Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Of Humble Origins

This morning I came across a disturbing headline in my news feed, which read:

I glanced down at the accompanying faces of the defeated young parents of this child shown in their mug shots.  As I read on I was not surprised to learn that the parents were not only using meth, but they were manufacturing the deadly substance in their home as well.

Meth is an evil drug- nobody will ever be able to tell me otherwise.

Although the account of the toddler's death was tragic enough in itself I was also quite disturbed by some of the online comments made in response to the story.  One commenter, in particular, garnered a lot of attention and made the argument that because the mother of this young child who died due to parental negligence is pregnant with a second child "that kid will be born with parents in jail, spend a childhood in foster homes until that kid becomes a criminal himself.  Just like mommy and daddy."

Wow.  It wasn't just the general insensitivity of that comment which filled me with disgust and sorrow, but as a foster and adoptive mother (and without the need to share further private details) some of the circumstances described by that rant- and the utter lack of sympathy expressed for all involved, including the birthparents- hit a little too close to home for me and stirred up some very tender feelings within me.

Needless to say, that particular comment was followed up by a barrage of replies and rebuttals but the one which stood out the most to me was from a woman who shared her story of being a "botched" abortion- and being born addicted to heroin- yet, despite being born under the most tragic of circumstances (and almost not being born at all!), she had been raised by a loving adoptive family, gone on to graduate from college, and has since been a force for good working in the healthcare field. This woman ended her commentary with these inspiring words:

"A child becomes whatever you tell tell it to become.  Teach them Christ's love, shower them with love and give them confidence to love themselves and they can become whatever they dream."

I mentally applauded this woman and her empowering attitude and couldn't agree with her more.

Ironically, just moments after reading the horrendous news story of a young child dying under tragic circumstances, I came across a quote speaking of a child born to an unwed mother and a devoted foster father in an impoverished and truly humble environment.  Surely this family and their child endured their fair share of stares, speculation, and unwelcome comments from others.

It is my hope that the message I read and which I am sharing now can serve as a reminder of hope to anyone who has come from a less-than-perfect background or who has ever found themselves feeling outcast from society:

Friday, December 4, 2015

Book Review: John DeGarmo's Love and Mayhem

I was recently contacted by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and asked if I would be interested in reviewing one of their books. Evidently, one of the perks that comes with reviewing over a dozen books on a public blog that has a couple hundred followers is that publishers or authors will eventually start encouraging you to read or review their books- Who Knew!  

This opportunity immediately grabbed my attention and after looking over a list of titles which might be of particular interest to me and to the readers of this blog I chose to read and review Love and Mayhem: One Big Family's Uplifting Story of Fostering and Adoption by John DeGarmo.   

Love and Mayhem- I was sold by the title alone.  What an appropriate and candid title to describe the fostering and adoption journey!

Although I had heard of Dr. John DeGarmo before, I had never actually read any of his books.  As I started reading Love and Mayhem I learned that this particular book follows his first memoir, Fostering Love, which describes his family's first 9 years of fostering.  (I immediately made a mental note to myself to put Fostering Love on my seemingly never-ending list of books to read in the future.)

From the very first page of Love and Mayhem John DeGarmo humbly acknowledges that fostering is not easy and that foster parents run a very real risk of becoming burnt out.  So what is it that keeps John and his wife, Kelly, from opening their home to one placement after another- after yet another -considering they have fostered over 40 children?

John's answer is "I have found that my faith has given me the strength I have needed when I felt I could no longer continue as a foster parent."  (Me, too!)  He adds, "I have also found that my faith had surrounded me with people who felt led to help our children in foster care through various means."  

It is extremely fortunate that the DeGarmo family felt such support from others as it truly takes a village to raise a child.  This outpouring of support is evidenced through many examples throughout the book whether it was a neighbor gathering bags and boxes full of clothing and toy donations for the DeGarmo's foster children, a member of the DeGarmo's church family helping out, or some of his wife's clients whose generous offer, along with many other miracles falling into place, made it possible for the DeGarmo family to take some of their foster children out of state on a family vacation to DisneyWorld.   

Although this book will be effective for giving anyone a realistic look into the life of a foster family, it was particularly interesting for me to read as a foster parent with a bit of fostering experience under my belt.  I could relate to many of the emotions John and Kelly experienced and found myself being outraged one moment at the injustices that the DeGarmo's foster children faced- such as at the beginning of the book when they were caring for a sibling group of three young children with special and very time-consuming needs who were unexpectedly ordered to return to the care of their young (and abusive) single mother's care with virtually no transition period whatsoever for any of the parties involved and only a few days notice for the DeGarmos to prepare the children or their own family for the move.

