Confronting the Realities of Adoption
About the Guest
Adoption is a blessing that's riddled with challenges. Jon and Shelly Bergeron talk frankly about the realities of adoption. Parents of two deaf sons, Jon and Shelly share how they assumed that their love and care would be the cure-all for their adoptive children, but soon discovered that love wasn't going to heal the traumas each boy had experienced.
Jon and Shelly Bergeron talk frankly about the realities of adoption and ask prospective parents to consider that adoption is not without difficult financial, emotional and spiritual costs.
Confronting the Realities of Adoption
Bob: Jon and Shelly Bergeron are parents who have adopted children with significant emotional and physical needs. So, when they are talking to potential adoptive parents, do they tell the whole truth, even if it may scare them? Here’s Shelly Bergeron.
Shelly: From our experience, it’s a lot better to tell people what could happen. A lot of people don’t want to hear it; but later on, if they do adopt, hopefully, they’ll remember that it’s there in the back of their head: “Oh, yes. The Bergerons said something about that,” and not be so surprised.
One of the biggest things—and probably the hardest thing for people to hear—is that most of the kids—that are older that have come from abandonment—have been sexually abused.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, August 26th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We think adoption is a beautiful and glorious thing, here at FamilyLife. It’s also something you need to go into with your eyes wide open. We’re going to talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Do you think you and Barbara went into adoption with a better-than-average understanding of some of the issues that might be ahead for you?
Dennis: I don’t know where you would have found the average back then—
Dennis: —because there was not a lot of training—weren’t many books, at all, that had been written. Frankly, I think, for the most part, anybody, who adopted, was pretty naïve—basically, walked off into the unknown, really, in terms of what they were going to face with a child that they were going to select to be their own, and to love, and to care for. We didn’t know what we were doing.
Bob: But you look back—and you say, “The journey was hard,” but you’d do it again.
Dennis: A thousand times out of a thousand—no doubt about it. It was a challenge—it really was.
We’ve got a couple with us who know a little bit about that challenge as well—
—both professionally and personally. Shelly and Jon Bergeron join us on the broadcast. Shelly, Jon, welcome back.
Shelly: Thank you.
Dennis: Shelly and Jon work for Hope for Orphans®. They started out as reluctant foster care parents, but they became adoptive parents. Jon attended Taylor University up in Upland, Indiana. He got his PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas—then, a one-year postdoctoral training in child and adolescent psychology in College Station, Texas.
You’re a child psychologist. You’ve done a lot of work—more than a decade—in this area. Let’s go back to what Bob asked me. What do you think is really the biggest mistake, in terms of being naïve, that adoptive parents make as they engage this process of adoption and calling a child their own?
Jon: As I work with families, I would say the place that I see a lack of preparedness is just an understanding of the depth of the kind of damage that can be done—
—especially as the trends in adoption move to older children and children with special needs. The longer a child is in an institution, or in a system like our foster care system, that’s not perfect, the more damage that gets done and the more healing that needs to take place. I think most of those, who are adopting, often come from a stable home in middle class society—not perfect—but far different from where their children come from. There is a lot of education that needs to happen about what those early experiences were and how they’ve impacted the development of their child.
Dennis: Shelly, you’ve done this personally. You’ve adopted two.
Dennis: What was your biggest assumption that you made that was—you look back and you go: “Wow! I was clueless.”
Shelly: I think, with our first son—we got him at four. I was—even though I had a psychologist for a husband, and we had read all the books that we could get our hands on about fostering and adoption, I still thought, “I just need to give him some love, and take care of him, and give him a good home; and he’ll be good to go.”
Actually, he’s a really easy-going kid; and that kind of has occurred for him—but in general—with his sister, that we fostered, and then with our son, now—this side of heaven, just love isn’t enough.
Dennis: So, some of our listeners are going: “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! We’ve always been taught love is enough.” What do you mean “Love isn’t enough?”
