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Sunday, September 21, 2014
It's long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in truth, I generally agree (which means my average blog post could just be replaced by a half dozen pictures and we'd be good to go!).  When people are considering a place to vacation, they typically want to see photos of the scenery, of the attractions, of the accommodations.  When people are house hunting, they want to see a "virtual tour" of photographs of the inside of the home, the outside, and property.  When people are considering adding a pet, they often look online at or postings at a community board that show pictures.  And as online dating and matchmaking services grow in popularity and availability, it's becoming more common for people to search for a mate or date with photolistings and biographies.  People like to see what they're getting, yes, but more than that, they're looking for some connection- some sense of "yes, I feel drawn to this or that."

The concept of photolistings in adoption or foster care is one that is often debated.  In one sense, it can be degrading or detrimental for a child to know (or find on their own during a google search!) they are listed for public review and selection, often with some level of personal information- a name, birthdate, and any major medical needs.  The pictures are often unflattering, snapped in a hurry by someone eager to get their job done and unconcerned about whether the child is smiling or has on clean, matching clothes, or even has a clean face and brushed hair.  Sometimes people comment that it reduces children to items on an online auction site- labeling them for sale, unwanted, unclaimed.
And that is a dark, and undeniable side of photolistings.  It's why after our children are adopted, we request that they be removed from the photolistings, wherever they were listed, so that they won't later do an internet search and find themselves looking vulnerable- a reminder of when they weren't "found" and were alone, and in a last chance attempt at finding them a family, their pictures and some personal info were posted in the hopes that someone would see them and want to call them their own.

But there is a very positive, very useful side of photolistings as well.  Photolistings help children be seen, and they often help them find a connection in a family that will be there for them forever.  Some families are looking for a child that resembles their family in some way, a child that reminds them of some part of themselves- a gleam in her eye, or the set of his chin, maybe his one-sided dimple or the shape of her smile.  Some are looking for a child that may have a particular disability, but only to a certain severity, and seeing a picture can help them gauge what services or level of care the child may need (which is rarely detailed in the available medical information), which helps them make a more informed decision about pursuing the adoption of that child.  Sometimes potential adoptive families are drawn to the severity and urgency of a child's need- something a picture can often convey very well, illuminating the bruises or twisted limbs, or skeletal frame and sunken eyes, or even bluish lips or white marks in the eyes- things that show abuse, neglect, malnutrition, untreated heart conditions or hydrocephalus, or even possibly cancer.

And photolistings tug at your heartstrings, plain and simple.  Seeing a photo of a waiting child puts a face to the phrase "orphan crisis."  Suddenly, that little girl across the ocean with curly, wispy hair and big blue eyes reminds you of your niece, and you think of the horrors of your niece being alone in an orphanage, without hugs or kisses, or snuggles- and you start to realize that you know, you think you could love a child you didn't give birth to.  Seeing a photo of a waiting older child, and recognizing the longing and loneliness in their eyes, reminds you of your own teen years, and makes you think about how you would have handled being 16 and turned out on the streets with a paltry education, a few dollars in your pocket, and a vast lack of knowledge of how to survive or thrive- and you realize that maybe that extra chair at your kitchen table is ready to be filled.

And suddenly, you find yourself swept away- and that's ok.  It's totally normal, in fact.  We, as humans, are a compassionate group.  Our hearts are made to hurt for others.  We're designed to want to help, to nurture and to love.  Being swept away by a photograph isn't a bad thing- as long as you grab a hold of a branch sticking out from the riverbank, to keep from being swept headfirst over the waterfall that's coming.

The danger of photolistings and falling in love with a child you've never met are similar to the risks of falling in love with someone listed on or a similar site:  What you think you see in the picture may not be reality.  What you read in an online description may be inaccurate.  And what you imagine happening when you finally meet in real life is going to be much more romanticized and unlikely than what actually happens!

So let's talk realism.  You're looking at photos of waiting kids and find yourself absolutely mesmerized by one particular photo and profile.  You can so easily imagine that child in your home, sitting at your table, riding in your van, laughing at your jokes, snuggling close for a bedtime hug. You stare at that picture, or maybe a couple of pictures, for hours, then days, then weeks, then months, creating a storyline in your mind about how things will go and what this child's personality is like, based on the little information your mind knows- the clothes they are wearing, the way they hold their head, a gleam you see in their eyes.

And it can truly be one of the most exciting- and yet hazardous- aspects of international adoption.  Why?  Because our imaginations can create fantastic  dreams- but then our minds and hearts may struggle to accept the reality.  If we dream that this adorable little princess is going to be smart, funny, easygoing and quiet, but then arrive and find out that she is actually quite cognitively disabled, only laughs when she's hurting or scared, anxious and highstrung, and perpetually loud, then we may feel shocked.  Horrified.  Confused.  Panicked.  Resentful.  Disappointed.  Angry.  Unhappy.