A chapter or two later I found myself feeling helpless as John described what it is like to witness a new foster child cry themselves to sleep their first nights in a strange new environment:

"What could I say to him to make him feel better?  What could I do to take away his fear and sadness?  My heart cried out to him, as I shared his own misery.  This poor boy; this scared, lonely, poor boy. Once again, I felt the anger swell inside me; anger that parents could do this to a child, anger that those who were meant to love him the most had placed him in this situation with their own actions and their own choices."

I understand.  I understand because I've been in that situation- more than once.  (I shared a similar experience in the last half of this post).  What surprised me the most the first couple of times I found myself in that situation is the profound sense of ANGER, as John also points out, that accompanied my feelings of sorrow and compassion and sympathy.  My intense feelings of anger initially puzzled me because anger and feelings of compassion seem to be on completely opposite ends of the spectrum- so how is it possible to feel both at the same time?  I don't know the exact answer to that question- but I do know that it is absolutely possible.

Just chapters later I would find myself nodding my head in similar understanding or even holding back a laugh because things sounded so familiar.  Take, for example, when the DeGarmos (John's wife, in particular), had decided they were "done" fostering and figured they had done their fair share only to receive a call a short time later about a placement which they ended up saying "yes" to, and/or, taking a placement which would eventually change the lives of their family (not to mention changing the life of a child or two).

I was so excited that the DeGarmo family was able to "take a break" from fostering- if only temporarily, and reconnect with each other on a vacation to Europe during this book.  After all, they had taken not just one but two successive high maintenance sibling groups of three into their home in a relatively short period of time. To give you an idea of why a vacation for this family, let alone a date night, would be such a welcoming experience, consider John's explanation:

"Kelly and I were quite excited about this trip.  As foster parents, we were not able to leave our foster children with babysitters, neighbors, or even family members, no matter the age, unless the individual watching the children had been drug tested, undergone a police background check, and been thoroughly inspected and trained through the foster care system in our state.  This was due to the fact that the foster children in our care were not ours legally, but were in the custody of the state, and had to be cared for by those who had been cleared as trained and safe."

Although the regulations about babysitters or neighbors in my state is not quite as stringent as in the DeGarmo's state of Georgia (the rule here in Utah is that as long as the foster child is in a licensed foster home they can be in the care of someone other than their foster parents; In other words, my mother or a neighbor could watch my foster children in my home but I wouldn't be able to just "drop off" my foster children at a neighbor's house or relative's house to be babysat- unless that home is a licensed foster home which has passed the required health and safety inspections.)  For this reason I have been so grateful and relieved for the option of respite care when we have had extensive family trips planned- such as our 10th Anniversary in Hawaii or a trip last year where we left the country.

Incidentally, just 32 hours after the DeGarmo family returned from their international vacation and despite the fact that they had told their case manager that they wanted to take a break for a while from fostering, they received four calls regarding seven different children in need.  John noted,

"Apparently, God gave us a break.  The break, though I was not aware of it at the time, was our holiday in Europe.  That was evidently all the break we had."

Throughout Love and Mayhem, DeGarmo expresses how hard it is not only for him to deal with some of the annoyances and heartaches that come with fostering but he gives his readers a glimpse into what it's like for him to watch his wife suffer and persevere by his side.  He describes the process of "letting go" when it was time for his family to see a sibling group of three boys be transferred into the care of some relatives:

"When we took these three in, as we did all foster children, we knew from the moment they entered our home that there would be a time when they would leave us.  For Kelly, the hardest part was the grief over their departure, the loss of loved ones in the home.  My biggest challenge was watching children go back to an environment that was not a healthy one, and sometimes not a safe one."

Although John and Kelly were the head of the DeGarmo family I must admit that I was very impressed with the maturity of the DeGarmo's three older biological children as well as their youngest daughter (whom they adopted from foster care) as they were able to welcome new children into their home and were also faced with saying goodbye to these foster siblings who became a part of their family.  Doubtless it was hard for all involved when keeping in contact with a foster child or foster sibling was no longer an option anymore.  DeGarmo recounts, 

"Many times, when a foster child leaves the home and is returned to a biological family member or parent, foster parents lose all contact with the child.  For many birth parents and biological family members, foster parents are looked upon as the "bad guys" so to speak.  There are those birth parents who feel that foster parents have taken their birth child away from them, or at least they place blame upon the foster parents, in a bout of denial. This was the case with our family, as we seldom heard from the foster children that had come to live with us." 

