Tuesday, December 5, 2017

When Children Lose A Caregiver

The following is an excerpt from a paper I did a couple of months ago.  Because the topic is very pertinent to issues in fostering and adoption and because the assignment specifically asked that I share how the understanding of the concept or theories related to my personal experiences AND since I happen to have a blog called Adoption & Foster Care: My Personal Experiences, I now have new material to share on my neglected blog.  How convenient!

Incidentally, I was delighted to learn about the Skeels study mentioned in the second paragraph* because I was not familiar with it until I had finished my reading.  Upon further research, I learned that the women caregivers of the previously neglected infants functioned at the developmental levels of about six or seven years old.

Competency #1-  Identify and describe how loss of a caregiver affects a child after he or she has developed an attachment to that caregiver.
There were five or six attachment studies cited in Chapter 6, so I will just pick two of them which explain how the loss of a caregiver affects a child.   In 1980, John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory, examined adolescents who had spent their infancy and childhood in institutions or foster care, often with several moves.  These adolescents displayed a lack of empathy and affection for others.  Because they were not shown love consistently as babies, they were unable to model showing love for others.  Further research on the subject (Trout, 1995). came to the same conclusion: many children who fail to form attachments as infants grow up to show lack of empathy and even delinquent behavior.
*The good news is that another study (Skeels, 1936) showed that the effects of early deprivation and lack of attachment can be reversed with care at a later age.  In 1936, two baby girls (13 and 16 months old) from neglectful families were admitted to an overcrowded Iowa orphanage.  Because these babies only functioned at about the level of a 6 or 7 month old, they were placed in a home for women with “retardation.”  Six months later the baby girls were lively, alert and functioning on much higher levels than they had been because the women in the home had provided these girls with plenty of stimulation and interaction. 

How does understanding this competency apply to my own personal development?
I’ve been a foster parent for over ten years now and about a third of my foster children have been babies and toddlers- who seem to be the most vulnerable to the effects of being separated from their primary caregivers.  Even though I’m a very nurturing caregiver and the babies and children I foster are in a safer environment than they were before being removed, I obviously worry about how these babies and children are going to adjust to being removed from, in some instances, the only caretaker they have ever known, and in a few cases, from moving to another foster home and being placed with me- a total stranger!  Fortunately, babies in foster care get more supervised weekly visits with their families than older foster children do, so that helps somewhat, not only for the child but for the child’s birth family as well.
I tend to worry even MORE when these babies or children have been in my care for 6-11 months, have clearly formed an attachment to me and my family (referring to me as “mom” in many cases) and then are sent back to live with their family or relatives whom they may or may not know.  How is this separation from me as their full-time primary caregiver for several months, going to affect them?!
Social workers need to be aware of the reasons behind attachment problems in both young children and adults.  “Research suggests that the quality of a child’s attachment with a primary caregiver is an excellent predictor of later functioning (Ciccheti & Wagner, 1990).”- p. 268, Ashford text.  Furthermore, the table in the text on page 269, “Exhibit 6.8- Assessing attachment problems in young children,” provides an overview of signs of attachment disorders broken down by behaviors which could be a very helpful assessment tool for social workers in recognizing attachment issues.
Research also shows that children who are separated from primary caregivers but are able to remain with a sibling or other family member, adapt more easily to the separation. (Bremmer, 1998).- page 273, Ashford text.  This is crucial for child welfare workers and policy makers to understand so that they can keep siblings together as much as possible in foster care and adoption cases.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Problems & Possible Legislative Solutions to the U.S. Foster Care System & Adoptions

The last time I wrote about the Adoption Tax Credit was about five years ago.  I will be mentioning it again since last week I got word that the Adoption Tax Credit was at risk of being abolished under the proposed Republican Tax Reform.  I was happy to learn (just last night) that because of feedback and advocacy, the credit will now be staying!



Sometimes as a foster parent I feel like I have very little power in actually implementing real change in the foster care system.  After all, I'm not in a position of influence and lasting change often requires funding and legislation.  

I thought it was timely that last month in one of my graduate Social Work courses I had a short assignment following the completion of reading the textbook chapter on child welfare issues in which I was to answer the question,

"Identify three problems with the current children, youth, and family service delivery system.  What are some possible solutions?"

"Just three?" was my first thought. 😜 Before I even started reading my textbook chapter the first thought/pet peeve that came to my mind was: "I hate it when the best interest of children gets overlooked because the rights of bio family takes precedence!"  Which got me thinking, "What could change or what has worked in the past to solve this problem?"  Enacted time limits for the amount of time children stay in foster care so that they can have permanency is something that has worked- in theory at least.

Another possible solution for making sure that the best interest of children in foster care are met could be more involvement on the parts of their guardian ad liteums.  In over a decade of fostering I have only had two GALs make home visits on behalf of the children in my care.  And I don't think it's that GALs don't want to be involved, but it's probably the same principal with caseworkers: they have too large of a caseload to devote the individual time they would like to each case.  That is why I love hearing about CASA volunteers- Court Appointed Special Advocates.

Another problem with foster care that came to my mind is simply too few foster homes available.  But how does one solve that problem?  Awareness can be spread, but fostering is hard and is not for everyone, so I don't think anyone should become a foster parent out of guilt.

As for adopting from foster care, I know that the affordability is a big incentive and factor for families.  This goes back to the Adoption Tax Credit, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  If a family is going to bring another child into their home (or more than one child at a time in the case of sibling groups) that's KIND OF A BIG DEAL!  Especially if there is a high probability that the child will have special needs which can be time-consuming and expensive.  I know that when my husband and I were first exploring fostering or adopting from foster care, learning that adoption subsidies could be available and that insurance for the child would be provided through Medicaid came as a relief to us financially- especially when we debated whether or not to accept sibling groups as a foster adopt placement or to inquire on sibling groups who were already legally free for adoption.

