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The roots of the problem

Adoption advocates say family trees don't work for all kids. Family orchard, anyone?

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / March 31, 2009
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Garrett Mack was 4 months old when he was adopted from Korea, 2 years old when he became a US citizen, and 8 years old when those two facts collided with such force that he stopped wanting to go to school.

A teacher launched a classroom discussion of family backgrounds, focusing on "bloodlines" that extend from parent to child, then assigned a "family-tree project" to Garrett and his classmates. Garrett struggled with it, at one point writing plaintively "I am an American" on the lower right of the form. A few days later, his mother, Pamela Mack, noticed he had erased those words.

"Garrett, why did you erase this?" she asked her son. On the verge of tears, he replied: "I'm not American, and I'm not Korean, and I don't want to be Garrett anymore." Recalls Pamela Mack: "He was basically saying, 'I don't know what I am so I don't want to be anything.' It broke my heart."

The family tree project, the bring-in-your-baby-pictures assignment, and the mini-autobiography project - all staples of the elementary school curriculum - are well-meaning attempts to get children to consider their family history and life story. But such projects can be emotionally loaded for adopted children and other children of nontraditional families.

"They should keep in mind that some adopted kids don't know their [birth] family, and try to come up with ways that they can do their project without having to feel bad that they don't know their family," says Ruby Cheresnowsky, 10, of Salem, an adopted child from Guatemala. "They should keep in mind that some of this stuff might be private and confidential. Some adopted kids might not want to share their parents' background."

Family-tree projects are typically assigned from kindergarten to fourth grade, though they can also surface in higher grades as students begin to study genetics. Typically, students are asked to create a tree depicting the genealogy of their families, from grandparents to parents to aunts and uncles to siblings.

Some adoption advocates say that such projects can suggest to kids that their own family situation is "not normal," or prompt them to ask themselves why their birth parents chose not to raise them, or why they know so little about their own background. As for baby pictures, many adopted children do not have them, especially if they were adopted as toddlers or beyond. And if they are asked to write their life story, it may awaken painful memories of abuse, neglect, or dislocation, or there may be certain chapters they just don't know.

All in all, some advocates argue, such projects can pose painful dilemmas or raise questions about identity to youngsters at an age when they are ill equipped to handle them.

"That old family tree with a mom and a dad, it doesn't work for a lot of children, including adopted children," says Renee Lubowich, a social worker at the Needham-based Alliance for Children, who works with adoptive families and says such school projects are a recurring concern.

Adds Amy S. Cohen, executive director of Adoptions With Love Inc., a Newton-based adoption agency: "You have all sorts of blended families, stepfamilies, families with two fathers or two mothers, or just single-parent families. That's where the school systems are a little behind. These older curriculums and lesson plans don't always fit in with the realities of what families are today."

Some adoptive parents say such assignments are no big deal and that adopted children can simply populate the family tree with members of their "forever family" - their adoptive family. "There are ways to deal with it without parents getting all up in arms," says Bridget Smyser of Needham, the adoptive mother of two boys from Guatemala. "I really don't think your child is going to be traumatized for life just because their story is different from the perceived norm."

Joan Lefler Clark, former director of the Adoption Community of New England, is among those who are stepping up efforts to sensitize teachers and school administrators on the issue. Clark faced a roomful of elementary school teachers in Pembroke one recent afternoon and asked: "Why are you doing the family-tree project? If you can't come up with a reason, I have to question why you're doing it."

"There are better ways for a child to introduce themselves than with a family tree," Clark said in an interview. "It's problematic for a lot of kids. For adopted kids, there's the issue of which family do they put on there: the birth family or the adoptive family?" Making this quandary more acute is the large increase in "open" adoptions, wherein adoptive families, including the child and his adoptive parents, maintain contact with the birth parents.

Heidi Guarino, chief of staff of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the department does not issue guidelines to schools on such classroom projects but relies on administrators and teachers in individual school districts to adapt their curriculum in a way that fits their student bodies. She said adoptive parents need to let schools know if a certain assignment will raise complications for their children.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said common sense can allay most problems. "School districts are well aware of the variety of different ways children are raised today, and they try to be respectful of that," he said.

Yet some parents and experts say that many adopted children feel put on the spot, caught between the desire to fit in with their classmates and please their teachers on the one hand, and to protect their privacy on the other. Moreover, many children do not want to be defined by the single fact that they are adopted.

To avoid the complications of a family tree, some adoption advocates who conduct workshops in schools suggest that teachers employ the concept of an orchard instead. During her visit to Pembroke, Clark suggested that teachers try the motif of a house. The child can write names in each room of the house, and then draw paths leading from the house to other people or places special to him or her.

Many teachers are already sensitized to the ramifications of family-tree projects. Rita Cheresnowsky, Ruby's adoptive mother, got a call several years ago from Ruby's second-grade teacher, who was about to assign a family-tree project. "She wanted my input," Cheresnowsky said. "She said, 'This may be something a little difficult and challenging for your child.' "

Cheresnowsky suggested that the class be given three choices: a river, a garden, or the traditional tree. Ruby drew a river with tributaries feeding into it. The tributaries included Cheresnowsky as well as Ruby's birth mother, the foster mother who cared for her in Guatemala, her child-care provider, her kindergarten teacher, and Cheresnowsky's parents and brothers.

"A tree is just based on your family and your ancestors and stuff," Ruby said. "But the river shows the people who came into my life. It's a better way of showing your family. You can put more in that river than you could in a tree."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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