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.
So well said by one of my adoptee friends—please take note if you’re interested in adoption:
There seems to be an abundance of adopters/hopeful adopters so enmeshed in getting their own “needs/wants” met.
Adoption should be about the child’s needs FIRST and FOREMOST.
Children just about never have the ability to “opt out” of this process if they don’t like it.
Movies move us.
Movies tell stories. Storytelling is a powerful way engage your audience, to provoke thought, to connect with others.
Movies often involve popcorn, soda and other treats.
Bottom line: movies are fun.
Other bottom line your kids don’t need to know: movies provide the opportunity to craft therapy experiences specific to your child. Often, the best therapy involves realizing others have similar battles to our own.
Let me give you an example of what I mean:
The last few years have been a struggle. I wonder if anyone else thinks the way I do, or if I’m just weird and everyone else is doing fine. Maybe I’m just different from everyone else on the planet, but when life throws a difficult experience in my lap, I feel alone. I feel that no one can understand. I feel different from everyone else on the planet.
Oh, you’ve felt this?
Perhaps I’m not so different. Maybe you’re a kindred spirit. If you’ve experienced a similar difficulty and survived, so can I. We are connected.
When we connect with other individuals—real or imagined—who experience similar hazards or painful crises, we no longer feel isolated. We find community. We find hope.
My aim for Hypervigilant.org is to provide a place where foster and adoptive parents (and their supporting cast members) will find hope, healing and the knowledge that not one of us is alone in the fight to help our children survive and thrive.
As parents, we must find ways to help our children reach hope, healing and community as well—and the best place to start is at home.
Sometimes, this goal feels so far out of reach, it might as well be in outer space. When RAD is in full swing, when kids have screaming tantrums, when your child is continually defiant, when they’ve broken every possible object, when you’re ready to pull your hair out…it’s time to pull out a secret weapon.
FAMILY MOVIE NIGHT!
Break out that popcorn machine (or toss a pack in the microwave). Pour special drinks for the kids (and possibly “extra-special” drinks for the adults). As long as candy doesn’t send them over the edge, buy a couple boxes of “movie candy” at CVS.
Get the kids excited. (But not too excited…we’re looking for positive participation, not chaos…)
And then, play a movie with a theme aimed at their hearts.
While watching, point out key elements.
“Wow, I bet that made him angry.”
“Do you think she’s feeling sad, or just confused?”
“I think maybe he reacted that way because he misses his dog.”
After the movie, spend a few minutes getting the kids involved in conversation. Remember, this is not a full-on therapy session. No need to extend it unless your kiddos become invested in the process.
*Key component: if it’s after bedtime, inform the kids they may stay up “__ minutes more” as long as they’re contributing to the discussion in an active and positive way.
Ask what they thought the character felt during ______ scene. How could the character have reacted differently (either positive or negative) and in what way might that change the story?
Often, asking, “can you think of anyone who might have similar feelings/could have had a similar experience/may understand a character in the movie?” works better than a direct, “does this apply to you?” The way your kids connect to the stories may surprise you; sometimes we think the kids will attach to a certain character, but they relate to another for other reasons.
It’s okay to watch the same movie more than once; investment in characters may change as kids develop. I experienced this myself, watching The Fault in Our Stars. I expected to empathize with the young girl experiencing cancer, since I contend with chronic illness. Instead, the scenes involving her mother made me sob, thinking of how I’d feel if our girl were so sick.
Cinema Therapy, as it’s called in some circles, is gaining ground with professionals (although I doubt insurance providers will pay for movie tickets anytime soon). Especially for kids who have difficulty opening up because they feel no one understands, the right movies can bring healing. For families struggling to connect, Family Movie Night can facilitate finding common ground—even if it’s just a shared love of buttered popcorn.
Next up: Resources for Cinema Therapy at home
I just realized that some of your comments went to spam. Several of you are longtime followers, so I have no idea why it happened.
Sorry about that! I promise, I was NOT ignoring you.
We met with a neurologist a few weeks ago. She ordered an MRI for our boy, to rule out any physical brain issues. The appointment is tomorrow.
I assume we won’t have any answers for several weeks, but at least we are finally getting some traction.
The problem is that you are putting in all the effort to see me and I’m not doing any effort to show you that I want you to visit.
This was my son’s explanation of the main problem in our family relationship during a phone call.
He continued, “when I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, I’m sending the message that I don’t care if you come to see me.”