Those are just a few of my thoughts about changes to the children, youth, and family service delivery system.  As for my school assignment, I tended to focus on specific acts of legislation enacted to deal with some of the problems that have and still exist in the foster care system which were specifically mentioned in my text:

Reading Response 3
Three problems with the current children, youth, and family service delivery system are: intervention when it is too late, children aging out of the foster care system with no permanency, and the overrepresentation of children of color who are placed in foster care and remain in foster care longer than white children.
Most interventions for families occur after the problems have occurred, so the services are residual in nature rather than preventative.  One solution to this is a focus on in-home services which deliver services to families before children have to be placed in foster care.  These services are also much less costly than have a child in an out-of-home setting.  The good news is that studies show that children who receive in-home services have lower rates of PTSD symptoms than children placed in substitute care.  (Ambrosino, p.348) The bad news is that research shows that any short-term gains achieved by in-home service don’t persist over time.
Each year 20,000 youth “age out” of foster care when they turn 17 or 18 because they are unable to return to the care of their parents and are not adopted.  Youth who age out of foster care are at a greater risk for substance abuse problems, homelessness, incarceration, teen pregnancy and even sex trafficking.  One of the solutions to this problem is child welfare advocates pushing for the age of when children are forced to leave foster care from 17 or 18 to 21 years old.  In 1986, PL 96-272 established the Independent Living Program which provided funding for states to strengthen services to youth 16 and older who either were in or had been in the foster care system. Another specific piece of legislation which was intended to help youth who leave foster care get extra support including access to health care, life skills training, housing assistance, and counseling was the Foster Care Independence Act, passed in 1999.

       Because African American children are more likely than white children to be placed in and remain in foster care, Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act in 1994 (Ambrosino, p. 365) which prevents children from being denied being placed with a foster or adoptive home solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin of either the child or the foster adoptive parent.  Other foster and adoption agencies have implemented special outreach programs to African American and Latino communities in an effort to recruit adoptive parents.

ANY FOSTER PARENTS, SOCIAL WORKERS, CHILD WELFARE ADVOCATES, CASAs, GALs or  especially CURRENT OR FORMER FOSTER CHILDREN READING THIS:  Is there anything else you would add to the list?  What do you see as the biggest problem or problems within the child welfare system?  And what are some possible solutions?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

ACEs & The Protective Power of Connection

I have been fascinated with the concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) having an impact on physical health since I first heard about the groundbreaking study and acronym at a Child Abuse Prevention Conference I attended years ago.

Here's an infographic which serves as a good Cliffs Notes Version of ACEs:



As equally intriguing to me to learn about the impact of risk outcomes for ACEs, is just how the ACE study came about- so I'll tell you:

Dr. Vincent Felitti was a medical doctor and chief of Kaiser Permanente's Department of Preventative Medicine in the 80's.  Dr. Felitti ran an obesity clinic with the purpose of helping bring about dramatic weight loss without surgery in individuals who were significantly overweight- not just needing to lose 10 or 20 pounds but hundreds of pounds.  (On a personal note, the findings in Dr. Felitti's work with his patients is of particular interest to me since I have been both thin and obese throughout my life without any significant attributable physical explanation for my fluctuations in weight, such as a glandular disorder).

What Dr. Felitti found was that although his patients were successful at losing hundreds of pounds of weight with the aid of his methods, many of them would gain an extreme amount of weight back afterwards.  Long story short: Upon further investigation and inquiries, Dr. Felitti and his team of researchers discovered that most of his morbidly obese patients had been sexually abused as children.
 
After hearing the data Dr. Felitti presented about his obese patients in 1990, another medical doctor and epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by the name of Robert Anda encouraged Dr. Felitti to start a much larger study researching a more general population.  This was the beginning of the ACE Study which included more than 50,000 patients.  As a measurement tool, Drs Felitti and Anda spent more than a year developing ten questions for their patients about different categories of adverse childhood experiences such as physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and having parents who were divorced, mentally ill, addicted, or in prison.

[Any readers interested in discovering your ACEs score can use the ACES Too High website for a quick assessment.]

As one might conclude, children in foster care have a much higher rate of ACEs than the general public. In her memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, which I reviewed here,  Shenandoah Chefalo brought up ACEs.

So . . . speaking of ACEs,  I saw this Ted Talk a couple of weeks ago (during my night class to be exact) in which a doctor introduces the concept of ACEs to those who may not be familiar with them and I just have to recommend that you take 10 minutes and watch this clip all the way through to the end. I found it to be so inspirational and extremely pertinent to foster parents or ANYONE who works with youth.


So . . .  if research has shown that early secure attachment to caregivers is crucial to preventing addictions and major health problems later in life . . . 


AND if we also recognize the sad fact that many children and youth do not have that kind of crucial connection in their own families to serve as a protective factor, the reassuring news, as illustrated in Dr. Allison Jackson's TED Talk, is that any caring adult can make a huge difference in a child's life- even if they aren't necessarily related by blood. This certainly includes teachers, neighbors, coaches, clergy, social workers, etc. 


I was also reminded as I watched Dr. Jackson's TED Talk that in Heather Spencer's memoir, Ezra and Haddasah, which I reviewed here, Heather specifically noted that her level of hope and resiliency in overcoming her traumatic upbringing was greatly impacted by one single adult in her life- namely, her school librarian.

In his book, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk recalls the first time he heard Dr. Robert Anda presenting the results of the ACE study.
"The first time I heard Robert Anda present the results of the ACE study, he could not hold back his tears.   In his career at the CDC he had previously worked in several major risk areas, including tobacco research and cardiovascular health.  But when the ACE study data started to appear on his computer screen, he realized they had stumbled upon the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States: child abuse.  He had calculated that its overall costs exceeded those of cancer or heart disease and that eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters.  It would also have a dramatic effect on workplace performance and vastly decrease the need for incarceration."
Wow, right?  I'm not sharing all of this information to be a Debbie Downer or to guilt anyone into going out and fostering five children right this minute.  But I do think it's absolutely necessary to understand both the harming and healing power of early relationships.



