Adoption and foster care: "We had room at the table"
"My children used ask me, when they were little and we were out shopping, 'Mom, why does that weird man keep walking behind us?' The minute we entered a department store, the security was on our backs. By adopting Romani children, we had become a Czech-Romani family. I used to tell them: 'Well, you know, we are important customers, so we have our own VIP protection.' Today we just laugh when it happens - sometimes I repeat my explanation out loud, and if the security guards are even a bit decent, they leave us alone and stop following us, but of course we encounter greater mistrust everywhere we go," says Martina Vančáková, a mother of four children - two Romani- of her experience in the Czech Republic.
To this day she continues to be amazed at how tactless Czechs can sometimes be: "When I'm walking down the street with my children, in addition to giving me weird looks, people will go ahead and ask 'Ma'am, are these your children?' Right in front of them! I tell them they certainly are mine, and then they say 'Like, they're really yours? Or do you get them somewhere?'"
Vančáková is a psychologist who works for a foster family care center where she runs programs for families who have adopted Romani children; she is also a professional sponsor for the J&T Foundation's outreach and recruitment campaign, "Hledáme rodiče.cz" ("We're Looking for Parents"). She and her husband decided to adopt two Romani children who would otherwise have grown up in an institution.
She had been determined since she was a child herself to help children who grow up without parents. When she was a schoolgirl, her family lived next door to an orphanage.
"I used to go visit those children and I saw that they were sad - we used to play together, and I wanted to become a governess in a kid's home so I could help cheer them up, take care of them, make them happy," she recalls. In college she began to take a deeper interest in the issue and came to understand that "a kid's home is really not a place I would want to work, so I decided on an alternative," she explains.
Vančáková and her husband were open to such children being in their care either through adoption or foster care. They wanted a child who would need them, and ultimately ended becoming the foster parents of two siblings.
More Romani children are placed in foster care than are adopted, which Vančáková says is due to various motivations. Children are often adopted by infertile couples in order to create a family, and they usually want their adopted children to resemble them as much as possible.
For that reason, adoptive parents often adopt children of their same ethnicity. They also adopt children as young as possible.
Children who do not correspond to such parameters go into foster care, as do children who cannot be adopted. In the Czech Republic, moreover, there is a great fear of Romani children, primarily because there are many myths in Czech society around the adoption of Romani children, to say nothing of the general anti-Romani atmosphere.
Vančáková sees it as positive that the number of Romani adoptive and foster parents has increased in recent years. She believes this is caused by the fact that such cases are being evaluated by officials on a more individual basis, and many Romani people perceive a need for such services for abandoned children.
"Won't it end up like Boučková?"
In the course of our conversation about adoption, her family, foster care, and prejudice against Romani children, we arrived at the topic of the infamous book "Rok kohouta" (Year of the Rooster) by Tereza Boučková, in which the author describes her unsuccessful adoption of two Romani children. Vančáková is in contact with people who are considering becoming foster parents and encounters reactions based on that book to this day.
People who come to public discussions of the issue often ask: "Well, yes, but won't it end up like Boučková? She adopted Romani children and look how it turned out!"
One year after the book was published, interest in adopting or fostering Romani children was much reduced. "Several people even openly told me that they had wanted to adopt a Romani child, but withdrew their applications after reading the book," says Vančáková, who does not know Boučková personally.
Vančáková, who has both practical experience and professional knowledge in this area, says foster parents must know that if they want to take in a child with any sort of special characteristic, whether that be a child of a different ethnicity or one with a disability of some kind, they must be prepared and they must really want the child, which was not Boučková's case. For political reasons, the Romani children were placed in her custody even though she had never applied for them.
Like many a classic adoptive parent, Boučková had wanted to adopt children who would resemble her. She then had to come to grips with the fact that her adopted children had a specific background for which she was unprepared and which she was not interested in.
The second problem in her case consisted of the fact that in those days there were no services for adoptive parents, certainly none on the level that there are in the Czech Republic today - which, while still insufficient, do at least exist. There was also no preparatory training for prospective parents.
Boučková's adopted children were not only of a specific ethnicity, they had been seriously harmed by their institutional upbringing and early trauma. The result of that is what she describes in the book.
The children were seriously deprived and she had no tools to cope with that - she didn't know what to do or how to treat them, so they grew up with their emotional deprivation intact. Naturally she cared for them and worked with them somehow, but she didn't know how to do it properly.
Boučková based her parenting solely on her intuition because she had no information or professional help available to her in those days. Thus it happened that she mistakenly attributed the problems she encountered, which were understandable and basically natural in such a situation, to the children's Romani origin.
