family

Turkey Tears :Adventures In Holiday Trauma Triggers

ornament

It always starts with a happy event. Well, at the very least, it starts with an event that I consider to be “happy.” Happy events are often triggers for the traumatized child.  Something we all enjoy will get them thinking about why their first family couldn’t have done the same. Sometimes happy things become almost too close for comfort. They become scared that it could all be taken away. Happy events, like holidays, can pose a virtual minefield of trauma triggers for the adopted child.

In our home, the littlest chickens go nuts over bringing Christmas ornaments up from the basement. They beg and cajole, and finally I just start decorating for Christmas the day before Thanksgiving. Basically it’s a half day of school and the chickens just spend that many hours sneaking down into the basement and mysteriously appearing covered in suspicious bits of tinsel. I might as well supervise the destruction of the storage packaging. The little chickens, in their holiday fervor, cluck and squawk and run around in circles picking up and promptly dropping each glittery item, in what can only be called a chicken frenzy. Here are some of the pitfalls and trauma triggers of the holiday season:

Naming the Holiday. For whatever reason, naming Thanksgiving is very tricky at our house. When we talk about turkey day, it’s like the holiday time bomb starts ticking. Carl and Mary can become very apprehensive around the holidays. They will alternately reminisce about life in their “bio-home” and then try and pretend they never lived in the aforementioned home. I’m not sure if they miss their first family around this time. They definitely miss former foster homes and so we visit as often as we can. I believe in preserving as much of their past connections as possible. Mentioning the holidays in relation to her biological family will cause Mary to shut down and quit talking. She will look at the ground, bow her head, and flop like a rag doll. She can remain in this unresponsive, catatonic state for almost an hour.

Bio family.  There will be no visits this year. Bio mom has not returned from Puerto Rico and has refused all contact with DCF. Bio dad did not show up to last year’s visit and had refuses all contact with DCF. Contact with an bio sister is really all we can do right now. We called her on Thanksgiving. Carl talked her ear off about “me and my dad” this and “my mommy” that. She was very gracious but I always worry if this contact is healthy for her. She was never adopted. Mary didn’t want to talk and only answered a few “yes” and “no” questions. She was very clingy and emotional for the rest if the day. She had a few minor meltdowns and a very difficult time getting in the shower. I think somehow the contact with a family member from her past reminded her of scary things from her past. So, of course, I sat outside the bathroom door and belted Christmas carols all through Mary’s Thanksgiving shower.

Happy Family Moments. There are so many happy moments during the holiday season. We work hard to build traditions that the kids will remember. The happy moments are often overshadowed with fear and doubt from our kids. Sometimes they fear that they will lose everything they have gained. This fear causes them to react as soon as they experience too much happiness. One Christmas carol too many can cause a massive meltdown. After all, they have loved and lost a family before.

gingerbread

So what do we do about it? We move on. Of course we do. I refuse to let our children’s past control their future. We forge ahead and build new family experiences. There is something to be said for avoiding triggers, but realistically, our kids deserve a chance to experience what other children get to experience. If we can provide a piece of the magical holiday season to their childhood, darn-it, we are going to try! Corrective experiences about being with a functional family. We relish being together and cherish the good times, even if those good times are hard for the kids to handle. We honor their past family while building the foundation of this new family together. Here is what we do:

Decorating. We do it together. mostly. My teenage step-children sit on the sidelines looking somber and skeptical over all the fuss. In desperation I ask my 16-year-old stepson, Seth, if he would like to help. “Um, no,” he replies. We are making zombie-themed gingerbread houses complete with red licorice entrails and severed gingerbread man heads. There is candy and sugar and smeared frosting all over the dining room table, chairs, and faces of my youngest chickens! We also decorate a zombie nativity scene. The Littles speculate that the angel Gabriel will fly in and save the baby Jesus just before the hoard of hungry zombies attacks. Did I mention that our family is big on zombies? Eventually, I rope in the two oldest and now everyone is covered in sugary fun!

The Littles each have decorated Christmas trees in their rooms. Carl topped his with Darth Vader in order to be “just like daddy,” in his obsession with “the force.” When we all participate, we are making Christmas “our own.” Forget holiday expectations. Let’s stick to the Star Wars characters and the Zombie Genre that we love. After all, it isn’t about living up to anyone’s standards. It’s about being a family and making memories!

Being together. This year is particularly important to Mary because she spent most of the holiday season in and out of in-patient hospitalization last year. She ended up in a short-term residential placement following Christmas, but was able to come back successfully after that. She is panicked that she will miss out on something this year. She had been awakening at 5:00 AM each day in her fervor, shouting, “Is it Christmas yet? Is it time to do something fun? As a family? I’m doing it, too!!” I sleepily lift open one eyelid and nudge Luke in the side. It’s GOT to be his turn to explain the only thing our family should be doing at 5:00 AM is sleeping!

Visiting their former foster home.  We maintain connections. This is bitter sweet, for everyone. The wonderful foster couple that had Sean, and Mary for 2 years (and Carl for around 6 months) is always glad to see them. They can see how far the little chickens have come.  When we visit, the Littles are always happy to play with former foster siblings, and see their former foster parents. They refer to this couple as “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” They love this trip, but everyone has a hard time leaving, including me! Mary wailed on the way home, “Why can’t we just all live together?” We can’t. But we can stick together. We are all family now.

