Tough Stuff You Need to Know

The path to parenthood can take many forms, and here in the UAE, international adoption is an option that has led to the formation of many families.

While not possible within the UAE itself, adoptions that have taken place outside of the UAE are recognised, meaning expats can work with the processes and laws of the country that the child they are adopting is from and then return to the UAE to live as a family. The list of countries where UAE expats can adopt a child from is short (and ever changing) due to the complexities of living as an expat in a country that has not signed up to the HCCH 1993 Adoption Convention.

We spoke to parents in the UAE’s adoption community about their experiences and reflections. We found that many were eager to inform us while they are overwhelmingly happy that they adopted their children, it is by no means a smooth or easy path and parenting an adopted child requires considerable resilience, research and above all, awareness of the needs that adopted children often have. Below are the important areas of understanding that they told us they wish they’d been more informed on when adopting their children.

Adopted Children Have Experienced Trauma

While not usually part of the Hollywood fairy tale version of adoption stories, understanding trauma is the number one area that parents told us they would have benefitted from being better informed about before adopting. A fact often overlooked is that adoption begins with loss for the child, and even very young infants have experienced trauma in that initial separation (many have experienced further trauma also). There is a common misconception that pre-verbal infants and babies, who will not remember this separation, will be unaffected by this, when the reality is quite the opposite.

Dr Catherine Frogley, Clinical Psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia, told us:

“Adopted children are likely to have experienced a number of negative and potentially frightening early life events. This includes the loss of at least one primary caregiver and often more. They may also have experienced abuse, neglect and other traumatic events whilst in the care of their biological parents prior to adoption and/or whilst in orphanage settings.

When children experience early loss, separation, abuse or neglect, their brain development is affected in significant ways. They often experience what is known as Developmental Trauma, which means that normal development is affected and they cannot behave, feel, relate and learn like other children their age. Research tells us that the age of the child when the trauma(s) occurred impacts the impact on their later well-being. Adversity, stress and loss in the first 8 weeks of a baby’s life has the most influence on their later well-being.

Dr Fogley provided the following advice for parents of children who have been adopted:

“A key challenge for traumatised children is that when they move into a safe environment, their survival responses do not simply turn off. Therefore, the child may continue to be in “survival mode” and thus small, everyday things (a slightly raised voice) signal danger and prompt a big reaction. As such, parenting a traumatised child will require a therapeutic parenting style which uses a trauma-informed and attached-based approach which is different to typical parenting styles.”

Racial Identity and Representation Matters

Parents within the UAE’s adoption community told us that this topic was often a sensitive one to discuss, but an important one to understand. For any child, growing up belonging to a minority within a community can be hard, but for transracial adoptees these feelings of being different are present at home too, where they do not have the racial mirrors in their parents that other children will have. While many expat families in the UAE live in exceptionally diverse communities, there is often still a tendency to associate with those of a similar background, but parents seeking out comfort from being around people they can easily relate can result in their adopted child having a very different experience.

Parents of a child of a different culture and ethnicity to themselves have a responsibility to support their child in defining themselves according to their own culture and ethnicity while also bringing them into their family’s existing culture. An adopted child’s developing identity is dependent on how their family approaches this and the opportunities they are given to experience and understand this part of themselves. Ignoring these differences can be highly problematic for children as they grow up and develop their sense of self.

Adult transracial adoptee, Kassaye Macdonald, wrote on this:

“They [transracial adoptees] need mentors from their racial and cultural community in their lives. They need to be going to diverse schools, living in diverse neighbors. They should not be the only child [of their minority group] in their classroom”

Parents who have adopted children of a race different to their own told us that it is important to seek out diverse schools and nurseries, as well as key professionals of the same ethnicity as the child, such as teachers, doctors, hairdressers/barbers, nannies . Ideally, parents of adopted children will already be part of diverse social circles.