Shelly: Well, love isn’t going to heal all of those past traumas and hurts that they’ve had throughout their lives.
Dennis: You mean they are going to carry them for a lifetime.
Shelly: They will. They will. Our love is going to be as much as we can give them, and it’s going to have to be enough for what they can have in the family; but it’s not enough to heal them.
Dennis: I think the key phrase I want our listeners to hear—you’re talking about complete healing.
Shelly: Complete healing, this side of heaven—which is the case for all of us—but especially for these kids from hurt backgrounds—is that there will not be complete healing.
Our sons will never fully be healed of the pain and hurt that occurred because of their abandonment.
Bob: Yes, a part of what you guys have both got to hang onto is the reality that, with both of your boys today, they are in a much better place than they ever would have been if you hadn’t intervened.
Bob: But they’re still a long way from where you wish they were; right?
Shelly: That’s right. That’s right.
Bob: So, if you were sitting down today with a young couple, who were thinking: “We’re thinking about adopting. We’ve been married five years—don’t have any kids. Think maybe God’s calling us to adoption. God’s always had it on my heart that maybe we should be adoptive parents. We’d love to know what kind of advice you’d give us.” How would that conversation go, Jon?
Jon: Well, interestingly, we have a lot of those conversations.
Shelly: We love that!
Jon: Yes, we really enjoy that. We see that really as the ministry that God’s called us into, apart from Hope for Orphans—you know, and even before that.
As soon as the word got out that: “Oh, there’s this adoptive couple and foster family”—
Bob: “And he’s a clinical psychologist,”—and yes; right.
Jon: Yes, people ask those questions. I love it when they do because it tells me they are thinking, “I need to be prepared.” I think, as Dennis was saying, we are understanding, more and more, that you need preparation—that there is more to do than read a paper or to just “How do I transfer what I’ve done with my biological kids over to adoptive / foster kids?”
So, people get that; and they ask those questions. We have some really interesting interactions with folks, when they say, “Hey, what do we need to know?” I may let Shelly take over from here because I think she’s really good at doing something that I think, over time, we’ve done more and more of—and that is: “Hey, here is the hard truth. We’re going to give you that up-front.”
Shelly: I’ve learned to become a little blunt with people. I don’t know if I’ve lost friends or not from that—but I feel like, from our experience, it’s a lot better to tell people what could happen. A lot of people don’t want to hear it; but later on, if they do adopt, hopefully, they’ll remember that it’s there, in the back of their head:
“Oh, yes, the Bergerons said something about that,”—and not be so surprised.
One of the biggest things—and probably the hardest thing for people to hear—is that most of these kids—that are older that have come from abandonment— have been sexually abused—and to be prepared—if you are going to take them in and have younger children in your home—that you need to do a lot to protect everyone in the home.
Jon: Yes, so, what this looks like is—one evening, we’re sitting down with a couple in our church, over sushi. They’re asking, “What is it we need to get ready for?” And there was a child that they had been connected with. So, they were learning a little bit about her. That’s what Shelly said—she said, “Well, you need to be prepared that she’s likely been sexually abused.”
And you could see—especially, the mom’s eyes—but both of them kind of get really wide and get really quiet. Then, we lead into, “but that’s not the end of the world,” and, “It doesn’t mean this child is going to be a monster or anything like that, but here’s what you need to do to help them heal and to protect them when they come into your home.”
Bob: So, Jon, if that’s a part of the past for a child, what does that mean in terms of what you’re bringing into the family dynamic?—that child may be acting out, sexually, in the home?
Jon: Yes. That’s not uncommon—that one of the ways that kids try to make sense of what has happened to them—this exposure to sexuality at much too young of an age—is they begin to act it out. Unfortunately, this, then, causes damage to be done to other children and to the family, if people aren’t walking into it, with their eyes wide open.