The kid is smart. He knows what he’s doing.
In the beginning of his residential treatment stay, we visited our son every weekend. However, his behavior escalated and his actions became increasingly violent. We reduced the frequency of visits based on his behavior.
His therapist agreed he needed to have some responsibility in our family connection, unrelated to other behaviors. As part of his therapy, we created a behavior plan which required our son to do a chore and a lesson in a Bible devotional each day in order to earn a visit.
Because our main objective during that time was also to ensure his sister’s safety, deleting the visit was a negative consequence if he had a violent outburst during the week. Assuming he did not assault anyone, we would show up.
Our son agreed to the plan.
The therapist ensured the chore would take fewer than 5 minutes. The devotional page also required about 5 minutes. In order to fulfill his behavior plan, our son needed to put in only 10 minutes of effort each day.
We purposely kept his responsibility simple, to ensure that he would easily be able to attain success. We wanted to show him that when he did what he needed to do, he would get what he wanted.
As the therapist worked with him to prevent thoughts from becoming behaviors, he stopped assaulting other humans. Instead, he began beating on the walls, doors or windows when frustrated. Sometimes he threw or flipped chairs.
He made the mental connection that we were not visiting during times when he had been violent with another person and assumed that we would visit if he didn’t hit someone else.
By this time, though, the behavior plan was in place and he needed to complete those two simple actions in order to have a visit. Instead of complying with the plan, he became angry that we were not visiting even though he had not hit anyone. He refused to complete chores or the devotional.
For weeks, we encouraged him during nightly family calls—as well as during family sessions with the counselor—to complete his plan.
Eventually, he began doing the chores but still refused to do the devotional work. He said he didn’t see a point because he already knows who God is. No amount of reasoning worked.
It became a power struggle and I asked the counselor if we should simply give up, but he agreed that if we did so, our son would simply see us as liars, even though we would be breaking our word in a positive way.
The counselor and I began to wonder if he was simply convinced we wouldn’t visit and was making sure that he was in control of the situation.
I wanted to make sure that he knew we would visit, so the counselor and I came up with a compromise. If our son did not finish seven lessons by Thursday, I would do the rest of them on the phone with him so they would technically be completed.
We were able to get him to do three of the lessons on his own by Thursday. On our evening call, I told him to get the book and completed the last four lessons with him on the phone so that we could make a plan to visit him on Friday.
Last night, I saw my son for the first time in over a month. Waiting until he completed his behavioral plan may seem extreme, but we wanted him to grasp the necessity of putting effort into the relationship. We also wanted him to see that we would immediately reward that effort.
We want him to know that he can trust us to show up. We also need him to grasp that relationships take work.
Last night, we had the best visit we’ve had since his treatment began. He was thrilled to see us and knew that he had completed what was required of him in order to make it happen. He had done his part and we had done ours.
Interactions weren’t perfect, and he was still less than truthful when it came to owning up to behaviors during the week. However, I have never seen him so happy.
I believe he experienced the kind of joy you feel when you know you’ve been responsible and done your part.
We played a couple of card games and spent the rest of the time playing Monopoly. It was the first time we’d ever played the game as a family, mostly because I wasn’t sure he would react well to some aspects of the game.
He amazed me, interacting and trading and paying rent and going to jail without flipping out.
I had a foot-in-mouth moment the third time his sister went “straight to jail without collecting $200.”
“I never expected you to end up in jail a bunch of times; I always thought it would be your brother,” I grinned at her.
Then, horrified, I realized what I’d said and slapped a hand over my mouth.
He cut his eyes at me, then cracked up with a true belly laugh.
He patted my arm. “It’s ok, Mom. Don’t feel bad. That was pretty funny.”
For the first time since October, I think perhaps we are making headway.
I know it’s a long road ahead. Expecting things to be perfect (or even to consistently go well) would be ridiculous.
But for the first time in months, I believe we will be able to have game night in our own living room, together. Not tomorrow, but someday.
I have hope, because last night, for a few hours, we had a Monopoly on Happy.
I just read a blog post from a dad who is committed to making sure he stays connected with his kids. (Click the link; his blog is super.)
His thoughts led me to a few of my own.
We so often focus on getting “quality” time with our kids and doing special things they will remember.
But what do you remember from your childhood? If you have memories of your family doing things together, what is your strongest mental image?
Most of my early memories don’t involve anything elaborate. Many relate to simple things we did each week.
Digging in a sandbox.
Swinging on the backyard set.
