adoption, family

Home Again: the Prodigal Son Returns

He’s home. He’s finally home. If I peek into his room I can barely make out his sleeping form beneath the covers and beneath the dog. The huge sense of relief I feel overwhelms me even now. I am not even sure where to begin with this post.

 Marcus, our “prodigal” son will turn 20 next week. Some of you may remember when he disrupted from our home after a tumultuous few months prior to what would have been his adoption. (Thank you, by the way, for all of your kind emails and comments.)

This happened rather suddenly. He’d just been to see us for a visit on his brother Carl’s birthday. I think it reminded him what being in a family looks like. I believe that in this trip we somehow managed to show Marcus we were really there for him. Despite the fact that we never officially adopted him, we are here in all the ways that really count.

It happened during a workshop I attended. There was a panel of former foster youth speaking about what they wished foster/adoptive parents knew. I will never forget the one young man who had moved “home” at 25 after the death of his biological mother. He affectionately referred to the couple next to him as his parents. He had no hesitation about belonging to more than one family.

I’m embarrassed to say that I started tearing up as he told his story. I mean, how on earth did they convince him that it was OK to love two families? How was he so well-adjusted? Did it come with time? Would we ever get there with Marcus? Because honestly? Dropping him off and leaving was the hardest thing to do.

Right in the middle of the panel I got a message from him: “I need a place to stay. Can you please pick me up?” Life is full of strange coincidences. I know it wasn’t ideal for him to get kicked out of the place he was staying. I know he can only manage a few months of love and family at a time. I know this may not Work out well at all. I know he is on his way to Job Corps as soon as his medical clears.  I’m happy about it all the same. Because I am not perfect.  Because I am selfish. Because I missed my son.

 

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

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adoption, family

Making Room for Bio Family 


The game of bananagrams is like Scrabble in the way that you make words out of letter tiles. It is unlike Scrabble in the way that each player is going as fast as they can, at the same time. Players are rearranging words to fit the new letter tiles they grab every time someone calls “peel!”

You start with 12 tiles. When you’ve connected all of them into words you can call a “peel” and everyone must add one additional letter tile into a word. You often have to break apart words you’ve already made and create something new.

Adopting our siblings was much like the beginning part of the game. We started with a bunch of unconnected letters and put them all together into a pattern that became “family.” Things don’t stay the same, though. When the two oldest disrupted and left for greener pastures, we rearranged our words once more into a new pattern. When my parents moved from Missouri to Connecticut to be with us, we added to our pattern.

Carl turned 12 last week. He wanted a few things. He asked for the usual things: Pokémon cards, Star Wars action figures, a card game called Phase 10 etc. Then he asked for something else. He wanted his biological father to come to his football game. I’m not sure if it was because he was a starter this year or because Bio Dad’s birthday card reminded him. Either way, it was his choice, and I was determined to make it happen, if I could.

A few days prior I had messaged Bio Dad on Facebook to remind him about Carl’s 12th birthday. BD forgets the birthdays unless I remind him. I think it’s more indicative of not living with the children, or having difficulties with organization than anything else. As soon as I remind him he sends a beautiful card and some money for Carl. The card says, “I hope you enjoy this day with your family.” Every card he sends reminds the children that he will always love them.

When I ask if he and his wife would be willing to make the one-and-a-half hour drive to attend the game, he immediately agrees. I give him the address to come to our tiny town with historic brick walkways and towering green forests. I’m hoping it looks nice and not boring compared to the city BD’s family lives in. After all, our “downtown” consists of only one street, albeit one with historical New England charm.

The game itself goes better than I could have imagined. It’s a close game, and we are up by one point until the fourth quarter, when the other team gets a touchdown and wins. BD comes with his new wife and a son he has from a different relationship named E. Luke is the volunteer EMT, sitting inside the fence, directly on the field. Marcus sits with him because he cannot stand Mary and Carl’s BD.

This leaves me in the stands with BD, new wife, and Little E. Eventually my mom comes to watch the second half. We all sit together. We all cheer together. I explain some of the plays (poorly.) Every time Carl’s name is announced on the loudspeaker all 7 of us go wild. He has the biggest cheering squad of anyone here.

