Tuesday, September 28th, 2010 | Author: mjward

What is a displaced child?

According to Claudia Nelson*, this is a child who is available for adoption and fostering. But her definition is far too narrow. The term could also refer to the influx of children from Cuba during the Cold War through what was known as “Operation Pedro Pan.” Displaced children include the Lost Boys of Sudan, or children languishing in orphanages in a third-world country, or children left behind when their parents are deported.

Eight of my children were displaced. That is, they were moved from their birth families to ours by way of adoption. First a baby girl, then five brothers aged five to thirteen, and finally two sisters, eight and twelve. They all lost contact with their birth families during their growing years within our family. As adults, some looked for and reconnected with birth relatives. Yet their development was forever altered, for the better or worse, by the rupture of biological ties.

There is a different kind of displacement connected with adoption, the loss to the extended biological family of one of its children. Customary family links are broken and replaced with new ones within the adoptive family. Often this loss is keenly felt. Within our extended family, one young mother-to-be chose to place her baby for adoption. Her mother spent the weeks before the birth in repeated crying jags over the loss of her first grandchild, and a sister demanded, “How can you give away my niece?”

Two of my own grandchildren have been placed for adoption. The first, “Caleb,” was born into a stormy relationship. His mother’s addiction doomed him to fetal alcohol syndrome. He was apprehended by child welfare authorities because he was neglected during his mother’s drinking jags. Any hope of return was shattered when his mother lost to a serial killer. I received some updates of his progress along with photos before his adoption was finalized. Now nothing. Just a big hole where he should fit into the family.

Caleb’s half-sister, “Katy,” had an on-again, off-again, mother who moved far from my son, Katy’s father. Eventually child welfare personnel took Katy into care and, in time, she found an adoptive home. With the encouragement of her new parents, I have contact with my granddaughter. This consists of the occasional letter or postcard as well as birthday and Christmas gifts. Now and then I also receive an update from her mother on how she is doing. The picture isn’t all rosy. Katy is now a teenager with an early history of inconsistent parenting and emotional abandonment. She bears the scars, but her parents are helping her develop into a competent young woman. There isn’t a “Katy-lack” as there is a “Caleb-lack.” We don’t have a close relationship, but there is no gaping hole.

Most adoption literature, understandably, is concerned about the impact of adoption on three groups of people. Birth parents, especially birth mothers, have been one focus. The adopted individual and his or her history and adjustment have received a great deal of attention. More recently, researchers have looked at the impact of adoption on the new parents. Usually missing from the discussion is the extended family. The relatives of both the birth and adoptive parents feel reverberations when a displaced child finds a place in a substitute family. Adoption is not only for the parent alone or the nuclear family or the child. It takes place in a web of relationships.


* Little Strangers: Portrayals of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850-1929, Indiana University Press, 2003.

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