adoption, family

What Are We Teaching Them?

“Wait–what do you mean? My glasses prescription can expire?!?!! That doesn’t make sense!”

Sorry, Marcus. You have to go to the eye doctor every year. You also need a yearly checkup with your primary care physician. And the dentist? Yeah, that is every six months.

This week Marcus was texting me in a panic that he had lost his glasses and was having headaches. He wanted me to look for his prescription so that he could get new glasses. Sometimes I am still caught off guard by the things my children do not know. Looking back, it makes sense.

Marcus went from 2014 until 2016 without a doctor’s appointment in foster care. He never went to the dentist. For whatever reason the state he was in somehow claimed to change insurance based from town to town. Marcus bounced around continuously. Therefore he pretty much never had health insurance.

His last placement (after the Juvenile Detention Center) was with something called “intensive foster care.” This meant that a specialized agency was contracted by child services to care for him. A worker met with him weekly and a highly trained foster parent provided a home. In theory it looked great. The program was supposed to provide skills for older teens who would soon age out of the system. They had strict regulations and monitored each worker intensely.

In practice, it was pretty awful. His intensive case worker changed every few months. Marcus never saw a therapist. He never saw a psychiatrist even though he was prescribed psychotropic medication.

His foster parent was not supposed to take him to medical appointments or attend the case review meetings. She really wasn’t required to do much except feed him. She couldn’t even give him Tylenol without calling the agency for approval first. That just meant no medication was available if he spiked a fever after business hours. Maybe the lesson was not to get sick on the weekends?

When Marcus came to us we were required to drive him back to his home state each week to meet with his worker. Marcus was 17, so his case worker had a limited amount of time to impart the all-important “life skills.” A frantic worker would meet my husband and Marcus at Panera Bread every week for lunch. He spent three weeks focusing on reviewing a module in his binder called, “water safety.” Yes, they worked on pool safety while eating lunch (that my husband payed for) at a restaurant on dry land. Luke used to joke with Marcus to “try not to drown in the drive home.”

In the meantime we had to fight to get Marcus his driver’s permit. We were willing to teach him but technically the DMV requires a legal guardian. I doubt many caseworkers are headed to the long lines at the DMV with their teens. They also require an original birth certificate which child services refused to release to Marcus. Don’t worry, after lots of advocating we got it all figured out.

However, here I sit explaining to my 21-year-old how medical care works. Sometimes I think we’ve missed so much time to instruct Marcus he may never catch up. Have we really prepared him for the world? What else have we missed or lost along the way?

So the question remains. What are we teaching teens in foster care to prepare them for the world? If they age out without a family to turn to, how will they learn?

In this, Luke and I are lucky. Marcus knows he can turn to us if he needs to. I thank my stars that our son can come to us. If we have taught him nothing else, I know we have taught him this.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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family

All the Honors

When our children were still in foster care we began the process with a “disclosure meeting.” In this meeting the social workers gave us all the information they had about our children. Many people put a lot of stock in these meetings. Personally, I don’t. The system won’t know everything about your children. Lots of trauma gets “disclosed” by the children themselves once they have a safe and stable family.

Anyway, we knew Carl received Special Education services. He had an IEP and we got to see it. As a special education teacher I combed through the evaluations for information. I felt that we could surely help him. The IEP was for an emotional disturbance but he lagged in academics. He was ending the second grade at a Kindergarten reading level.

Honestly, this was all quite understandable. His level of trauma was compounded by the grief of being separated from his mother. Add to that the fact that his bio family did not enroll him in Kindergarten until he was 6 years old. In first grade he missed over 80 days of school by Springtime. The kid had a lot to overcome.

In the beginning we were working so hard on our children’s emotional wellbeing, everything else fell to the wayside. Luke and I battled their trauma, soothed their fears and weathered their rages. In between I worked with Carl so that he could learn to read.

He’s come a long way in five years. Today, Carl doesn’t need an IEP anymore. He doesn’t receive any special services. He’s flourishing at his grade level. I can’t tell you how proud he is of himself.

This school year he’s made honor roll every semester. He’s going for high honors in the upcoming term. Every time Carl shows us a test or paper he’s aced, he glows. He’s so proud of himself.

We are proud, too. He gets the honor roll while we get all of the real honor. After all, we get to be his parents!

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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family

Fruit Fight!

Recently Carl was arguing with Luke about snacks. He really wanted something unreasonable like popcorn dipped in frosting or Doritos in ice cream. Who knows. Luke was trying to convince him to eat fruit. It went like this:

Carl: Can I have–

Luke: Fruit?

Carl: No, I want–

Luke: Fruit?

Carl: Dad! Listen! I want to eat–

Luke: Fruit?