The day is remarkably pleasant. Some of the interaction is strained but not nearly as much as I had assumed. They love the game. They love the town. Marcus and BD do not interact and therefore no one is required to break up a fight. BD and family compliment our little town and tell us they took pictures everywhere. I point out where Carl goes to school so they can see this too.

At one point I actually hit BD in the arm. Well it’s more of a back handed smack on his arm. Ok more of a series of rapid back-handed smacks on his arm. It isn’t my fault! I was so excited about a tackle that Carl made! I was overexcited and cheering and it just happened. Luckily he just laughed it off. I mean, what is the worst thing I could do in this situation? Hitting is definitely in the top 5 of things you should NOT do to your child’s biological family.

After the game Carl is studious about hugging every person who came to see him. He glows with pride over our compliments. Even though the team lost, he played very well. I leave Luke to handle the visit, exchange of presents, and good-byes. It’s time to drive Marcus back to his girlfriend’s apartment. The one she loves in with her mother, who is also Little E’s mother. BD seems unaware that Little E and Marcus live together. He asked me if Marcus lives with us. To make matters worse, Marcus’ BD and this BD do not get along either and Marcus is back in contact with his BD. Throughout the game, Little E kept giving me details about Marcus like his age and favorite color. Awkward.

Needless to say, I hasten our exit. I know how aggressive Marcus can be when he is angry with someone. The next night my Facebook messenger is flooded with pictures. BD has sent me baby pictures of Mary and Carl. Some alone, some with him, and some with Bio Mom. This is a treasure trove of items we have never been able to give them. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. BD did not give his children up willingly. But BD is forging this new relationship willingly. I am beyond grateful.

I’m pretty sure this contact means Carl is rearranging the pattern of his family. He is adding new tiles and fitting them in where he can. I don’t know where things will go from here. Two successful visits make me feel optimistic.

 

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

 

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adoption, family

Rearview Mirror: My Prodigal Son

“It’s your brother’s birthday party this weekend. I wish you were coming. We all miss you.” I sent this Facebook message onto the cybersphere with little hope of a response. It’s been a few months since we’ve heard from Marcus, our “prodigal son.” I went off of the assumption that he had just ghosted out again. He does this often. Eventually I figured he’d contact us if he needed something.

Imagine my surprise when the phone chirped back with, “I wud love to go.”

Just like that, our oldest was back in our orbit. He told me he had “big news.” Marcus insisted he could only tell me in person. My stomach dropped as I immediately tried not to think of the possibility that he was having a baby.  I’m pretty sure that I kept my fingers crossed the entire way to pick him up for the weekend.

Pulling up to a tiny, dingy, brick duplex, I spotted him hoisting an oversized zebra-print duffel bag onto his shoulder. It had pink writing on the pockets, and there was a pouch for a bottle on the side. Gulp. Marcus hopped into the car, stating the bag was his girlfriends. He is now living with this latest girlfriend-and-her-mother. Another girlfriend, another mother, another home, rinse, repeat. This is Marcus’ cycle. There are many people residing in the tiny apartment, including the younger brother (paternal) to Mary and Carl (Marcus has a different father.) Imagine trying to explain that our oldest son is living with his siblings’ younger sibling. Oh and he is also dating that sibling’s oldest sister. Sure….

Anyway, the visit went the same as usual. Marcus wanted to drive everywhere. He wanted to take out the trash, run the errands, help out around the house. We played Bananagrams (his favorite) and card games into the night. He gave Carl a ninja turtle Lego set and a red fidget spinner. He got me iced coffee from the local Dunkin’ Donuts. In other words, classic Marcus, or at least classic when he’s in his good place.

When he finally shared his big news, I could have cried with relief and happiness. Marcus signed up for the Job Corps’ electrician program. He’d have a guaranteed place to stay. He’d would have food, supervision, and training.  Did this mean he would be OK? Maybe I could stop wondering “what-if” with Marcus. Maybe he was doing alright despite never having been adopted. 

Driving home he recounted his weekend highlights. He loved visiting the farm where he had riding lessons when he lived with us. He loved Carl’s birthday party. His absolute favorite thing was going to the batting cage with Luke. It was one of those classic father-son moments where Luke taught him how to swing and how to watch for the ball. The difference being that most kids do this with their dad at a young age, not at age 19.