The hopeful news is that for those who may not have had a stable or loving environment with their parents or other adults in their life or who feel discouraged because their ACEs score is too high, how reassuring to know that you can still BE a loving parent or adult in a child's life.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Avoiding Burnout

Last night I went to a foster care training which touched upon compassion fatigue.  Compassion Fatigue is a term that was initally coined in the 1950s after studying some of the occupational hazards unique to the nursing profession.  (That little fact wasn’t shared at the training, but since I am nerdy I googled some of the studies and research about compassion fatigue afterwards.)  Compassion fatigue can also be known as “burnout” and is related to secondary traumatic stress.   Here is an official Merriam-Webster definition of compassion fatigue:

Medical Definition of compassion fatigue


:the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those that care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time


  • Some researchers consider compassion fatigue to be similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), except that it applies to those emotionally affected by the trauma of another (eg, client or family member) rather than by one's own trauma.
  •  —Michael K. Kearney et al.,  The Journal of the American Medical Association,  18 Mar. 2009


  • One of the most interesting facts I learned at the training was the risk factors contributing to compassion fatigue.  And since I’m in student mode right now, I jotted them down on paper.
    Our trainer sited these three risk factors for developing compassion fatigue:

    Being FEMALE.  (Females are more likely to develop compassion fatigue than their male counterparts.)

     -Being an EMPATH by nature.

    -  Having UNRESOLVED TRAUMA.

    I don’t know which particular study was the reference for these three risk factors (hence my aforementioned Googling), but they totally make sense to me.

    I’d like to briefly examine each of these factors. 

    As to the first risk factor:  The “being female” factor seems like a given.  At the risk of sounding sexist, it appears that certain helping professions- such as nursing and social work- seem to statistically have a lot more women than men employed.  Although I do admit I have had some great post-op nurses who were male.

    The majority of foster parents I know are also female- whether their marital status is single and they’re doing all of the fostering without a partner or spouse or if they are married, most times the female is the primary caregiver in providing foster care, which is why I have to have twelve hours of in-service training a year to renew my foster care license and my husband only has to complete four hours. 

    As to being empathetic by nature- totally makes sense.  What person is going to decide to go through the process of becoming a foster parent (or a social worker or a nurse) if they aren’t empathetic by nature?  It just seems like a logical fit; people choose those professions because they are natural helpers and they care about others.  Case in point: How many foster parents or social workers go into that line of service or work because they are motivated to make loads of money?  (That comment was both rhetorical and highly sarcastic).

    As for the third factor, having unresolved trauma, I ABSOLUTELY see how that could be a risk factor leading to increased burnout, especially in the case of fostering.  If someone had an abusive home life growing up or even if they had a relatively safe and stable home life but have had an experience of bullying or sexual assault it seems more than likely that having a child in their home who has been through similar victimization circumstances will bring up some triggers. 

    I think the keyword in the phrase “having unresolved trauma” is the word unresolved.  Because who hasn’t experienced trauma, right?  Very few people go through life unscathed.

    A large part of discussion at the training was, inevitably: What are we doing as foster parents to prevent burnout?  I think that answer can be summed up in two words: self-care.  And while self-care is going to look different to everyone- one person may use running or physical activity as their preferred form of self-care while another may prefer relaxing in a bubble bath, whatever works for you is necessary. 

    It’s also interesting to me as both a foster parent and a graduate student of social work that my professors- just one semester into our program- have continually stressed the importance of self-care as well as exploring and resolving, if necessary, any unresolved personal issues we may have in order to not get “triggered” when working with clients in similar circumstances.

    Another topic the training I attended last night touched upon was the impact that fostering can have on a marriage and also on the other children in the family.  This is a topic which could be worthy of a whole separate post or two! [I’m making a mental note of that].

    I guess the bottom line is that it is ESSENTIAL to take care of yourself first before you can take care of anybody else.  (Ironically, this counsel is coming from the woman who got her kids fed, bathed, and out the door for school by 8:30, but who still hasn’t taken a shower herself an hour later.)  But that’s totally okay, because for me, personally, writing (while wearing my sweats) is part of my self-care/unwinding/processing “me time” regimen.

    Thursday, September 14, 2017

    I Miss My Birth Mom

    I have learned that some of the absolute WORST things to hear when you are suffering and have attempted to share what you're feeling with someone is: "But you shouldn't feel that way." or anything to the effect of "But it's in the past, can't you just get over it?" (Even if it's not stated that way but implied).

    Such statements are entirely invalidating and not helpful in the least.  Plus, do you think that someone who hears those replies is going to be willing or even have the desire to confide in others in the future?

    I had an experience earlier this year in which my oldest daughter (10 years old) was triggered by something that led her to tell me, with tears in her eyes, "I miss my birth mom."  I have to admit that my first reaction was to think, "But how can you miss her when we don't even have a very open relationship with her?"  [What I mean by that is if a child has a very open relationship with their birth parents and sees them on occasion then it would make sense for them to say "I miss my birth mom or birth dad." But what about situations where the adoption is closed or only semi-open?  How can they "miss" someone if they don't even have a face-to-face, personal relationship with them?]

    I kept my thoughts to myself and consciously focused on my daughter's needs.  I recognized that this issue wasn't about me but about her.  


    Some of the things I could offer up my daughter as I listened to here were "I'm sorry you're feeling that way." and "You know, I've never been adopted so I don't know what it's like to feel what you're feeling- I bet it's hard."  Later, she used that line with me and said, "You've never been adopted so you don't know how I feel!"  I suppressed a smile and agreed wholeheartedly.

    I also admit that I have not always handled my reactions to my children's concerns as well as I would like.  Because who likes to see their kids suffering, right?  Sometimes it's not so much that I want to take away their suffering as that I want to "fix" the root of their suffering. So, since we're speaking about adoption related issues, I have on more than one occasion told my oldest daughter when she's expressed curiosity/loss about not knowing who her birth father is, "Well, at least you were adopted domestically and you know at least one of your birth parents.  Some kids who were adopted internationally or who were raised in an orphanage might not even know who either of there birth parents are!"  My intent in saying that was to get my daughter to look on the bright side and frame things in a positive way- but really, as helpful as my intentions could be, to tell any adoptee to "look on the bright side" could be very invalidating and translated to mean, "Your loss isn't that bad- it could be worse."  Again, not helpful to someone who is hurting.

