October 3, 2014, I wrote this letter to my daughter.
Just over three and a half years later, I see some of the predictions blossoming in amazing ways. I never expected to be here so soon.
In our world, here is progress. Back then was awful for all of us. There is the goal for which we strive. We are not yet there, but we are definitely, beautifully here.
In recent weeks, my daughter has begun to grasp a concept beyond her years.
She is not the only child with troubles.
Children (and many adults) have an automatic bent toward self.
To see the plight of others is difficult; when your own crises are blinding, understanding that anyone else might have a similar—or more dire—situation is almost impossible.
I thank God for Henry Ford and his counterparts. As counseling offices go, four wheels and a metal cage traveling at speed is the best. Just buckle up, hold the wheel, push the pedal and wait. If you stay quiet long enough, your child will speak.
As we headed toward the next errand’s destination, she took a breath.
The Foster Care System needs to be fixed.
I’ll admit, staying quiet in this case required all my strength. She was nailing a slat on my favorite soapbox.
“Oh?” I asked, gripping the wheel and praying I’d keep my mouth shut so she’d keep talking.
“Yes. The problem with foster care is they’re doing it all wrong. Lots of kids are having bad experiences. It’s not just me.”
And then she outlined her plan for fixing foster care. Her points are in bold; my thoughts from the foster parent perspective are below each point.
- Foster parents need better training and more preparation.
Hubby and I attended the mandatory training for foster parenting. We also participated in classes with several agencies. I’m a little neurotic about self-learning…our shelves are full of books advocating the magic of “1-2-3” and connecting your child. And yet, we were often caught off-guard. In spite of proactive preparation, the feeling of being inadequate and unsure was a constant companion. Training and prep should include:
- Worst case scenarios – ALL of them – with a list of who to call and ideas to implement in case of emergency
- Where to turn if your (social worker, agency, case manager, etc.) is just plain awful
- Extensive lists of resources in your area
- Mandatory testing of every child for psychological, emotional, physical and educational needs
- Talking points with which to approach the school administration and teachers, new pediatrician/dentist/eye doctor, care workers—basically, anyone who will interact with the child—to help them understand some reactions may be different from the current child population with whom they work
- A list of books with tips that ACTUALLY work, categorized by issue
- Foster parents should be split in two categories: those who want to adopt and those who do not.
I agree with all my heart.
Some individuals foster to serve the children who can return to their biological parents. For them, it is a true ministry to the families who are able to heal and reconnect.
Others are willing to commit their lives long-term to children wounded by circumstances outside their control.
Neither is better than the other. Each meets a need. Needs differ.
- Foster parents who do not want to adopt should get the short term kids who are expected to return home and should never have kids who will not go home.
The ideal situation is the fewest possible placements. If a return home is likely, children should be placed with foster parents committed to a shorter-term process of doing what it takes to reunite a family.
This group of foster parents should receive training specific to the nuances of working with birth parents and the child’s emotional roller coaster during visitation. Education for these foster parents should include ensuring they fully understand that being with the biological family in this case is the best option. They need to be willing to attach to the child, to show a healthy relationship, and to let go when the time comes. Easier written than lived.
Depending on the rules and laws of their region, they should also be willing to continue supportive contact if the birth family allows.
- Foster parents who want to adopt should receive the children who are not ever going back to their biological families.
Families who desire to adopt should only receive children whose parental rights are terminated (or children for whom this process is almost complete).
These parents should receive training for the long term.
Unfortunately, media has created a Cinderella fairy tale regarding adoption. Most adoption movies end with (if not “happily ever after”) at the least, “beautiful resolution to current issues and a happy beginning with an optimistic eye to the future.”
Martian Child is probably my favorite adoption movie because it highlights so many of the real issues.
However, the true angst experienced by any participant in a similar situation is not communicated (a feat perhaps no movie can accomplish). The overall feeling of the movie is warmhearted, rock-solid commitment to a strange and adorable boy, but I’ve lived some of those scenes. They aren’t heart-warming in real life—for the adults OR for the kids.