Carl (exasperated) NO! Listen to me!! Can I please just talk?

Luke: Fruit?

Carl: Aaarg!! Let me say one word!!!

Luke: OK. (Looks expectantly at Carl)

Carl: FRUIT!! (Looks shocked, slaps forehead)

Poor little guy has fruit on his brain now!!

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family

Dumb Mistake

I made the dumb mistake of attempting to clean out our memory drawer. For the last 5 years I’ve gathered a variety of mementos from my children. One drawer in our dining room buffet is stuffed with old school papers, art projects and letters. It has been bursting with treasures and trash for years.

I’ve been a little more mobile lately and thought I could sit down on the floor and sort through things. Some kind of cleaning bug has gotten into me this past week. I put away the Christmas decorations and now I can’t stop!

It was a dumb mistake. At first I lovingly sorted through birthday cards and letters that the kids made for us. I found some old photos and A+ tests. It was sweet to revisit how far these kiddos have come. My heart warmed when I saw a picture Marcus made for Mary during her first hospitalization in 2014.

Then I pulled out what felt like a deck of cards. It was actually a little book Sean made for me on Mother’s Day. The title is “52 Things I Love About You.” He took an entire deck of cards and glued printed statements on each one. The are connected with rings to make a flip-book.

I should have put it down but I didn’t. I read it. The book has boiler plate things to love such as “your smile” and “your hugs.” It also has some gems that are specific to me. “I love the way you sneeze twice and the second one is serious.” Some of it made me sad because he loved me for reasons like I provided food and bought his clothes.

I put it away but for whatever reason I couldn’t stop with that. There isn’t much of Sean left in this house. I reached behind the books in our bookcase to get the memory box we all made in 2015. I keep it hidden from myself.

Sean’s handwriting stared back at me on little colored scraps of paper. The things he enjoyed the first year home included, “The Worry Wall,” “The Cool-Down Corner,” “tuck-ins at bedtime,” “family dinner” and “being safe with big feelings.”

I crammed the pieces of paper back into the memory box through a haze of fresh tears. Still, I could not stop this car from wildly careening down memory lane. Urgently (and for no good reason) I went upstairs and dug into the filing cabinet until I pulled out Sean’s folder. It was a dumb mistake. Clearly I had no idea how much this would affect me.

There isn’t much there. A few report cards, a journal article he wrote about family titled, “The F Word,” and the report. The last thing I looked at was the meeting summary from his DCF report.

The horrible lies blurred on the paper as I cried. In it he accused me of abusing him physically and described never wanting to see us again. Those vile hurtful words swam in front of my eyes until I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Had anything ever been real with him? How could the little book of love and those despicable statements have come from the same child?

I promptly ran into the bathroom and vomited the contents of my stomach.

Apparently this still hurts. Perhaps it always will.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family

Seriously, Please Leave

She drives me crazy. I have no idea why her opinions affect me at all but they do. Every time our children’s older biological sister  M is around, my back teeth ache. Her invasive questioning and snide comments put me over the edge. It takes all that I have not to seriously lash out at her.

Unfortunately, M was the one transporting Marcus to and from school after the holiday. Luke was fresh off of eye surgery and not able to drive. I’m not cleared to drive yet either. It is probably good to give Carl some contact with his older sister. At least that’s what I try to keep telling myself. Foster care took so much from my kids. I never wanted their adoption to mean we were taking more.

It’s odd to me that M gets under my skin this way. My family often makes a spectacle in public and by now I’m fine with it. I think M reminds me a lot of Sean. I can see her calculated moves a mile away. Although she appears sweet there is always the underlying fact that she doesn’t believe we should have adopted her siblings.

From the second she entered my home the other day she began looking through things (bedrooms, photo albums) and digging for information. For whatever reason she selectively remembers what happened in their biological home. She champions her biological mother as a victim. It would seem Luke and I are the villains here (but mostly me.)

I know that Mary and Carl both exhibited rages in their biological home. I know they were both significantly underweight there. I know that Mary didn’t speak and her pediatrician was concerned. He suggested multiple times that she needed to be evaluated for developmental delays.

I know Carl didn’t start Kindergarten until he was 6 years old. I know they missed over 80 days of school that year. After the adoption we ordered copies of all their previous medical and school records. According to M it’s a completely different story.

Just because I know these things doesn’t mean that strangers do. When my kids are panicking in public and begging me not to get drunk I know it’s not about me personally. Past trauma causes my children to be afraid that moms get drunk or violent.

Past trauma also causes my children to fear showers, bedtime, Halloween masks and mothers. All of them share these fears (even Sean) so there is clearly a history there. Because I know about their trauma I don’t really mind when strangers make ignorant comments. They simply don’t know what it’s like.