    I listened to my daughter and let her own her feelings but I have to admit- I still kind of wanted to "fix" things and make them all better- or if not making things "all better" at least doing something proactive about the situation.  I did offer up a suggestion that she write a letter to her birth mother. She was very excited to do so but I did oversee her and looked over the letter to make sure it was fairly neutral with content about what she's been up to lately, how school is going, etc. rather than asking "Why did you place me for adoption?"   That is a delicate and complicated question which will inevitably come up, but it is best to wait for her birth mother and her to have that conversation together in the future.  

    Now here's the tricky thing about navigating open relationships with birth parents: As an adoptive mom I can invite and share with my children's first families all that I want (or conversely, restrict contact between my children and their birth families), but I can never FORCE a relationship.  In my oldest daughter's case, her birth mother has been very respectful of our boundaries and as the role my husband and I have as M's parents.  We don't feel threatened sharing a child with her or feel that we are any "less" M's parents because she has another mom.  However, sometimes for my daughter's sake I wish that our semi-open adoption were a bit more towards the open side- which is funny because a decade ago the thought of having to share a child with another set of parents really bugged me and kind of freaked me out!

    Long story short: M sent the letter to her birth mom (an actual old-fashioned letter mailed with a stamp- not just an email) and since the ball was in her birth mom's court now- so to speak- we just had to wait and see how things were reciprocated.  It was heartbreaking to witness M eagerly look forward to receiving a letter back in the mailbox day after day when none came.  The puzzling thing to me was that M's birth mom messaged me and told me how much she appreciated the letter and that she would be sending a reply.  But the reply was postponed and weeks turned into months.  Later, M's birth mom messaged me again and confessed that the reason she hadn't sent anything was because she was "struggling with the words to say".  Totally understandable!

    The good news is that M's birth mom did eventually send a letter including some beautiful pictures of her family.  (The resemblance between M and her biological half-sisters is always fascinating for me to see).  I don't need to go into more details because that is M's and her birth mother's story to share. Needless to say, I was very relieved for my oldest daughter that her contact with her birth mom was both welcome and reciprocated.  What a relief for me and what a blessing for my daughter.

    Friday, August 25, 2017

    Back to School

    I am perpetually behind in my blogging endeavors.  And the most frustrating part about this is that I constantly have three to four posts brewing in my mind at one time which I would love to write down.  But life tends to get busier rather than less busy.  Because of this, I must apologize in advanced because I do not know how much time I will be able to devote to this blog over the next three years as I am going BACK TO SCHOOL!

    My husband just (as in weeks ago) successfully finished completing his graduate studies over the past couple of years and now it's my turn!  I was delighted to be accepted into a graduate program of Social Work earlier this year.  I begin my coursework next week and two advantages to my particular program are that it is part-time and the campus is not far from my home so I will still be able to devote my time to being a mom to young children and, perhaps, to taking a foster placement or two.

    "So what do you plan on doing with a degree in social work?" some of you might be asking.  Great question!  One thing I can tell you without equivocation is this: I'm not entirely sure yet. 😉

    I have always had an interest in social work (although that technically wasn't the field of study I got my undergraduate degrees in) and although child welfare and foster care and adoption are obvious interests to me I have been surprised to learn from LCSWs and students of social work that a degree or license in social work is actually quite flexible.  So, hypothetically speaking, say I did start working in the field of child welfare and got burnt out after a couple of years (Foster parents understand the concept of burn-out- am I right?)- I wouldn't have to stay there forever.  I could switch over to hospital social work or counseling or even teaching, for example.  A generalist approach definitely has its advantages.

    I am excited to go back to school- not just to learn but to put into practice the skills I learn and to get some professional experience since part of my degree and licensure completion will certainly involve field work and practicum experience.
                                         Graduation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
    Me (Hopefully) Three Years From Now!

    Tuesday, April 25, 2017

    Sometimes It's Hard to Say No

    Today I got a phone call from our Resource Family Consultant (the caseworker in charge of working with foster parents to place children in their home).  He was asking me about a child who was a long-term placement possibility that needed a home as soon as possible.  I grabbed a pen and sheet of paper and started taking notes as he informed me of things like:

    -sex of the child, age of the child, reason for removal, if the case was headed towards adoption or reunification, how often visits with the child's birth parents would be and at which DCFS office, any previous histories the family has had with DCFS, any medical or behavioral issues with the child, if there are relatives who are possible kinship placements for the child, date of the next court hearing, etc.

    Sometimes when I get "the call" our RFC doesn't have a lot of information because the case is still so new or the CPS investigation is just getting started.  In this particular case, our caseworker actually had quite a bit of information on hand and I only had to ask a few clarifying questions for more information.  After I felt I had enough information I told him I'd get a hold of my husband to talk things over and then get back to him as soon as possible.

    As soon as possible- that's the crazy thing about fostering!  You volunteer to take a child into your home at a moment's notice- most of the time not knowing if this child will be staying with you for just a week until they can be placed with relatives or for several months or keeping in mind the possibility that this child could become a part of your family permanently if things don't work out with their family.  No pressure, right?

    I immediately called my husband, eager to pass on the information to him and get his feelings on the matter.  Of course I wasn't able to get a hold of him right away which just made me more antsy!  In the meantime, I was mentally planning which bedroom this child would sleep in, how I would work out carpool schedule for transporting them to their school, which days would work best for taking them to weekly visits and doctors appointments, etc. 

    Eventually I did get a hold of my husband and he gave me his input after I passed on what I knew about the case.  I contacted our RFC with another concern/question which was answered and then talked it over once again with my husband.

    An hour and five minutes after first answering the phone about a possible placement I called our RFC back and hesitantly told him "No."  And I felt guilty of course- and a little let down from the previous hour's adrenaline rush and possibilities.  Of course, our caseworker was fine with my answer which he needed right away so that he could move on and find another foster family.

    It's not that I can't say "no" to potential foster placements- [cue Ado Annie's I'm Just A Girl Who Cain't Say No for any musical theater fans out there] it's just that sometimes it's so hard to know that there is a child out there who needs a safe and loving home and we have the room but we have to turn them away.  I have said "no" before to placements for various reasons:

    -The timing isn't good for our family.  (It's not that anytime is a necessarily "convenient" time to have a foster child placed in your home, but sometimes life can be extra hectic and adding one more major change would not be wise)

    -The decision isn't unanimous.  I may feel alright about saying yes to a placement, but if my husband doesn't agree then I need to respect that the same as he would respect if I said "no" even if he felt good about a placement.