My stomach twists when I read articles like “Parents Adopted 15 Children, All Now Grown and Thriving,” or, “Woman Fostered 55 Children in Last 20 Years.” These articles rarely discuss the confusing, heart-rending and sometimes terrifying interactions the children and adults almost certainly experienced.
Even organizations like Focus on the Family, which highlighted Reactive Attachment Disorder years before I heard about it anywhere else, often gloss and blur years of difficulty in articles about adoption.
Foster parents willing to become adoptive parents should go to boot camp. ACTUAL boot camp for adoptive parents. If they can’t take a week off work for an intensive online training, they have no business signing up to commit the rest of their lives. Of course, there’s a chance the child might have zero issues and it’s a Pollyanna life. More likely, you’ll be play-acting Pollyanna tactics to minimize negative behaviors (this would be a session at Casey’s Boot Camp).
Adoption is difficult for the adults AND for the kids. Adoption is long-term. Adoption is a roller coaster. Sometimes you think you’ve made it out of the woods (as we did during Summer 2016) and then you find yourself admitting a child to residential care to keep him alive (Fall 2017). Adoption is FOREVER. If every foster-to-adoptive parent is provided understanding and education, we will have fewer disruptions and more success.
- Foster parents should sign a paper committing to 2 years, whether they are willing to adopt or not.
Foster care is not forever—and was never meant to be.
HOWEVER. Regardless of the intent to return children home, foster parents should be willing to provide care for children long term, with a minimum two year commitment. Moving children from foster home to foster home is damaging.
Even in a foster-only situation, delays (sometimes, but not always involving the birth family) can lengthen a stay. Friends of ours started a six-week foster stint…a year and a half ago.
My daughter came up with the time frame. She said that the first year, kids are out of their minds with confusion and terror. It takes a long time to feel okay. The first half of the second year, they begin to seriously test boundaries, wondering, “will these people really stay committed?”
She feels most children will settle in, feeling comfortable and safe, around the two-year mark from the time they understand they’ll be adopted.
From the time ours understood the adoption, it took about three years for them to really relax, but I believe our longer timeline stems from living with complete uncertainty. Technically, that “somewhat relaxed” time was closer to the five-year mark, but counting the time we fostered them probably isn’t fair, since they didn’t know they were being adopted (and the social worker wouldn’t let us tell them).
For those of you who’ve adopted, would you agree with her two-year timeline?
“Settling in” doesn’t mean things are roses. It means they UNDERSTAND and BELIEVE their adoptive parents are committed and will never abandon them. Even our son, in residential care, knows (and communicates to his therapist) that we will never give up on him.
So, there you have it. I think we’ll call it,
Casey and Kid’s Formula for Fixing Foster Care.
We’d love to hear your ideas, especially if you’ve lived through this as a child in foster care, an adopted child, an adoptive or foster parent, birth parent or other individual involved in the process. Even if you haven’t been a part of the foster or adoption process, if you’ve got a great idea, please share.
Chime in below.
I’ve written an adoptive version of the alphabet song. Sing with me, now: O-C-D-P-T-S-D, A-D-D-M-R-ADHD. F A S, R A D, got a new I E P, now it’s time for therapy, next time won’t you come with me?
Our kids came with baggage, and each tote is packed with letters.
Our son has such severe ADHD that initially, several different therapists thought he was on the Autism spectrum, on the Asperger’s end. His PTSD caused night terrors, inability to sleep and unwillingness to leave me. His main concern: that Hubby and I, like all other adults who previously claimed to love him, would disappear.
Our girl also has PTSD and ADHD. Her hallmark, though, is RAD, or Reactive Attachment Disorder. RAD can occur when a child is denied early bonding experience with a caregiver. Children with RAD often fail to thrive, aim direct defiance at main caregivers, are awkward in social interaction and form very quick and superficial attachments to peripheral caregivers (teachers, Sunday School teachers, counselors). They may also act inappropriately close with acquaintances and strangers. The benefit to this disorder: she will never, ever, ever EVER be anything but an angel in public. Her number one goal, with almost pathological precision, is to be seen as “sweet.” I know this because she told me. The drawback: she has a love-hate relationship with anyone called “Mama.”
