Saturday, March 14, 2015

Book Review: Ezra and Hadassah (Part 2)

Have you ever come across an account of a foster or adopted child being discovered in horrible conditions and suffering neglect or abuse at the very hands of the family whose job it is to keep them safe?  If you're like most people I imagine you can't help but ask yourself, "WHY?  Why would these people even want to foster or adopt in the first place?"

I guess what I find so perplexing about such situations is the motivation behind such individuals. Surely there might be some people who are desperate enough to foster for the money, but the commitment, requirements and screening process that comes with fostering is, in my humble opinion, a huge amount of work to go through just for the possibility of having a few extra bucks at the end of the month.

As I was reading Ezra and Hadassah I found myself asking the same question: Why? Why did the Spencer family choose to adopt Ezra and Hadassah if they had no intention of caring for them or showing them love?   The only logical reason I could come up with in this case was that Ezra and Hadassah's adoptive mother needed to replace the children she previously lost (whom, I learned further into the book, had left the home or been killed in a house fire) with new children who would continue on in the role of her house servants.

Unfortunately, being treated like slaves is just one of the ways that Heather and her brother Rex and their siblings were mistreated in their adoptive home.  Although I don't want to give the whole book away and enumerate on every single injustice Rex and Heather had to suffer at the hands of their adoptive family, I would like to bring up a couple of examples of challenges Rex and Heather faced and ways their new family FAILED at meeting their newly adopted children's needs.  My hope in addressing these issues is that we can all learn something and that Rex and Heather's suffering will not have been in vain.

As I've mentioned, the first major theme that kept popping out at me over and over again as I read Ezra and Hadassah is Thank goodness for reform!  And when I speak of reform I'm not only referring to increased advocacy on behalf of children in foster care and ethical foster and adoption practices, but improved education and training for foster and adoptive parents.  Sometimes knowing what to do (or what not to do) can make all the difference in bringing about positive change.

On to the three examples of issues Rex and Heather faced as children and how their foster adoptive parents (poorly) handled them-  I have chosen these three issues because they are not uncommon among children coming from backgrounds of trauma.  Basically, the way Rex and Heather's foster adoptive parents handled each situation serves as an example of what NOT to do.

Granted, the following situations can be difficult for caregivers to face but the good news is that education and awareness of such issues has made it possible for today's foster parents to be better equipped to help the children in their care.  I just want to throw out that although fostering can be challenging, there is also support available.  I can recall specific trainings I've attended both before and after becoming a licensed foster care provider which addressed how best to handle each of the following scenarios:

1.  When a Child Discloses Sexual Abuse.  Maybe it's not common sense to everyone (hence the need for training on such delicate matters) but it just seems logical that when a child feels safe enough to confide in a trusted adult about something so personal and traumatic as sexual abuse, the most beneficial response would be for the adult to validate the child's feelings and protect the child from any further abuse from happening, if possible.

When Heather got up the courage to tell her adoptive mom about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her foster brothers in her previous foster home, the result was anything but validating. "That's over now so you don't need to talk about it" was her new mother's reply.  As if that weren't enough of a blow, a day later Heather overheard her new mother telling the grandmother that she thought that Heather's account was a plea for sympathy.   Her adoptive mother's response just served to shame her and prevent her from sharing any further information with anyone in the future.  Heather describes her reaction:

"I was crushed and humiliated.  I thought my new family was supposed to love me and care about me.  Who would admit such an embarrassing thing just for attention?  I had hoped Virginia would comfort and reassure me that would never happen again, but her response told me otherwise."  

2.  Hoarding Food.  This behavior is very common among children in foster care and although it can be puzzling or sometimes even annoying for caregivers, it must be understood that the child is simply acting out of SURVIVAL MODE.  Rex and Heather's new parents withheld food from their children as a form of punishment which is pretty much the worst thing they could possibly do in such a situation because doing so will only exacerbate any food insecurities.

Heather observed of her brother,

"At the Spencers Ezra not only ate as much as possible, he squirreled away food in his cheeks and only emptied them if Virginia demanded he swallow what was in his mouth.  It was obvious he was eating as much as possible to store up for the unknown stretch of time until his next meal."

It was disheartening to read about Rex, in particular, being starved in his own home to the point of resorting to hanging around the school cafeteria and asking for food.

3.  Peeing and Pooing Pants/Wetting the Bed.    Again, this is another very common problem in children who have experienced trauma- enuresis and encopresis are the official medical terms.