Fortunately, the key word in this last sentence was "seldom" and I, for one, rejoiced on the occasions when John or his family would be able to eventually cross paths again or have a relationship with one of their former foster children.

Equally as noteworthy to read about were the times when John encouraged more than one of his older school-aged foster children to pursue their formal education- even going so far as to help one of these children apply for college.  You see, John DeGarmo is not only an advocate for foster children but an advocate for education as well.  The "Dr." in front of Dr. John DeGarmo is from his PhD in Educational Leadership and the topic of his dissertation was, in fact, Responding to the Needs Foster Children Face While in Rural Schools.  Kudos, Dr. DeGarmo.

The one aspect of fostering which I initially felt was lacking in this memoir was the personal interaction between Dr. DeGarmo's family and the birthparent(s) of his foster children.  Then again, maybe his experiences in his first book explored that topic in more detail.  It is also hard to have a relationship or regular interactions with the families of the children you foster if they are in rehab or jail as was the case with at least one of the DeGarmo's placements during the time this book took place, or if the placement turns out to be very short-term.

What DeGarmo did share concerning the relationship between foster parents and bio families were a few vivid examples of how potentially problematic it was for his family to foster children who came from the exact same small town they lived in. I can see how that could present some unique challenges and I was both intrigued and nervous as I read his description of one such encounter:  

"Few times in my life I am left speechless, and this was one of those times.  Unfortunately, my experience with biological family members had not been pleasant in the past. [Once again I made a mental note to read DeGarmo's first memoir of fostering].  I had been cursed at, spat upon, had objects thrown at me, while Kelly had been followed while driving by a set of angry birth parents. As a result, I was quite wary any time I met someone who claimed they knew of one of our foster children. This time, it was taken a step further, as the foster child was taken from me without permission." 

Fortunately, the majority of the children we've fostered have come from neighboring towns or cities but not from the exact city where we live.  I greatly appreciated when one caseworker notified us that our foster children's mother got a new job at a gas station in our town (not too far from where we live, actually) even though she wasn't living in our town.  Given the circumstances of that particular placement, a run-in with each other could present some problems.

I also remember a night my husband came home from work and told me that he had seen our foster daughter's father at the store.  "Did he see you?"  What happened?" I eagerly asked before he could even finish his story.  My husband was just stopping by the store on his way home from work to get a few things- bread, milk, and diapers- if I recall.  He told me that our foster daughter's father didn't even notice him as he was too busy looking at some "bling" in the jewelry section of the store to add to his collection.  My husband passed by our foster daughter's father unnoticed and found it all too ironic that here he was, buying the necessities for this man's baby from his personal paycheck, while this man, currently unemployed, was checking out jewelry.

I apologize for getting sidetracked from DeGarmo's book by sharing my own personal fostering experiences, but many of the stories he recalled automatically brought up so many memories for me.

Back to Love and Mayhem:  Although I've kept much of the actual "plot" somewhat vague because I don't want to give any developments away, I will tell you that at the beginning of the book the DeGarmos have four children and three foster children.  At the end of this memoir the DeGarmos have six children and three foster children but they are not the same three foster children who were in their home at the beginning of the book.

I will conclude this review with some of John DeGarmo's closing words of Love and Mayhem which I think serve as a nice summary of not only this book but of John and Kelly's continued career as foster parents:

"To be sure, foster parenting was a most difficult adventure; one that often left Kelly and I exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally. It seemed that our house and our lives were in a constant state of mayhem and chaos.  Yet, it was an adventure that also filled our home with much love and laughter."

Before You Assume or Judge . . .

It's occurred to me that the last four posts I've written all share a common theme: judging and judgments- either through the formal legal process in an actual court of law or on a much more general level of making judgments and assumptions about others (or perceiving judgments from others which is also a form of judging).

As I wrote in this post: "People seldom know the whole story and yet they are so quick to judge and jump to conclusions and make judgments."  It's  impossible to make a fair judgement when we don't have all the facts.  

With that background, I'd like to invite any readers to consider the following scenario and pay attention to any judgments or assumptions that might arise within you:

A tired looking woman walks up to the receptionist area of the radiology department of her local hospital with a toddler balanced on one hip and a diaper bag hanging over the opposite shoulder. The woman reaches into the diaper bag and pulls out a piece of paper nestled among other papers. She seems to nervously hold her breath as she hands it to the employee behind the desk.  