How do I know?  Because dozens of families over the past several years have expressed these exact feelings via PM's, emails, Skype calls, and frantic phone calls, confused as to whether they should go through with the adoption, how to handle their own lack of bonding (which can be impaired if you have false ideas that get deflated), and many other issues that can arise.


So knowing all of this, why do I encourage people to look at photolistings?

Very simply put- because they work.  And they can tell you a LOT of information that you might need to know, if you approach it the right way.  

For instance, if you're looking at a child who *might* have a chromosomal disorder, or prenatal exposure to alcohol/substances, you might see some very important features that can give you a heads up of what to expect.  You might see epicanthal folds in the inner corners of the eyes.  You might see a tiny snub nose, and a long distance between the base of the nose and the top lip.  You might see a flatter than normal philtrum, a thin upper lip, small stature, malformed fingers/toes, misshapen ears, different size eyes, a unique hairline, a small head (known as microcephaly).  Sometimes, it may be easier to tell which disorder the child might have based on the features you see in the pictures, for instance, seeing a child listed with "possible Crouzon Syndrome" but who has obviously fused fingers and toes could lead you to suspecting a different disorder like Apert Syndrome, which includes both the facial features of Crouzon, but with other physical issues like the fusing of the digits.  (For more information about Crouzon click HERE and for Apert click HERE).  Maybe you suspect or worry about fetal alcohol exposure, and you see some physical traits that might indicate your suspicions are correct.  Before you panic, it helps to research FASD and to understand that there are different categories, and that facial features may or may not be "proof" of anything, and that alcohol exposure can affect kids who have no facial features, and some kids with the features may have little or no actual other issues (or may have a complete different syndrome, such as Coffin Siris, Williams, a chromosome deletion, or other rare syndrome).

If you're adopting a kid with cerebral palsy, hydrocephaly, missing limbs, spina bifida, or arthrogryposis, seeing a picture or two, especially at different ages, can give you a good idea of what difficulties they may face on the journey home, and give you an idea of how you can prepare to make the trip and first few months (while permanent equipment is being ordered) easier.  Medical information overseas is notoriously unreliable.  You really have to be prepared for anything and everything- bringing home a kid who tests positive for an infectious disease like Tuberculosis, HIV, Hepatitis A/B/C, or other issues does happen.  Several families have adopted thinking they were bringing home kids with "just" FAS, and found out the child had a completely different disorder.  Being open minded and well-educated about the possibilities increases the likelihood that you will have a good adoption experience, because it increases your flexibility and feelings of self-efficacy.   If you are looking at a picture of a child with "severe CP" listed, but can see that he is walking with some assistance of a walker or a handrail, or see that his hands are loose and relaxed and he's sitting up fine in a chair with minimal stiffness, then you can logically assume that the description may be wrong to some extent.  If you can see that the the child's head is huge, distorted in shape, and the child is dangerously thin, and they have a diagnosis of hydrocephalus, then you can assume that there are either complications with the shunt, or the child was not shunted, and there will likely be significant health issues- and there is an urgency to the child's situation.  Sometimes, you can tell what types of CP may be in existence, if one side of the body is very affected but the other is not, or if the child is obviously very tightly drawn up due to spasticity, and that can help you plan on how to get them home (if you need to take a stroller or lightweight wheelchair with you from the USA).  


Photolistings have a purpose, and that is to help the waiting children find families.  Around the world, countries have found that listing children with a picture and brief description helps families who are considering adoption or guardianship to actually move forward in the process.  In the past decade, as internet usage for photolistings has become more common, more and more children are finding families both domestically and internationally, and that gets more kids into permanent homes.  That's the goal, and it's being achieved, and that's a good thing for the children who were waiting.


So how else can you guard yourself from being "swept away" into a photo, and then being disappointed later on?

