by Eshele Williams, Psy.D., LMFT,
A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Writer, Researcher, Dr. Eshele Williams has the lived experience of being a birth child of a foster, adoptive and kinship parents. This story, her story, is the first in a three-part series that will explore the impacts of fostering and adopting on birth children from both the personal perspective and research.
I was formally introduced to foster care when two children joined our family in 1984. I recall being in the third grade and upon returning from a sleepover I was introduced to two little girls. I don’t remember asking many questions at that time. But, I was told that they would stay with us for a while. What I came to learn was that these children had other siblings in foster care. Within three months their older sister joined our family, their 6-month-old brother joined our family two months later, and three weeks after that another female sibling joined our family. Their mother would go on to have five more children and three of them joined our family as infants within the next three years.
Within three years all eight siblings joined our family. The addition of multiple children within such a short period of time was overwhelming. Those first few years were spent attempting to acclimate to the unpredictable changes. As the youngest of four girls born to my parents I suddenly became a middle child of 12 siblings through the process of foster care, adoption and kinship care. It had an impact on my siblings and me and it eventually took a toll on my parents’ relationship.
Within four years my father left the home leaving my mom as the primary caregiver of all of the children. Within two years of the first children joining our family I made the decision with my mother’s awareness to move in with my maternal grandmother. She visited our home each night and as she would leave I would gather my things and go with her. I eventually stayed with her permanently. She provided the nurturing and support that I craved, especially after my relationship with my mother became strained and distant.
My teenage years were characterized by periods of happiness, confusion and anger. I developed a negative attitude as a defense so people would not see me cry. I shut down and felt guilty for having negative feelings about my family because after all I had my mom, a home and my grandmother who took care of me. I never spoke about how I felt because I was unable to be honest. What I wanted so desperately to say is, “This is not working out for me! I’m being bullied at school and the foster children living in my home are taking part in it.”
I just wanted to run away and hide. And most of all I wanted to scream, “I don’t want this life or these siblings. I just want my mommy back” I often wondered what my life would have been like if they had never come. When these feelings came up I felt guilty and convinced myself that I could not express them because it would hurt my mom’s feelings or I would be viewed as ungrateful for all that my mom did for me and everyone else. I would only allow myself to think about what a good deed my mom was doing, how much the children needed her, and that if she terminated the relationships the children would be separated in care. I put them before myself because this was my family identity, and I dared not go against it.
Not unlike many birth children in similar circumstances, there was no support or services offered to me. Due to the lack of support and feeling unrecognized, I became a different, more guarded person to protect myself. I was influenced by the environment and learned about trauma and experiences that I had previously been sheltered from. I was in the greatest change process of my life and felt that I had no one to walk, talk or carry me through it. I searched for ways to cope and eventually made higher education and therapy my road to self-expression, understanding and completion.
My twisted thought was, “If I could just get smart enough to be less angry when I express my feelings maybe I would be heard.” I went on a quest to understand other birth children’s experiences. Through education I took the opportunity to research, write about, and share my experiences and the findings. I earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and eventually a doctoral degree and unfortunately, I realized that no matter how smart I was, people were still unaware of my feelings and had a hard time hearing me.
Like many of you who read this, my family has been dedicated to supporting children impacted by trauma and loss for the past 35 years. As a result of my parents’ decision to foster, my siblings and I became what is known today as “birth children of foster, adoptive and kinship parents.” This is not a title that we chose for ourselves but we have had to live with it throughout the years.
Not having any sense of what the title meant, what expectations came with it, or the potential impact it could have on our lives, my siblings and I each experienced it differently. This can be attributed to the difference in our ages, temperaments, life experiences and level of involvement with the foster and adoptive children. Birth children are impacted and forever changed as a result of becoming foster and adoptive siblings.
One of the most important takeaways is that the majority of people connected to the social services system — parents, child welfare workers, administrators and other children — are not aware of the impact on the birth child. They often have never viewed or considered how dynamic the experience is from the birth child’s perspective. The social services system tends not to consider the birth child of foster, adoptive and kinship parents as being a part of the foster care system. Due to this, we are overlooked and often suffer with no voice.
This needs to change. This is my story, albeit difficult. I tell it from an empowered stance to encourage parents, social workers and those connected to the social services system to stay alert and recognize that it is time to increase our capacity to see things from a birth child’s perspective. Also, to bring forth empathy, education, support and services for its members and the children of foster and adoptive parents. My experiences have shaped me into a courageous advocate willing to share vulnerable moments in my life to help others and for my ability to do this I am grateful. Part II of this series will highlight the research and provide a basic understanding of the need to support children, parents and social services professionals in their effort to become increasingly aware, more inclusive and educated about the impact on birth children.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eshele Williams, Psy.D., LMFT, earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Long Beach in human development, a master’s degree from Pacific Oaks College in Marriage Family Child Counseling and a doctorate from Phillips Graduate University. She has dedicated her career to supporting children, families and organizations in multiple capacities. Her work in the child welfare field includes experience as a professor, researcher, curriculum developer, writer, parenting program coordinator, health team coordinator for children with the chronic illness (Sickle Cell disease), public speaker, trainer/educator and adoption support program project coordinator. Williams is currently faculty at Pacific Oaks College and has served as the clinical director of an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. She was also the clinical coordinator of a transition age youth program at Hillsides. For more information, contact Williams at [email protected] or visit Eshelewilliams.com.