Although the receptionist initially greets this woman and small child with a welcoming smile, as soon as she reads the order for "full body x-rays needed" accompanied by a handwritten note from the referring physician with instructions to call back and report the results immediately to the Children's Justice Center, her countenance and body language suddenly transform- whereas her lips were drawn up into a pleasant smile just moments earlier they are now fixed tightly into a straight line.  

Perhaps the most revealing clue into what the receptionist is thinking about the woman on the other side of her desk and this situation is what can be found in her eyes, or rather, what can't be found as she can barely make eye contact with the woman who brought this child in.  Consequently, the woman holding the child appears even more nervous and seems eager to offer up an explanation.

What were your assumptions about this situation?  Was it that this woman had injured her own child? After all, she appeared to be tired and a bit under stress.  And what logical reason could there be for an order of "full body x-rays" to be taken other than to assess for extensive injuries?  One or even two broken bones in children could easily happen as a result of an accident- but multiple broken bones seems awfully suspect.

Maybe you gave the woman the benefit of the doubt and thought that perhaps her boyfriend or husband or daycare provider injured this child?  Would it change your opinion on the matter if the woman had been poorly dressed and unkempt versus neat in her appearance or above average in her socioeconomic status?  Would it have affected your judgments about the situation or the people involved if I had mentioned that the child was a different color than the woman who brought her in or would that have even mattered?   Would you have thought less of the woman if she had used Medicaid as a form of insurance versus private insurance?

The woman in this particular situation was me- three years ago.  The child I was holding was my foster child and I was particularly worried about her since this was not the first time she had come into our care.  Just a few days earlier I got the call informing me that Rose's mother was not in a good place and because of that she had left her toddler in the care of some friends.

As for my tired-looking appearance that day at the hospital, I think that could be attributed to the transition of an overnight addition to our family, various meetings and consultations with caseworkers and DCFS staff- both in our home and over the phone- and taking an active toddler to 3 medical appointments where she is instructed to "hold still" for examinations- all within a 48 hour time span.  

As mentioned, at this point Rose had only been in our home the second time for a couple of days when her pediatrician expressed some concerns after I took her in for an initial doctor's appointment which led to further assessments at the Children's Justice Center which, in turn, led us to the hospital for x-rays as a precautionary measure.

The reason I share this story is because it was a time when I can vividly recall not only feeling judged but pretty much hated and despised.  I think the reasons for any judgments made that day were due largely because not everybody had access to the facts right away.

Back to my experience:  If you've never had the opportunity to take a small child to the hospital for full-body x-rays consider yourself lucky.  I probably appeared to be nervous that day because I was nervous for Rose's sake.  Unfortunately, nervousness can easily be mistaken or associated with guilt, so when I handed the script from the referring physician to the receptionist behind the desk and she looked over the orders I could sense immediate judgment from her towards me.  Maybe I was just reading into things but the receptionist's sudden and obvious lack of eye contact with me either led me to believe she suffered from poor social skills (which is highly unlikely for a receptionist) or that she surmised I was the one responsible for any possible injuries to this child.  After all, what reason would any doctor have for ordering full body x-rays on a small child not just to determine if the child had any recent broken bones but if she had suffered from any broken bones or fractures in the past?

When we sorted through Rose's insurance info and contact information I had the chance to explain to the receptionist that I was Rose's foster mother.  I'm not actually sure if mentioning that bit of information helped the receptionist's view of me or just disgusted her further.

A short time later I was called back into the x-ray room with Rose.  As we were getting settled in the room I could hear a couple of technicians consulting with each other behind a curtain: "Full body x-rays?"  She's just a toddler- this will be tricky."

Suddenly a somewhat peeved sounding voice adamantly piped up in what was probably intended to be a hushed whisper saying something to the effect of, "Should she even be allowed to be here with her?!"  Followed by more whispering and then, "Oh- that's the foster mom- we'll have her stay to help hold her down."

An x-ray technician with a look of relief stepped out behind the curtain and courteously extended her hand out to me as she introduced herself and gave me some instructions.  The tension I could sense from behind the curtain just seconds earlier- as well as any assumptions and judgments made about me- immediately dissolved.

We all judge whether we want to admit it or not.  I've mentioned many times before that one of the biggest struggles I've had to work on as a foster parent is not judging the birth families of our foster children.   Yes, they've made mistakes, but everyone needs a little more love and support and a little less judgment and criticism.