There are several ways.  First, remember that although you "feel" like you know the child, you really don't.  Approach the situation by understanding that a photo taken by someone in a hurry likely doesn't convey much depth of personality, ability, interests, or anything else.  Sometimes, kids rarely even resemble their referral pictures.  Don't assume that because the child is wearing pink and ruffles that they are a girly girl, nor that if she's sporting a crewcut and overalls, that's she's a tomboy.  In truth, the folks that dress the orphans rarely seem to care about matching the clothes to the child's personality, or for that matter, gender.  Boys wear pink, girls wear stripes with footballs on it, and it means nothing, except that the shirt fit reasonably well and someone stuck them in it.  Big bows on the girls' heads often mean they are a favorite (ie, spoiled and demanding and known as the "princess/queen/king/mayor" of the orphanage)- but then again, sometimes it just means that they were rotating that bow and that outfit through every kid lined up to get a picture taken that afternoon.  Don't assume that because the child is seated next to an age appropriate toy that it means that they have ever actually played with it, nor that they like it.  If you fall in love with a face that reminds you of your spouse's baby pictures, or your niece's kindergarten photo, you may become blinded to the needs the child has.  The child may look just like your dear sister-in-law, but have a severe physical disability that means they will never walk independently.  If you have a family that lives to hike in the mountains and where sports success if highly important, then this may not be the child for you, unless you are willing to make some major changes in your lifestyle.  Maybe a child's grin reminds you exactly of your oldest son, a sweet and caring, sensitive child who loves to cook with you, and to build with his Legos for hours at a time- but the orphan in the photolisting actually likes to use everything he picks up as a toy gun, has no concept of whispering, and somehow manages to be a one man demolition crew wherever he goes.  Guard yourself from assigning character and personality traits based on similarities to other people. 

Second, understand child development (more coming in the next post about how you can do that).  Children are never, ever, "blank slates."  Not even newborns.  Genetics determines more than you realize, in many ways.  There's an age old debate about nature vs. nurture, and it's an interesting one to ponder.  From separated twin studies to infant adoptees reunited with their adult biological families decades later, there is an interesting interplay of what genes dictate and what environment creates and influences.  Some children come out of the womb with a fireball personality, little daredevils with saucy mouths and stubbornness and independence oozing out of their pores.  Some babies are born unhappy, and jittery, and easily startled, growing into a full spectrum of sensory issues, never seeming comfortable in their own skin, forever at odds with the world they live in.  Some kids are just born loud and others are naturally introverted.  You may be a loud, outgoing, boisterous family of thick-skinned athletes, and bring home a quiet, sensitive, musical bookworm, or vice versa.  Some kids are naturally curious and eager to explore, to test their own limits (and yours!) and some kids will happily and placidly sit and watch grass grow for days on end, with zero internal motivation (and zero response to external motivation) to learn even the most basic of concepts.  

Third, although you may feel drawn to a picture of a particular child, try to separate your feelings from your adoption process.  If you are dead set on adopting only one  particular child, then you should go with a country that secures that child for you at the moment you commit- but even then, children have medical status changes, and occasionally pass away before adoptions can happen.  There are no guarantees in adoption, just like there are none in pregnancy.  You can get pregnant and miscarry at any point- even delivering stillborn at the end.  Be careful about letting yourself bond to a picture, and or claiming that child as "yours" (whether publicly on a blog or FB page, or in your heart by naming them or purchasing things specifically for them).  Instead, focus on what you're open to about that child- such as age, gender, special need, sibling group status, or whatever drew you to them, and then mentally always have a back up plan for if you get there and the paperwork isn't ready, or the child isn't available because the bio parent is involved, or because the child is adopted before you get there.  Look at other kids, or have in your mind the type of child you think is best suited for your family, in case you do a blind referral. 

Fourth, be cautious with how you introduce the concept of the photolisted child to your friends, family and especially other children.  Until it's a "sure thing" (birth certificate and court decree in hand, 10 days after court), it's wise to simply tell others that "we're adopting, and this is the child we're hoping to bring home.  But if this child isn't available, we may bring home a different child or children."  With your other kids, depending on their age and level of understanding, you may find it helpful to do as we have- "This is a child we're praying for, an orphan in Ukraine.  We're praying they find a family.  We don't know if that's us yet, but if it's God's will and things work out, then maybe so."  If you tell your children that yes, you are definitely bringing this new brother/sister home and their name is going to be "Johnny Joe" after granddad and an uncle, and things work out differently, your children may be devastated unnecessarily. 

Fifth, be respectful of the child's privacy and circumstances.  Medical information is sensitive and some things are better kept confidential unless the child wants it shared later on.  Anything put out on the internet is there forever, cached away somewhere, stolen by a troll in a quick screenshot, and it could resurface later.  Social histories are the same way, and it's prudent to remember that although you want others to understand the urgency of the situation and need, your child may one day not be happy to find their information was made public without their consent, and it could cause problems in your relationship with them. 