Number one, trying to prevent it; and number two, looking for the early evidence of it and not looking away because there is a strong temptation to say: “Oh, no, no. That didn’t happen to my child.” We’ve heard that over and over—and almost, without exception, within a couple of years, those same people come back to us and say, “They shared with me what happened in the orphanage.” Then, we hear these horrific stories of abuse from even the best orphanages, at least from the outside.
Bob: So, Shelly, if you’ve got three biological kids at home—and you’re bringing home a five-year-old, who has been sexually abused—at some level, your biological kids are now at risk; aren’t they?
Shelly: Yes, that’s correct. What we recommend to people is—we say: “Don’t leave them alone. Make sure that your children are always being watched, playing in a central location. Don’t share bedrooms.” We have recommended, highly—to put alarms on the door so you can hear when the kids are coming and going. You can tell them all it’s for their own safety. It’s to keep everyone in the family safe because you don’t want to hurt that child more by allowing them to continue to do that because that will hurt them more as well as it could hurt other children in the family.
Jon: Yes, but I think that it is important to say—is—a lot of times, people react to those types of recommendations with some level of: “That seems really mean. You’re making that child out to be the bad guy,”—but you’re not. You’re protecting that child.
If we don’t protect these kids from what they might do to themselves, by acting out, we’re contributing, I believe, to more damage because, each time they act out, there is more damage done to them, in addition to what’s done to others.
Dennis: I want to talk about another issue that comes up with adoption. It’s that of attachment issues. I know, as a parent of an adopted child, when I first heard about this, I, frankly, kind of dismissed it. I kind of said, “I think research is just gone amok here, and it’s just making too much of too little.” But the older I’ve become and the more I’ve heard the stories—I really do think there is something about this thing—that a baby can hear his or her mother’s voice while they are in the womb. So, when they are born and that voice doesn’t match—even the voice of a parent who adopts, at birth—there is still something that takes place there—that causes a loss of attachment.
Speak to that.
Jon: That’s something that we’re just beginning to understand. I believe the intricacies of what God created in His design for a family—that there is something that starts, like you said, before birth in this connection between the child and the mother and even the father, who talks and whose voice is heard while the child is in utero, that begins a process that makes the raising of a child far easier. God designed it that way.
As we know, anytime we move outside of God’s design, things don’t work out so well. As beautiful as adoption is, the whole reason adoption exists is because God’s design has been horribly broken. A family, somewhere, has been destroyed; and the need for another family is there to step in. When that design of God has been destroyed or damaged in some way, it’s going to have an impact.
I believe science is just starting to understand how God designed this to be—and how the neuro chemicals and everything work together to create this bonding between parent and child—that is critical to their development.
Dennis: I’m going to use an illustration that’s extreme, but it’s one that happened to you guys. Your son—that you adopted three days short of the age of 14—grew up in China and, basically, spent the first 13 years of his life in an orphanage.
Dennis: Barbara and I have been to orphanages in China. We’ve been to those in Russia. There are all kinds of orphanages. You can really understand how, from an attachment basis, it gets overlooked. It’s just humanly not possible, with so few workers caring for so many little children, who have to be left alone.
When your son came to your family and had been in your family for, I think, two or three years, at that point—you talked about going to China. He mentioned what his feelings were if you found his parents.
Shelly: Yes. It’s a really tough thing for him to understand—once he was in a family—that that meant that someone had abandoned him. He asked Jon, “If we went back to China, and when we saw his birth parents, would Jon kill them?” And another time, he would say something similar—and five minutes later, would ask, “But I hope that they can come to my high school graduation.”
These are birth parents that we’ll never be able to find. He’ll never be able to know who they are. That is deeply engrained in him, and that has caused so much loss. It makes sense, then, why he has so much pain, and hurt, and struggles in his life because of all of that.
Bob: Jon, unpack what is going on in his heart when he says things like that.
Jon: I think what we are seeing—and it’s painful to watch, as a parent, because you see just the depth of the pain that that caused in him—that turns into anger and rage.