Happy family moments. Yes, happy family time can be a trigger. It is also necessary. Traumatized children need to experience PJ parties and family time. If we don’t provide the corrective experience about how families are supposed to spend time together, then they can never learn about it. By torturing them with family fun we are actually breaking a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma. After all, if you grow up believing families are supposed to fist-fight and make each other bleed, how will you then raise your family? So, yes, we teach our kids that moms and dads will wear matching PJs with you and dance in the kitchen. Christmas jammies are really Star Wars jammies in our home. We put them on, watch Christmas movies and, of course, the Holderness “Christmas Jammies” video in YouTube. Then we run our of milk and go to Big Y in matching jammies? Why? Because that is how this family rolls!

nativity

The holidays are not easy for children with complex trauma. Being adopted into a jammie-wearing-hug-giving-zombie-enthusiast family does not cure trauma. Love doesn’t even cure trauma. But it sure goes a long way in teaching these kids something new. I may be covered in baking flower (from making clay Christmas tree ornaments with the kids, which they subsequently tried to eat!) I may have a glow-in-the-dark zombie or two in my hair, and I may be wearing my matching family jammies. I may look like a mess. But I am also wearing a huge smile. A huge “isn’t-it-great-that-I-get-to-do-mom-stuff-because-I’m-their-mom?!?” smile. That’s me. Happy holidays!

 

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

*If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure.

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adoption disruption, family

False Allegations: Adventures in Knowing When to Throw in the Towel

And now I know. I know it’s done. At least, I know I’m done. I have to be. In truth, my husband Luke, has been done for awhile. The damage left in the wake of Sean has been nothing short of a tsunami.

Let’s start with the allegations. The investigation. It’s done, over, finished, and grandly ridiculous. Sean left our house amidst a storm of drama, rage, and physical violence that he perpetrated.  I was bleeding, we had damage done to our property and Carl had been shoved to the ground. It was a violent and scary scene. The state police came. They suggested that we press charges. We declined.

Weighing in at just under 230 lbs, Sean walked himself to the ambulance and got on laughing and joking with the staff. We chose in-patient treatment in the hopes of getting him some help. What mother would want to press domestic violence charges against her own son? I was hurt and angry and scared, yes, but I was still his mother. No, I didn’t want to press charges. Luke and I declined the officer’s suggestion. I hid my injuries in an upstairs bathroom, applying ice and bandages alone. I was scared and ashamed. I didn’t want to show anyone. I didn’t want to press charges against Sean.  It wasn’t until later that I learned we should have.

It wasn’t until later, when I was alone, that I destroyed his iPod, the object of the whole stupid dispute in the first place. My next step was to promptly forgive him and move on. We respected his wishes not to remain in our house. We even agreed with them, given the level of violence we had experienced at his hands. He wanted to live with his bio dad. We informed the DCF (still his legal guardian) of this. We told them he was always welcome back if he would agree to participate in his counseling, take the medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, and agree to a no-tolerance violence policy. I’d been injured one too many times. Luke and I both decided no more.

I mourned the loss of Sean. I irrationally waited for the day he would ask to come home. He was now in a foster home with Marcus, he was safe, but he wasn’t loved in the way a mom and dad would love him. I figured eventually he would miss his honors classes, art classes, outings with his friends, and family game night. He would have to miss baking cupcakes with me and binge-watching  iZombie episodes on Hulu. He would have to miss his little brother and sister. Right?

I tried hard to prepare myself for the possibility that he wouldn’t want to come home with us permanently. It was simply unfathomable to me that he would continue in his senseless adolescent rage. It was over the time his iPod was confiscated until he had finished taking out the trash and showering. I mean, he was just surviving, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he just confused?

Social workers came and went. They checked on our house and checked on our children. The in-home therapists processed the events with our Littles. Miraculously, tension and stress seemed to leave our Littles. They were actually more relaxed and less anxious. Things were going well. Still, I waited for Sean. I was like the golden retriever in a Disney movie, sitting by the window and waiting for it’s human to return, against all odds.

We saw him a month later, at his foster care review at the DCF office. These reviews occur every 6 months, and all parties are invited to attend and report on the progress of the children in their care. Marcus was there, too. Marcus ran and hugged Luke, exclaiming, “Hey Pops!” while ignoring their bio dad. I joked around with Marcus until the social worker attempting to run the meeting shushed us. Marcus gave me a conspiratorial grin, as if we were the class clowns interrupting the important DCF meeting.

I was cautious with Sean. He sat down next to me and said, “Hi” right away. I told him that his school pictures had come in and that he had smiled in them for the first time ever! (Sean rarely smiles in photos because he ends up talking to the photographer. He has years worth of open-mouthed startled looking school pictures.) We told him who got what position in the high school student government. He had been running for class treasurer  against a “frenenemy” of his. He seemed jovial and engaging. We left for the teen’s half of the meeting, although we weren’t sure why at the time. The stern DCF worker running the meeting told us we would be invited back for our children’s portion.

It wasn’t until a week later that we learned about the allegations Sean made in that meeting. After he had spoken so sweetly to us, after we had left the room feeling hopeful for some sort of future relationship, he had accused us of child abuse.

More specifically, he had accused me of physically harming him. His claims included me kicking him in the back and them picking him up and throwing him onto the bed (or maybe the floor?) He also alleged that I punched him, and Luke physically held him in the room. The latter part is somewhat true. Luke did hold him back by placing both hands on his chest, as I ran from Sean’s attack. Sean then punched Luke, to which Luke calmly replied, “Really? Really, Sean?” (Short of a nuclear attack, Luke is always calm and soft spoken.) However, Luke promptly stepped away as soon as I was safely locked in the bathroom, and allowed Sean to go outside the home. Then Luke called the social worker and called the police. Following the disruption we contacted all of the involved social workers and therapists. I even visited Sean in-patient and Luke packed and delivered his things. We thought that portion was over.