With M it’s a different story. She absolutely knows what happened. She was there. For whatever reason her denial permeates every conversation. She acts shocked that Mary needs to be in a residential school. M does not believe in therapy.

She demands to know why the service dog didn’t go with Mary to her school. She demands to know why Mary didn’t come home for Christmas. She demands to know Mary’s psychiatric diagnosis which I will not share. It is Mary’s private business for her to share as she wishes. She demands and demands and demands.

I told M firmly that Mary has a very difficult time during the holidays. Therefore we relieve pressure by bringing Christmas to her. M’s face was the portrait of pure shock.

“Really?!?! Why???”

At this point I was done with the prying questions. I was done hearing about how well Sean was doing now that he’s out of our home and about to age out of foster care. I could not take any more of M’s questions.

I told her about how Mary only slept for 45 minutes at a time when she first came home. I told M that Mary was terrified and would wake up screaming for the entire first year. I told her about all of the things we did to help her feel safe.

Then I got a little bit catty. I told her Sean had the same exact problem and I got up with him every night, too. I was sorely tempted to tell her that he also sobbed before every bath at age 15. It was hard not to tell her I sat outside the bathroom while Sean was in the tub to sing him silly songs. Every. Single. Time.

For once M was speechless. She stammered that it must have been hard. I countered back with the fact that it wasn’t (it was) and that we didn’t mind (we did) because it wasn’t their fault. Luke and I would do anything for these chickens.

Undoubtedly she feels that Mary only has these problems because of us and our parenting. She’s basically continued to hint that things used to be fine and she doesn’t understand why Mary needs all this treatment. She doesn’t believe in therapy anyway.

Why do I even care?? I sat through the rest of the visit listening to M talk about how the shelter she stays at is giving her $8,000 and helping her find subsidized housing. She had another baby 6 months ago. The shelter bought both of her children all of their Christmas gifts. Her baby’s dad hasn’t gotten his cell phone back from the police after they took it as evidence in a case against him. Blah blah blah.

It’s really uncharitable for me to have these thoughts. Logically I know it’s good that the shelter is helping her. My angry jealous side is mad that Luke and I put in tons of work and still get blamed for things. No one is chipping in for our kids’ gifts or offering us $8,000.

I should have more grace. She was never adopted. She doesn’t have a family, really. I don’t even know if she’s in contact with bio-mom.

In the end I was happy to hug Marcus good-bye and wave him off in M’s car. By the time her van pulled out of the driveway I was shaking. It was a relief to get her out of the house.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family

Better Than Expected

I am pretty sure we just made it through our most successful Christmas season yet. I can’t say things went off without a hitch, but it was certainly better than I had hoped. Marcus arrived with Girlfriend and Baby in tow for three days.

I actually made it out to go to the bank and hit one store with Luke for last minute gifts. My back was hurting afterwards but at least I did it. We hadn’t realized the baby was coming without any presents so we stocked up on some extras. We also got a few additional things for Girlfriend because she isn’t on good terms with her mother. Without our Christmas she would have been alone. Even Nana and Papa got things for them.

Carl took having a baby in the house in stride. He was relaxed and calm for the duration of the visit. We managed to play some family card games and get Girlfriend to join in. The baby was the most mellow, laid-back baby I’ve ever seen. She’s a year old and she picks up her toys, listens if you say “no” and hardly ever fusses. Luke and I tried to help Girlfriend as much as possible so she could have a few minutes to herself.

On Christmas morning we went to visit Mary. Everyone handled the two-hour round trip car ride quite well. When we got there the kids were preparing for a gingerbread contest. Her residential school had even taken her shopping for some gifts for us.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary so happy on Christmas. She seemed grounded in reality and relaxed. I didn’t observe even a fraction of that too-bright laughter that used to spiral into a screaming, violent rage. Her laugh was just…genuinely happy.

I was also amazed that Mary held it together around the baby. Typically she does not handle babies well. She gets rather anxious and jealous. She will start to speak in baby-talk and demand baby things. Sometimes she’s been unsafe in a baby’s space. Often times she’ll sort of commandeer the mother for herself. It can be difficult. To my surprise Mary just looked at the baby and said, “cute” before carrying on with her gifts. That was it.

It was a nothing short of a miracle that Carl voluntarily went with us to visit her. After that, he continued with Christmas day dinner at my parents’ house. It was Carl’s job to collect everyone’s coats when we got there. He was content to go along with the group activities or use his iPad.

The only drama this holiday had very little to do with our family. Girlfriend has an open case with DCF for the baby. She didn’t specify why but it had the restriction that the baby’s father was not allowed contact. On Christmas Eve he began sending threatening messages to Marcus and to Girlfriend. Then Girlfriend’s mother also began sending derogatory and threatening messages.

