James Williams is a gay dad of two sibling boys aged 10 and 9. He is a writer, actor and director. He writes about his life with his partner as a gay family formed through adoption. Read his blog at 4relativestrangers which is soon to be a book. He was awarded the title of National Adoption Champion in 2014.
There has been an increased interest in the adoption of sibling groups and in adopting older children. Both of these labels place children who need homes into the ‘hard to place’ category and we knew that taking on not only a sibling pair, but an older sibling pair that we were also going to be taking on a number of challenges.
But, we went into it anyway – after all how much disruption could a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old make?
There is also an argument that keeping siblings together after they have been taken into care can be detrimental to their wellbeing. As children who have experienced abusive parenting or neglect within the birth family, siblings often come to rely on each other, often with the older child taking on the role of parent and in some cases, the children can perpetuate the abuse cycle once they arrive in their new adoptive home, with the bond becoming a dysfunctional one which only leads to further behavioural issues.
Of course that would be an absolute worst-case scenario and is certainly not the case for all parents of adopted sibling groups. Our feeling was that at least the boys would have each other – someone else with whom they had a shared experience of the trauma that happened – rather than simply separate them and brush the past away, as adoption used to do, they would one day be able to explore the facts behind their past together – thus, ideally, removing the Facebook nightmare of birth parents contacting adopted children out of the blue and telling them they were stolen, or something similar. Believe me, that is happening more and more.
When the boys first arrived everything at home worked just fine – it was when the boys were in school that the trouble started. KC, our eldest son, had experienced incredible levels of abuse that had been missed by social services – often the true extent of a child’s past doesn’t come through until the child feels safe. So on one hand we were being told that the level of acting out that KC was displaying was a good sign – but on the other we had school, and other parents, who simply couldn’t see that – and why should they, after all a lot of KC’s issues were effecting the classroom. Also, we were the adoptive parents, and we were gay, and mixed race dads to two white boys, so eyebrows were already raised whenever we walked into the school. Some parents chatted openly whilst others blatantly ignored us. But we weren’t there to make friends; we were there to have our children educated.
However other parents can be a tricky lot – and KC was soon being excluded from parties and play dates, which meant that he wasn’t making any friends, so his behaviour simply got worse. It was an awful time for all of us.
One of the major problems was that KC was obsessed with his younger brother, TJ – he needed to know where he was at all times and when he wasn’t making any friends he started playing with TJ’s friends. TJ has always been very sociable and is very good at football – which is a major bonus on the school playground. Now TJ’s friends parents were beginning to complain as well – one even went to the head and yet again I found myself being called into school to deal with issues raised, not by children, but by other parents.
KC needed constant monitoring, it also became very clear that he required a different style of education – he couldn’t cope with the traditional classroom. It was too noisy and he couldn’t focus. The school wanted him testing for ADHD but I felt it was more likely to be attachment disorder combined with dyslexia. In the end I was proved right – although it took two years of fighting to get him the help he needed (but that’s another story).
Adopting siblings has its ups and downs – the boys have an incredible bond that often seems unbreakable to us. Often the younger will still turn to the older for comfort rather than coming to us and we have to accept that. We had to learn that the elder boy was always going to be the youngest boy’s first point of call. The boys had shared a difficult past together but they had also come through it together. They did everything together – our job as adoptive parents was, and is, to let them realize that they are individuals. That they are both worthy of their own lives, believe me, the lack of self worth is paramount in many adopted children, particularly those from abusive backgrounds.
So we made the big decision to place the boys in separate schools – not just to break a dysfunctional bond, but also to give them time to be themselves. It was tough for both of them at first but now, two years on, everyone agrees it was the best move.
KC is now loving sport and drama and making his own group of friends – he is no longer constantly running after his brother or checking that he is OK. He has finally stopped parenting and is enjoying being a child. Once that happened he was able to focus on learning and the school could evaluate him properly – he now has an Education and Health Care Plan in place and he’s progressing both intellectually and socially.
TJ took a little more time to settle without his brother constantly by his side. But we were prepared for that and his school was amazing – they totally supported the idea and completely supported TJ in his transition to a school life without his brother as a crutch. Now he skips into school ready and eager to learn and to meet his own group of friends. Where he was once shy and reliant on his older brother for everything he is now confident and popular, his life is one steady stream of playmates and parties. Indeed, TJ’s head teacher recently stopped me in the playground to tell me that she felt that taking KC out of school was the best thing possible for TJ – he is now a confident young man who is maturing fast.
We often laugh that their social lives are busier than ours. But now they have social lives – they come back after each day at school and chat with each other about mundane things such as what they both had for lunch, what they studied or played. We are no longer caught up in life that is built merely on their past together. Now we have a shared future.