“I Pierced It Myself. With a sewing needle. I did it while I was at The Program,” he mumbles. It’s a woman’s earring in his lower lip on the right side. He claims it gets stuck to his pillow at night when he sleeps. He is a 16-year-old Hispanic boy with curly black hair and a soft-spoken voice. His pants sag down below his hips.He gazes downward and only fleetingly makes eye contact. He is quite possibly the skinniest, tiniest teenager I’ve ever seen at barely 5 feet tall and about 90 pounds. His manners are impeccable and he thanks us several times for the meal we are providing for him at Friendly’s.
How could this tiny little thing have caused all of the trouble he’s been in? The “program” he refers to is a group home for teenaged boys in the foster care system who have serious behavioral issues. As he talks he continues to tell stories of fights he’s been in and arguments he’s had. One story centers around stealing a bike and another is about telling off a bus driver. He has recently been suspended for leaving class and swearing at his principal.
This is the first time we are meeting Marcus. We requested this meeting through the many social workers involved in our case including the Intensive Foster agency that handles Marcus’ case. Marcus is the biological older brother of the sibling group we are adopting through DCF. We are bringing home Mary, 7, Carl, 8 and Sean, 13. They don’t often see Marcus and they haven’t lived with him since being in their bio home 3 years ago. And yet. And yet, there is something. Something that tells Luke and I to look further into this boy’s case. He has made it clear he doesn’t wish to be adopted. He has said so for years. His record reads like a laundry list of conduct disordered characteristics. And yet.
When we first started the process with our sibling group we learned that they had an older brother. He was described to us as “troubled.” He had been to Juvenile Hall for violating his probation. He was on probation for a B&E charge (breaking and entering) from robbing a local convenience store with friends. Marcus had a checkered placement history of bouncing from home to home. When we went to the disclosure meeting for the three kids we asked for information about Marcus. His social worker was hesitant because Marcus himself refused to participate in the adoption process and was very vocal about not being adopted.
We researched a bit and almost all sources will tell you that keeping sibling groups intact is the best thing for all parties. I had never thought of it before, but sibling relationships are usually the longest relationship you keep within a lifetime. For our children who had lost so much, shouldn’t they at least have each other? At first Marcus was in the group home when we started visiting with Mary, Carl, and Sean. I offered to visit him there. His worker laughed and assured me it wasn’t the best idea because Marcus wouldn’t want to meet us. And yet. I wouldn’t be deterred.
Luke and I petitioned to get DCF to set up a meeting. Just a visit between the siblings? We offered to take them all somewhere. At the very least, maybe this 16-year-old boy would come to accept us as a support or a resource. He was welcome to come for holidays or maybe stay for overnights. Even if he wanted to age out of the system, where would he go at Thanksgiving? At Christmas? Who did he have?
We felt like he needed us. We never bargained on how much we would need him.
On this day we took my mother, the three younger children, and Marcus to Friendly’s for lunch. After that we went to the zoo. The first thing we noticed were his many, many stories about being the strongest toughest kid around. Stories with highly inappropriate language usually followed by an “oops, sorry.” The second thing we noticed was that in every story, in every fight, every argument, every confrontation, Marcus felt that he was defending someone. He felt like he had to be the protector. This tiny little kid in a huge sweatshirt on a 78 degree day was apparently the champion of the world. And he would not take the sweatshirt off. I even offered to carry it for him!
After lunch, I pulled Luke aside. I was worried. Was this good for Sean? We certainly wouldn’t want Sean to pick up this kind of language or the idea that getting into trouble was a noble thing to do. Luke shrugged and said, “Marcus’ barely talking to us. Let’s see how it goes with the kids. Just wait.” I glanced over at Marcus who was taunting an exotic bird, telling the bird it was “ugly.”
I hate to admit it but I watched him out of the corner of my eye the whole time. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what he would do or say. I couldn’t even tell if he was enjoying the trip. All I had to go off of was his simple, “Yeah, I’ll come. I like animals,” that he had given me on the phone immediately followed by, “Can I talk to my brother, please?”
Mary, Carl and Sean hadn’t seen Marcus in a little over two months. I later learned that before coming on this visit, they’d only seen him a few times that entire year. Marcus told his foster-mother that he was very nervous about coming because he hadn’t been around his siblings in so long, he didn’t know how to act. I think he was worried about how much they would remember him. What he found was that they looked up to him. Their love for Marcus was second nature.
By the time we got into the petting section of the zoo I was feeling a bit more comfortable. Maybe Marcus wasn’t fond of me or my husband, but he very clearly loved his brothers and sister. Mary started to fuss over all of the walking so Marcus just picked her up. Never mind that she was half his size and that he was already sweating profusely underneath that massive sweatshirt, he just scooped her up and carried her. Mary lay her head down on his shoulder and calmed down instantly. It was beautiful. It was what we had wanted for them.
There were tiny goats and baby sheep inside a petting area. If you put quarters in a machine, you could get pellets to feed the animals by hand. Carl’s eyes lit up and he ran over shouting, “Can I feed them oh please, please, please.” I stared at the machine and unsuccessfully tried to find the swiping strip for debit cards. “I’m so sorry Carl, but I didn’t bring any cash or coins. Maybe next time,” I told him. I turned away and continued on, only to realize that Carl and Marcus weren’t with me. Marcus was pouring quarters into that machine and giving food to Carl and Mary so they could feed the baby animals. They were delighted. Then he spent his last few dollars buying them ice cream and water bottles. Mary and Carl clung to Marcus and begged him to carry them and take pictures with them. He patiently acquiesced to every request no matter how odd. At one point Carl yelled, “I need to walk on your feet!” Throughout that entire trip, Marcus spoke softly and calmly to his siblings. I guess he saved all of that noise and vitriol for the “ugly” bird!