After the big review meeting at DCF,  Sean smiled and wished us well. It was a pleasant good-bye. Luke and I made bets that we would hear from him by the end of the week. Maybe he would just want to visit on a weekend. Maybe a day trip with the family? Certainly we assumed we’d have him with his siblings for a visit Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I got the call a few days later about the allegation. Our adoption finalization for Mary and Carl was put on hold pending the conclusion of the abuse investigation. A very nice worker came out and questioned all of us separately at our house. He met the Littles right off of the bus and we encouraged him to please feel free to drop in unannounced at any time. We had nothing to hide. We reviewed the allegations together and I showed him a picture of me with Sean. Sean and I are the same height. This teenager has almost 100 lbs on me. It is physically impossible for me to pick him up, let alone throw him. As for kicking him in the back? How would I have accomplished that? Like a Rockette? I’m certainly not flexible to kick up that high. We showed the worker the damage done to the window in Sean’s room. Again, I’m not physically capable of doing that kind of damage. Maybe I should start lifting some weights?

We provided this worker with the names and contact information of Sean’s therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and all of the crisis team who had been in our home,multiple times, for Sean’s anxiety attacks, Sean’s anger outbursts, and of course, his attempts to run away (mostly just sitting alone under the porch until he felt he needed snacks.) In addition we have him the contact information for Sean’s previous foster home (where he had also made an allegation when leaving) and the in-home therapy team who worked with the Littles and were in our home multiple times a week. Hey, raising kids with the issues our chickens have, isn’t easy. We have a big team. We do a damn good job considering the past trauma we are working with. Aside from my yelling at Sean that day, we don’t even raise our voices when the children have violent tantrums. A screaming child slamming things about is nothing new around here.

Our resources backed us up about going above and beyond for Sean. They gave information about our extensive training and use of therapeutic parenting strategies. They were able to confirm that we are relatively calm, level-headed, nonviolent parents. We do not participate in “holding therapy” or physical punishment or even grounding.They also confirmed that one must, indeed, shower and take out the trash to earn one’s electronics privileges.

I urged the worker to please follow up on the mental health services Sean was or was not receiving in foster care. He needed his therapy and his medical appointments. We were familiar with the home he was placed in, with Marcus. The foster parent was very nice, but the agency was slow moving. We worried about why Sean would be angry enough to do and say these things. Was he majorly depressed? Was he delusional? Was he manipulating this situation? In the end, did it even matter? I refuse to believe he just hates us out of the blue. I think he is hurting and confused and conflicted. And yes, he is also highly manipulative.

Since Sean had a prior history of false allegations, since the children and my husband corroborated my story, and since the mental health professionals Sean worked with had serious concerns about his mental health, we were in no real danger of losing our Littles. The only thing Sean really accomplished with this unfathomable attempt at revenge (or possible delusion?) was to delay the finalization of adoption for his two younger siblings. National adoption day came and went, and poor Mary missed out on a birthday sleepover because it didn’t take place at a DCF licensed home. She couldn’t go, because she was technically still a “foster kid.”

Luke and I asked ourselves a million times a day why he would do this. He loved the Littles. Why would he jeopardize their permanency? What if his plan had actually worked? What if someone had believed him and taken Mary and Carl? They didn’t have the same bio dad. Where would they go? Luke worried over this for some time. Statistically speaking, “older” children, sibling groups, and children with behavioral health concerns, are hard to place. They have a heart-breakingly small percentage chance of ever getting adopted, even less so of being kept together. Carl and Mary came with all of these caveats. Plus, they were our children now. Who else could herd our little chickens to-and-fro on this crazy adventure called “family?” Why try and take that from them?

We may never know his motivations. Trauma, neglect, and maladaptive survival skills play a role. We forgave him. We moved on. We hoped he would come around eventually. We hoped DCF would get him the help he so desperately needs. He certainly wouldn’t participate when we provided it.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving weekend. We took a trip to the former foster home where Carl had been for a few months, and Sean and Mary had stayed for almost 2 years. This couple is called “Grandma” and “Grandpa” by all of their current and former foster youth. They are a  friendly couple who have fostered over 500 children in their 40 years as foster parents.

We consider them extended family now. So do our children and hundreds of children before them. On this visit we learned that Sean had blocked his “Grandma” on Facebook. She had tried to reach out and check on him after the disruption, with no luck. He had, however, been in contact with other family members from Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They told us he was threatening to hurt himself because of the poor conditions in his new foster home. A few of the other children had seen on Facebook that he was making claims about how horrible his new placement is.

I can honestly say that we know this home and we know how sweet the foster mom is. She is religious, she is kind, and she strictly enforces house rules. She does not buy Sean electronics or art lessons as we had done. She does expect that chores are completed before dinner. In short, it’s a pretty normal foster home. But again, he is making allegations.

My first instinct was to run to him. Yes, it’s a nice foster home, but maybe he missed his real home. Maybe he missed us? Maybe he missed his bio dad? We had always provided those visits with bio dad so Luke and I assumed maybe he wasn’t getting them at all. Like I said, DCF can be slow to set things up. Visits, medical appointments, mental health services, can wait months and months if left solely to the department.

Luke and I dug a little deeper. We reached out to some contacts. It seems as if the real story is that bio dad is promising some material items, and fewer rules. DCF took until recently to approve overnight visits. Sean was looking for immediate reunification, and thus, he made the new allegations. I doubt he will hurt himself. I remember Sean threatening to tell others that he would hurt himself if I refused to buy him things or let him skip school, etc. But what if? What if this time it was for real?

