, cognitive and social brain function is shaped by these first few years. Breaks in attachment or experiences with caregivers who are abusive or neglectful will have lifelong impacts

Yet as adoptive parents, we’re told all they need is love, consistency and permanency—all they need is us (and maybe some run-of-the-mill talk therapy). Most of us who adopt are just everyday people. We believe what we’re told and go in with good intentions and tons of optimism. We sign the dotted line. Then, when we find ourselves in over our heads, dealing with issues even experts have trouble treating successfully, we’re shit out of luck when it comes to help from the system. Once the adoption is finalized, the child is yours as if you birthed them, completely ignoring the trauma and breaks in attachment that occurred long before you met. Most adoptive parents cannot afford the types of treatments needed and/or don’t live in areas where there’s expertise in treating conditions like reactive attachment disorder. Nor are we educated about what the appropriate treatments are. 

The system’s denial of the issues and the help families will need hurts everyone, most of all the children in care. The “all they need is love” bull is just as damaging as colorblindness. The foster care system needs to recognize the complexities of attachment and trauma, provide children and families the appropriate high-level treatments and supports, and be 100% honest with everyone involved. Otherwise, children and families will continue to suffer, stumbling in the dark without finding healing.  

Yes, this will cost money, but our society will pay one way or another. Children are not dogs, and their adoptions should not be treated like they are. 

Photo credit: "A special moment between dog and child." by kennethkonica is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


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