Sixth, stay objective.  Kids are more than just what is captured in the less than a minute it takes to make the picture.  Separate your goals, hopes, and plans and understand what you're expecting, but also recognize that what you envision isn't a guarantee.  Keep in mind that although you may feel bonded to this child, and feel like you "know" him or her, because you've had this picture you've carried around for months, you don't know them, and they don't know you.  If you walk into the room and burst into tears that you're finally holding this precious child you love so much, you'll terrify them.  Although you may feel comfortable and familiar with the child, the child won't feel the same way with you, and your overly familiar ways may actually push the child away- rejecting you.  And that can cause your heart to feel hurt, and then impede the bonding process both ways.  It's ok to think a child is cute, or adorable even, but separate your emotions from the reality of the situation.  Educate yourself on what "Metcha Days" are really like (blog post coming on that!) and be prepared that the fairy tale isn't any more realistic here than it is anywhere else in life.  Also, stay objective about the possibilities.  You may get there and something has happened- the child is too sick to be adopted, or the child has new siblings that have been listed and the sibling says no, or they can't be separated and your homestudy doesn't approve you for the siblings age, or the child has been adopted in country, or worse, the child has died.  Remember that adoption is about children finding families that are good matches for them, and about families expanding to include more kids, and that if one door shuts, another is often open.  Be flexible and open-minded when it comes to finding the child or children for your family.  Why is this so important?  Because if your heart becomes too attached to just one photo- to one child- then if something happens and you need to choose a different referral, you may have trouble bonding to that child.  You may feel like you're accepting a substitute, or that you got cheated.  You may struggle with heartbreak.  If you can remain objective and aware of the potential issues, then it's easier to transition if it needs to happen.  

Seventh, understand why the photolistings exist.  Ukraine allows children with special needs (special needs can include many things, from medical disorders, to psychological needs, to being older, having delays of any sort, or part of a sibling group) to be photolisted in the hopes that they will find families.  Every government official we've met with has great concern for the children being institutionalized, especially those with special needs, because they know that foster families and adoptive families in country are neither equipped nor desirous of taking custody of those children.  In fact, it is common to read in the court decrees that the children were listed for several years, and that at least 3-5 families reviewed their profiles and rejected them.  It's heartbreaking, but it's the reality.  I know of many cases where the biological siblings of now-adopted former orphans with special needs, were kept by the bio families or adopted in country by Ukrainians, or brought into foster care- but the sibling with special needs was rejected, separated, abandoned.  Part of it is the lack of quality medical care nationwide.  Part of is is the lack of infrastructure for those with disabilities, as many buildings lack reliable functioning elevators (or the elevators are so small that wheelchairs would scarcely fit in them), and stairs are so common.  Public transportation is also a key component of life there, and it is clearly not handicapped accessible.  Part is the stigma of having a child who is disabled.  If a child is photolisted from Ukraine, it's because the social workers at the orphanage, the regional office, and often various charities, have tried everything they can and still, the child waits without a family.  When you look at the picture, keep a sober mind- it may feel exciting to you, to scroll through all the adorable faces.  But these children are real, and their needs are great.  For babies to have been listed, they must have a need that has caused them to be rejected by their bio fams and by local families, because most typical babies who are available are snatched up and adopted fairly quickly.  For older children, toddlers through preschool, much the same, except many of them understand why their pictures are being taken.  For grade school kids, most understand that the pictures are being taken in the hopes that someone will want to be their mommy and daddy.  Some have been visited before and rejected by potential families.  Some have been passed over but watched friends and groupa-mates get families.  They know pain, and you may see that in their pictures- fear, worry, seriousness.  Some may turn on the charm, trying to impress or win you over with their cuteness.  And for teens, they know what's on the line.  They know their time is coming that they'll be turned out on the street, or forced to make their way in the world on their own.  They're torn between hoping someone wants them, and sad that no one ever has.  Don't pass by a kid with a bad picture- you don't know their circumstances the day it was taken.  Don't fall in love too much with a smile and pose- it may be how they think you want them to be, more so than who they really are.  


It's just a picture. 

But a picture can be what pulls a family into adopting, and that's ok. 

It's ok, as long as the family doesn't just fall in love with a picture and think it's all gonna work out because you love them and they'll love you and awwwwwww, how sweet. 

It's ok, to be swept away, to be drawn into a child's eyes and smile, to feel a connection that you cannot explain- as long as you're educated about the issues you may face. 

Photolistings are a tool to help children find families.  Use them, but do so wisely. 

A little side note:  Photolistings have been a big part of our own adoptions, and will likely continue to do so.  We fell in love with one of our sons because of his adorably huge grin, with the tiniest portion of an open heart surgery scar peeking up from the top of his little onesie.  One of our daughters had the most precious, endearing little sideways grin that just drew us in.  Another son had the chubbiest cheeks ever seen, and another one had a solemn little stern face and the plumpest little dimpled elbows ever.  Another daughter had an angry frown that we wanted to just hug into a smile, and another one had a deep sadness in her eyes that broke our hearts.   Another daughter looked like a fiesty little sprite that could give us a run for our money, in fact, she looked a lot like our little chatterbox daughter. Another son had only an older picture where he looked pretty happy, and another son had a picture that was merely of him as a young infant and didn't match the more recent medical info we had gotten. 