But I was almost sucked back in. I was irrationally drawn to help him. I kept telling myself, he’s only 14. What if he is hurting? What if no one is noticing or caring about his serious depression? Maybe we should reach out. Who is going to take care of him? Then I realized he was still manipulating. Still surviving. It’s probably all he knows how to do.

I have to step away. I have to give up and throw in the towel. It seems easier for Luke, because Luke is so mad at all of the pain the teens have caused me. Until our  Littles are finalized in court, we can’t even think about involving ourselves with the older boys. At this point I have to accept defeat. Sean doesn’t want our family. He doesn’t even want us to have our family.

If I hadn’t fought for those boys until the very end, I could never have forgiven myself. I would always have wondered the difference I could have made if I only reached out a little more. Proved my love a little more. My love won’t change but my involvement has to.

It’s over now. I’m throwing in the towel. I wish Sean the best. Out of the 4 siblings, the 2 youngest are thriving. I forgive Sean for surviving the only way he knew how. Now I have to forgive myself for surviving. I can’t maintain contact because I will always fall for his sweet words. I can’t anymore.

We notified DCF of our concerns and support for the new foster parent.  But now I’m done. I hope he does well for himself. I may be throwing in the towel but I will never throw my title of “mom” away, no matter how briefly I held it for this boy. Although it is hard to remember sometimes, it isn’t us against the child. It’s us against his past. It’s us against his trauma. It’s us against his RAD. I just desperately hope that DCF or his bio-dad will take up that call to battle. After all, someone must fight for this boy. And it can no longer be us.

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

**If you have ever considered foster or adoptive care I would STILL encourage you to get started on your own adventure

***Photo and quote courtesy of “Great Big World” Facebook page.

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family

Coffee Pots and Closet Pee: Why are We Fighting Each Other?

“Foster kids are smelly. Foster kids pee in the closet. I don’t want to have any foster kids around here!” This from my 10-year-old son. My a-month-away-from-being-officially-adopted-but-still-technically-foster-kid-son. Apparently, in his last foster home, there was a foster child who urinated in the closet. Who knows? Maybe they were too scared in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Maybe they were mad. Maybe they hated closets. Maybe it was my son.

And it’s not just the odd pee location that bothers him. Their very existence is irksome. He will often take the time to note the many differences he can find between himself and the “fosters.” He has a burning need to show how he is different. How is not like them. How he is NOT a “foster.”

The urination reference is not the part that bothers me. What I find disturbing is his absolute vehemence about distancing himself from those “foster” kids. The ones that are just like he used to be. He says the word almost like he is naming a horrible disease. Why is it that he can find so much animosity within himself towards kids he doesn’t know? Towards kids that have so many similarities to him?

The other day I was listening to foster parents talking. It was in a “support” group setting. A few mothers had gathered in a small group, near the coffee pot, and were avidly discussing something. There was a lot of eye rolling and shaking their heads. Since they were all standing around the coffee machine I got a little nervous. they seemed exasperated about something and I was praying it wasn’t the coffee.  I am, admittedly, a pretty intense coffee addict.

Luckily for me, the coffee was fine. Score. What was not so fine? These women were critiquing a member of our support group.  A new foster mom who had asked several questions about supervised visits. This, after she had already asked about cutting the child’s hair on a separate occasion! As it turned out, there was another parent being discussed. I heard every mom say, “Well I would never” or “I, obviously, would have handled that differently.” The other parent in question? She was considering medication to help the child in her care. Imagine my surprise. Parents, in a support group, asking for support and information from parents who were in the same “foster” boat. Shocking!!!

I was utterly baffled by the animosity of these women towards other women. Other moms. Other foster moms, just like them. Why? I started noticing this more and more. I know there are the so-called “mommy wars” out there. The wars are about public school vs. homeschool, breast feeding vs. bottle feeding, working vs. stay-at-home. But foster mom wars? Why? There aren’t enough of us to begin with. Shouldn’t we be working together to grow our skill sets and make connections? Build support and community?  Other mommy wars are all about doing it “right” or doing it “better.” I would think we would just be proud of each other for doing it at all.

This wasn’t the first coffee pot conversation, wither. isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed foster parents gathered together playing the “who is the most therapeutic” game. I started to wonder if there was something in the coffee! I hope not, because I CANNOT stop drinking the stuff, no matter what! The question remained, would I, too, succumb to the coffee pot effect? Would I start to judge other foster parents? Would I start competing to be the best, most qualified, foster parent?

The bigger question is why would foster parents participate in mom-shaming and in-fighting? Are they just mean? Are they mad? Are they actually super-human and annoyed with the rest of us? It can’t be the coffee. It just can’t be. Rather than being concerned about the foster moms who were “not getting it” or “not doing it the right way” I was concerned for the moms who were judging. The foster moms complaining  seemed to be the the ones in need, not the moms reaching out for support and advice.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of these mommy wars, I had to put on my Heather T Forbes glasses and look again. This time I saw a different picture. These moms were angry, sure. But was it it really anger? No. It was fear. Fear of making parent mistakes. Fear of not knowing what they are doing all of the time. Fear that all of their efforts may not result in lasting changes for the child and/or birth family.

