How Can We Best Support Relinquishees? (adoptees, fostered and orphaned individuals)

What is trauma? Or, rather, what are traumatic reactions? Are they normal reactions to abnormal situations as the popular belief has it?  Yes, but those reactions are not all and they don’t paint the whole picture by any means. Trauma is complex and there are, in fact, no such thing as “typical” reactions. A victim of rape might show distress and cry, but another person with a similar experience might seem detached, even blase’ about it.  It would be somewhat natural to assume that the detached victim is not really impacted by what happened to her, right? Wrong. This is why there needs to be more support and education for those who offer help to trauma victims. We need to understand context rather than reactions—those are only a part of the presented problem. That detached response to rape might be because the victim developed a particular coping mechanism (“everything is fine”), not because she was not affected by what happened!

Enter Trauma Informed Care (TIC). According to one definition,  “TIC assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma. Trauma Informed Care recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that trauma may play in an individual’s life.  Critical elements involved in providing TIC consider the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery; recognize signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved in the system; respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and seek to actively resist re-traumatization.”

By the time you arrive here—here being where you might finally feel safe to talk about your internal pain, you’ll have been on a long journey. You might not realize just how gruelling that journey was—and even if you do realize, you might not be aware how much more there was to it than you think. If your story is that of a relinquishee chances are, you’ve been exposed to many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can include neglect, domestic violence, living with a parent who is actively using drugs or alcohol, living with someone with mental illness, separation from the family (parents) or living through a divorce. Although not unique to those of us who have been relinquished, they are quite prevalent in our population. Children given up for adoption don’t come from stable, happy environments—they are all victims of one or more ACEs. For some of us those events have occurred so long ago that we no longer remember them, for others those are memories that will stay with us forever. Without our support systems—the professionals dealing with trauma—fully understanding how those memories, and events (the ones buried deeply in our memory, as well) affect us, we might not be able to fully recover.

In the Milwaukee area, SaintA is at the forefront of trauma-informed care (TIC).  As a result of their efforts, and those of many other stakeholders, SaintA reports a universal increase in the understanding and use of TIC.  Among many other aspects, the mental health professionals have learned about long- and short-term effects of trauma, the cycle of it, risk factors, protective factors, and how trauma affects entire families. It is only with this full understanding of trauma that people suffering from it might be able to get the care that they need.

Taken out of context, a relinquishee with maladaptive coping mechanisms is a little bit like an alien visiting from outer space. Without understanding the relinquishee’s past, his/her ACEs, there will be no understanding on how to help him/her heal.

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