How Churches Can Support Struggling Adoptive Families

Sunday is Orphan Sunday, a time when churches pray together for orphans in their communities and around the world. Caring for orphans and widows is a command in Scripture (James 1:27), and Christians are leading the way by adopting and supporting adoptions.

On Sunday morning, many families who have adopted will stand before their churches, sharing testimonies of God's grace and provision. Their churches will rejoice with them and praise God for setting the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6).

But some families who have adopted will sit and suffer silently. And our churches need to know how to support them better at each stage of possible struggle.

As they wait for a referral.

We first started the adoption process in Ethiopia. For literally years we were "next" on our agency's list. It's hard to live that way for that long. We couldn't make plans to visit our families in other states because we never knew when we would get the call. My husband put off furthering his education. We couldn't make any big changes about our jobs or where we lived or tons of paperwork would have to be redone.

As families struggle through the waiting, churches can pray for them, support them financially (forms expire and fees have to be repaid each year), ask questions about how it's going (adoptive parents want to talk about the process, even when it's hard), and just agree that it's hard before throwing out cliches like "It's all in God's hands!" (We know that's true, but it doesn't always help to be reminded of it by someone who isn't waiting for years for a prayer to be answered.)

As they cocoon.

Cocooning is the period after the child is brought home when he/she adjusts to a new family and a new life. Our agency recommended we not leave the house or introduce our new son to too many people for the first couple months. He had to figure out who Mom and Dad were and what that meant. It can be a lonely and difficult time, especially if the child has attachment or health issues (like stomach parasites).   

As families struggle cocooning, churches can give them space. Lots of church members wanted to meet our son right away, but that wasn't what was best for him. They had to be patient as we cared for him and made the decisions we thought were best. That included not going to church for two months. Churches can provide meals (dropping them off at the door with a text that says "it's here" instead of expecting to come in the house), offering to take the other kids in the house to church or to the park so they can get away, and offering other specific help. Saying "Let me know what I can do!" isn't as helpful as offering specific help. The person you're offering to help may not have the brain power left to decide what she needs help with. 

As they search for answers and diagnoses. 

No adoption file tells the complete story of a child, whether that file is from another country or your county's foster care system. An orphan is an orphan because of some kind of trauma, whether that was to the mother as she struggled with the decision to keep her baby or put him/her up for adoption after birth, or that was to the child as he/she waited in an orphanage for years. And trauma leave scars, some seen and some not seen. Parents who have adopted have to do the hard work of finding answers and figuring out diagnoses so they can get the help their kids needs. This process can take months, looking for experts in certain fields and making decisions about procedures and therapies. 

As families struggle through this process, churches can meet the needs of the child while he/she is at church. That may mean getting a one-on-one buddy or having some sensory toys available. That may mean a teenager uses language we don't usually hear at church to test his new youth group and see if he can get a reaction out of them. Communication and honesty are the keys to make this easier on the family, not more stressful. Church friends can also offer to do research or make a grocery store run during an especially busy week of appointments. It means you sit with your friends who are struggling without quick fixes and easy answers and remind them you are there for them and support them. 

As their children mourn (especially around holidays and family celebrations)

Even after adopted children have been home and have adjusted to their new families, there are still times of mourning. It could be brought up by a project at school ("I'm supposed to fill in my family tree but Jack who sits next to me said you're not my real parents and I can't use your names!") or a sibling's birthday when she gets lots of attention and another child feels ignored and hurt.  

As parents work to meet their kids needs at times of mourning, churches can understand and be supportive. You may all be at a birthday party when one child has a meltdown. Will you stand and stare, or will you jump in to help so the parents can do what they need to do to help the child? Did they decide the Christmas cantata would be too much for their family, but would the love a plate of cookies from the reception after and a quick visit from your family to celebrate in a small way? You won't know unless you make the effort to ask! And if you hear, "It's not a good time," that doesn't mean it's never a good time to offer help. Don't give up on loving your friends well!

As they make the heartbreaking decision to dissolve the adoption.

Thankfully, this doesn't happen often. No family goes into adoption thinking it will be temporary. But since we experienced it ourselves, I can tell you that the support of a church can encourage a family to heal or lead to total heartbreak. Some of the families I've met who have also had to dissolve vow to never go to church again because of how they were treated. But it doesn't have to be this way. We made the decision for our son to be readopted because of his diagnosis and the diagnosis of our other son. Our adopted son would never heal in our home. But other parents make the decision after years of abuse and secrets they kept from the church for fear of being judged.

As parents decide to dissolve or disrupt an adoption, churches can believe the parents are telling the truth. As hard as it may be to believe, children impacted by serious trauma can act one way at home and another way in public. You don't see the abuse, but you can trust the parents when they tell you it's happening. After the transition, don't act like the adoption never happened or ignore the situation. We love the son we adopted and made the decision we thought was best for him, and we prayed he wouldn't be impacted by the transition like we were. We talk about him often at our house, but rarely do friends or family members ask how he's doing (his new family updates us often) or how we're doing (some days are much harder than others). If you don't know what would encourage the family through their heartbreak, ask them. Show up. Be kind. Trust them.

Romans 12:15 says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" and that's what we're called to do as believers, friends, and church family.

On this Orphan Sunday, rejoice in adoption and rejoice with adoptive families, but also be sensitive to those who are struggling and love them well.

Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to two boys. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.