    -It just doesn't feel "right".   This reason is hard to explain because it's not logical- it's just a gut feeling that, for whatever reason, this placement just doesn't feel right for our family.

    -Sometimes we need time to focus on our own children's needs before bringing in any additional children into our home.   I would hate to risk somehow neglecting or overlooking the needs or desires of my own children by focusing so much on someone else's child.  What if one of my children became resentful?  Most of the time our oldest daughter is just fine or even excited about the prospect of taking another foster placement but each child in a family will have differing perspectives.

    -There might be a behavior in a potential foster placement that could clash with the needs or safety of our own children.   Pretty self-explanatory.

    So, as you can see, there are valid reasons for saying "no" to foster placements.  But it still doesn't make it easier!  My husband is always quick to remind me that if we say "no" there are other families available and that I can't "save them all" (his words).  I also know, deep down, that saying "no" is better than saying "yes" if it could result in a disrupted placement.

    Speaking of having a hard time saying "No"- I'm just curious to see if there are any other foster parents/carers out there who happen to be ISFJ's based on Myers Briggs personality inventory.  If so, these traits might seem familiar:



    Monday, April 24, 2017

    Reflections on the Movie "Lion"

    I finally saw the movie "Lion" over the weekend (it's on Redbox) and I highly recommend it.

    Here are some of my impressions of the movie:

    -There are far too many children all over the world without families.  Poverty plays a huge role in why children become orphaned, as does education.  In the true story behind Lion, Saroo is a young Indian boy who tragically becomes lost and permanently separated from his mother.  Saroo has no choice but to live on the streets.  Saroo's mother cannot read or write and makes a living carrying rocks.  I mention this fact not because it has to do with the cause or reason that they were separated but to illustrate how education and poverty are intertwined and also to give an idea of Saroo's early environment.

    - Homeless children- whether from a characteristically impoverished nation or those who age out of foster care in the United States- are at alarmingly high risks for human trafficking.  This is extremely upsetting.

    -At the close of the movie Lion, there was a website referenced- http://lionmovie.com/#charity- which  addresses organizations in India working to help missing children.  There was also a staggering statistic cited that over 80,000 children in India go missing each year.  Mind blowing!

    -Another organization I have been following over the past couple of years which seeks to combat and rescue child trafficking victims around the world is Operation Underground Railroad.

    -One of the most moving lines in the movie is when Saroo tells his mother something to the effect of
    "You didn't just adopt us, but our past as well."  Saroo's parents adopt him and later another little boy from India.  I can imagine that adopting an older child would present challenges for any family, but adopting an older child who is coming from a completely different culture and speaks a different language would present some additional challenges for everyone.

    SPOILER ALERT (for anyone who has not yet seen the movie): Saroo grew up in India, but was adopted by an Australian couple and grew up in Tasmania.  As a young adult, Saroo struggles with his identity and history and with the aid of modern technology and his own detective work, he eventually makes a remarkable journey to find his birth mother.

    -I was relieved and touched by the way Saroo's mother and his first mother respected each other's roles in Saroo's life.

    -One of the things that keeps Saroo from telling his adoptive mother about his quest to find his birth family is that he is afraid she will feel hurt or betrayed by his decision.  In short, he has what some might call "divided loyalties" between respecting the family who raised him and a yearning to understand where he came from.  [Refer to Adoptee Grief, Loss, and Identity under Seven Core Issues in Adoption charts.]

    -When Saroo's mother hears of his intents to find his first mother her mature reply is (something to the effect of) "I hope you find her and she sees how beautiful you have become."

    -After a miraculous and joyful reunion with his first mother Saroo informs his family that his first mother is grateful to them for raising him and she recognizes that, although he didn't start out with him, they are his family.

    -I was so touched by the actual footage at the end of the movie of Saroo going back to India, this time accompanied by his mom, and she is able to meet her son's first mother for the first time.  "Sacred" is the most adequate word I can use of to describe such an encounter.

    On another note, Nicole Kidman is the actress who plays Saroo's adoptive mom.  This is an interview with her about how the role as an adoptive mom to trans racial children mirrors her own life: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/12/nicole-kidman-lion-adoption-love

    And here's the official trailer for the movie:


    Saturday, April 8, 2017

    Adoption Mommy Wars: International vs. Domestic, Newborn vs. Older Child, Foster Care vs. Private

    Last year, a couple of weeks before Christmas while my husband and I were out shopping, he turned to me and said, “Why don’t we just adopt a child from Syria?”  His statement was due, in large part, to the current and ongoing refugee crisis and a result of reading and viewing horrific news almost daily about families forced to flee their homelands for safety.  My husband obviously knows that there’s no such thing as “just” adopting, but he was expressing his solution to a need.

    “It’s not that easy," I began, “to adopt a refugee child.”  I continued to share what I have learned over the past couple of years on the topic:

    ‘It’s actually against U.N. Regulations to adopt refugee children from many countries because there has to be proof that no relatives exist.  That is a process which could take years.”

    I continued, “The purpose of fostering unaccompanied refugee minors, however, is not to adopt but to help the youth adjust to a new culture, learn the language, and basically learn whatever skills are necessary for them to live independently as an adult.”

    I purposely stressed the word “fostering” because providing refugee foster care is a topic I have discussed with my husband on more than one occasion over the past couple of years.  More than once I have contacted the director of an agency in my state which contracts with Catholic Community Services to provide foster homes for unaccompanied refugee minors.  I grilled the director with many questions about the requirements and training process to become a foster home and even the backgrounds of the youth who are available to foster.  This director was gracious and more than happy to answer all of my questions.

    After much discussion, my husband and I decided that although fostering unaccompanied refugee minors is something that we would like to do in the future, for various reasons the timing is not right for our family right now.

