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."

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