The Kids Who Wait Longest

For children 5 and older, a family can be a dream that slowly fades. But older children are just as deserving of love, and have lots to give in return.

On the morning of October 21, 2015, Elijah woke early and tiptoed across the cool tile floor through the bright morning light that poured in through the window, past the other metal-framed beds in his room. He checked the window overlooking the front quad for the first of a hundred times that day, looking for a car or a van to pull through the gate.

Nothing … yet.

As Elijah’s friends stirred and woke from their beds, they played and wrestled and pulled on clean clothes. Elijah hugged his friends, a group of three brothers close to his age who had come to their orphanage after their mother died. They wondered together what Elijah’s family might be like, the same way they had wondered together for years as one and then another of their friends left their care center in Pune, India. Elijah sat in his normal place at breakfast, at a bench in the center of a small yellow and orange table, and ate a silver tray of food with his hands.

A big lopsided happy grin spread across his face involuntarily and his excitement grew. Mom. Dad. Big brother. Plane rides. Elijah checked the front window again and again, looking out from the third story through rough iron bars into the front courtyard where guests entered — the same doors he’d watched other children’s moms and dads enter many times before.

At almost 6, Elijah was old enough to know that today was an exciting day — the day he’d meet the mom and dad he’d dreamed about — but he was still too young to realize how rare it was that a child his age would have this chance. Elijah couldn’t have known that most of his friends would continue to dream about a day that would never come. In adoption, children 5 and older with no physical or cognitive disabilities are still considered children with special needs — primarily because their age puts them at a serious disadvantage for being matched with a family.

Elijah, right, while still in the care of Holt’s long-time partner BSSK in Pune, India, just prior to joining his family.

They are at a disadvantage for many reasons. First and foremost, is family preference. Many families prefer to adopt a child as young as possible. However, just like kids with physical or cognitive special needs, older children do need families with certain skills and knowledge to help them overcome the unique challenges they face. These challenges often come as a result of living in a care center — instead of a family — for a long period of time, which can impact them in a myriad of social, emotional, physical, behavioral or intellectual ways. Families that adopt an older child will need to help their child heal from trauma through unique parenting techniques, help them to learn a new language and help the entire family learn to embrace a new culture, among other things. While all of these skills can be taught during the adoption process, they do require parents who are dedicated to their child’s needs.

Regardless of the reasons, the truth remains: when a child living in institutional care turns 5, their chance of joining a permanent family diminishes significantly — both in their birth country, and through international adoption.

In countries like China and India, where adoption is still a fairly new concept, most domestic families will only adopt a baby. But despite the fact that globally there are more children 5 and older waiting for families — many of whom can and do express that they dream of joining a family of their own — preference for children younger than 5 still dominates in Western countries with a long tradition of adoption as well. In the United States, most adoptive families continue to request to be matched with a child as young as possible.

For the children who remain behind, waiting for a family can create a longing that younger children will never know.

Kris Bales, a Holt social worker with more than 14 years of experience uniting children with families through adoption, says that older children living in orphanages are generally eager to join a family.

“There is no shortage of families who are willing to adopt babies or toddlers,” Kris says. “Older children have waited years for a family of their own. They have watched friends go home with new parents while they continue to wait. I have visited orphanages where older children have recited poems, sang songs, danced hip-hop, and brought their artwork to share, hoping that I will find a family for them and finally it will be their turn.”

Elijah meets his mom and dad, Belvy and Travis, for the first time in India.

Travis and Belvy Huckaby remember the first time they saw Elijah.

“His face lit up,” Travis says.

“He knew we were coming,” Belvy says, “so he was excited. His expression was like, ‘Oh my God, my family is here.’”

“To see him smile and run up to us and hug us in that moment made all the waiting, paperwork and hoops we jumped through so worth it!” Travis says.

Though Belvy is Indian-American and speaks Hindi, Elijah only spoke Marathi, so most of their first joyful interactions were nonverbal.

“But for the most part, you know what he’s thinking,” Travis says.

They spent a few hours playing games and touring Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra (BSSK), the six-story care center where Elijah had lived for five years — just one of the several different orphanages throughout India where Elijah stayed before joining his family.

For Belvy, her first meeting with Elijah was very different than her first meeting with her oldest child, Noah, whom she had traveled alone to adopt six years prior. Noah was not even 2 when he traveled home. At the time, Travis was preparing to deploy for his job in the Air Force and he couldn’t get the clearance to travel.

When they decided to return to India for their second adoption, Belvy and Travis say that they were totally open to any child, as long as he or she was younger than Noah, who was 7 at the time.

“We had no reservations about adopting an older child,” Travis says. “We figured whatever experiences he had before he met us will not define him and that ultimately we were going to provide him a great family, which all of us needed.”

The first time they saw Elijah’s picture on their computer screen, Belvy and Travis knew he was their son.

Elijah and Noah with their dad on the last day of school.

This time, when they traveled to India to bring Elijah home, Travis was eager to be present for the experience he had missed with his first son.

“I was surprised by a lot of things. The orphanage was nicer than I expected,” Travis says of BSSK, a long-time partner organization of Holt. “The kids were fed really well. It wasn’t like the media portrays orphanages. But, I remember there were so many kids who needed families.”

“There are a lot of children who need love and need a home,” Belvy says. “There are a lot of older kids. Lots of older kids.”

For older kids like Elijah, however, trends in international adoption offer a glimmer of hope.

Elijah at the beach building sandcastles.

Over the past 20 years, as more and more children have joined families domestically in their birth countries, fewer babies and young children without any identified special needs have gone to families through international adoption. Even children with fairly minor special needs are coming home at older ages. In general, this means that more older children are able to go home to a family of their own.

