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.
Five years ago, my personality tended toward the Pollyanna, which kept me happy and drove most of my friends a little crazy. After four years with the kids, I’m more grounded…sometimes, too grounded.
My current (un-Pollyanaish) mindset requires a regular correction from, “Dealing with the crazy behaviors and fluctuating attitudes is exhausting and annoying and I just want them to be perfect and let me have a nap without the worry they’ll deconstruct the house, start a fire in the back yard or remove each other’s fingernails.”
Peaceful ability to nap–or accomplish a task without interruption–is an unrealistic expectation and I need to get over it.
In college (when Pollyanna-me was in her prime), my mantra was, “sleep when you’re dead.” My roommate and I once stayed awake for almost 72 hours (with help from No-Doz caffeine pills and Starbucks) just to see how long we could escape slumber. That experiment ended with hallucinations and a friend sitting between us in class, hands wrapped in our long brown ponytails to keep our heads off the table. Pretty sure the professor noticed.
These days, if I ever found a No-Doz in my house, I would flush it down the toilet (don’t tell the environmentalists). I still fully support the coffee industry, although I recently heard a rumor that ‘Bucks buys coffee from growers who are outside Fair Trade and utilize questionable labor tactics, which will require further research. I may have to find a new caffeine supplier, but that’s another story.
Back to Pollyanna.
For the last few weeks, our girl has been exhibiting spontaneous new behaviors. Odd ones. And if they’re not obvious, she informs me. Full disclosure. “Mama, I don’t know why, but I ate my lip balm,” and, “I was chewing on my bed rail again, and something white came off my tooth.” Yes, my child, you chipped a tooth. “Mama, I chewed on my stuffed animal. I just had to,” or “I bit my arm. There aren’t any marks, though.”
As I’m writing this, I realize there’s a common theme…at the outset, counselors informed us we’d probably experience “phases” that the kids missed. Maybe she needs a pacifier? I’ll be asking the play therapist about that…
Part of the problem is cold weather; they don’t get outside as much, so all that un-expended energy is spent on…other…entertainments. Such as finding ways to drive Mama nuts. Many thanks, groundhog, for six more weeks of winter. (For those of you who’ve not had your coffee–this is pure sarcasm.)
Other behaviors include not washing and brushing her hair (and asking me to do it for her), an affected lisp, using “baby talk” and sucking her top lip raw. Yesterday, at the therapist’s office (which is often about correcting MY behavior), the counselor noted, “It looks like she’s using negative behaviors to get attention.” Then, with a gentle smile, she inclined her head toward me. “Her tactics appear to be working.” Our girl had employed the lisp, baby talk and theatrically licking her upper lip in quick succession, and I’d corrected her each time. Riiiiiiiiiiiight.
After the session, the counselor took me aside. “She’s obviously looking for attention, and whatever garners attention is the behavior she’ll continue. I know the regressed behavior is driving you crazy, but do your best to ignore the negative completely. Over-celebrate the positive. She’s addicted to attention, so this should work. It will be exhausting, but in the end will be worthwhile.”
“Celebrate the positive” is a tactic I already know, but in the day-to-day, I forget. Especially on days (and days-to-days) when the number of negative behaviors outweigh the positive on such a grand scale. This morning, I was determined. She walked into the kitchen, unzipping her sweater to show me, “I’m wearing short sleeves, but I have a sweater on over it.” I used every possible body language technique to communicate celebration and cried, “Yaaaaay! You followed directions and wore long sleeves since it’s cold today. GREAT JOB!!” She squinted at me. “Yes, I know.”
A bit later, after she’d informed me twice of her progress as she filled the dogs’ food bowls, she noted, “I fed the dogs.” Again, I celebrated. “Yaaaaay! You fed the dogs before we leave for school! Excellent work!” She began watching me for signs of mental instability.
I ran upstairs to brush my teeth. Hubby asked, “Everything okay in the kitchen? I heard yelling.” I told him what the counselor said, adding. “You realize I’m going to have to do this for the boy, as well, or he’s going to feel left out.” Sure enough, the third time I celebrated our girl’s accomplishment, “WONDERFUL! You brushed your hair properly today,” our boy looked at me with a sad little quirk to his mouth. “I took the dog out to do his business. How come I didn’t get a ‘yay’ or anything?”
“Sorry, buddy,” I said. “Get in the truck.” He hopped in, nimble-quick. I celebrated. He grinned.
My Pollyanna is poking her pert little nose out, sniffing the air. Things are changing? We’re playing the Glad Game again? About EVERYthing? Yeah, baby, it’s on. Time for a little Pollyanna happy dance.
I’d better blindfold Pollyanna so she doesn’t see her shadow.
We’re in for six more weeks of celebration.
Pollyanna image from Katrina Ryder’s blog, which I highly recommend.