The 1992 Clinton campaign was able to maintain focus (and eventual electoral success) by repeating this four-letter phrase (allegedly initiated by James Carville, one of Clinton's close advisors) frequently. And, lest you fear reading furter, this blog is not a political diatribe. It does, however, create an opportunity for me to recreate the phrase for my use. My contention is that much of the misunderstanding afoot between social service workers and their clients (read this as you will; it could include "older children" waiting to be adopted, their birth parents, or the adoptive families in which they will live) has to do with socio-economics. So, I might say it this way: "It's the socio-economics. Duh." [I would prefer to refrain from salaciously attributing "stupid" to social services professionals].
Here is what I mean. In the USA there are basically three socio-economic groups: (1) those living in poverty, (2) those who are middle class, and (3) those who are wealthy. For more on understanding poverty see Ruby Payne's A Framework for Undersatnding Poverty or her website at: http://ahaprocess.com/
Payne's work should be required reading for all social services professional and all adoptive parents of older children. She masterfully describes the mindset of those experiencing poverty (whether generational or situational). Although she does not reference adoption in her work, there are several principles that I extrapolate as an adoptive parent of older children.
Principle #1: Almost without exception older adopted children come from an experience of poverty. By very definition, neglect (of whatever variety ... physical, social, emotional, spiritual, mental, medical) is an outcome of poverty. When there is not enough of whatever is needed, you find poverty.
Principle #2: Most older children will not be adopted by those already in poverty, nor by those who are wealthy. It's fairly apparent that those already subsisting in deprivation are not in a position to adopt an older child. And those who are wealthy and interested in adoption are typically seeking (and can pay the high costs associated with) the "perfect infant."
Principle #3: Most older children will be adopted by middle-class persons. I surmise that many middle class people who choose to adopt older children have themselves experienced some version of "poverty" early in their own lives. Because these parents understand the grinding pain of lack and have discovered the opportunities middle class living offer, they are inclined to want to reach out to others, often the most vulnerable, society's children.
Principle #4: Middle class families who adopt older children import into their lives an experience of poverty. Middle class parents adopting children whose experience of life has been of lack and a survival mentality will face inevitable hurdles. Payne does an excellent job in identifying those value clashes, including the role of relationships (people are possessions to the poverty-stricken), the way discipline is administered (the poverty mindset assumes no behavior will change; the focus is upon forgiveness and penance, following some form of physical discipline; the reward is food); how money is handled (the poverty environment lacks a motivation to save money, but to spend immediately because you don't know how long you will have it this time).
Principle #5: Social services workers are middle class persons with a middle class agenda. By very definition a social services worker is middle class. He or she will have, at minimum, a college degree, and will typically earn (though it may not seem like it at times) more than an individual living in poverty. The social services system is built upon a middle class value system ... responsibility, cleanliness, self-sufficiency.
Principle #6: Because a middle class adoptive family imports (with the adoption of older children) a poverty mindset into their lives, social services professionals may make some erroneous assumptions.
Erroneous assumption "A": This family has no business adopting this/these older child/children. When the social worker visits and experiences the culture class between poverty and middle class values, the assumption is that the adoptive family is somehow ill-equipped to care for these "special needs" children. This assumption may arise without regard to the adoptive family's excellent references, clean background checks and appropriate home study, all of which generally affirm middle class values (whether that is good or not is another blog for another time).
Erroneous assumption "B": The adopted child/ren are deliteriously affected by such a placement. Social services professionals may not understand that transforming the socio-economic vantage point of previously neglected children is a long process. It is arduous, and it will take the resources of many committed people and systems for any success to accrue. Well-intended, intelligent, committed, middle class parents need the support, not the criticism or disapproval, of the social services system in this process of transformation. Bottomline: children coming to middle-class families with a history of neglect have the best chance for moving away from generational poverty in a family with personal and community resources (mental, emotional, spiritual, as well as material). Long-term foster care and/or institutional settings do little more than displace the eventual return to poverty. If society's goal is assisting the poverty-stricken children to a life of responsibility and self-sufficiency, the best chance of that happening comes through primary relationships with those (adoptive parents, in this case) who form the fabric of our society's "safety net."
Erroneous assumption "C": Family size and poverty go hand-in-hand. As the father of a large family (we have ten adopted children), I continue to be surprised by the assumption that large family = deprivation. The fact is that large family is not a middle-class value. The middle-class value is roughly equivalent to the number of people one can comfortably seat in a mini-van, which allows for two parents and four (five at the most, and even five is questionable) children. Moving beyond that number violates some unspoken rule of middle class living (see Payne for more on the "rules" of socio-economic condition). Social service professionals may project their own feelings ("I don't know how you do it; I have two kids, and I just can't keep up with them"), may betray their own need for freedom ("You do how many loads of laundry a day?") or may voice their own unspoken fears ("It must cost a fortune to feed that many kids").
Erroneous assumption "D": Social services professionals may assume that the adoptive parents are as poverty-stricken in mentality as the children they have adopted. I have personally experienced this attitude too many times to assume it is unusual. As a well-educated (bachelor's and master's degrees with half of a doctoral coursework completed), well-placed professional in my community and vocation, it is insulting to be told, "We have gas vouchers so that you can visit your son" in foster care, or "We have some funding at the county level so that your family can take him out to a movie." Because one's child is in pain and manifests a poverty-orientation does not mean that the adoptive family is the source of that outlook.
Principle #7: Social services professionals need to see adoptive parents as resources in the goal of transitioning children from (generational or situational) poverty into lives of responsibility and self-sufficiency. It is frustrating for adoptive parents to be seen as drains on the economic resources of a county's social services sytem, or to be treated as "hostile" or in some way at odds with the goals of social services. Adoptive parents see ourselves as being significant partners in the goal of social transformation. Accord us the respect and the honor that rightly belong to those who give their lives to save the world one child at a time.
So, my contention is that much of conflict between adoptive parents of older children and their respective social services agencies comes because of a lack of understanding of socio-economic backgrounds, and the inevitable clash when poverty and middle class values come face to face.