• Mary Kalbach

The Dismantling of a Non-Profit - A Bird’s Eye View of Traumatized Adoptive Family Systems


Five years ago I began to conceive of a non-profit organization that would serve families who had adopted kids with hard behaviors and needed help finding resources to guide them. Over the next two years, I prayed, I visualized, wrote on my bathroom walls, and slowly the vision began to come together.


I envisioned a long-term work that over a span of the next ten years would build a one-of-a -kind database of resources for these families to tap into. It would provide case management for difficult cases in need of residential treatment, help navigating insurance companies or any other need that arose.  The organization had plans for residential homes for adult adoptees who weren’t thriving on their own and needed help nobody else was providing.


It was an ambitious vision, but somehow I had the energy to begin to put it into practice, even as we were struggling to find a group home for our own daughter who could no longer cope with family life. 


A small handful of people came alongside me. They caught the vision and wanted to help. They formed the core of board of directors, contributed financially, and helped bring the Adoption Community Resource Foundation to life. Together we created something amazing - something none of us had ever had in our walks in the minefield that is childhood trauma and fetal exposure to alcohol. 


We created a framework for the database.  We served a small group of families in case management, and we even came up with an innovative way for families to report the never-ending parade of frustrating behaviors to their family practitioners. It was shaping up to be a revolutionary solution for impossible problems. 


And then it fell apart. One by one the people around me simply walked away. People who rose up to take their places appeared for a moment and then disappeared as well.


They ghosted.


They stopped showing up for the work and the discussions and I found myself standing alone in the middle of a promise without a rainbow. Right back to the start of this project where I felt alone, abandoned and in the midst of an impossible mission. 


I have spent the past few weeks preparing to pass this work on to another non-profit organization who plans to pick up where we left off on the work of building a database of helpers for post-adoption families. I am extremely grateful to have hands to pass this on to. 


However, the dismantling of this vision has been about far more than moving emails to safe places and files to new folders and shutting down bank accounts and website pages. It has been about asking

What happened?

Where did the helpers go?

Why am I alone in this again?


In the trauma world we occasionally talk about resilience in children. We don’t really know what makes one child with childhood trauma “make it” and another one not. We have some vague ideas about mentorship and types of therapies that work better than others but in the end it’s not much to go on. 


What we never talk about is the resiliency of caregivers. How do some caregivers come out of these battles still intact and ready to help others and why do some simply shrink away the longer the problems persist? 


To be fair I might need to describe some of the problems we are talking about here. If you haven’t raised a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder or a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or a child who has experienced death, drug use, and all types of abuse in early childhood, you may not understand what the big deal is. 


  • You may not have ever had a child go into a rage so severe it left holes in your walls, doors off the hinges and belongings shattered on the floor….several times a week or a month. 

  • You may not have experienced a 6 year old with so much anger inside they scream obscenities and routinely blame their scary feelings on you. 

  • You may not have had to keep vigil every single night because your 12 year old will inappropriately touch your 4 year old or kill your family pet if you don’t. 

  • And even if your child doesn’t have all these big, scary behaviors, you probably still might not understand what it’s like to walk on eggshells around your child because the angry tension and energy they bring into a room every time they walk by makes a peaceful household an impossibility. 

  • You might not have taken a non-compliant child to dozens of doctors, all of whom leave you feeling belittled and blamed for your child’s behavior - if they believed you at all. 

  • And you might not have bankrupted your family or churned through your husband’s 401K to find help that never came.

These people who ghosted on this project - these are just some of the things they’ve lived through.


It’s not their fault and it’s certainly not their child’s fault. And yet, neither the agencies who place these children in a whirlwind of lies and misinformation, nor the health care system designed to treat our population, is willing to take responsibility. And these are the same things for which we were trying to cobble together a solution.


There were many more adoptive parents I talked to about joining us in this work who couldn’t even find the energy to reply and certainly couldn’t stand up long enough in the fray to help others. 

Therapeutic parents are walking wounded with wounds that nobody sees except those also walking the same path. Many of us can’t do this anymore.


We have no resiliency.


And if we do survive, the first thing we are energized to do is build a new promise for ourselves and our families - not enter back in to the fray to pull others out. Because doing that may suck us back in and nobody goes there willingly.


Every day I read dozens of stories inside support groups of parents who are just barely hanging on. There are a few bright lights shining and encouraging others to find new ways to parent, new energy to support self-care, and even strong actions that need to be taken in order to be heard. But the people who need it most, are too tired, too scared and frustrated and angry and distrustful to hear it. These are the people we tried to serve.


I have one adoptive mom friend who routinely asks me how I can still be standing tall enough to reach out and help others. Her story is particularly compelling in its pitfalls and tragedies - much more so than my own.


I believe the key is radical self-care. There was a point in our parenting where I decided my family was going to live as normal a life as possible. The history and behaviors of our adopted children would NOT rule the roost. And we made really hard decisions and did really hard things in order to get to the fun-loving, happy, tightly-knit family we have now. 


It started with me - deciding to say no to the angry person I had become in the face of our children’s hurt. Our family has spent tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on therapy and most of that was for me and my husband. We worked on us and stopped trying to change our children. We recognized that if our children were changing the energy of our household with their fear and their anger, that perhaps we could change it back by mirroring hope and trust and kindness for them. And it worked.


But what worked for us didn't heal enough of  the community of therapeutic parents to keep the ACR Foundation afloat.  There aren't enough of us still standing on solid enough ground to reach out to others and throw out a life raft - because trauma begets trauma, which begets hopelessness, fear, and burn out.


In my personal trauma recovery coaching practice what I want people to understand the most is that you don’t have to live like this. Resiliency can come. Healing can come. Strength to pull others out of the fray without being sucked back in yourself can be developed. And I for one am still standing firm ready to collaborate with you on your own journey!

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