Of course, he wanted to kill these people that he felt were responsible for 14 years of abuse, and neglect, and horrific experiences. At first blush, you think: “Wow! Is this just some crazy violent kid?” But it’s not. It’s probably a normative response—I would say.
Bob: He knows, instinctively, “Somebody should have been taking care of me, and nobody was!”
Jon: And that is, I think, the source of the anger and rage that we see in a lot of these kids.
Bob: How do you help a young man, who—that’s his reality? He was abandoned. He was left in this situation. He’s processing all of this anger and all of this rage. What can you say to him to help him to get over the hump?
Shelly: Well, we get over the hump; and then, we go back again. Then, we get over the hump and go back. We go over it again and again because 14 years is never going to be overcome, but we try a lot of different things.
One of the things that we do is try to talk to him and pretend like we talk to him, as if he were a baby. We’ve done this before. [Emotion in voice] I pretend I’m holding him and signing to him, as if he were my baby, and what I would have done if he were my baby, and: “This is what should have been for you. This is what life should have been like. You should have had a mom, who came and kissed you when you fell down and got hurt instead of people laughing at you,” and, “When someone stepped on you, instead of having other people keep doing that, your mom should have come and protected you and taken care of you.”
We tell him what it should have been like and what God does for us. We tell him, also, that despite all of those 14 years of pain, this is still where God wanted him to be. This was still God’s plan—not the pain and the hurt—but God’s plan to have a family for him—it was this family. Before time began, this was the family for him.
God has touched his life in a miraculous way, despite all of the pain and hurt that we’ve gone through with him.
He knows that instinctively. He told us, not long after we came home, that he said: “In China, they told me that Jesus was fake; but now, you’re telling me He’s real. I know that He’s real.” I’ve said before: “You can be mad at God. He can handle it. It’s okay if you’re mad.” He goes: “I’m not mad at God. He saved me. He brought me to this family. I’m mad at Satan. It’s his fault.”
Bob: As you’re describing this re-parenting that you are doing, you get emotional in talking about it.
Shelly: Yes, it’s hard stuff! It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I think that’s what’s painful. It’s painful for me to see that this is the hurt that’s a part of his life, always. It’s always going to be there, and it shouldn’t have had to be like this—this little boy, who I can imagine—I see little Chinese boys running around. I think of our son—he shouldn’t have had that. [Emotion in voice] He should have had a mom and a dad to take care of him.
Jon: If I can share something—one of the things that I’ve been amazed with, as a professional, is the wisdom and the heart that God puts into mothers. I can tell you—probably most of the healing that has come about in our son has been because of what she’s describing. God gives her an intuitive sense of what he needs to hear. She speaks to him in a way that he can understand it. We’ve seen tremendous growth and change through, I believe, her obedience and following the Spirit in that way.
There is no rule book to parenting, especially these kids. It’s very unexpected, but God leads and the Spirit guides. I’ve just been really amazed at seeing her love our son the way he needs to be loved.
Dennis: Respectfully, Jon, you answered that, as a psychologist. I want you to answer and make a comment, as a father, because there is a unique assignment to you, as well, to love in a very difficult situation—that you see is wearing out your wife, at points.
Jon: Yes, as a father, it’s challenging because I know I’m called to love my wife and love my children. Sometimes, those things seem to be in conflict. Sometimes, it’s a matter of: “How I do protect my wife—
Jon: —“and take care of my child, at the same time? What does that look like?” There are not any easy answers here, and there are a lot of families out there that know exactly what I’m talking about. They need the Spirit of God leading them and guiding them. They also need the family of God to come around them, and support them, and help them through these difficult situations because you can’t do this alone. I can tell you that, with all the training and experience I’ve had as a professional, it’s more than I can handle. It’s more than we can handle. We needed people to love on us as we’re trying to love these kids.