And then he played me Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s song “Trap House.”

“I used to have a trap house,” he commented nonchalantly. I could see him glance over at me to gauge my reaction. I froze in place, staring straight ahead at the road. A drug house. He used to sell drugs.

“After we knew you?” I asked quietly in a tightly-controlled voice.

“After I left.”

After you left which time??” I ground out each word with effort. It was when he was 18 and living with yet-another-girlfriend-and-her-mother. Rinse, repeat. I catch my breathe and sit in silence until I am sure I will not scream. Why did he choose this life over our family? Why?

It hurt to get the words out. “Do you know that I’ve never wanted anything from you except for you to be happy? I’ve only wanted for you to have a good life. I can’t make your decisions for you. No matter how you feel about me, I will always consider you to be my oldest. I will always care about you. I will never stop worrying. I will never stop asking myself why you couldn’t let us take care of you. ”

Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. When he got out of the car he caught me up in an enormous hug. Words of apology for his past choices washed over me. Reassurances that he was “staying away from that stuff” filtered through my ears like so much white noise. How many times over the years have we repeated this same conversation?

Driving away, I could see him standing in the road, adjusting his zebra-striped duffel bag  higher up on his shoulder. He looked so small. A part of me wonders if I’ll spend the rest of my days looking into the rearview mirror at Marcus.

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

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adoption, family

Dear Teacher…


I often struggle with how to explain my child’s trauma-related behavior to new teachers. Being a teacher myself, I know that we don’t have time to review much at the start of the school year. We are too busy reading your childrens’ IEPs and 504 plans while filling out mountains of paperwork. I don’t have all the answers, but here is what I wrote to introduce Carl to his teachers. Please comment with anything YOU use at the beginning of the school year.

The Talented and Amazing Carl !

If you are reading this, you have the tremendous honor of teaching the death-defying, brave, and fearless (except for spiders) Carl! Congratulations! (Picture a crowd going wild.)

I’m his mom, and believe me, we got lucky too. I guess you’re in good company. We met Carl when he was 8-years-old and in the foster care system. We adopted him, and his younger sister, Mary.

Carl is an amazing kid. He hates spiders and vegetables despite what his mother tells him. He is sensitive to gooey materials, bugs, and the dark. When Carl first came home he couldn’t read that well. After a lot of practice, and the Wilson reading program, he is now an avid reader. When it’s time to pull him out of a Harry Potter book we generally employ the use of a fishing line or long cane to retrieve him.

In addition to being an avid reader, he loves history. Carl is a history buff with a strong interest in Betsy Ross and all things colonial America. Every season Carl plays a different sport. He’s a linebacker in football, a “middie” in lacrosse, and something-or-other I can’t remember in basketball. He’s very athletic and it’s a great way for him to manage his ADHD and blow off some steam. It’s also a great excuse for his dad to yell loudly at sporting events and wave his arms all around.

As a family we are active supporters of child labor. To this end Carl is now able to wash his own laundry, mow the lawn and vacuum like a boss. He can also brew me a mean cup of coffee on the Keurig machine! We pay him a small pittance for his efforts, of course, because…child labor.

Sometimes, due to his history of complex PTSD, Carl has trouble controlling his temper. His brain goes into fight/flight mode and it’s best to give him some space. If he feels cornered or pursued his body reacts as though he were in actual physical danger. If he needs a consequence or a reminder, it’s best to have him take a bit of space first. This way he can be calm enough to process what you’re saying. If he appears agitated or fidgety you may want to send him on an errand. I strongly suggest sending him to make you a cup of coffee in the teachers’ lounge. Or maybe to wash your car. Because…child labor.

In addition to athletic talents and the ability to work in harsh conditions, Carl is extremely empathetic. He loves animals, younger children and his grandparents. Papa is his best friend and they are always up to no good. Maybe if you ever meet Papa, you should preemptively give him a detention. Just trust me on this. Papa is naughty and has probably already pushed all the buttons on your school intercom.

Finally, Carl comes as part of a package deal. When you get him as your student (again, the crowd goes wild) you also get his family. He has Nana and Papa in town. He lives with Mom, Dad, and his younger sister Mary. He has 3 older teenaged siblings that come on weekend visits. We are all here to work with you in any way necessary. This is going to be a great year.  Trust me, I’m his mom!