    My husband became angry after my response about not being able to adopt refugee children so easily.  He wasn’t angry at me, mind you, but at the inequality which some people (namely refugees and orphans) must face.  He retorted with a rhetorical question: “Then what good is it for a child to languish in an impoverished camp when there are homes who are more than willing to take them in?!”  Sometimes I wish more people were like my husband- when he sees someone in need or marginalized in some way he becomes very driven to make the situation fair.   

    It was ironic that the month my husband and I had our aforementioned discussion was December- Christmastime- and there was also a feature story in Time Magazine about the lives of four different babies born in the war-torn region of Syria.  There will be further issues which follow up on how each baby and their families are faring.

    Below is one of the covers of the magazine and I specifically remember that as I saw the picture I couldn’t help but think about another little baby boy from the Middle East wrapped in swaddling clothes over 2,000 years ago whose family was turned away because there was “no room in the inn.”


    Doubtless there may be some reading this post who are thinking, “But why are you worried about children from across the world when there are hundreds of thousands of children right here in the U.S. foster care system who need homes?”  This brings me to an observation I’ve made about some members of the fostering/adoption/orphan care community (and I have to admit, I have been guilty of this kind of thinking myself at times):

    I've noticed that sometimes people feel so passionately about a cause that they assume everyone should feel the same way- or perhaps they feel that a cause they are drawn to should take precedence over other similar causes. Of course this happens in a very general sense with a variety of issues but what I’m talking about specifically is those who have fostered or adopted from foster care and feel that their route to helping children or adopting is more noble or worthy than, say, a private domestic adoption.  Or those who are so concerned about orphans around the world that they push for international adoption but don’t focus on foster care adoption.  Which cause is “right” or "wrong”?  

    In my opinion, anytime someone feels inspired to help another human being [especially children- who are the most vulnerable of humans] then it is a worthy cause.  Period.   Therefore, domestic adoption is right.  International adoption is right and worthy.  Foster care adoption is a right and worthy pursuit as well.  It’s not a contest or debate between which cause is worthiest or which way is best.  I do, however, feel strongly that certain individuals feel “called” to very specific types of adoption based, among other things, on what is best suited for their family.  Allow me to share an example:

    I have a friend who is a mother to six children- more than one of her children has special needs (including Down Syndrome) and two of her children were adopted.  This friend, Rebecca, has become a huge advocate not only for adoption but for special needs adoption because of her family’s experiences.  I might add, her adopted children are a different race than her biological children so she’s well versed in the complexities of inter-racial adoption issues as well. I was delighted to learn that Rebecca is in the process of adopting an older child with special needs from China.

    A major motivation for Rebecca advocating for the adoption of special needs children in China is the realization that many of these kids with special needs (which covers a huge definition and range of circumstances) run the risk of aging out of their orphanages as young as 14 years old and then they are left to live in an institution.  If these same children were able to live in the United States or another country they could have access to so many services not available to them, not to mention they could live in a FAMILY rather than an institution for the remainder of their lives.

    Back to the point of this example: Shortly after Rebecca publicly announced her family's plans to adopt from China (Rebecca’s sister is also in the process of adopting an older child from China- how neat is that?!) she answered a Frequently Asked Question because she has learned from her experiences that people are bound to make judgments.  Although I love Bek’s humor and frankness in answering the question, I also thought it was very sad that she even had to say anything explaining or "justifying" her family’s plans to adopt:
    Q. Why China? Aren't there enough kids in America that need homes? (unspoken, and sometimes spoken- "that seems selfish").
    A. (Unspoken, sometimes spoken). None of your business! Actually, as Mak and her family are learning, being an "out loud" family means questions or comments are part of the package. Teaching moments abound. Why China? I don't know. Really. One year ago I had never spent ten seconds thinking about China. Every family is different. For my family, that's where our kid was.
    I don't know any family that goes into adoption without thinking long and hard about what works for them. It's pretty personal. I know some people who have always dreamed of adopting from there. I bought a bubble blower that I happened to hand to a boy. A few other factors for us is that we live in a place that has lots of mandarin speakers, restaurants and close friends who are Chinese. Our boy won't lack for people to help him transition. Our cousin lives in our apartment and is not only the best auntie around, she also speaks mandarin!
    And.. there ARE lots of kids in our country that need homes. If you have seven hours I can have that conversation with you. Kids in our foster care system often have lots of trauma before they are available for adoption. Not everyone is equipped to parent that kind of need. And the very last thing that is good for kids is to have a placement disrupted because no one was properly prepared. So, if you are going to float that question with anyone (especially me) the first thing I will ask you is either how many kids from foster care that YOU are adopting or I will ask something very intimate about your sex life. Like a person’s sex life, choices on building a family belong only to the people involved. Mostly, people are curious. And that's ok! It's fun though to play around with the crunchy people.
    I happen to feel very passionately about foster care.  There is such a need for good foster homes.  However, I would never pressure anyone into fostering because it’s hard work and it’s not for everyone.  But like I mentioned before, I have been guilty myself of judging others for not recognizing the need of providing children in the United States with temporary or permanent homes.   Allow me to share one example:

    A couple years ago a dear friend of mine visited Africa as part of a humanitarian trip.  As part of the services rendered she was able to visit an orphanage.  She immediately fell in love with the children she saw, especially those with special needs who could benefit greatly from advanced medical care and early intervention services available in the U.S.  Before returning home from her trip she confided in me that, as crazy as it sounded, she wanted to bring home one of the babies from the orphanage to adopt- Literally.

    Of course, when I heard of my friend's plans I was like, “Whoa, Nellie!  I know you have contacts over there, but what agency do you plan on going through?  Is it a Hague Accredited Agency?  Otherwise, you could legally run the risk of human trafficking regardless of how worthy your intentions might be.  Adoption isn’t a process like picking out a puppy from a pound and taking them home.  There is a LOT of paperwork involved, research, and how are you going to get a home study approved so fast and background checks for all members of your family?”

