‘Careful the things you say’

Posted on September 14, 2011

Last week I heard a child welfare professional charged with the care of dozens of children waiting to be adopted say, “We have done so much work for him, but had to take him out of another placement.  Honestly, he is just proving to me that he is unadoptable.” The child about whom she was speaking is 14 and being moved out of his fifth home in almost as many years. I have thought about that comment nonstop since then. Unadoptable. The word makes me angry and sad. But mostly angry. Words have consequences.

In his compelling Broadway musical, Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim addresses nearly every iconic family theme – the relationship between parent and child, the difficult transition from childhood into adulthood, self-discovery, longing, loneliness, grief and guilt, wishes and hope. Of course other messages resonate in this intertwining of classic fairy tales (or it wouldn’t be a Sondheim musical!), but to me, none more profoundly than that of the responsibility we have as adults for children. All children. Responsibility for our actions and in how we speak. “Careful the things you say, children will listen,” sings the Witch. “Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.”

I have always connected this show to the work we do for maltreated children, vulnerable families and, in particular, children in foster care waiting to be adopted. The quest for home and the recognition that the threads of childhood are delicately woven into how we grow as adults is at the core of foster care adoption. And yet, knowing what we know – how basic and essential it is that childhood threads are sewn into a safe and nurturing family – we allow thousands of children to linger without homes, and thousands more to age out and never realize their quests for families.

Too often it is because, either consciously (or worse, unknowingly), we label children “unadoptable,” or “hard to place,” or just simply “difficult.” As many a rhetorician has noted, words have consequences. In this case, it is a bit of a double jeopardy. When we call a child unadoptable, we not only criminally diminish his or her hope, but we extend the myth that some children are less deserving than others of what you and I consider birthrights – family and home. Using the word allows those of us charged with assuring an adoptive home for every child the escape hatch of failure. If HE is UNADOPTABLE, then it must not be MY fault if I cannot find him a home that sticks. Enough excuses, particularly those that blame the child.

At the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, we work each day under the notion that every waiting child is adoptable. If a child has not been placed in a home with a pending finalization, it is our fault. We have not worked hard enough or smart enough to assure that the child is prepared, that an appropriate family has been sought or that the family has been given every resource to succeed. Our fault, not the child’s. He is not unadoptable. She is not hard to place. They are not difficult. Enough. Our failures, not theirs.

Children in foster care waiting to be adopted are unique and cherished individuals whose life experiences have already made them wiser than most adults. Now they simply need our indefatigable efforts to assure that they have families and homes. He is adoptable. She is wise. They are deserving of our best efforts.

Careful the things you say. Words have consequences. And if we do this right, it will be with the best possible results – homes for children who need them most. No excuses.

Oh, and if that word (you know what word) is ever used around us again – you might just get the Giant’s boot!




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