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

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adoption

Fierce Trauma, Fierce Love


Any color of paint mixed with black will transform into something darker. Light, beautiful pink will transform into the rusted color of blood. Sky blue morphs into the inky black-blue of the deepest ocean. A dark blue where monstrous creatures hide beneath the waves.

So, too, does trauma color the love my daughter has for me. A drop of black paint distorts the simple happiness of love and acceptance. It becomes darker, more intense. Her love is fierce and possessive and frightening. It leaves behind a dull stain on our relationship, even in the happiest of days. Trauma is always there, coloring her world.

“Remember,” Trauma says, “Remember the love of your first mother. Remember how it hurt you.”

She has a deep entrenched fear that I will abandon her. I will leave, I won’t care, no one will take care of her. The second I turn away, her body tells her that death is imminent. She’s spent too many of her earlier years surviving a mother. How can she possibly enjoy one now?

When we discuss her brother, Carl, in therapy, she stares at me accusingly. She claims I love him more, I always have.  She complains heatedly that all I do are “mom chores” like dishes, when I should be playing with her all day. The psychologist queries if I should go to work, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. Her resounding “NO!” hits me like a slap. Hatred flickers through her gaze while her tiny manicured nails grip my arm in a stranglehold. She will not lose another mother. She will not let go.

But Mary’s not home. She’s in a short-term treatment facility. It’s somehow easier for her to live in an institution than at home where she’d have to watch me turn my attention elsewhere. I’m wracking my brain. How can I let her know that I am steady? I am the mom-that’s-always-here. I love her. I keep coming back, no matter what. The daily 15 minutes of one-on-one child-led play for each child comes to mind. The “Mom and Kid” days I spent with her ignoring mundane things like chores, responsibilities, or other people, didn’t help. Even then I’d look at the road while driving. I’d turn my attention to traffic signals while she screamed, “I said to LOOK AT ME!!!” from the backseat, her face turning bright red and splotchy.

I would like to think that nearly four years of therapeutic connected parenting has helped. In some ways, it has. Her trauma causes fear, which comes out as anger. TBRI, a model developed by Karyn Purvis and others at the Texas Christian University, has helped us to disarm that fear. But with Mary? That fear runs so much deeper. We have parented her at the developmental age she is. We try to return what she has lost. Still, even toddlers’ moms have to watch the road when they are driving.

She called me today in a flurry of righteous outrage. A little boy had been throwing rocks at the RTC program’s van while it was transporting children. When the staff pulled over to inform the boy’s mother, she wasn’t concerned. According to Mary she said she didn’t care and left her child standing in the road while she walked into a store. He fell and skinned a knee and was left to cry. Alone. Mary is incensed. Only, it isn’t directed at me. She is mad at this stranger for not being a better mother. I’m shocked. To my knowledge I am the only mother she has expressed any anger towards.

“She left her baby! He was only like 2 or 3-years-old,” through the phone I hear Mary’s outrage.

“What kind of a mother doesn’t care?! She is a bad mother. I yelled at her out the window. I told her that my mother would never leave me in the road. She would run to me even if her back was broken! No matter how old we get, my mother takes care of her kids! I have a good mom!”

As awful as it sounds, I am so glad my daughter was able to express her rage to this unknown mother. I’m so glad she didn’t somehow believe it to be my fault, and call me in anger. And I am forever grateful to hear that Mary sees me as a mother, she sees my dedication. That is beyond priceless to me.

Children often have nurseries painted in quiet pastel colors. “Baby Blue,” and “Baby Pink” are the names of colors designed for such a purpose. Nurseries are often like a sunrise with lightness and bright things everywhere. Our story is colored differently. We have dramatic shades of deep gold and royal purple. Perhaps we are the ferocious beauty of sunset.

Our daughter shines with all of the beauty of the stars in the night-black sky.