This led to Marcus staging a Marcus-style meltdown. He decided to mix a bunch of wine and bourbon (I threw it out) and storm outside leaving Girlfriend crying in my arms. Carl got scared that Marcus was mad at the family again. All he could hear was Marcus yelling outside while Girlfriend cried inside.

Girlfriend ended up having full panic attack. Luckily, this is the perfect house to have a panic attack. I showed Girlfriend her heart rate on the finger monitor. I showed her how to slow her breathing by blowing Jelly Belly bubbles.

Together we blocked Baby Daddy from her phone. I explained that without a custody agreement he couldn’t make her do anything. She agreed with me that she should just keep following DCF’s plan. I advised her to show the threats to her social worker but I’m not sure that she will. She is legitimately terrified of Baby Daddy.

Eventually Marcus came back inside to talk to me privately. It was mostly ranting/yelling about how he was going to “get” Baby Daddy whether or not he “had his Glock” (I don’t believe this actually exists!) Since Baby Daddy already jumped him and beat him up badly, Marcus is spoiling for a rematch. I let him wave his arms around and shout about how this affected him for about 5 minutes.

When he finally stopped to take a breathe, I told Marcus to grow up. His plan was really stupid. Who cares about being the toughest idiot on the streets?! He has younger siblings looking up to him. He has this little family with GF and Baby now. People depend on having him around rather than locked up.

Also, Marcus is safe at home and safe on campus. This other guy has no job, no money and no vehicle. It’s unlikely he’ll be near Marcus unless Marcus goes back to the city and confronts him on the streets.

I told him to get his act together because this was not about him at all. Then I instructed him to get downstairs and comfort Girlfriend. When someone is already struggling to breathe over their own terror no one should add more stress. I told him what to say and I had him start a hot shower for her. Under no circumstances was he to mention his issues to her in this moment.

Marcus has a long history of not taking advice. He usually does the exact opposite and then self-destructs in spectacular fashion. Not this time, however. I went downstairs to take the baby so Girlfriend could shower and calm down. You can imagine my surprise when I found him holding and comforting her. He was using the exact language I’ve used so many times to soothe his panic attacks.

Luke and I spoke to Carl and addressed his fears. He was OK once he realized Marcus wasn’t raging at the family. Eventually Girlfriend’s sobs quieted down. Luke and I put the baby to sleep. We were exhausted on Christmas morning but we still managed presents, a Mary visit, and then dinner with Nana and Papa. We did it! There was not one hospital visit!! I’m sure I’ll be mainlining Tylenol for a week but it was all worth it.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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Do You Get to See Her?!

It’s the second Christmas she won’t be home for. We will bring presents to her on Christmas Day along with some of the dinner. Mary is at a therapeutic residential school that specializes in complex trauma.

I’m glad. Every Christmas Mary experiences periods of psychosis and violence. This usually ends with an inpatient stay in the psychiatric hospital. Her command hallucinations are the worst at this time of year. Carl gets triggered in the Springtime and Mary gets triggered at Christmas time.

Last Christmas Marcus, Carl and my step-kids all got to have a regular drama-free holiday. Luke and I were not stressed out or sleep deprived.  This year will be the same except that Marcus is here his GF and her baby.

I’m not even sad Mary won’t be here on Christmas morning. Typically, even when she was relatively stable, she’d be in-patient at the psychiatric hospital this time of year. She’s been able to handle this holiday better now that she is in congregate care. Whatever trauma occurred in her biological home follows her into the holiday season with a vengeance. Something about being in a family situation at Christmas sets off her trauma triggers to a full blown decibel.

It’s strange to me that people ask if we “get to see her.” She’s not in another country or in jail. She’s at school. We see her all the time and we talk to her every day. The school bought a special staff phone so we can FaceTime 3 days per week. She didn’t leave the family when she left the house.

Truthfully, our relationship with Mary is better now. It’s easier to practice connected parenting when not worried about imminent danger. Without the violence,we can focus on fun. This is the best thing for us. I think people everywhere make the best decisions for their own families. In fact, for other cultures it can be normal to attend a boarding school at her age. Is it only in the U.S. we question if parents “sent their kids away” or “got rid of them?” I’m not sure.

I’ll not ashamed of this decision. I’m proud of Mary. I’m proud of all the hard work her treatment team puts in. I’m proud of the work she puts in. She does a lot of “body scans” to “check her energy level” now. This helps her determine if she is becoming dysregulated or getting triggered. I think it’s an amazing feet for an 11-year-old girl to be able to do this.

Like the little engine that could, our family just keeps on chugging. Someday we’ll get over that hill. Until then I’m satisfied with appreciating what we have right now.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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