That attribution is based on the stereotype we have about Romani people in Czech society. Problems flowing from the children's search for their identity became associated with their emotional deprivation.
Even today, adoptive parents often don't know how to work with their Romani children's search for their identity, but they must do so - the child needs the aid of an adult to come to grips with the fact that others are cursing him or her as a 'gypsy', blaming him or her for stealing something should it get lost or go missing, etc. Boučková probably always addressed those specfic situations without ever taking a more systematic approach to the problem.
According to Boučková's account, her adopted children evidently were engaged in a rather big struggle in this regard, attempting to find their biological family and attempting to find where they belonged, since they didn't actually know. All of this came together to produce the results that we know from her book and her interviews.
Based on her own extensive experience, Vančáková says adoptions do sometimes end up this way, but this is definitely not just an issue only for Romani children in foster care - all children in such a situation struggle with their identity, because it is different from that of the family who have taken them in. In the case of her own foster children, the problem is well-demonstrated by the difference between the two siblings.
One of the children has a darker complexion and is immediately recognizable as Romani, which he is having a hard time with now that puberty has begun. He is struggling with his identity a great deal.
This child is beginning to realize that Romani identity isn't just beautiful and interesting, as his mother told him when he was younger and still works on telling him today, that it's not only about interesting fairytales, nice music, and a rich history, but that it also means he will sometimes get kicked out of someplace because "a black guy's not gonna play ping pong with us here", that he will be blamed when something goes missing without any investigation into the truth, that his fellow pupils will abuse him, and that Romani people in this society have the position they have. Right now this darker-skinned child does not want to be Romani, he's angry, and he's having a problem reconciling himself to this fact.
The other child is light-skinned, so he can freely decide whether to reveal his Romani identity to others or not, he can freely choose whether to ever tell others or not, and that means he has a chance to communicate this information positively. This lighter-skinned child gave a solo vocal performance at his school academy and has talked about Romani crafts and history there - his Romani identity is very positively established because he has never encountered any enmity on the basis of his appearance.
It's not "Hooray, now we're helping a child!" - and then we give him back a year later
How can adoptive or foster parents prevent their families from ending in fiasco, with their children running away or shoplifting? First and foremost it is important for the adoptive or foster parents' decisions to be informed ones.
Adoptive and foster parents must have the maximum information available, they must meet with others who have already undergone these processes. If possible, they should meet with as many families as possible, because the decision they are about to make is for life.
It's not "Hooray, now we're helping a child!" - and then we give him back a year later because we can't handle it. There is a lot of information available today.
There is no problem accessing theoretical information, or information on how to formally proceed, applicants can find that on many websites. Of course, personal contact with foster families is important, because it can draw attention to difficulties and specifics that might not ever occur to one otherwise.
For example, it is important to learn that children who have lived through early trauma and institutionalization require an upbringing that is a bit different than that of children whose parents have been licking them into shape since birth. Contact with such families is also important so prospective adoptive or foster parents can see that the relationships in families with adopted or foster children function just as normally as they do in any other family.
All of this is impossible to get from reading books. Even though Martina Vančáková herself was maximally informed, she admits it's something else entirely to experience and resolve the problems that come with raising children who have been traumatized: "From school and from my internship at a home for newborns I knew that children can have attachment disorder, a problem establishing relationships and handling normal life. However, this goes much deeper when you realize you have such a child in your home 24 hours a day. When the children come to you, you count on them not knowing the rules in the family, and you adapt to that, but then you realize that they don't know the principle of rules per se, that you have to teach them that are some things that apply today, tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now, and that they will always be the same."
Most foster parents don't count on this - they presume that once a child reaches for the stove, gets burned, and tests the situation one more time, he will learn his lesson. There are, however, children who reach for the stove 10 times and never remember what happened last time because they have never experienced the principle of rules.
These children never learned this principle in the environments where they were growing up. One learns this immediately, from birth - the child absorbs the basics of functioning in the world from the earliest moments of his or her childhood.
From birth, the child experiences being cared for in a cycle that is constantly repeated: The child needs something, he calls out, and someone comes and satisfies the need. From this completely basal satisfaction of his needs, the child learns not only that there is a person whom he can trust, but that some things constantly repeat and the world has a sort of order.
All this talk about genes! We never know about child-rearing
In a small two-bedroom apartment I am welcomed by Zdenka, who also has experience raising a child with a certain specific characteristic. There are three children playing in the apartment.
During our interview, the two older siblings take turns naturally in entertaining the youngest boy, for whom Zdenka and her husband are providing foster care. Five-year-old Ondra wears a hearing aid and seems happy and satisfied playing with his siblings.
It's obvious that Ondra likes his brothers. He has been living in the family for almost a year - they first began bringing him home from the institution on weekends, and last May he moved in for good.