 

 

*If you’d like to hear me interviewed about parenting with trauma, check out my interview on “Adoption Unscripted” here:

https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/102008/raising-kids-with-trauma-how-do-we-respond

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

 

 

 

 

 

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adoption

Out of Our Home


Where is she? Where is the little girl that stuck so close to my side that we nicknamed her “Barnacle?” She is at a short-term residential treatment facility. She isn’t home. Her bed is empty and her room is spotlessly clean. After all, arranging her things neatly seems to be about the only day-to-day “mothering” I get to do right now.

Being separated from my 10-year-old daughter makes me wonder about biological parents with children in foster care. Do they wander through their child’s empty room, burying their faces in a discarded favorite sweater? Do they wonder at every visit why their child hasn’t been prompted to use soap, or wear clean clothes, or why they are watching so much TV? Or maybe that’s just me. I am a walking cliche.

Mary has been at the treatment center for almost 3 months now. We see her three times per week. Two therapy sessions and one weekend visit. It seems like the program intends for children to go home on the weekends. Parents pack up their child, have a great sleepover, and then send them back to continue treatment. Only, no one can figure out how to do this with our girl. She still claims that she is afraid to hurt us. She acknowledges that she wanted to “kill us by stabbing,” but she doesn’t know why. We can’t keep her physically safe here.

We tried to have Mary home on a day pass. She cornered her brother and whispered death threats to him. He was further traumatized and Mary was dysregulated. Rather than being a productive bonding experience, it gave Mary the opportunity to keep me away from anyone else. Once she had me, she either pointedly ignored me or tried to say hurtful things. It is as confusing to me as I’m sure it is to her. After a few hours, we called it quits. So, no overnights for us. Especially not while she still threatens her brother.

Instead, Luke and I visit her in the community. We take her around to local places so that staff support is close, if needed. This has been relatively successful. Mary enjoys this full parental attention (so do we!) along with new clothes and fun activities. Although, I’m not sure at all how this is preparing her to come home.

“Older child adoptions can be hard,” the residential therapist says. I know this. “There can be attachment difficulties.” Again, I know. “I am changing her diagnosis to Childhood Bipolar Disorder.” Yes, she has been diagnosed with this in the past. “These issues may be ongoing.” Yeah, I got that part of the equation a long time ago.

“Maybe you should have her get an Occupational Therapy evaluation.” Done. And actually, unless you’re worried about fine motor or visual motor skills? It’s mostly an observation and maybe some checklists. Then you get some sensory processing information. Like, say, a sensory diet. Which Mary has. Which I wrote in the 30 page intake packet the residential therapist had us complete. (As an aside, I cannot tell you how much I miss her outpatient trauma therapist!)

Sigh. At the end of the day, I don’t think this place offers the kind of help Mary needs. Every day they go out to the beach, the movies, an amusement park, Chuck E. Cheese, or out to eat. I fear that all she will learn here is that she likes to be taken somewhere fun at least once a day. They don’t have any specific social or behavioral goals. They just go. They don’t have any kind of background in complex trauma and attachment. So I arranged for attachment therapy with a psychologist. It’s the best I can do.

This feeling of helplessness cuts me deeply. We couldn’t keep everyone safe so she needed to be there. Do bios feel this way when their child needs to go into foster care? It’s horrible, like having slimey day-old fish residue stuck in your throat. I don’t know what to do. I am looking for answers. And I am looking for my daughter. Always.

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

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adoption

Bio Dad Visit Success!

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We finally did it! We pulled off a bio-dad visit for Carl. It started with a closed Facebook group where I posted pictures and report cards for Carl and Mary. I invited bio family into the group, when I could find them.  Bio mom joined, but only looked at a few pictures. She hasn’t watched the video I posted of Marcus graduating high school. It breaks my heart.

“Hate me,” I want to say to her. “Go ahead. It’s OK. Just please, please watch him walk. It’s one of the few things he really wanted. For his family to see him graduate.”

But I say nothing. It’s not my place. Bio Dad, however, has been as involved as he can. He has looked at everything I posted. He’s made comments and asked questions. He isn’t Marcus’ biological father, but he watched the video and congratulated him. Bio Dad sends cards if I remind him about a birthday or holiday. He was very open in asking me to tell him when their birthdays were. That’s OK. He’s trying.