    My friend is extremely compassionate so her desire to bring relief to the orphans she interacted with came as no surprise to me.  After all, who wouldn’t be moved to bring home a child from an orphanage after visiting, right?  It was the way my friend was approaching the situation, rather than her desire to help, that concerned me. And here’s where I started to feel somewhat judgmental towards my friend (because I’m human and not perfect).  I thought to myself, “If she wants to adopt a child or provide an environment and opportunities to a child that they would not have otherwise why is it that she has to go halfway around the world to do that?  There are literally over 100,000 children in the U.S foster care system legally freed for adoption who would benefit from being in her home and in her family.  Are these kids not exotic enough or special enough?”

    Fortunately, I recognized that I was being judgmental and so I settled down and just left it at “That’s AWESOME that she had a life-changing experience.  She wants to make a difference.  Good for her!”  And, in case you’re wondering, she didn’t end up adopting an orphan but she does have additional humanitarian trips planned in her future because of her experiences.

    My point in sharing these stories and experiences is that it really is rather silly to argue about which path to adoption is best or most needful.  Every family or individual’s decision to adopt is a very personal one.  It’s kind of like- [going back to the plight of refugees, as I first started off my post]- when I see people getting into heated political arguments about “Which is better- to use our tax money to support homeless veterans or to provide relief for refugees?”  My personal feelings is that it’s not an either/or situation- how about BOTH!


    So the next time you hear someone expressing a view (or you find yourself expressing a viewpoint) about which is “better/more needful”- adopting a child from another country, adopting domestically, adopting an infant, or adopting an older child- perhaps we can remember that ALL of them are wonderful options!

    New Challenges

    When our little boy was adopted from foster care at 2 ½ years of age we were delighted at the leaps and bounds he had made over the year and a half since being placed in our home.  When he was first placed with us he was behind in motor development, unable to calm himself down if left alone in a room for ANY period of time, and as he got older it was apparent he was behind in expressive language skills as well.   I remember honestly worrying about if he would ever learn to talk instead of just grunt.  Fortunately, he qualified for services and received occupational and speech therapy in our home.  By the time we adopted him he had graduated from his therapies and I remember breathing a sigh of relief and perhaps somewhat naively thinking, “Maybe he’s all ‘caught up’ now!” 

    Fast forward a couple of years and he is an inquisitive preschooler.  How ironic that I ever worried about him not being able to talk because now the opposite is true as he is at the stage where he asks questions about everything!

    Although my four-year-old is pretty much “on track” as far as getting along with people and forming attachments, over the past couple of years my husband and I have noticed a few concerns in his development where he seems to be somewhat slower or he even has some “quirks” for lack of a better word.  Sure, he can function but there are a few areas that are a little "off". 

    Our suspicions about our son’s development were confirmed when at a Parent Teacher Conference  last year his preschool teacher shared some of her observations which mirrored our concerns. “So it’s not just us” I thought to myself.  His pre-school teacher suggested that he be evaluated for Special Education Pre-School.  I immediately got the evaluation set up and a couple months later he was evaluated by a team of child development specialists which resulted in some good news and bad news.  But before I get to the results let me share some of my thoughts that were going through my mind at his evaluation:

    Before the evaluation began I was surprised at how emotional I became as I was filling out a questionnaire regarding his development.  As I answered some of the questions which I have answered in the past on similar questionnaires I became overwhelmed with a sense of both amazement and gratitude at how far he’s come.  I actually felt tears start to from in the corners of my eyes.

    Then I felt a tinge of sadness that he is still lacking in some areas.  I noticed how a few of the other children at the evaluation couldn’t let go and separate from their parents to even begin the testing in the first place.  In some cases, their parent had to sit next to them the whole time while most of the parents just watched their children from a distance on some chairs set up.  There were a few other cases where a child could hardly sit still and I remembered thinking (since my son was eager to move from test station to test station as if he were moving from one carnival ride or game to another) “At least he’s not too bad,”  And then I immediately felt guilty for feeling relieved that things aren’t worse when other parents have to deal with such difficult situations and behaviors.  It was like a roller coaster of emotions in a matter of minutes.

    After my son moved to all the different “stations” set up at the evaluation- one to check his vision, one to see if he could count and recognize numbers, one in which his fine and gross motor skills were assessed, etc. he was allowed to play with some play-doh at a table.  The Special Education Coordinator informed me that he was done with the testing and that she wanted to discuss his results with me.  We stepped into an adjacent private room.

    “What are your biggest concerns regarding your son?”  She asked me.  I almost wondered if it were a trick question or if she were testing the waters before breaking into some bad news.  I explained his history and some of our concerns and after citing a specific example she said, “The children we work with have trouble walking- period.”  which I pretty much translated as, “maybe your child doesn’t walk the same as other children but at least he’s walking.”  Don’t’ get me wrong, this woman wasn’t trying to be condescending or anything, she was just explaining that he wasn’t visibly far enough behind in certain areas of development to qualify for special education.

    She then proceeded to show me the results of his tests and where he stood in relation to other children and announced, “He didn’t qualify for services.”  The news that he didn’t qualify for special education preschool was both a relief but also a frustration as I know that he’s not at a level where he should be.  I did, however, appreciate the coordinator taking the time to go back to the physical therapist who performed part of the evaluation to ask some clarifying questions about my son and then coming back with some suggestions based on his feedback.

     The bad news is that the evaluation didn’t pinpoint exactly what might be wrong with our son- or perhaps “developmentally lacking” might be a better phrase to use.   I happen to be persistent when I want some answers- even more so when it benefits someone I love- so I have done a bit of reading and research and am happy to report that another evaluation with an occupational therapist is set up in the near future to see what, if any, diagnoses could be made, but more importantly than any labels is what services our son could benefit from.


    One of my points in sharing this is that even in cases where you think, “This child is all caught up!  They’ve come so far!” I was reminded that the brain continues to develop through young adulthood and in each new stage there may be new issues that manifest themselves.   

    I want to share something else I’ve come to realize as a foster adoptive mother.  Our little boy was just 11 months old when he was placed with us, but his little sister whom we adopted at the same time we adopted him, was placed with us as a newborn right out of the hospital.  I sometimes think, “Well, since we got her from the very beginning (as opposed to her older brother) we have a ‘fresh slate’.  Wrong!  Her in-utero development and genetic make-up has as much to do with her development as our home environment and the nurturing she’s received while in our care.  Nurture and nature BOTH play a role in how a child will turn out. 