I also saw shame. Some of the very women (and maybe men, although I have only personally witnessed this in moms. It could be the exact same thing in dad groups) who railed against foster parents for disrupting placements, had disrupted themselves. Foster moms saying, “these people are not equipped to foster,” or “they expect perfect children, they don’t understand foster kids” may have felt this way about themselves at one time. They are the same moms who were utterly baffled when their first placement slept with a rotting banana hidden in their bed. That same parent now vehemently despises when parents “refuse to understand” food hoarding issues in traumatized children.

This brings me back to the pee in the closet. My son seeks to distance himself from “fosters” because he can see parts of himself reflected back. He is ashamed. Maybe he is ashamed of his own trauma reactions. Maybe he feels ashamed that it is somehow his fault that his bio-mom couldn’t take care of him. How should I treat him now? Should I affirm that “those fosters” are, indeed, smelly and bad? Should I list other bad things fosters have done because they “refuse to understand” their own trauma? No way! We all know this would be cruel. So why would we do it with each other?

With my Heather T. Forbes glasses on, I can acknowledge his feelings. I can look inside myself and see my own fears about being a good parent. I can acknowledge and accept my own weaknesses. I get to his level, look in his eyes, and try to understand and empathize. I continue building connection with him, I listen to him.

Now back to the coffee pot crew. These women have fear. They have shame. They also have a deep and abiding commitment to fostering and working with children. I take a deep breathe. I empathize with them and acknowledge their feelings of frustration. I acknowledge their fear. I will do the same for the foster mom who disrupted, or doesn’t understand why there is pee in the closet. We should ALL do the same. If we are so well trained to respond to kids’ emotional turmoil, let us try and do the same for each other. We already know how to respond therapeutically. Now let’s extend this grace to our peers. We need to support this tiny community. We need to grow this tiny community.

I believe that foster parents can learn how to deal with the pee in the closet. They can learn why the rotting banana is so important (and how to replace it with a non-perishable bed-buddy, like a granola bar.) What we need is for foster parents to vent to each other, not the children in their care. We need to offer empathy and suggestions. We can work together to grow this team. We don’t need to be better than one another. It is alright that you are scared. It is alright that you feel overwhelmed. Your feelings are OK. We need to be strong as a whole. This is important work, right?

Hey, if I’m wrong, if many people should just stop fostering, go ahead and tell me all about it. Troll me on Facebook support groups if you like. Just be sure and pass the coffee first!

 

**Names in the “Herding Chickens” blog have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

  • Photographs courtesy of Huffingtonpost.com and clipart

*If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure.

 

 

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adoption, family

Adventures in an Open and Shut Adoption

door

Just like that, our open adoption was shut. She refused to see their school pictures. She wouldn’t look at the pictures I texted to the oldest biological sibling. There were no more visits. She would no longer acknowledge the children she gave birth to. The pain was too great for her.

To do this story justice is have to start from the beginning. I’d have to start with her trauma, her losses, her past. I can’t because I don’t know it. I do know that she had several diagnosed mental health disorders. She had struggles with substance abuse. I know that she reported being abused and traumatized in some way, but I’m not sure how or where. That is her story and she has a right to it. It may not excuse some of the acts she’s committed or the choices she’s made, but it makes sense to me. After all, trauma begets trauma.

She had 7 children in total, by 4 different fathers. The Department of Children and Families ended up with custody of 6 of them. The oldest daughter has children of her own after spending years raising our little chickens. I’ve tried to reach out to her, but we’ve only spoken twice. She has financially and physically supported her mother on and off through the years. It may be too much of a loyalty conflict for her to make contact with us.

We save pictures. We keep school pictures and sports photos of the kids. We always order extra for the biological family. Most of the pictures ended up sitting in the DCF office, probably collecting dust. We used to provide them to the social worker for the biological mother, hoping she would ask for them. Now, we know differently.

We had an open adoption agreement. We agreed to 3 visits a year plus letters and photos. Soon after that, she violated the agreement. And then she did it again. And again. Therefore, she forfeited her legal right to the agreement.

So is it over? Are we relieved? Are we “done” with this birth mom? No. Of course not.

I believe in open adoption to the extent that is best for the child. Our children have both good and bad memories of this woman. It is our job, as parents, to honor their “first mom.”

We acknowledge their painful memories, hurts, and trauma. Yes, these things happened. Their anger is OK. We also acknowledge their happy memories, their grief, and their love. These things are also true. Their love is OK.

There are times when our Littles want to remember more than they do. I have reached out to their older bio sister in order to provide pictures and little anecdotes from their childhood. What songs did Birth Mom like to sing? She was creative with art projects, just like our Littles. She had the most beautiful eyelashes, just like our Littles. She ate carrots with salt while pregnant with Mary, so, of course, we all tried it to see if we would like it.

I scoured Facebook to find pictures of biological relatives the Littles don’t see in person anymore. I sent away to Shutterfly to get Lifebooks filled with whatever pictures I could find of their “first-family” members. My kids deserve this. They deserve to know.

I save their class pictures and sports pictures in a memory box. It’s for her. Someday, when she is ready, it’s there. Our therapists are working with the Littles to write letters to her, if they choose. We will keep it in a memory box. It will be there for her. Someday, when she’s ready, it’s there. If she is a never ready? The Littles will know we tried.

I don’t believe she is a bad person. She made some very bad choices. Yes, she did things that hurt my children. But that doesn’t negate her love for them or her role in our family. She may be in such pain and turmoil that she cannot attempt to see or hear about her birth children. It’s OK. Luke and I will love them and take care of them. She needs to take care of herself right now.

We will be their last parents. We will do what’s best for them. Respecting their past is best for them.

