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Foster Care Reform (a Discussion with My Daughter)

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.”

“How so?”

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:

  1. Worst case scenarios – ALL of them – with a list of who to call and ideas to implement in case of emergency
  2. Where to turn if your (social worker, agency, case manager, etc.) is just plain awful
  3. Extensive lists of resources in your area
  4. Mandatory testing of every child for psychological, emotional, physical and educational needs
  5. 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
  6. 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.

 

 

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Adopting? Keep This in Mind.

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.

 

 

 

Let’s All Go to the Movies

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

 

 

 

 

WHOOPS!!

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.

XO Casey

The Dream

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.

#share4adoption

Once again, Wendy’s and the super-fabulous Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption are raising money to help kids stuck in foster care.

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Photo Casey Alexander

Grab a drink, show some heart (with your hand!) and post a pic tagged with #share4adoption. Wendy’s will donate five bucks every time. SWEET.

 

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Photo Casey Alexander

 

“What can I get you?”

Pressed from Rainorshineblogger.com …you should stop by. I love this one:

 

********

So this week we had to choose our criteria for our future children. It felt a little bit like going to Subway: I’ll have a six inch Hearty Italian with tuna, NO cheese. Toasted, but with the …

Source: “What can I get you?”

Misadventures in Eating

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Photo Credit: Chris Piascik

The photo may seem incongruous. Just wait…

During our first year, our girl ate like a wild thing. She and her brother were undernourished, so I allowed them to have seconds and sometimes thirds.

Since “thirds” seemed to help them feel secure, I made portions smaller once they reached a healthy weight—they were eating the equivalent of maybe one-and-a-half helpings. As they settled, third helpings became unnecessary.

Then, one school day she neglected to finish her lunch. I mentioned she needed lunch to fuel her brain for the afternoon. She asked lots of questions. We spent about thirty minutes discussing nutrition.

I thought we’d made a breakthrough; it was our first real connection. The inaugural Mother-Daughter Conversation of True Meaning.

The next day, she’d eaten even less, but then we had another great conversation.

By the next week, she’d stopped eating lunch.

Within a month, she barely ate anything. Every meal was a struggle. Some days, we actually resorted to spoon-feeding her to get her to finish a meal. She was eight.

We went to the psychiatrist and pediatrician and ended up in a Children’s Hospital feeding program (outpatient) after six months. By that time, she was emaciated.

I was terrified she was developing an eating disorder. Foster children are at high risk for eating disorders; one study found a quarter of the foster children monitored engaged in “aberrant” eating behaviors.  Others show similar numbers.

Their psychologist is an understanding genius. She helped me understand what I’d done, though inadvertently, to foster the behavior—and how to reverse the process.

Ignore the negative behavior and make it inconvenient for her. Reward ANY move toward positive behavior.

She patted my shoulder. “You can’t blame yourself. You didn’t know. But you can’t EVER give attention to a behavior unless you want it continued. It’s her way of controlling her world.”

She recommended that we ignore her eating issues altogether and substitute the worst-tasting Ensure-type product I could find. Give her only the meal substitute for a few days, then put both a meal and the bottle in front of her.

“Tell your daughter, ‘we don’t have a preference for which you ingest; either way, whatever you eat needs to be finished within half an hour. If you are finished when I return, you can go to bed five minutes later.’ Walk away,” the psychologist said, “then come back in half an hour and remove anything left over, without comment.”

Our girl was eating again within a week.

This was only the beginning. Now, I am always on alert…hypervigilant, if you will…in my quest to protect her from scheming against herself.

As parents, it’s easy to make mistakes. Here’s the great secret: almost no inadvertent mistakes cause permanent damage, as long as you make changes.

The best way to avoid those mistakes:

  • Surround yourself with individuals who are experienced with similar situations.
  • Find a mentor in an adoption professional you trust.
  • Talk to a counselor (either the child’s or a separate one for you) about your tactics. Ask them to be honest about whether they recommend what you’re attempting. Beforehand, make sure the counselor is experienced with foster/adopted children and their issues.
  • Read blogs and articles and medical journals and social work websites.
  • IGNORE (or be selective* in taking) advice from anyone who has never adopted or fostered. *Instances may occur in which one of these individuals brings an epiphany.
  • Don’t allow others to guilt you into anything (e.g., “She fell down AGAIN? And you didn’t pick her up to soothe her? You totally missed a bonding opportunity.” No, in my case, I prevented seventeen more falls).
  • Go with your gut: as you learn this child’s triggers and nuances, you’ll know when to avoid certain situations or try a tactic others might consider ridiculous. If you think it will work, try it. Trust yourself.

And finally, if you have been through the wringer, SHARE YOUR KNOWLEDGE. Someone needs help.

Yes, you. Right now. Start typing. 

Can’t wait to hear what you have to say. Add your advice below.

 

Disrupted Adoption, Part 1

Disruption of adoption (failure to adopt when adoption is in process, but not finalized) is more common than you think, unless you’re a foster or adoptive parent. If you are, this may be no surprise.