Bob: We asked you earlier what kind of advice you would give to that young naïve couple—that has a heart for this—and you want to give them the reality of what they are getting into. You’re going to be talking to a bunch of these folks in September, when you get together for the Rooted conference that Hope for Orphans is going to be hosting in Texas.
Explain for folks what this conference is all about.
Jon: It’s a one-day event where they come. We’re going to have, actually, a lot of different people—folks like Paul David Tripp and Voddie Baucham are going to share, along with some teaching and training from myself, about how the parenting process itself, for these kids especially, I think, is the gospel lived out. Rooted is about understanding that the answers to the questions about “How do I deal with this?” are rooted in the gospel—in the Bible’s description of how God loves us and parents us—showing where science can inform that framework.
In addition to individual families, the other audience for this event is the church itself because the vast majority of these couples are going to be coming from churches. What I want them to understand is that God has created the church family to do the work of supporting and caring for other families when they are struggling.
So, I see this as the center of the solutions.
A lot of people want to throw out a lot of different professional solutions—take them to this treatment facility or see this specialist—but I really believe the real healing for the family and the child is going to come out of the support of the family that God put them in—the church family.
Shelly: I just think it’s really going to be a great encouragement to families. I think that people coming will feel like, “Here are some other people who are in the same boat as I am, and I’m not alone.”
Dennis: Yes. What you are really reflecting is that FamilyLife wants to be an encouragement in the adoption movement. There are a lot of folks who are listening to our broadcast, Bob, who need to get with it and get on the—
Bob: Need to get rooted; right?
Dennis: Yes, they need to get rooted—[Laughter]—and others who need to check into foster care.
If you didn’t hear the earlier broadcast, with Jon and Shelly, you need to hear about two reluctant foster care parents and how God ultimately redirected, for all practical purposes, your marriage, your family, and your vocation around a small decision that you fought all the way to the finish line—about becoming foster care parents.
I’m just really proud of you two. I think you guys have modeled some tough love—not in a story book situation—but in some tough circumstances. I just appreciate your work with Hope for Orphans.
Jon: Thanks. It’s been great to be here.
Bob: Yes, and both of us hope that there will be a great turnout for the Rooted conference. It’s coming up in September. Once again, if folks would like more information about that event and how they can be a part of it—even from a distance—go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll find information about the Rooted conference there. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
We’ve also got additional information for parents who are thinking about adoption—
—who want to know more about what that process might look like for their family. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “GO DEEPER”; or call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
Well, this is shout-out week. We’re giving some shout-outs to folks who are celebrating anniversaries this week. I want to say, “Congratulations!” to Sam and Anna DeJong, who live in Marysville, Washington—56 years of marriage today. That deserves a—I’ll tell you what that deserves. That deserves a milkshake from AJ’s Burgers, there in Marysville. So—just a recommendation—that’s—if it was my anniversary, milkshake would be what I’d be looking for. The DeJongs are Legacy Partners, here at FamilyLife Today. We appreciate you guys for your faithful support of this ministry—
—grateful to have you as a part of the team.
And I just want to mention to everybody else, who is listening, this is the last week of our fiscal year. We’re trying to end this year in a good, solid healthy financial place. We could use your help. We have some friends, who have come along and offered that, this week, they will match every donation that is given in support of our fiscal yearend, on a dollar for dollar basis, up to a total of $100,000.
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Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You click the link that says, “I Care,” in the upper right-hand corner. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY, and you can make a donation over the phone. Or you can mail a donation to FamilyLife Today at P O Box 7111, Little Rock, AR.
And our zip code is 72223. Join the DeJongs and be a part of what God is doing through the ministry of FamilyLife Today. And again, we appreciate your support and are grateful for your partnership with us, here in this ministry.
Tomorrow, we’re going to get a chance to hear from Barbara Rainey as she shares a little bit about the adoption journey that is a part of Dennis and Barbara’s story. So, I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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