Board games on the floor.
We wanted to create similar happy memories with our kids.
When they first came to us, I would have argued that “board games” should just be called “bored.” Or, more accurately, “the quickest way to give yourself a migraine.”
In the beginning, they had zero focus and fought us at every turn (get it…because in games you take a turn…), even when something was supposed to be fun.
However, Hubby and I have fond memories of playing games like Risk and Monopoly, and we’re nothing if not determined. Our kids WILL play games, doggone it.
Brain-numbing (to us) choices like Memory and Guess-Who gave us our first tentative game connections with the kids, and eventually they could make it through a full round of Sorry or Trouble.
Doing puzzles also interested them, although we had to buy puzzles several levels below what you’d expect for their age. As confidence built, the number on the puzzle box rose.
Thanks to my aunts and mom, who often jigsaw when together, the kids saw puzzles as a fun hangout time for adults. This, of course, made the activity more desirable.
Our kiddos recently shocked us by asking for family game night instead of family movie night.
And we played Risk, without any actual casualties.
I call it a win.
We agreed for a little girl to live with us while her parents sorted things.
Dad is in jail, mom was on drugs but is trying to get clean.
She is ten, with thick, frizzy brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Round, sweet face, eyes made owlish by thick glasses with dark purple frames.
She wears a purple puffy jacket, which should be my first clue it’s a dream.
Those went out of style decades ago. Then again, trends cycle. Maybe she’s ahead of the curve.
We meet at a small, family-owned restaurant with a store attached. Evidently this is where she has spent her after-school hours starting back in pre-school. Her babysitter used to work here but is long out of the picture.
“She was such a good little girl” that everyone else agreed to jointly keep an eye on her until her mother sent a ride home or wandered in to pick her up. Someone noticed she wasn’t growing much in kindergarten and they started providing after-school snacks and a hearty dinner. The undernourished waif grew into a hale and healthy ten year old.
The last few months, they’ve been giving her rides home at closing. A light was always on and she had a key, but finally the cook decided to walk her to the door and found mom sprawled on the floor in a drugged stupor.
She called the police, who called social services. Our small town had no other foster homes available. Since the cook claimed to be a distant cousin and had a clean record, they let the child stay with her for 48 hours while the social worker looked for a foster parent.
These people have been her family for six years. None of them are happy to learn I live clear across town.
“You have to bring her back to see us. Come for dinner at least once a week. On the house,” the owner cajoles.
The cook chimes in, “yes, please do,” in a tone I recognize as, “I’m asking nicely but you can expect a consequence if you don’t comply.”
The child has gone back to her small play area in the rear of the store to tidy up. I follow.
As I pack her things into a plastic green suitcase, the social worker calls my cell. Mom entered the rehab program. This may be a very temporary placement.
For their sake, I hope so, but I won’t mind if this sweet girl stays with us longer.
Suddenly I realize we never finalized sleeping arrangements. I guess we’ll put her in the guest room for now. I wonder if our two will be jealous she gets the big bed.
For that matter, how will they all get along? Will a new addition send them into a tail spin?
Should I put her in class with one of them or in one of the other 5th grade classes?
It’s getting late. I haven’t even thought about dinner. I tug her heavy case toward the door, starting to feel overwhelmed. Will she even like us?
I pause by the door, ready to call her name and realize I’ve forgotten it.
The cook gives me a piercing glare.
“What?” I say.
She replies, “nothing,” but I feel her eyes on my back as I turn.
I shake my head, stress washing over me.
What was I thinking, taking this on? I just started a new job. My kids may not respond well and I forgot to tell them about it. Hubby’s out of town for a week. Wait, who is with MY kids? I suddenly can’t remember.
The girl reappears, hugging the staff as she makes her way to me.
“I’m ready,” she tells me, pushing past through the wooden screen door to the country porch.
I follow, panic rising, and stop, face to face with a huge young buck. I eye his antlers, uneasy with the proximity, and glance around for the girl.
He snorts, demanding my attention, and stomps his hoof on the echoing porch floor boards. He touches his nose to mine, huge brown eyes glaring.
I wake, wild-eyed, stressed and panting, nose-to-wet-black-nose with my German Shepherd.
He needs to potty. He snorts and stomps his paw on the bed once more.
I shake my head and let him pull me out of bed.
Thank God, it was a dream.
Later that day, I pull up photo listings on adoptuskids.org, searching for a round, sweet face with owlish eyes.