Let's face it- nobody likes cleaning up accidents.  As trying as it can be to potty train a toddler, just imagine how frustrating it must be for caregivers to clean up after a much older child, who should "know better".  Rex's bowel and bladder problems extended well into his high school years and even into adulthood. Unfortunately, his new parents did not have the patience or compassion to help him. Nor did they possess the understanding that control over one's bodily functions is not solely about physiology but has a heck of lot to do with psychology and emotional security.

Heather recounted, "It didn't take long for Ezra's chronic bladder and bowel problems to appear with a vengeance at the Spencers.  He wet the bed every night and seemed to be unable to sense when he needed to use the bathroom during the day.  Despite raising six other children before us, Harley and Virginia had no idea how to handle it."

One thing I've learned through my potty training experiences (and through parenting in a general sense) is to PRAISE! PRAISE! PRAISE! CELEBRATE EVERY VICTORY- no matter how small- rather than SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!- which will inevitably backfire and block any progress.

Heather recounted a camping trip with her first foster family when Rex poohed his pants and was excessively shamed. Their foster father was so angry that he marched Rex down to a freezing cold river to wash him off while yelling at him and spanking him. To top it off, he then announced that since Rex was too lazy to go to the bathroom, he could wear it instead.  He then forced Rex's dirty underwear around his neck and put his head through the leg holes so that he could "smell his own shit."  Not helpful in the least.

The reaction to Rex's toileting problems did not improve in his second foster home when his new parents basically shoveled out the same disgraceful punishment of making him wear his soiled underwear around his neck- but in addition, they told him he would have to wear it to school. (Thankfully, he took the underwear off before going to school).

If you're starting to get bummed out by this review and feeling discouraged about actually reading the book, TAKE HEART! I've only reviewed about the first third of the book and although there are definitely some hard parts to read they are necessary for the redeeming messages of healing, forgiveness, and resiliency to emerge from the ashes of the suffering and opposition which both Rex and Heather endured.

Having said that, the second major theme that this book illustrated to me is Thank Goodness for RESILIENCY in all individuals- but particularly in children who have had an unfair and rough start in life and must overcome so much!

Of all his siblings, Rex took the brunt of his parent's abuse. The Spencers did not have the patience to deal with his special needs or, it appears, the ability to see his intrinsic value.

Tragically, Rex's adoptive parents kicked him out of their home when he was just sixteen years old. Because he had absolutely no resources in way of money, food, friends, cars, or even connections, his adoptive parents ended up giving him money for bus fare back to Oregon where he eventually reconnected and lived with his birth family.  Heather didn't see her brother again for thirteen more years.

I had a hard time trying to wrap my head around how the Spencers could just kick their own son out of their home as casually as if they were just getting rid of an old piece of furniture, but in their eyes he was a burden.  Heather writes,

"Rex wasn't mentioned in the Spencer's house again.  We didn't have family pictures on the walls after the first year we were adopted, so it was as if he never existed.  At church and school the story was Rex went to live with extended family in Oregon.  No one questioned it.  He could have died and no one would have batted an eye."  

What's especially tragic to me is that Rex was not only shunned in his own home but equally mistreated at school and even within his youth group at church.

I fully expected Rex to end up permanently homeless or for Heather to never see him again. Fortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. If you read the book you'll learn what became of Rex including his reunion with his sister and the transformation of his life which can only truly be described as nothing short of miraculous.

I was extremely touched by Rex's pure childlike faith and his incredible ability to forgive so seemingly effortlessly. Heather wrote of her brother,

"Rex had every right to be a serial killer. The world would have understood given his early years that it was inevitable that he would become a cold-blooded criminal.  But he didn't. He chose to go the opposite way.  Not because he received world-class therapy and intensive professional help.  He didn't.  His life was lived on the streets of America and his heart healed its pain one person and one prayer at a time."  

God bless Rex for his perseverance, his humility, and his great example of being longsuffering, pure in heart, and forgiving.

As for how Heather fared, she was fortunate enough to have social support and connections Rex didn't have during their years with the Spencers.  I think this was in large part due to the fact that she was much more socially adept than her brother who had never really learned how to appropriately interact with others due to both neglect further compounded by delays.

Heather recounts,

"I survived the Spencers by finding teachers at school and leaders at church whom I confided. I tested the waters with adults telling a small story of some recent trouble I had been in at home and what my punishment had been. If they seemed surprised or asked any follow up questions, I cautiously gave more details.  If they didn't react or ask any more questions, I knew they couldn't be trusted.  In eighth grade, I found an adult I could trust and who ended up carrying me until I turned eighteen."