RAD has colored our relationship from the very beginning. She called Hubby “Daddy” almost immediately, but made a point of not calling me anything at all. Once, I reprimanded her and she said nastily, “You’re not my real mom.” I was actually prepared for that one, so while the disrespect was unattractive, the actual statement wasn’t a big deal. I wanted to say, “Wow, that’s the best you can come up with? Every adopted kid says that. Come on, I know you can find a more creative insult!” But, since she was seven at the time, snarky comments just weren’t appropriate. Lately, she’s been very obviously doing the exact opposite of everything I say. In general, if Hubby, her teacher, her coach, her therapist, or even a total stranger gives her a directive, she obeys with little push-back. If I, on the other hand, ask her to do something, she uses one of the following tactics:
1. Ignores me completely.
2. Does the polar opposite.
3. Completes the task as slowly as humanly possible.
She watches to see if I’ve noticed, which our in-home counselor pointed out. “She (does whatever it is) and then looks at you from the corner of her eye to gauge your reaction.” Since she mentioned this, it’s become something of a game. I pretend not to notice, because any attention to the bad behavior makes it exponentially worse, but I’m actually watching her watch me. The “game” makes things a little more bearable…she thinks she’s sly, and it’s actually pretty funny sometimes. It’s also a little heartbreaking.
Parenting a RAD child is exhausting. Talking with Hubby this evening, I noted that her mama-targeted disobedience is getting really, really annoying, but assured him that I’m not taking it personally. His response: “If you’re annoyed, you’re taking it personally.” As usual, he sees and understands. I should just be honest. Sometimes, I just want her to give me a break.
Earlier today, I picked up Thriving Family, a free magazine sent by Focus on the Family. The words, “Why Don’t You Love Me Back? Understanding why some adopted kids reject Mom…” leaped out at me. The article, by Paula Freeman, notes that what I’m feeling isn’t uncommon among adoptive mothers. In an effort to avoid more hurt, adopted children who have experienced a rift or loss of their birth mother may reject anyone in the Mama role. “The thought of losing another mother is simply too much to bear. Thus Mom becomes the target of her child’s rejection because she is the greatest emotional threat.”
Maybe it’s time for a mental shift. This kid isn’t going out of her way to make my life miserable; she’s keeping me at a distance (likely subconsciously) to guard her heart from being broken again. I need to find ways to connect with her (she’s girly, so…painting nails, window shopping, making crafts) and reinforce that THIS Mama isn’t going anywhere. Where she is, mentally and psychologically, happened over the course of seven years. Expecting her to be “fixed” in a few short months is ridiculous bordering on insanity. It’s going to take a lot of time, and about six tons of patience.
And eventually, hopefully, our girl will no longer be defined by RAD. Unless, of course, it’s the 1980’s definition.
I just read a really cool article by Jeff Haden: 10 Daily Habits of Exceptionally Happy People. http://www.inc.com/ss/jeff-haden/10-daily-habits-exceptionally-happy-people#0
For adoptive families, many of his points will resonate. I borrowed nine. (Used with permission.)
Granted, there are times the descriptors “Exceptionally Stressed” or “Exceptionally Insane” more accurately correspond with our circumstances, but being joyful is a decision and a mindset. (Think of the terminally ill patient who ultimately inspires those who come to encourage her.) Life isn’t a breeze, but we can be Exceptionally Happy. Read on:
1. “I will not interrupt.”
It’s easy to assume that we know what the kid is going to say. (Especially when she uses the same excuse every time…what IS it with ten year olds?) Something to remember, though: interrupting is more than assumption. It’s more than rude. It’s a message. “What you have to say isn’t important.” For an adopted or foster child, this is confirming something deeper, something they think they already know: “YOU aren’t important.” Listen to your kid; prove their worth.
2. “I will not check my phone while I’m talking to someone.”