Adoption isn’t about us. It’s about them. Isn’t all parenting the same in this way? We sacrifice, we do the best we can, we love and love and love.

We wanted a family. We didn’t want the “perfect baby” to be an accessory to our story, like a handbag or shoes. We wanted these children to grow and change our family. They came with birth parents. They came with history. It is our job to shift this family dynamic in order to accommodate them.

We opened our adoption. She shut the the door. Right now, she can’t face it. That’s OK. From our side? This door is still open. If visits aren’t healthy, we still have the memory box. For when she’s ready. On our side, the door is open.
** Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

* If you’ve ever considered fostering or adoption go encourage you to start your own adventure!

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adoption, family

Smiling at My Daughter’s Tears: Adventures in Overcoming PTSD Symptoms

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This is the first time I am happy to see her cry. In fact, I’m overjoyed. Our little girl has buried her face in my sweater and she is sobbing. I’m crying, too, but I am mostly excited for her.

A year and a half ago, Luke and I were blessed to bring Mary and her siblings home. At the time she was just 7 years old. She was described in her pre-adoption paperwork as “selectively mute” outside of her foster home. In public, she would cling to her older brother, look at her shoes, and flinch away from others.

She wouldn’t speak to her first grade teacher when she was in foster care. She didn’t participate in any groups, teams, or activities outside of the home. This was mostly due to her trauma. She was scared. She was intent on staying “safe,” which is all part of her PTSD.

When we brought Mary home, she was adamant that she would never join a team. She didn’t want to take dance or try sports. She claimed she “needed to be home with Mama.” Carl was the opposite, he jumped right in to every sport he could. None of the children had the chance to participate in any sports or activities while in foster care. They didn’t have this opportunity in their bio home, either. The parts of my childhood that I took for granted were completely foreign to our little chickens.

For awhile, Mary simply had therapy as her extra curricular activity. We tried to take her to basketball, but took one look at a loud room full of men and boys, and screamed and cried for her daddy to “protect her.” This kind of crying was the kind we were used to. It was fear and anxiety and downright terror at anything she perceived as threatening. This was her PTSD telling her that she wasn’t safe yet. This season, she joined the cheer-leading  squad, in order to cheer for Carl’s football team.

Today is the day that she did a perfect cartwheel, in front of a crowd. Mary didn’t have the type of early childhood filled with cartwheels and skipping and jump rope. These things are all new to her. She spent weeks learning to cartwheel with Luke in the backyard. Today is the day she did it! In front of a huge crowd!

The best part for me, was that my mom was there. She lives far away and she flew in to spend time with us. We all need our moms, no matter how old we are! My mom has had the opportunity to see our kids grow and blossom over time. I think every time she comes she is able to see huge improvements. Since Luke and I are here every day, we have to remind ourselves to look back at how far we have come as a family. Our little chickens are healing.

Today, Mary is a completely different child. She is so brave. Today, our little Mary just won her first medal at a cheer-leading competition. She is crying tears of joy because she never won anything before. Ever. I’ve never see her cry tears of joy before. Ever.

Luke and I won, though. We won big time when we got to be her parents. We have been winning every day we are blessed to hear her call us “mom” and “dad”. No matter what has happened with the teens, or what we have been through, we have this. We have her first medal hanging in our house. It’s a third place win, and she was so happy that she sobbed after winning it. At the end of the day, we must be doing something right.

 

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

If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to start your own adventure today!

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family

Review of the Multimedia Guide “Surviving the Holidays Without a Child”

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The scent of cinnamon spiced eggnog and sugar cookies. The sight of Christmas lights twinkling brightly on a tree. The sound of relatives or friends asking invasive personal questions about family planning. “When are you two going to have children?” You guessed it. Christmas.

To be honest, this isn’t a problem my husband and I faced. We have always done things a bit differently, so it’s quite possible that friends and family just learned to roll with the punches. We decided to get married within 2 months of dating. We got married on a Tuesday, a year to the day after our first date.  I wore a black dress to our wedding and there were only 6 people in attendance, including the Justice of the Peace. The list goes on from there.

We had always planned on adopting from foster care, so it was a shock to no one when we started down that path. We were often asked why we didn’t “decide to have our own” children first. I was never quite sure what to say about it. Sometimes I said, “Why did you decide to give birth?” For the most part, our family didn’t ask too many questions and let us do our thing, our own way. This isn’t always so for couples who are experiencing infertility and/or awaiting the long process of adoption. In order to help with this, Dawn Davenport, and Creating a Family.org, have created a guide to help manage the holidays. The complete guide is entitled, “Surviving the Holidays Without a Child.” It is completely free and you can download your copy at this link:

https://creatingafamily.org/guide-to-surviving-the-holidays-without-a-child/

Overall the guide was informative and interesting. I plan on using some of the suggestions to explain the absence of our teen-aged boys. This may be my hardest Christmas yet, so I am glad I have my guide. These are my favorite things about the survival guide:

It is Universal- No matter what your situation is with starting a family, the holidays are always a tough time. Everyone generally expects you to be merry and happy with family all around you. It simply isn’t the case for everyone. This guide gives practical advice, that can be applied to any situation during the holidays that causes you distress. For example, my personal guide would be entitled, “Surviving the Holidays Without My Two Disrupted Sons” or “Surviving the Holidays After Adoption Disruption.”

It Offers Practical Advice- The guide gives tips and tricks for handling emotional distress around this time. This includes exercise and rest as well as physical signs of stress. It tells you what to do in order to avoid triggers and stay sane. It also includes multimedia sources such as audio, blog posts, and articles.

