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.
If you’re part of an adoptive family (or know one), I highly recommend checking out https://www.reddit.com/r/Adoption. The community has almost 4500 members (birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children are all welcomed).
This is a recent interaction I had with one of the members. If you have experience with RAD, please chime in!
How long did it take to bond with your child before she started to really see you as parents? What are your current struggles?
I’ll be honest; if we had to do it all over again, I would ONLY do it if we were guaranteed to end up where we are today with these two kids. We went through hell on earth the first two years, and year three wasn’t much better. If/when we do it again, we will probably open our home to teenagers at risk of aging out of the system who truly want a family. That will likely happen after these two are grown, but we’ll see.
The last two years, we’ve seen steady progress in both kids; our son has PTSD, high levels of anxiety and may be on the autism spectrum (think Asperger’s, even though that’s not technically a diagnosis anymore). Our daughter has RAD and has been a tough nut but we’re seeing a few cracks.
We’ve had them almost 5 years; our three-year adoption anniversary is this month. We saw glimmers of hope throughout the last year; I’d say she’s 80% “with us” at this point. Prior to that, she was very angry at their bio mom (they’re siblings) and took a lot of that out on me.
If you and your wife are each other’s best friend and can work together as a united front, it’s possible you can beat RAD. It’s difficult to separate RAD from the child; you have to remember that the real enemy is the illness. If you can rescue a child from RAD, it’s a beautiful thing. We’re starting to see it.
On the other hand, RAD is tough; getting a diagnosis can be very difficult (we went through several counselors who had no RAD experience and accepted her “angel” act). Her goal (stated verbally) was for everyone to see her as “sweet.” We finally found a play therapist and an in-home counselor who both recognized the situation and gave us great support. Good counselors are necessary and a support system is key, as well.
She actually called us Mama and Daddy within a very short time, which we thought was a good thing. Looking back, we realize she made superficial attachments very quickly, but real attachment didn’t come for years. A few weeks after arrival, she shouted at me, “You don’t know me, and you WON’T know me, because I won’t LET you know me!” She spent a long time keeping that promise.
We still have some struggles with her inability to allow me to be close to her (she does better with Hubby), but I think our greatest struggle is preventing her from hurting herself or doing anything possible for attention. She will tank her grades, trip and fall, make her whole class wait for her, wear dirty clothes, create a rats nest of her hair, walk into furniture…there’s a whole list. I have serious concerns about her teen years, when she realizes other ways to get attention.
Every single day is a challenge. Sometimes I envy parents who have “easy” kids, but then again, they don’t get to have days like today. They don’t get the honor and joy of the amazing summit experiences. Someone said nothing worth having is easy…and I believe it. I would go through the last five years again just for the last 48 hours.
(I wrote this one today, if you’re interested. https://hypervigilant.org/2016/05/08/happiest-mothers-day/ ) You can also find stories about our family in other posts. I started the blog specifically for other families starting the process, because we had very few resources. I wanted to make the blog a place for individuals to find hope and know they’re not alone.
You’re not alone. You can save a life (or maybe more than one). It will NOT be easy. But it will be worth it.
Join the conversation on Reddit!
Photo Credit: Ben Becker
Our boy has had some great days in recent weeks. Happy, fun-filled, laughter-ringing, group-hugging kinds of days. Snuggly, wiggly, tickly kinds of days. “Really proud of that kid” kinds of days. Can’t-get-better-than-this kinds of days.
Today was not one of them.
For the last few weeks in particular, he has been generally well-behaved, even at school. Our girl has continued her pitched battle for freedom and control on every possible front. On this particular Tuesday, he’s joined her. Well, to be fair, he hasn’t actually joined her.
Part of the problem of late is a “wish-I-had-no-sister” attitude. Considering how she goads him, we understand his thought process but he’s still not allowed to be mean. Call it normal sibling rivalry if you like, but we don’t allow it under this roof. (She’s not allowed to be nasty to him, either—sis is just sneakier, so we have to really pay attention to catch it.)
His actions—at home and school—have not been stellar. He’s sort of acted like a Gremlin. Not the fuzzy ones, either.
Her consistent struggle to control is wearing; add his craziness and I’m edging toward the ledge. Hmmmm…should I jump?
Food issues are common among children of neglect. Our little guy fluctuates between eating healthy and eating everything in sight—in the middle of the night.
On one hand, yes, I could not buy unhealthy food, and I’m working on that. In fact, during today’s shopping trip I filled a cart with yogurt, milk, fruits and veggies. The only sweet item was my pumpkin spice coffee creamer mmmmmmmm.
But sometimes (like when we go camping and want to make insanely awesome S’mores using dark chocolate, marshmallows and cinnamon Pop Tarts instead of graham crackers) I buy treats. And then we have leftovers in the pantry.
Other times, I have a craving for Edy’s ice cream, when I’m missing my grandfather. I enjoy a bowlful, after which I forget it’s in the freezer.
This morning we found the empty tart boxes. This afternoon, while cleaning out the freezer, I found two empty ice cream cartons. Likely a direct result of sugar intake: two horrible-not-so-good-rather-bad days at school for the boy.
The silver lining?
I started researching attachment issues again. I found a pretty cool blog called Last Mom. The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) website showcases some phenomenal articles like this one by Dr. Bruce Perry. More articles are available here. Dr. Perry is with The ChildTrauma Academy.
If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the red-headed-step-mama of education. Sometimes I forget how much information is available, if only I’ll take the time to find it.
For the time being, I’ve scooted my rear end away from the ledge. Reading good information is emotionally settling; I highly recommend it.
And now I have to go check to be sure my little Mogwai is enjoying sound sleep. No snacking after midnight, or we’re in big trouble tomorrow…