Because Ondra has trouble hearing and no one at the institution paid any attention to that fact, he didn't communicate in the beginning. Today he signs, speaks a bit, and can count to 10.
"First we have to explain what is what, what specific things look like, show him the sign and the word for them. This is a carrot, this is what it looks like, this is what it tastes like, this is its sign, it's called 'carrot'. You don't repeat it a hundred times, you repeat it a thousand times. That never happened for him in the institution. What you can say to an infant during normal communication we must carefully practice with Ondra every day," Zdenka says of their foster child's difficult beginnings.
Six months ago Ondra wasn't speaking at all, but today he understands both sign language and speech. Zdenka is convinced Ondra will learn to handle ordinary communication without sign language in the future.
Ondra's foster mother insists he is a bright boy who was seriously neglected because of his disability. In the beginning he also had frequent seizures, so-called "affects", but he is having them less and less the better he understands the situation around him and becomes accustomed to it, because it repeats.
"Very often he is calmer than our oldest boy," Zdenka says of the positive changes she has seen in Ondra's improvement after several years in an institution. She attributes that to the fact that until the age of two Ondra did live with his birth mother, who then developed serious medical problems and became unable to care for him.
"He was attached to a mother figure, and that's essential. Then he established a relationship with us. Because of that, he has managed to make such progress during this past year," Zdenka says of his relatively easy integration into their family.
Ondra loves his birth mother. He looks forward to visiting her and paints her pictures.
His foster family often speaks about her with him. Her photograph is hanging in the kitchen.
For Ondra, this means his birth mother is not an imaginary person he doesn't know. He knows whose son he is, whose hair he has.
"Yes, we talk about the fact that his mother is ill and can't visit sometimes, even though she would like to. It happens that the planned visits don't always work out. Ondra understands that his mother is ill and just can't come this time," Zdenka says.
Ondra also sees his birth father and other relatives. Psychologist Martina Vančáková points out that the establishing and maintaining of these ties is important.
Temporary foster care for newborns, in her view, is an enormous step in the right direction, because the first days, weeks and months after birth determine to what degree attachment disorder will develop or not: "Now I see that when children who have been in early foster care go to an adoptive family or return to their birth family, they are completely different children from those who spent their first couple of weeks or months in an institution. I am terribly upset whenever I hear some pediatrician claim that you only need to satisfy the basic biological needs of child during its first year of life. That is so absurd, so monstrous - those people shouldn't be in this line of work. Children are actually permanent harmed by spending their first months in an institution," explains Vančáková, "attachment to a mother figure is primary to the emotional, relational functioning of a person for the rest of his life, including as an adult. Here we have voluntarily placed children in collective facilities so they will learn more rapidly."
It is precisely this approach that creates psychological deprivation. Zdenka describes her experiences that confirm this: "I was rather pleasantly surprised with Ondra, because I sometimes babysat other children who, unlike him, had spent their early childhoods in institutions, so I know what that entails. It doesn't matter at all whether the child is black, white, polka-dotted or has little stars all over. Those children have certain specifics you have to count on."
In Ondra's case the signs of emotional deprivation are also noticeable, but his problems are less severe because he spent the first two years of his life in his own home. Zdenka believes this deprivation is caused in particular by the children undergoing stress, whether that be the stress of being rejected by their own parents, the stress of living in an institution for newborns, or something that happened while they were still in utero.
In her view this has very little to do with genes. "All this talk about genes! We never know about child-rearing, what it will do to children once they are grown. If we'd done it differently, we don't know what the result would have been. You can't test it. Children go their own way all the same - what can we, as parents, do about that? My mother, for example, doesn't like the path I have chosen. She doesn't like it. So what? They can't do anything about it," she laughs.
Both Martina Vančáková and Zdenka are long-term foster mothers - for the time being, such people in the Czech Republic are few and far between. The number of children who need foster care in the first place must be reduced through better remediation and social services.
Such services should work to keep families intact, not remove children who can remain in their birth homes. Children should only be removed from their birth families if they are genuinely at risk because the family is incapable of providing them care and love.
In such cases, there are also other options. There is short-term foster care in the case of children whose fates are unclear, and long-term foster care for children who will never return to their birth families and whom no one will adopt.
While short-term foster care is a good beginning, in future it could come to pass that, due to a lack of long-term foster parents, children will have to return to institutional care after a year. There is a need to expand the ranks of long-term foster parents.
It's completely clear that such a decision is not an easy one for any family. I ask Zdenka why they decided to take such a step.
"We had room at the table," Zdenka says simply, pointing to the table, "it's rather big." Her daughter Sára then adds, "We can make it even bigger."
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