It Acknowledges The Truth of Our Feelings- I am so happy that instead of telling women to hide their feelings, or act differently, it acknowledges the truth of our feelings. We all have triggers, we all get sad, we all feel the way we feel. Period. Thankfully this guide embraces that fact.

It Gives You a Practical Script of What to Say- Ever been in a situation where you don’t know how to respond to a very personal question? This guide offers phrases to use when answering sensitive questions.

It Gives You a Snarky Script of What to Say- This guide also adds some humor and levity to a heavy subject. Let’s face it, we don’t always want to be nice about this stuff! I may even use some of the one-liners myself when answering an inappropriate adoption question!

Whatever your family situation, I would highly recommend grabbing your own copy. After all, it’s free!

*Image courtesy of CreatingaFamily.org

If you’ve ever considered foster care and/or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your adventure today!

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family, fostercare, mental illness

Belief in One Girl: The Argument FOR Medication In Foster Care

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It’s taken me quite some time to decide if I should share something this intimate, this painful.  The reason I blog is to give hope to other trauma mamas. I also blog to give TRUTH to other families going into foster care and adoption. People need to know what it’s like herding chickens! Sometimes I only wish I knew then, what I know now.

I’m about to tell a very raw, very real, and very ugly story. It’s also an amazing and very hopeful story.

There are some things about my children that I’ve been reluctant to share. What if they read this someday? What if they are horrified to see these intimate details out in the world? I balance this with the fear that there is a family out there, somewhere, debating if it will ever get better. Debating if they can do this any longer. This family needs to know that it’s possible before giving up on a child/ children from the foster care system.

This story is about the face of trauma and attachment challenges and a genetic predisposition for mental health disorders. This story is about the face of a little girl the first time she actually feels safe enough to admit she loves her new parents.

Foster kids come to us from a variety of backgrounds. They come from broken homes, abuse, or neglect. Sometimes they come from homes of crippling mental health concerns. Sometimes they come quite by mistake from healthy families. Either way, they all come out of their home and into ours. No matter what preceded it, this is a crushing trauma. All foster care starts with trauma.

“The Over Medication of Children in Foster Care” seems to be a big headline these days. A few years ago the headlines were all about kids in group homes and not with families. Are these connected? I believe so. I often hear statements such as, “I don’t believe in medication.”  It isn’t a religion. It isn’t a political stance. Since when did choices about our children’s health start falling into the “belief” range? Truth be told, unless your religion prescribes an actual belief about medication (and some do) wouldn’t this be more of a “preference?” I don’t believe either way about medication. I believe in my child. I don’t care about medication. I care about my child.

When we first brought the children home, it was after 4 months of overnight visits, phone calls, and traveling out-of-state to be at their school functions. We knew them fairly well by the time they came home. We were trained, ready, and prepared. Or so we thought…

The 4 siblings had been split up into 3 separate foster homes for their 3 years in care.  Only one of the children was receiving any kind of counseling. Coming into our home permanently was an enormous change for them.

Placing them all together again, with a set of forever parents, triggered their survival skills big time. It started with hoarding food and hiding food in their rooms. This progressed into urination and deification in odd places such as the trash can or the towels.

It quickly turned violent. Mostly towards mom, but also towards each other. They would try to push each other out of a moving vehicle if they even suspected the other had more food or more attention. They hit me, yelled at me, and threatened me , “you’re gonna be sorry!” They also screamed in terror every time I raised my arms to adjust my ponytail. They were waiting for me to hit them. History had taught them that moms hit, moms are drunk, and moms don’t feed you.

This was pretty typical trauma behavior. So we did what foster parents do. Did we go right for medication? No! We sought out counseling for our children. We went to a support group. We read all the books. What we didn’t bargain on was the extreme reaction of our youngest child.

The trauma of the move into our home, impending adoption, and trauma triggers of living with her brothers again, weighed on her. This was nothing compared to her early onset mental illness. The poor girl.

There was a strong history of mental illness in the maternal side of the birth family. Combined with precocious puberty, and all of the changes in her life, she entered into the perfect storm.

At first she would scream and cry alone in her room. This could be over any problem such as seeing a stray cat, being asked to let someone’s else steer the shopping cart, or even an argument she got into with her backpack one time. She would yell out, “Stop murdering me!” And “Owie, owie, oww!”while all alone. She threw herself straight down the stairs, stiff as a board.

Sometimes she would begin laughing hysterically for no reason and then immediately shift into screaming and pulling her hair. She would attack us and her brothers. She stabbed us with pencils and threw shoes at us. She tried to grab the car keys and drive the car. She ran into traffic many times.  She would smash her head against the wall over and over. She bit us. She bit herself. These things happened multiple times a day. Every day. It wasn’t safe to drive her to therapy because she would try to shove her brother out of the car, or jump out of the car, while it was moving. We were trapped at home during the summer months because it took 2 adults to transport her anywhere and my husband was at work.

Once, following an out-patient therapy session, she had a full-blown tantrum in the parking lot. Her three brothers and I got her in the car. The child locks were on so I settled in with her brothers to keep her from climbing out of the hatchback on our SUV. She smashed her head against the glass, tried to kick out a window with her feet, and tore at my clothes. The entire time she screamed, “Somebody help me! Help! Ouch! Owie!” We were there for an hour and then bystanders called the police. Once the police came she cowered in my lap and begged me to protect her. She begged me not to send her away.

There were many times she sobbed that she was an awful girl and no one would ever adopt her. She said she wished she was dead. She clung to me and hugged me and panicked if I was out of sight. She never slept for more than 45 minutes at a time. Ever. We constantly had to watch her vigilantly for the safety of her brothers.