Over the next months we took him on regular day trips with the family. He began to thaw little by little. If I asked him to come somewhere his response was always, “I wouldn’t mind it.” One day I saw him sitting on the floor with Mary playing pop-up-Disney-princess. Another time he let her put a headband in his hair. Marcus spent an entire Saturday afternoon organizing some sort of Lego tournament between all 4 siblings. It was a day that I was exhausted and worn out. I sat on the couch and soaked up the silence while they Lego-battled in the basement.
The best part was watching Marcus and Sean come together and build a relationship they hadn’t had for the last 3 years. They spent more hours laughing and joking than anything else the first year. Marcus became a regular staple during family outings and activities. He visited every Saturday, then every Sunday, and eventually stayed for overnight visits every weekend and school vacation. Little by little he began leaving personal items at our house. A pair of shoes or an unidentified toothbrush would show up. Tentative little pieces of Marcus.
With teenagers I always mourned the “firsts” that I would miss. First steps, first day of Kindergarten, first school dance, first school concert. With Marcus, everything was new. Everything seemed like a first. We took the family to an aquarium and he was fascinated by the beluga whales. His whole face lit up. “Look! There’s freakin’ whales EVERYWHERE! Oops. Sorry.”
Marcus wanted to play the piano so my mother taught him the notes for, “You Are My Sunshine.” He had never heard it before. We started to see more of his personality. He was energetic and loud.He enthusiastically accompanied us to the zoo or children’s museums. Each activity was new and exciting for him, just like a little kid. He cracked jokes and did impressions for us. He filled every event with his laughter and boisterous charm.
He began to express his feelings about our family in small ways. He duct-taped the rear light on our car when it broke. He replaced light bulbs and mowed the lawn at our house. Every once in awhile if I was rubbing Sean’s shoulders her would say, “My shoulders hurt a little bit,” and I would rub his, too. One day he brought me his report card and let me put it on the fridge. Sometimes he slipped and called me “mom.”
I was always surprised by how much time he wanted to spend with Luke and I. Marcus was especially close to Luke. He watched movies with us on Saturday nights when everyone else went to bed. He worked on anything Luke worked on around the house. He started calling Luke, “Old Man.” He wanted us to watch him performing card tricks. He completed puzzles and art projects and played board games with us. And he laughed. All the time.
We started to slowly bring up the topic of Marcus moving in. Would he want to come? One day he called me crying. He wanted to come “home.” He wanted a mom and a dad. I jumped at the chance to assure him we wanted him. He told me he was scared that we would give up on him.
A few months later he cut off contact with us. The TPR (termination of parental rights) trial loomed ahead this month. Marcus was back in contact with his bio-mom and older sisters. He was so angry with us and I could not fathom why. It was as if the bottom dropped out of my world. He began to insist he would live with his bio-family. He told his mentor and his lawyer and his social worker that he wanted to live with her.
He stated that I have too many hugs and made the children complete summer reading and clean their rooms. He couldn’t stand that I talked so much about family values, yet made the kids “do stuff.” It took a few weeks for me to realize that the part that really hurt him was my love. My parenting. It was too much for him to take. He never got upset with Luke, though. It was me he just couldn’t accept while he was still in contact with her. For 8 weeks we heard nothing. No contact. The trial came and went. Parental rights were terminated. DCF retained permanent custody of Marcus and began to plan for him on an “independent living” track.
I mourned the loss of Marcus. I thought about him nonstop for the two months he was gone. How would he live independently? He didn’t even clip his own nails without my help! And then, finally, we got a call. He wanted to have a day visit with his siblings. He only wanted to talk to Luke, not me. My husband picked him up and explained that he had to be respectful no matter what. Marcus was cautious and quiet, but he came.
Then he began coming back for weekend day visits. Then overnights. Then we threw him a 17th birthday party with balloons and a cake and a present. He was surprised we would do all of that for him. He seemed completely baffled by the fact that we hadn’t given up on him despite the fact he tried so hard to push us away.
Soon things returned to their normal rhythm. Weekend visits, home improvement projects, day trips etc. Their bio-mom relapsed into old behavior problems. She wouldn’t visit with Marcus. She went back to Puerto Rico and left her new baby behind. Marcus finally began asking to come and live with us.
I know he wants to be with our family now. He can love me and still love her. She just isn’t capable of parenting and therefore she will never be able to take care for him. There is no need to choose, no competition. I just want permanency, stability, and happiness for all of these chickens
So here we are. He comes home (for good) tomorrow. His 2 hamsters have already moved in. This time, I’m the one who is nervous. I’m not entirely sure I know if I can be the right kind of mother for him. Will I smother him? Disappoint him? Overwhelm him with my love? Probably. But after all, he’s not just a “troubled teen,” he’s also another one of our chickens. Probably the last. Welcome to our roost little chicken. I can’t wait for all of the new adventures (and misadventures) we are likely to experience.
If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting a teenager, I encourage you to start your own adventure!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.