I’ve asked the kids if they would like to write a letter or make a phone call. The response is usually “no.” But I float it out there, just in case. Luke and I often say however the kids feel is fine. We support them. This is their biological family. It’s their choice. It’s fine to have more than one set of parents. It’s good to have many people who love you. The door is open.

Finding Bio Dad was tricky. The address he gave to DCF for the open adoption agreement isn’t valid anymore. Nothing we sent to the department got picked up. He had himself listed under an animal on Facebook. Let’s face it, I was looking under his name, not searching for something like “The Stallion.” Eventually I skipped through the “Friend” lists of enough relatives to find him. Waiting for him to respond was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.

Bio Dad’s response was amazing. I couldn’t have even hoped for this. He wanted to do whatever he could to contact the kids. He thanked us for taking care of them, which he didn’t need to do. He opened up about the bad place he was in when DCF was involved. He told me about his own family history, and why he didn’t have any support when he lost his case. He never mentioned why he stopped coming to the visits at DCF. I never asked. It’s not important.

The only important thing is what kind of relationship, if any, the kids want to have with him.

Bio Dad was very nervous about the visit. He kept texting me about how nervous he was. How emotional he was. After all, its been 3 years since he saw Carl. He was so open and emotional, I started to feel like I maybe accidentally adopted a 40-something-year-old man.

“He’s going to hug you, you know,” I say to Luke, “just you wait!”

The visit, itself, was amazing. We all sat together at a McDonald’s in the mid-point of our 2 addresses. When Bio Dad saw Carl, he practically ran to him. Carl got swooped up into a big hug and Bio Dad shook with tears.  He silently cried behind his sunglasses many times. We stayed right there through the visit in case Carl needed us.  I’m happy to say that he didn’t. We got to meet Bio Dad’s new wife of a month. She was lovely. He says that meeting her and becoming religious are the things that made a difference in his life. I’m glad.

He also brought Carl’s little brother from another previous relationship. The little guy is 5 and was terrified of the whole situation. He burrowed into his stepmom’s side. He was meeting Carl for the first time he could remember. He had a little yellow cast on is left arm. Stepmom and Bio Dad both rushed to tell us it had been an accident from riding a bike. We told them we know all about little boys playing rough. Carl broke his leg playing soccer 2 years ago. They looked relieved.

After eating lunch and talking, we encouraged Bio Dad to take his boys out to the playscape. He almost hesitated to take them on his own.

“It’s fine,” I told him, “We will stay right here.”

That’s all he needed to take the two kids out and play a rousing game of tag. This was a much better visit than sitting in a DCF visit with a social worker watching. Stepmom chose to sit inside and chat with us. It was pleasant and eye-opening. She had been in foster care as a child. She was happy that Mary was getting treatment. She told me about how they always prayed for the children. She told me they prayed Bio Dad would see them again someday.

“I have a question to ask you,” Bio Dad said over ice cream. They boys came in sweating and happy for some ice cream before we left. Bio Dad looked nervous as he asked me, “Would it be alright if I posted some of the pictures we took? Can I share them with anyone?” I was dumbfounded. Luke and I looked at each other.

“Your camera, your pictures, your kids. Yes, Of course! Do whatever you’d like!”

It wasn’t all puppies and roses, though. To be honest, the kids have a history of being hurt by this father. And they never forget. He has since apologized, but some things can’t be wiped away. Yes, Carl had a good time at the visit, but he was relieved to go home. Although we were open about the visit with Mary, she adamantly did not want her own visit, and did not want to see pictures from this one.

Mary says that she is afraid of Bio Dad, but that she likes him “as a person.” For now she only wants to get letters and cards. She does not want to write back. We never lie to our children about their Bios. Everything is an open book, including the reasons they came into care, which oddly enough, social workers never told them. No matter how uncomfortable to us, we share whatever information we have. We offered Mary a visit when she gets to the weekend pass stage of her program at the therapeutic treatment facility. She declined. She isn’t ready, she tells us. That’s fine.

This visit went better than I could have hoped. Even if it didn’t, we’d still offer another to the kids. Carl had fun. We were all safe and I think our families built some mutual trust.

And of course, before walking off, Bio Dad clasps Luke’s hand and pulls him in for a hug. As they walk away I arch an eyebrow at Luke. “Told you so!”

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

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