We found scissors in her room, hidden under the mattress.  At 44lbs. she could pick up and drop her bed, complete with heavy wooden bed frame. There were holes in the drywall, closet doors hanging by their hinges, and broken windows. The adrenaline kicked her into super human strengths when she was afraid. I wore long skirts and long sleeves throughout the summer months to cover my bruises and bite marks.

Did she do any of this because she was “bad?” Of course not! This little girl was surviving. It was taking everything she had just to live in a family setting, surrounded by love. She loved us so fiercely that she was afraid. She pushed us away because she only knew loss and grief.

In her first 9 months home, she was hospitalized at an in-patient psychiatric unit 5 times. She went to a short-term residential facility once. Mary spent most of her first year home in a partial hospitalization program. Then an intensive outpatient program. We had intensive in-home therapy services, too. My husband and I participated in family therapy, trauma therapy and training.

Did all of this therapy work? Well, she could talk the talk, but she couldn’t access the skills when she needed them. Our daughter was in a heightened state of fear all of the time. She was trying her hardest just to survive. Her nightmares never let her sleep. Ever. I would often wake to find her standing over our bed silently.

Once, after trying to escape our moving vehicle on the highway, she told me “I can’t live like this. My feelings are just too BIG. No one understands what this feels like!”

She needed the help of medication to access the skills she was learning in therapy. It’s not a religion. Sometimes people ask me if I “believe” in medication. Believe in it? Don’t believe in it? That sounds more like a question for scientific research and the FDA. I’m not talking about snake oil magic potions here. I’m talking about psychotropic medications that are sometimes used for children. And, yes, sometimes they are necessary.

It’s not a matter of “making it easier to parent them” or “making things better for parents.” It is a matter of life and death. Permanency versus disruption. Home with family or hospitalized. Again. Type 1 diabetics require insulin to live. Some children require glasses to read. Some children with psychiatric conditions require medication to function in the world. Why would I ever deny my child what she needed?

There has been a lot of media coverage in the last year about medication over-use in foster care. Yes, there are certainly cases where a child is medicated without therapy and behavioral interventions. That’s terrible and probably not very effective. A treatment plan should have many components and should always include therapy for the foster child, if not the entire family unit. If therapy isn’t working, and medication isn’t an option, then kids disrupt. Families cannot manage like this long-term. Many would not. Many would give up.

Then foster kids move into a “therapeutic” or “intensive” foster homes. Often, they are moving away from their siblings who just may be the only stability they’ve ever known. If this doesn’t help they may end up in group homes or bouncing from place to place when their behaviors become too much for one family.

Let me be clear. The behaviors are a symptom. They are a symptom of trauma. They are a symptom of pain and grief and loss. They are often a symptom that the child is developing the very mental illness that prevented a birth parent from actually parenting them. We need to treat the problem the child has, not just the symptoms.

But, if the symptoms prove too much for the child to access therapy and healing? Treat them in addition! Treat them with medication if needed. Every child will need something different. Why would we toss out a whole category of help because it comes in the form of medication? Why not do whatever is best for the individual child?

I am aware that there are side effects. I am aware that we may be changing her brain chemistry. I hope we are. In this case, the benefit outweighed the risks. If she hadn’t settled into a family? If she hadn’t learned to love? If she hadn’t been able to access therapy? She would have been lost in a foster care cycle that too often repeats across generations. We would not give up on her or leave her to that fate. Our little girl deserved a family. She needed a family. She needed us. 

After her medication was right? The uncontrollable raging stopped. It ended. It’s been over 8 months since she had a violent outburst. She is still working through major trauma and emotional issues. We still have in home and outpatient therapy services to support her. But she is with us. She is functioning in a family setting. We can use the car and go places. She sleeps through the night now, on most nights. She isn’t having toileting accidents out of fear and anxiety anymore. Instead, she is making friends, playing with barbies, and hunting for bugs in the yard. She leaves me sweet little “I love mommy” notes and she means it.  She is loved beyond imagining.

Will she be on medication forever? It’s a possibility, given her diagnosis. I hope not, but we will face whatever comes. She is our daughter. Our heart. Our littlest chicken.

Here’s the thing. My daughter’s past does not define her. Her trauma will not define her. She is more than just a mental illness. She is more than just a series of behaviors. Now she is able to shine because those things are all getting better.

She is just a normal little girl, experiencing a normal childhood. It took a long time to get there. It took  a lot for her to trust in us never to leave her. She was able to get there because she had the right supports, including medication.

This is just one story. It is a beautiful story. It is a story of hope and healing and family. It is the story of a little girl brave enough to try to love again. Brave enough to heal.

When did this ever become a conversation about “beliefs?” If you believe in one thing, I urge you to believe in the power of love. Medicate or don’t medicate, I won’t judge you. It isn’t fair of us, as a society, to pass so much judgement on parents. Why do we do this?

Have compassion. Know that all kids are different, and kids in care are traumatized to a whole other level. If we want to stop passing kids around from home to home? If we want to break the cycles of mental illness, trauma, and abuse? We need to be open to anything that works.

Yes, the number of children in foster care on psychotropic medication is vastly disproportionate to the general population. However, all of our kids in care have experienced huge trauma. It may be hard for us to comprehend a hurt that big in the general population. I have no idea how hard that must be. I will not judge another family for trying to help their child any way they can.

I urge you to remember our story. We never gave up. We do believe in something. It has nothing to do with medication. We believe in the power of love.

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

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