Being Mindful of Ethics and Privilege

Some international adoptions can happen very quickly, but as parents of adopted children told us, this doesn’t mean that you have to move ahead at lightening pace. The potential adoptive parents are in a position of power and privilege when dealing with countries facing poverty, and with that, they have a responsibility to ensure what they’re doing is in the best interest of the child.

Adoptive parents told us that it is important to investigate the child’s situation, to really find out if there is a chance that the child could stay with a biological family member instead of being adopted. They advised that individuals involved in the process, such as social workers and lawyers, should not be expected to entirely assess this for you, and that having this expectation is unrealistic. Instead, they advised, ask difficult questions where there are ethical considerations, seek proof where there are doubts and if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

The Child’s Biological Family is a Part of Them

Several parents of adopted children told us of their discomfort in meeting their child’s biological family members. Some had avoided this, some had not had the opportunity, while others had faced the music and tried to connect with them to learn and understand as much as possible.

For families adopting while living in the UAE, children are usually adopted from countries facing extreme poverty, which brings with it poor health care, low life expectancy, malnutrition, safety concerns and a range of other extreme difficulties. Children are placed for prospective adoption for a variety of reasons, none of which are easy to comprehend, particularly when adoptive adoptive parents have never experienced such conditions. All of this, as well as the difficulty in facing another person’s pain, can make some adoptive parents shy away.

When we spoke to adoptive parents, the common sentiment here was that they wished they’d done more to gather as much information as possible for their child at the time the adoption was taking place. The often scant information they have about their child’s biological family, and how they came to be adopted, later becomes what the child has to form their own narrative, shaping their identity. Unfortunately, gathering this information many years later can prove extremely difficult.

Knowing and Experiencing the Culture and Community

Similarly, adoptive parents told us that they wished they’d spent more time getting to know their child’s culture and community better before adopting. During an international adoption process, visits to the child’s country are required for court hearings and eventually collecting the child, however it is common for these visits to be short, with these set goals in mind.

Those experiences of the child’s country are what can shape the adoptive parents’ feelings about it and may be what they pass on to the child, whether intentionally or not. A flying visit, with multiple flights, uncomfortable hotels and challenging bureaucracy is unlikely to create any feelings of warmth for a place or its people.

Adoptive parents we spoke to suggested making multiple trips, taking time to get to know the country as much as possible, bringing home physical memories, taking photographs, building friendships and going back later to visit with the child.

UAE Residence Visas for Adopted Children

Once an adoption has been finalised, the child must then be able to return with their new family to the UAE and have permission to stay. In some cases, processing residence visas for adopted children has reportedly been fairly straight forward, while in other cases it has been far from simple. As with many things, the same rules do not apply for all and the visa process for adopted children in Dubai differs significantly to in Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates, with families generally reporting a much smoother experience in Dubai.

Single mothers of adopted children also reported facing additional challenges in the visa process, but those sharing their experiences stated that they were able to process their child’s residency visa at the end.

As these rules, requirements and processes can change very quickly, it is important that prospective adoptive parents seek out the latest information within the emirate they live before proceeding with this. While many children will initially be brought into the country on a visit visa (with adoption paperwork being screened at immigration), any delay in receiving their residency visa will also mean a delay in receiving medical insurance. For children who have been living in extreme poverty, and have undergone the hugely traumatic event of leaving their home country and all that they know, health issues are highly likely, making this particularly problematic.

Citizenship from the Parents’ Home Country

Parents of adopted children in the UAE told us that this process varies enormously from country to country and in some cases, may not be possible at all. With some countries, such as Poland and Spain, families had reported a relatively straight forward process, but with others, it can be a lengthy and expensive ordeal. The UK, for example, requires the child to be ‘re-adopted’ according to the UK’s internal standards and processes, involving assessment from social workers on the suitability of the parents to adopt as well as a formal court hearing. The country that citizenship is being sought from will also consider the country the child has been adopted from. The process, and the likelihood of success, will be dependent on this also.

With few guarantees on this front, it is vital that couples or individuals considering adopting receive legal advice from their home countries, and have a Plan B in place if moving forward.

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