In 1997, more than 1,059 children joined families through Holt International, but only 57 were age 5 or older when they arrived home. Over the next 20 years, international adoption began to decline and fewer children came home overall. By 2016, about 350 children joined families through Holt, but of those, 86 children were older than 5.

As more older children have come home, Abbie Smith, Holt’s director of clinical services, says the science behind how to parent older adopted children has changed significantly, too.

“We’ve learned a lot about older child and parent bonding and attachment,” she says. “There are a lot more resources today. As social workers and psychologists, we’ve learned much more about what is a good older-child-to-family match. We also know that when parents focus on developing secure attachment, all other things take off, like language growth and academic achievement.”

Just as “older children” is a broad term that can mean children of many different ages and life experiences, families who may be, as Abbie says, a “good match” for an older child come in all shapes and sizes.

“Experienced parents, empty nesters and those who have adopted before are often a good fit for an older child,” Kris explains. “We have also successfully placed older children with first-time parents who are willing to prepare themselves for the challenges these children can bring.”

Generally, Kris says, families just need to be flexible, patient, compassionate and able to display a sense of humor. Older children need parents who are dedicated to providing what they need to heal from early losses and reach their full potential.

“These kids need families who are willing to commit to them, no matter what,” Kris says.

Although older child adoption is becoming more common, the pace is not fast enough to keep up with the number of children who are waiting for families.

Several adoption programs — India, China, Vietnam and more — have faster adoption routes for families open to a child over 5. India has recently seen a surge of healthy girls older than 6 waiting for homes, while in China, the process to adopt a boy or girl over age 5 is six months to one year faster than the process to adopt a child under age 3.

The reasons adoptive families may still show a preference for younger children vary, and are often tied to fears about raising older children. Families may feel apprehensive about adopting an older child because of language barriers, the impact of long-term institutionalization on a child, a longer transition and bonding period or just simply because they will miss out on a child’s “firsts.”

While these fears aren’t unfounded, there are many resources, trainings and support to help families feel prepared to handle the unique challenges of adopting an older child — such as research-based parenting courses that come on DVDs.

“All adopted children have experienced trauma,” Abbie says. “When a child doesn’t start life receiving the love and care a parent provides, it reshapes the brain. If they are neglected or abused, that can also change how the brain develops. The longer a child lives in an orphanage, the more their adoptive family will need to help fill in the developmental gaps — basically, the parental nurturing that the child didn’t receive in their formative years. But, the important thing is that all trauma can be healed if you are willing to learn new parenting techniques and learn about the impacts of trauma.”

Resources and trainings abound to help overcome language barriers and a slew of research- based books, video series and in-person trainings are available to teach families techniques to develop a strong and healthy bond with their older child.

A family photo of Elijah, left, with dad, mom and brother Noah.

As for missing out on a child’s first days, Travis and Belvy say not to worry. Regardless of how old a child is when they come home, you still get all their “firsts.”

“You still get first English words. You still get the first tooth or the first grades,” Belvy says. “And, you get the first ‘I love you.’ You get all the fun stuff.”

When Travis and Belvy arrived home to Alaska, Elijah saw snow for the first time.

“He asked us what it was,” Belvy says. “He was excited to play.”

Travis says when they go somewhere new, whether Chuck E. Cheese or Walmart, he has to remind himself it’s the first time Elijah has seen something like that.

“It’s awesome,” Travis says. “It reminds us to keep looking at life from his perspective. It’s fun to watch his face light up.”

The only first they missed, Travis says, was diapers: “I wasn’t sad to miss that one!”

Overall, though, the joys of older child adoption are endless. Travis says one of his favorites has been watching his boys become brothers — a bond that started before the kids even met.

Elijah, right, and Noah, left, explore a pineapple plantation during a family vacation.

“In India, all Elijah talked about was his older brother,” Belvy says.

“He really loved the planes. He’d ask how many plane rides until we meet Noah?” Travis says.

On their first meeting, Belvy and Travis gave Noah and Elijah gifts to exchange, but otherwise, it was as normal as any two children meeting for the first time.

That’s not to say everything has been easy, as Belvy and Travis both say that while Elijah never looked back to his orphanage, his emotional state in his first months home went through wide swings from day to day. There were a lot of hard days when Elijah consciously and subconsciously worked through tough emotions and grew to trust his family.

But a year and a half later, Elijah celebrated his kindergarten graduation in May with a small ceremony that both Belvy and Travis attended.

“Elijah’s doing great in school,” Travis says. “He’s got teachers and friends who love him. The progress he’s made is amazing. He’s grown and changed so much in the last year and a half.”

And, as a family, they’ve grown, too. “We’re a family like we’ve been together forever,” Belvy says. “It’s like Elijah has been there forever. He shares mannerisms with me and Travis and Noah.”

Elijah and brother Noah play at the pool.

Noah and Elijah like to play sports together. They read and wrestle and act like normal brothers.

“Noah is more athletic,” Travis says. “Elijah loves to dance and sing. He’s a big ham — definitely the entertainer. When he gets excited, he just starts dancing.”

Travis says that now that Elijah’s English has expanded, he sometimes shares memories from before he was adopted.

“The other day, he was telling us about how he ate onions in the orphanage,” Travis says. “Noah came home so young, he doesn’t remember anything about India. But Elijah can talk about what it was like before he was with us.”

Because Elijah was still fairly young when he arrived home, Belvy hopes that Elijah doesn’t remember some things that many older children in orphanage care feel every day — feelings that they are unloved, unwanted or unworthy.

“Older kids understand and question ‘why does no one want me?’” Belvy says. “So if you are thinking of adopting an older child, I’d say don’t be closed. Give your heart regardless. They need the love. They will still be a normal part of your family.”

“The only difference is the older kids can use their words to express themselves,” Belvy says. “They want to be loved.”

Billie Loewen | Creative Lead

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