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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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Prayers Appreciated

Tomorrow, I’ll stand before a group of professionals and explain why I think our son should transition to another facility. Some will want him to step down to a group home instead. I disagree.

I’m NOT trying to pawn my kid off or keep him from coming home. He’s not showing the level of progress for which we’d hoped.

He’s had three incidents (in three days) of kicking and punching walls, doors and windows because a peer or adult disagreed with him…if he did this in school, he’d end up expelled.

I love this kid and am doing this to protect him; if he throws a chair and hits someone—even if the contact is unintentional— he could go to jail. Odds are not in his favor.

He needs something else—something he’s not getting. I’ll elaborate later, but for now, I appreciate your prayers for calm nerves and clear communication.

The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

Monopoly on Happy

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.

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