That adult Heather trusted was the librarian at her junior high school, Mr. Gross.  Thank God for adults like Mr. Gross who take the time to listen and guide children and young adults.
And now, time for a few not-so-subliminal messages:

Mr. Gross encouraged Heather to look ahead for her future and although he was sympathetic to Heather's home situation the only advice he could offer her in that regard was the encouragement to hang on until she was eighteen and then could legally leave home, just as a church leader counseled her to do. 

When Heather turned eighteen and the time came for her to escape the prison-home environment of the Spencer's house, there were four families, including Mr. Gross and his wife, who were willing to take her into their homes and offer her a safe haven as she made the transition to adulthood and independent living free from the oppression of the Spencers.

Just as Heather noted that Rex could have turned out to be a serial killer given how he was treated in his home environment, she could have easily used the excuse of the abuse she suffered in her life to justify passing on any future dysfunction to her children or loved ones, but, like her brother, she chose not to!  Resilience is a noble choice that can have a profound effect upon generations.

Heather recalled listening to stories from the adults in the Spencer household- Mr. and Mrs. Spencer and Grandma Quigley- in which they commiserated and detailed abuses they had each suffered in their childhoods.  Mrs. Spencer would use her experiences of childhood abuse to justify the way she treated her own children and would tell Rex and Heather and their siblings that they really didn't have it bad, so they shouldn't complain.

 Heather had the maturity and foresight to realize, 

"All the stories of generational abuse solidified in my heart that in my someday family, if I ever got married and had kids, no way was I going to be like they were.  I wasn't ever going to spank my kids or treat them like we were.  The abuse was ending with me."

I literally felt like standing up and cheering when I read that line.  BRAVO TO HEATHER for choosing to break the cycle of abuse and dysfunction she had grown up with!

Another eye-opening and touching part of Heather's story is when she, as a grown woman, becomes reunited and reacquainted with her biological parents, Ralph and Claudia, who are each unique characters in their own rights.  Part of Claudia's schizophrenia includes delusions that she is from another planet and the belief that as a child she was transported to earth.  She also believed that her children would be able to receive messages from her home planet when they reached adolescence despite the fact that they were part-Earthling.  Enough said!

In addition to discovering how much of her personality and temperament is attributed to nurture verses nature, being reunited with Ralph and Claudia served as a bridge to Heather's past by helping her understand, for the first time in her life, the exact circumstances that brought her and her brother into foster care in the first place.  

I don't want to give the specifics away, but Rex and Heather's case was historic not only in the state of Oregon but was actually read by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Their case makes for a fascinating study of family law and child-welfare policies, begging such questions as "At what point does mental illness or developmental disability become grounds for terminating parental rights when there is insufficient evidence of neglect and abuse?" and, once again, along the lines of Thank goodness for reform!  "How is the best interest of the children legally and ethically brought to fruition?"  

I was deeply disturbed to learn, as Heather did when she searched through the many legal documents Claudia had carefully saved over the years, 

"No one took testimony from Ezra and me or asked us what we wanted. We didn't meet either lawyer (the defense counsel for Ralph and Claudia or the D.A. who argued that Ralph and Claudia were unfit as parents) to be interviewed.  Each side's arguments came from reports filed from state social workers. No state worker was aware of the abuse we suffered in foster care. No one ever asked if we were being abused.  No lawyers represented our best interests, even though it was our future that was being discussed and litigated."  

ME after reading that paragraph: Sigh. Face-Palm. Shaking Head Back and Forth in Unbelief.

Ezra and Hadassah is a MUST-READ for foster parents or anyone considering fostering or adopting through the foster care system.  This book made such an impact on me, personally, that I couldn't get Rex and Heather- or the Spencers and Ralph and Claudia- and the themes of suffering and healing- out of my mind for days after reading.  Ezra and Hadassah is over 230 pages long but makes a very quick read (I read it for the first time in just two sittings) because it is so riveting.

Click HERE to find out where you can get your copy.

I guarantee that after you finish reading this book you will have some questions. Fortunately, Heather has put together a blog which contains updates to her life's story and answers many frequently asked questions readers may have.  For example, what is happening in her life today? Whatever became of the Spencer family or her biological parents, Ralph and Wanda?  There's even pictures so you can put faces with the people you've been reading about!

Click HERE to learn the rest of Heather's story.

1 comment:

Alice Anne said...

How heartbreaking!! Your review brought me to tears. :/ ... It's on the to-read list. Thank you for sharing!