When children must live apart from their family of origin, whether in foster care or adoption, they need to master the telling of who they are and how they came to be living apart from their families. Placement workers, beset by the complexities of locating willing substitute families, grappling with the logistics of moving child and belongings intact to a new family, faced with a veritable blizzard of paperwork to approve and finance the plan, may overlook this problem. Before the dust has barely settled, the child will be called upon to explain his person, his presence, and his history to along list of inquirers. New neighbors, teachers, playmates and acquaintances will ask questions about him and his status. Sometimes the questions will be casually asked; sometimes he will be grilled like a suspect. The child left to fend for himself in these circumstances is usually forced to say too much or too little. Sometimes he "embroiders" the truth and gains a reputation as a liar. Sometimes he volunteers lurid details and becomes an instant, exotic attraction.
An experienced placement workers knows this in advance and equips the child with a cover story. (Please note – a cover story, not a cover-up story! In the business world the cover letter is a generally-phrased, all-purpose letter used to summarize more elaborate information provided elsewhere.) In placement, the child can easily learn that his cover story, his short version of who he is, is an appropriate response when people ask him leading questions like: "…just where did you come from? …how come you don’t live with your folks? …but who are you?" Without help in preparing the answers, the child flounders. With help, he can respond confidently, truthfully and yet avoid trapping himself into betraying private matters.
The easiest way to prepare a cover story with a child is to imagine the potential questions, review what is appropriate information to share, and role play questions and answers. This technique works with children of all ages al long as they have basic language skills, and can learn appropriate social responses. Preschoolers, teenagers, retarded children even disturbed children can all benefit from such help, as can the families caring for them. To provide the new family with background or current functioning information on a child to be placed and then leave the questions of appropriate handling of that information entirely to their good judgment is foolish. Excitement, surprise, or sheer foolhardiness can lead families in sharing intimate information about a child with people who have no business knowing these things. Placement families must always be warned about that impulsive phone call to a best friend or close family member. The simple trigger of a question like "Well? Tell me what the worker told you about him!" can result in confidences shared which can never be retracted. The child is tripped and betrayed even before placement.
It becomes the job of the placement worker to help the child and his new family anticipate the difficulties and organize a three-step defense:
Imagine the potential questions. Actually make a list of the various possibilities and the persons who may ask the questions. This helps the child and family see the relevance of an abbreviated version of the story. In the excitement and the fantasy surrounding the placement scenario, the everyday facts of living and forming new relationships may not loom large until it is too late and the child or family may be caught unaware and without defenses.
Imagine introducing the child to your neighbor
Envision the first day of school and the questions asked by classmates and teacher
Picture the first family gathering and the remarks made by new grandparents, cousins, uncles etc.
Consider the first day in the new neighborhood, playing with children who are understandably curious about the new child
Review the appropriate information to be shared. Children often have trouble understanding the right to privacy. They need help to understand that not all people are entitled to detailed answers to all questions. They need help from adults to distinguish between what is known and what is shared. This is a good opportunity to help children learn how to be truthful but appropriate in gibing answers to personal questions. It also protects them from disclosing information which might later be embarrassing to them or used against them in destructive or hostile ways. Simple declaratory sentences are best: "..my name is Tony Johnson… I used to live in Cleveland… I’m gonna live here because my folks have problems… I hafta live here until things get better at home.. I’m being adopted… I got adopted because I couldn’t live with my other family anymore…"
Three basic responses are those most often needed:
The child’s name (be consistent; use his legal name so he can make the same response at all times; using one name at home and another in school can be very difficult for the child)
The child’s origin (offer the basics only; most people who ask where the child comes from are satisfied with the name of the state or town; more detail is not necessary; children can be taught to deflect more probing by responding with a question of their own: "… and where are you from?")
The whereabouts or general circumstances of the child’s biological family (the implication is usually clear; the questioner wants to know why the child is not with them; children can answer briefly and truthfully without providing details; if the questioner is persistent, the child should be comfortable in ending the conversation: "…that’s family business… I have to go now … my family would have to answer that…")
Role play the questions and answers. Be sure the child knows the tree most common concerns (as above) and can comfortably respond to questions about them. The family should be able to respond in accord with the child. A placement worker has a good opportunity to show the child and family they can cope with a new situation with confidence. Everyone feels more competent. They can share an essential social task in anticipating, analyzing and solving a real life problem. By acting out the possible questions and answers together, they come to grips with a current problem and learn more about each other. They develop a sense of unity. They "put a little more money in the bank account", meaning they accumulate some shared feelings to draw on later when difficulties arise between them. They may even see this as one good way to solve other problems. Every child entering a new living situation needs this preparation. When it is a simple matter of a family moving to a new home, the answers to a direct question come easily. When the child moves because of family distress, the answers become more troublesome. Most children are not prepared to deal with the natural curiosity of children and adults they will meet. It becomes the responsibility of the placement worker to help the child and his new family respond to the situation, land the methods used can promote stronger ties between child and family and point the way toward resolving yet other problems.