In most cases, disrupted adoption happens quietly. The children are “moved” with little fanfare.

Dissolution of adoption (failure of adoption after finalization) is less common but highly publicized.

Everyone heard about the TN mom who sent her 7-year-old son back to Russia alone. More recently, a mom in the U.K. returned her son after he began having seizures.

She requested a child with no problems, being a single mother. When the child had developmental delays—and then seizures—she returned the boy and went to court so the record would show she was not at fault (and the judge agreed).

She’s now looking for a 3 to 6 year old.

Many factors affect disruption, including

  • age
  • placement instability
  • multiple siblings
  • special needs (behavioral or physical)
  • parental expectations

Disruption of adoptions involving older children can be up to 25% higher than for children under 3 (several sources linked here noted lower stats but did not provide actual numbers).

Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the likelihood of disruption rises 6% for every year the child’s age increases. The chance of disruption also rises with multiple siblings of 2 or 3 (but surprisingly, drops when there are 4 or more siblings adopted).

Compared with an infant, a child older than four is 13 times more likely to have a disruption. Placement instability (the number of times a child is moved) also impacts a child’s ability to succeed in adoption.

The North American Council on Adoptable Children site recounts several stories of disruption stemming from out-of-control behavior.

You may know the “Disney effect” (young girls believe their prince will arrive, bringing “happily ever after,” then grow up disillusioned with their imperfect relationships).

Adoptive parents enter the arrangement with the same starry-eyed expectation. The “Jolie-Pitt family effect.” Just look at that beautiful, happy, diverse family! Adopting a bunch of kids will be AMAZING!

Sure, we all agree. We took the class and understand that kids have issues. But our family will be different. We’re going to change the world for one starfish.

(Pretty sure you’ve read that story, but if not…there’s the link.)

We will beat the odds. This kid will be different. Our love will overcome! 

-Every Adoptive Parent, Ever

And then reality crashes down.

Part of the blame belongs with the agency facilitating the placement; in one survey, 45% of respondents said they did not receive all the information available about the child.

Some of the blame belongs simply on inexperience; it’s no one’s fault. Hubby and I attended many classes, read many books, researched like grad students. We had an idea of the trauma to come. None of it prepared us for the actual experience.

Imagine the difference:

  • reading “Astronauting for Dummies”
  • rocketing into space

It’s impossible to be prepared for all eventualities, but parents should receive all background information about a child before a placement and especially prior to adoption.


 

Our kids have multiple risk factors:

  • placed as a group of two siblings,
  • they were older children (then 5 & 7)
  • moved seven times in 2.5 years (at least twice due to uncontrollable behavior)
  • they needed services for physical issues (speech therapy, occupational therapy, heart surgery)
  • both had severe behavioral problems requiring in-office counseling, in-home counseling and (for him) a dedicated behavioral aide during school hours
  • social services did not provide full disclosure of the extent of their special needs

We not-so-affectionately dubbed our first two years, “HellonEarth” and “DefCon1,” respectively.

4.5 years from D-Day (D for Drop-off), we’re able to relax and “be a family” most of the time.

Hubby and I acknowledge that we contemplated disruption. Like other bright-eyed new foster parents, we had no concept of life with traumatized children. What saved our family? He and I never freaked out at the same time.

Throughout the summer of HellonEarth (I stopped working to be with the kiddos), I called Hubby every day around 4 pm, angry, frustrated, frazzled and tearful. He joked darkly to a friend that one day he’d come home to the three of us drowned in a bathtub.

Although drowning was never a true danger, there were definitely times I empathized with families who disrupt. He and I experienced weekly “step away from the cliff” moments in which one of us freaked out and the other played negotiator.

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Photo Credit: Lorenia

These conversations became sporadic during DefCon1, then obsolete.

By the adoption date, we had full knowledge of the meaning of “I will.” As we said those words, we’d already agreed that dissolution would never be an option.

We survived HellonEarth and DefCon1 thanks to

  • multiple counselors
  • support from our family and church
  • Hubby’s tenacity and strength
  • my hypervigilant attitude
  • our unshakable faith that God put these kids in our lives and will continue to give us grace to deal with their (now occasional) insanity

I’d like to name this year “Cautiously Optimistic.”

There are still days (and weeks) of frustration, but we’ve invested our hearts. We tell our kids, “There’s no such thing as ‘un-adoption’ in this family.” 

In heated moments, we remind each of them, “No matter how horrendous your behavior, regardless of what you say and do, and even when you destroy things like a wild hyena, we will never, EVER let you go. We will always love you.”

After almost five years, I think they finally believe it.

Up yours, statistics.

Coming soon—Part 2: Resources for Preventing Disruption

 

*Some information in this post is from a previous post. Additional research and information added to update.

Three Little Words

If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in …

Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.

—Stephen King

A friend at church handed me Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter. I started it last night and only put it down when my eyes and brain rebelled against being awake any longer.

The story would be shocking and unbelievable, except it so closely mirrors my own daughter’s experience (and, by extension, my own).

Back in a bit…gone readin’.

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