Program helps families adapt to adoptions

NEW YORK (AP) -- Eventually the Pollyanna bliss wears off and reality sets in. Children cry and whine, and they also can bring happiness and fulfillment. It's that way for birth parents who bring newborns home from the hospital and it's that way for adoptive parents who welcome children from foreign lands into their homes.
The emotional ups and downs are natural for a newly expanded family, but birth parents have 40 weeks to plan for them, with many taking classes and reading books about how to deal with the stresses that are likely to come with their new bundles of joy.
Adoptive parents often don't have as many instructional resources.
Sometimes the adoptions -- which might have been in the works for years -- finally come through overnight, leaving these moms- and dads-to-be without time to make adjustments to their homes, lifestyles and minds before jetting off to pick up the children whom they may know very little about.
PARTners program
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland created a program aimed to assist adoptive parents and their children in overcoming common obstacles: language barriers, developmental problems and cultural differences.
The program, Prevention Assessment Referral and Training, is funded by a four-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It's known as PARTners -- and that's just what several families have found in the advanced master's degree students from Case Western's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences who visit them weekly.
"Most families successfully navigate the transitions of adding someone who wasn't born into the family into the family," says Victor Groza, a Mandel professor of social work and chairman of the school's doctoral program.
"But the kids did have another life beforehand, even if they were only a baby. Differences do exist. You don't know this child. For the first three to six months, even if you're extremely well bonded, it's a stressful time because you're just getting to know the child and what you should be concerned about and what you shouldn't be concerned about."
Groza notes that while the initial situations are different, households with foreign adopted children face many of the same challenges as families with children who have disabilities, so PARTners implemented some of the responsive teaching models that have been successful in that arena.
"Children in public-system or international adoptions often come from a traumatic background, abuse or neglect, so they're behind developmentally. They're not where they should be in gross and fine motor skills, language, height, weight. The good news is they usually catch up in the first year," Groza says.
Then there are issues that might -- or might not -- be related to adoption, and those need to be sorted out. Sometimes children becoming withdrawn or having short attention spans are just "kid things" and have nothing to do with adoption, he says.
In responsive teaching, parents are encouraged to get on the floor and play with kids on their level and to engage their children in dialogues. Parents are urged to follow their children's lead.
It's good parenting advice for everyone, Groza adds, but it seems to come less naturally to adoptive parents.
"Responsive teaching sounds like nothing, but it is something," says Roxanne Haber, who adopted her daughter Lara Nadia Haber from Russia when she was 10 months old. She's now 3.
"When a child starts to take the train and move it around the tracks, they can lead the conversation," Haber says in a telephone interview from her Cleveland-area home.
She adds: "When you follow the child's lead, what comes out of that is boosted self-esteem, boosted communication and verbal skills."
Children embrace the PARTners strategies because they are play-based and these kids are hungry to have their new parents play with them -- even if they don't know exactly how to do it, reports Lindsey Houlihan, the project coordinator. "Sometimes the kids don't know what to do in a family because they've lived in an institution. The parents buy toys and the kids don't know how to play with them and sometimes the parents don't know how to play," Houlihan, herself an adoptive mother, says. "We teach parents how to be more responsive and look at the world through the child's eyes."
Success stories
When Andrea Hauserman brought her then 6-year-old daughter Sarah and 7-year-old son home from Kazakhstan, she didn't start them with computer games and chapter books. They didn't know the words, have the skills or even the exposure for those things. Hauserman essentially treated them as babies.
"I got colorful baby rattles, moved to colorful blocks and Mr. Potato Head. We'd be banging wooden spoons on pots and pans. That's what they were ready for [at the time]. Now they've both made the swim team," the proud mother reports. In seven months, she and her husband watch the children gain at least four years intellectually, she adds.
There have been bumps, of course. Her son had the idea that all American kids were rich and knew everything. It took him a while to realize it wasn't true and that he didn't have to pretend it was. "I'm sure they fantasized in their own heads what parents might be like, sort of like how all kids fantasize about marriage -- they only see the ideal," Hauserman says.
Life changes for the adoptive parents, too.
Linda Frazier-Bertsch finds herself cooking more with dill and yogurt, familiar tastes and scents to her children Vivienne, 3, and Raymond, 2, whom she adopted almost a year ago from Russia.
Frazier-Bertsch also says she spends more time thinking about the daily routine and how it could improve to further assimilate her children and to cement family ties. "You don't just dress a child and give her a bath. You wash an arm; I wash an arm. You put on a sock; I put on a sock," she says.

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