    As far as any special needs our youngest daughter may have, I think it is important to remember that when she’s throwing a fit or having trouble regulating herself that it is not necessarily a reflection on my parenting but rather, a reflection of what’s going on in her mind and body.  It is MY reaction, however, that is crucial in influencing how she handles stress in the future.



    I have my predictions as to which official diagnoses my daughter will have as time goes on.  Many times official diagnoses for learning disabilities or other issues can't accurately be made until kindergarten or first grade when a child can be observed in a classroom setting.  However, I do know of at least one psychologist in my area who offers comprehensive neurobehavioral evaluations for children as young as pre-school aged.

    As far as raising children with special needs (and discovering more about WHAT their special needs are and how they can be treated) I guess I have a love/hate relationship with diagnoses or labels.  Although I love being able to have an answer and to know “There’s a reason for this!” the important thing for me to remember is to see and love the child behind each diagnosis.  After all, people are much more than just labels.

    Special Needs Parenting Preparation & New Challenges

    Background

    Over the past ten years we've fostered children with various special needs including drug addicted babies going through withdrawals, toddlers and preschoolers with speech and motor delays requiring early intervention services and therapies, and children who, for a variety of reasons, had trouble regulating their emotions.

    As foster parents we felt it was our job to provide all the nurturing, stimulation, and support we could in order for these babies and children to get "caught up" on their developmental milestones, learn to adjust, or, in the least, to help them feel that they were in a safe enough environment before any other changes could take place.  I have certainly come to understand that survival takes precedence over thriving- not just in a child's brain development but in the way I care for children who have special needs.*

    After we had done our "job" with these children and they would be returned to live with their families or relatives, we could only hope and pray that their caregivers would continue with services or have the appropriate tools, if not support, to meet their children's needs.  In a few cases we've been able to keep in touch with our foster children and their families to see how they're doing but in most cases we have not been able to do so.

    It's only been over the past couple of years that our role has changed from taking care of "other people's children" with special needs to becoming the full-time legal parents to not just one, but two children with special needs as we ended up adopting a sibling group of two of our former foster children.  These children are now our children, and as such, it has presented us with some new challenges.

    "But They Look Just Fine"

    I think that one of the hardest parts about being a parent to a child with special needs is when they look like "typical" children in their appearances. What I mean by that is that if you were to see someone in a wheelchair you would automatically know "They have an injury or disability- that's the reason they aren't walking and are using a wheelchair to get around."  Or if you were to see someone with down syndrome it would register with you, "I can tell by their facial features that they have down syndrome; that is the reason they are likely to be slower in their development and have some physical complications as well."  However, you can't necessarily tell if someone has a learning disability or mental illness just by looking at them.

    Our youngest children aren't in wheelchairs, they don't have braces on their legs or G.I. tubes, nor do they exhibit the facial features of someone with down syndrome or some cases of fetal alcohol syndrome.  Yet, they have special needs- perhaps not severe special needs, mind you, but needs that definitely require extra understanding and attention.  Most people would never know this simply by looking at them.  However, after spending some time with them, a teacher (or other observant person who is familiar with normative child development) might notice some lags in their development and/or some slight disruptions in their behaviors.

    For instance, just this week our three year old's teacher at church pulled me aside in the hall and said, in essence, "Your little girl can be overactive at times and has a hard time sitting still but I can sense her fragility and sweetness."  I immediately felt the need to apologize that I am not always able to lend an extra hand to sit with her as I have an older Sunday School class to teach, to which her teacher replied, "Don't worry- she's young and still learning!"  Good point.  After all, what 3 year old is automatically able to sit still on chairs for minutes at a time and listen to lessons and sing songs rather than playing with toys and having snacks and running around as they had previously done in the Nursery?  It's a hard adjustment and for some kids it is easier for others.

    My little girl's teacher then said something very specific which caught my attention.  She continued, "I don't know what her story is . . . but I'm aware of her. (or "I'm glad to have her in class" or something like that.)  I started zoning out as soon as she said, "I don't know what her story is" because I began wondering Is she asking me for more information?  Or is she just trying to tell me, "Whatever is wrong- don't worry about it.  I've got this."  I wasn't sure and since we were just passing each other in the hall it wasn't an opportune time for me to say, "Pull up a chair and let me tell you all about it!"  Instead, I just smiled and said, "Thank you for your patience with her."  which I genuinely meant and I just left it at that.

    That experience brought up a lot of tender feelings inside of me, as well as a challenge I currently face and will likely face in the future as well:  It's been challenging to know how much of our children's past histories we should share with others and it begs the question: What are the pros and cons of sharing my children's personal histories/special needs with others?

    PROS:

    -Knowing their backgrounds can be helpful for teachers or caregivers of my children to understand where they're coming from.

    -There may be someone else familiar with special needs (visible of invisible) who can relate.

    -In cases where people are not necessarily familiar with the issues, it's a good opportunity to educate or advocate for special needs and/or foster care.

    CONS:

    -People can be judgmental.  On that note . . .

    - I don't like labels.  My children are my children, first and foremost.  They may be children who happen to be adopted or children who have been in the foster care system or children who have special needs but, above all, they are my children.

    -Although labels serve the convenience of being able to explain things in a few short words, they can often create even more judgments and stereotypes.  For example, even if I were to use the phrase "drug exposed in utero" rather than "drug baby" or "child who was placed into foster care" rather than "foster child" there are bound to be some strong assumptions and connotations surrounding those words.  And let's face it, they're not often pleasant connotations because they aren't pleasant scenarios.

    -I want to be respectful of my child's history as their history and story to tell.  

    This one is tricky for two reasons:

    1) My children's histories have become a part of MY story as well.
    2) My youngest children are too young to even fully understand or articulate their histories for themselves.

    With that background, I am going to err on the side of sharing my perspective of parenting a child with special needs (rather than withholding my experiences) in the hope that it can bring awareness or help someone out who finds themselves in a similar situation.

    * [The works of the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Dr.s John & Julia Gottman have been INDISPENSABLE in helping me understand how to effectively care for children coming from backgrounds of trauma!]