The son with the huge grin in his picture, turned out to be a scared, unsmiling little guy who feared we would reject him on "Metcha Day."  He was anxious for a few days, because he had been passed over before, and seen many other families adopt kids from his groupa, but hadn't been chosen himself.  The happy, hug-filled meeting I imagined was actually much different, much more solemn, in respect for his feelings and needs.  

The precious endearing grin daughter?  Still precious and endearing- but she was so thin and pale, we barely recognized her.  Winter is hard on orphans, and kids can lose weight and grow sickly easy in the tough climate with poorly insulated buildings. 

Chubby cheek boy?  Still chubby cheeked!  

Solemn little stern face and plump dimpled elbows?  Yep and yep.  But also more than a dozen surprise medical diagnoses when we got home, many quite serious.  Regrets?  NONE.  But the picture told us very little about what was going on inside. 

Our daughter with the angry frown?  oh, it makes me laugh to remember it.   Turns out her "frown" is actually part of her syndrome, and her natural resting position.  She greeted us with arms held wide for hugs, and has been a total delight, just like her brothers and sisters.  

And with the deep sadness in her eyes?  By the time we got to her, she had been transferred from a bad babyhouse to a good institution.  She was happy, affectionate, and eager to live life, and has tackled new challenges with great vigor.  But the sadness was there for a reason, and she has had a lot to work through, and will continue to work through as she grows up.  

Fiesty little sprite?  Oh YEAH!!!!  But surprising unlike her chatterbox sister that she resembles, this kiddo was nonverbal, other than a clicking sound she made with her tongue as her sole means of communication.

The son who only had a younger, smiling picture?  Metcha Day was a horrible shock, as he was skeletal, with layers of multicolored bruises and wounds in various stages of healing, dehydrated and sick, mistreated and unloved in an institution after transfer.  He was virtually unrecognizable.  

The son with the outdated baby picture and new medical information?  Was dying.  He looked like a corpse, frail and pale, skeletal, his head hugely enlarged from a failed shunt, looking absolutely nothing like his baby picture at first glance.  

If God uses a picture to get your attention and kickstart your homestudy process, good. 

But understand the limitations of the photos, and keep your heart focused on becoming well-prepared, knowledgeable adoptive parents, not just on that child in the photo.  

It's just a photo.  It's one that may save a life, actually, and that can't be underestimated.  It's common for people to read a description and dismiss the child because the medical terminology sounds scary, or they're too old, or it just sounds like something you're not interested in.  Seeing a picture brings the description alive, and often, defuses some of the fear.  It's hard to imagine adopting an institutionalized 14 year old with Down Syndrome, until you see her picture and realize she looks like a 4 year old from years of poor nutrition and care.  It's hard to imagine adopting a child with a failed shunt, until you see his eyes looking at you in the picture, and see the grin on his face.  

So, go ahead.  Look at those photolistings.  Look closely at them.  When you see a terrible picture, or a blurry one, don't skip over it.  Look closer.  Look past the picture and see the child.  If you see one that grabs your heart, go for it.  Just remind yourself, if that doesn't work out, that there are hundreds of other children with similar needs, also waiting, and be willing to consider them as well.  

And in case you can't find the photolistings yourself, here's a tip: At the top of this post, you'll see the date.  Above that is a blue bar, and you'll see the words "Waiting Children."  Click there.  Or, just click HERE and it'll take you right to it.  You can sort by gender, SN's, age, etc.  I encourage you to look through all of them.  If nothing else, you can pray for the little faces you see- pray that someone sees them, and realizes that it's worth giving up vacations and Starbucks and a new wardrobe, to cross the ocean and call them son or daughter. 

(A lot of the children also have adoption grants available to help offset fees (including airfare, facilitation fees, etc) over at Reece's Rainbow.  Click HERE to connect to that site, but remember that they also list kids from other countries.)  

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Megan said...

I, too, was swept away. But to make a decision as to whether or not we should proceed with adoption, I felt the need to temper my emotions. So, one thing I did, that I would recommend, is to fast. I fasted specifically, from those things that would sweep me away- photolistings, adoption blogs, certain music, etc. Doing so took some of that emotion away, so I could discern more clearly whether or not we were, in fact, supposed to bring a new child into our home. Happy to say, in the end, we did!