We, as an aggregate, have phone-ilepsy. Someone else’s phone rings and we all reach for our own. By the time we realize “it’s not my ring,” the phone is already in hand. We check our phone for the time. We check to see if anyone has returned our texts, calls or emails. It’s understandable, when the child is chattering endlessly, that we multitask. The topic seems unimportant, and the kid doesn’t even notice that we’re not paying attention. Or so we assume. “I’m listening, honey. Keep talking.” Give them credit for being perceptive; they’re more cognizant than we think. Put the phone down. (Of course, if you have an endless talker stuck on “loop” setting, it’s absolutely reasonable to tell the child, “You have five minutes of my undivided attention, but after this, I need to work on something.”)
3. “I will not multitask during a meeting.”
See above. We just covered this. Teachers and social workers have feelings, too.
4. “I will not waste time on people who make no difference in my life.”
Newsflash: the Jersey Shore guys and gals don’t give a flyin’ flip whether you’re tuned in to watch them flex and posture. Shockingly, neither does Alex Trebek (even though he’s everybody’s favorite host). Spend less time watching, discussing and thinking about the people who have no idea you were conceived in the back of your parents’ 1957 Fairlane. Focus on the family, friends and supporters who play starring roles in the Not-So-Secret Life of an American Adoptive Family.
5. “I will not wait until I’m convinced I will succeed.”
This one tickles me a little, because it applies so well to who I am in general (a confirmed non-risk-taker). However, adoption is pretty much ALL risk. There has never been a time when I considered adoption “success” a foregone conclusion. It’s a good reminder, nonetheless, to take the step, face the uncertainty, make the commitment. In adoption, there is no assurance of future triumph, but every moment is an opportunity to affect change in the life of a child. Carpe this moment.
6. “I will not whine.”
There is soooooooooooooo much to justifiably whine about. Ghastly social workers. Horrendous former foster families. Appalling biological parents. The “system” (every foster/adoptive family understands this term). Government program inadequacies. Whomever neglected the academic, social, emotional, physical, mental, psychological, EVERYTHING-ical well-being of this child. And, of course, sometimes the kid himself is something to whine about. Think for a moment about the following synonyms: Gripe. Moan. Grouse. Grumble. Complain. Snivel. Do any of these words give you warm fuzzies? Neither does the act these words describe. The more you (grouse, gripe, grumble), the worse you feel. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Just Do It.” In this case, Just Don’t.
7. “I will not be afraid.”
The wisest individual once said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Often, we’re oblivious of allowing fear to worm it’s way into our lives. Fear is a habit: unbelievably easy to overlook and incredibly difficult to combat. When the fear creeps in, call a friend or contact a fellow adoptive family member. Some of us have already lived through the fire. We might be able to point you in the direction of an extinguisher or emergency exit. Bravery is a daily (and sometimes hourly) decision. Choose to be strong and courageous. You are not alone.
8. “I will not blame other people – for anything.”
Again. Sooooooooooooo many people to blame. And again, legitimately, justifiably so. The above mentioned Ghastlies, Appallings and Horrendouses caused much of the pain as well as many of the issues we’re trying to help these kids unravel. No thanks to these people, our kids have stinky, unpleasant, and in some cases, gruesome baggage to unpack. Things that no child should have in their personal carry-on. All the same, by caving to the habit of blame, we handicap ourselves. Blaming others gives them influence they don’t deserve. We begin to feel inadequate, ineffectual, overwhelmed. Don’t bestow power on those who have no claim to it. Take responsibility for the future. Which brings me to the next point…
9. “I will not let the past control my future.”
The first two years of our lives together, the kids spoke incessantly of prior families, both biological and foster. We allowed–and even encouraged–the verbal deluge, hoping they would “get it out” and then move on. Actually, the opposite became true. The more they reminisced, the angrier they became. Predictions of failure spoken over them (by adults who should have provided support) ripened. Finally, we proclaimed our home a Present-and-Future-Only-Zone. Go ahead. Tell the counselors about every bit of the garbage all those crazies put you through. But in this house, we’re going to focus on the amazing person you are today. We’re setting our sights on the fascinating individual you will be in two, five, ten years. Yep, they dealt you a really nasty hand, but we’re going to help you make it to Uno. And you’re going to win this game.
Working toward Exceptional Happiness takes time, especially if you’re discouraged. (“The good news: I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news: It might be a train.”)
The better news: adoptive families are already Exceptional, so you’re halfway there.