Monday, June 29, 2009

Musical Chairs

I’m settling into the emotional rollercoaster that is bound to be the next few months - we're finally fully involved in our program to meet and "host" a Los Angeles foster kid on weekends. But we haven't found the right kid yet. It might take a week, it might take six months - it’s hard to say, and our agency and our social worker seem to counsel that it’s impossible to rush or predict the process. I’m slowly getting used to that idea and it’s uncomfortable at times, because it goes against the grain of my natural modus operandi, which is to follow through decisions more or less right away (read: right now).

Our social worker, who is a stiletto-wearing Lakers-loving native Angeleno and two-time graduate of UCLA, recently asked me a question last week that drove the point home. “You realize, don’t you, that these kids come with two social workers – a primary social worker, and an adoption social worker? And then there’s the head of their group home, who also has a say. And all these people have to coordinate, and that doesn't always happen right away. So you might be calling the kid’s social worker trying to get an answer, and they might not return your phone calls for a week, and that might get really frustrating. You know what I mean?”

Yes, I do. I think experience has probably just taught her that fancy-pants white folks like me live in a world that insulates us from bureaucratic inefficiency most of the time. I get it. This isn’t a service business. The agency and the social worker aren’t there to fulfill my desires and preferences. They exist to protect, as best they can, tens of thousands of abandoned kids in a system that’s been robbed of resources, and they do so amid a nearly impenetrable tangle of laws and regulations. And that saps their energy and exhausts their idealism, and if they fail to be impressed by my noble desire to provide a permanent home for one of these kids, I'll just have to forgive them, because they've got a lot of thankless dirty work to do.

So we wait and we participate in loosely organized events sponsored by our agency every weekend. We are feeling good, as we’re done for now with the official process of qualifying as "weekend hosts". The Lakers-loving social worker interviewed us for hours the other night and gave us (and our home) the thumbs-up. That means the Los Angeles DCFS says we’re officially approved to have a foster kid in our home on weeekends.

I also finally got the answer to a question I've been trying to puzzle out for months. We know that if we find a good match, and if the kid is interested in being adopted (eventually), we'd like to make that commitment. But the state doesn't terminate birth parent rights unless/until there is an adoptive prospect in the works. And that means the kid lives with a licensed foster parent during the (sometimes lengthy) process of terminating birth parent rights, leading to adoption. So my fear throughout this process has been: what if we connect with a kid, we do a series of weekends visits, and we all decide we'd like to have a more permanent arrangement? Do we then have to go through all the training and licensing to become foster parents before the kid can move in full-time? And the answer is no. The agency we're working with has a special arrangement with DCFS that allows a weekend arrangement to go full-time under an obscure provision regarding what they term "Non-relative Extended Family Caregiving."

And we did just meet a kid we felt comfortable with, who seemed to feel comfortable with us – unfortunately, our agency had orchestrated a match for him with another couple last week, just at the same time we expressed interest. At times the process feels like musical chairs – if there are more adults than kids in the program on any given weekend, then it’s easy to get the feeling that when the music stops, you need to grab a kid quick, or they’ll all be taken. I'll continue to try to resist that feeling. We’ve got weekend events scheduled every weekend between now and Labor Day, so there's plenty of time left to let the music play and see what happens.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Meeting the Kids for the Fist Time

Wow, today was a big day. We did our first weekend event with the kids – washing dogs at a rescue pet event in Torrance. (By coincidence, the dog washing event took place just a few blocks from where I was born, off Torrance Avenue.) I didn’t catch all the logistics, but it seemed to be some sort of benefit, hosted by a do-it-yourself dog washing facility. The idea was that pet owners could bring their dogs by and pay to have us wash the dog for them, and the money would go to a pet rescue organization. I’m not sure the people running the benefit even clearly understood that we were volunteers from a kid rescue organization, and that the kids with us were from foster homes. The customers clearly didn’t – they just thought we were professional dog washers! Which was somewhat hilarious – because these kids don’t have dogs at home and don’t know the first thing about washing one – and somewhat tragic – because it clearly illustrated how much more attention goes to rescuing pets than rescuing people.

But that aside, here are some fresh first impressions:

I’m excited to say: the kids were exactly as I imagined they would be! That’s a huge relief, because I was afraid my imagination and reality might collide in an uncomfortable way – that somehow the kids would turn out to be different than I expected and I would feel cold feet as a result. Well, that didn’t happen! There were only a handful of kids there, and for the most part they were painfully shy and generally lacking social skills. But they were sweet and familiar. They were what I’ve had in mind all through this process. We gravitated to the boys, rather than the girls, as I expected we would.

The adults kind of tended to hang back, unsure how to engage the kids. Not knowing what else to do, we got a few kids organized in some dog-washing activity. In our little group, we had two boys both about 15 years old. One was very skinny and tall – at least 6’2" already. The other was about half a foot shorter and somewhat disabled with a speech impediment. The first boy stood for almost an hour in an empty dog-washing stall waiting for someone to bring him a dog to wash. He seemed accustomed to waiting. The other boy hung around the driveway until some unknowing customer pulled up and handed him a leash with a medium-sized matted dog on the end of it. He was letting the dog drag him all over the facility when I caught up with him and suggested we head for the stall his friend had commandeered. He nodded yes and looked really excited and terrified. Next thing we knew, we were in a little dog-washing cubicle with a sink, a blow drier, two tongue-tied teenage boys and a frightened tangled mutt.

The kids, who barely acknowledged my presence otherwise, responded to every suggestion and instruction. I was struck by the realization that they were hyper-attuned to every word I was saying even though they never looked at me. I imagine they were somewhat mortified by the social pressures of the event, and so relieved to have a job to do and someone to help break it down into manageable tasks and a clear division of labor. I also had the sense that they are accustomed to having women tell them what to do all the time – perhaps because they live in group homes, which tend to be staffed by women.

With us, the two boys were shy and withdrawn. With the dogs, they were incredibly gentle and even a bit timid. They held the dogs so gently, and brushed their fur so carefully. The taller boy took his task very seriously and performed it well with a gentle-but-firm touch and a quiet manner that seemed to calm the dog. He set the temperature on the water, running the water over his wrist while he adjusted the knobs to be sure it wasn’t too hot or too cold so carefully that I wondered if he had some experience warming a bottle or bathing a younger sibling - his manner was like that of a practiced parent. The other boy seemed panicked by the leash and the difficulty of holding the squirming dog in the sink, and reassured when we showed him how to lather the dog up and use the scrubber to get him clean.

We washed three dogs together. Each one went back to its owner still a bit damp and rumpled. The dogs seemed aware they had just received something therapeutic but not quite cleansing, but the owners were oblivious that anything had been other than professional. They just zoomed off with their beloved pets, in their comfortable cars.

When it was over, the boys sank back into themselves, milling around uncomfortably, declining attempts at conversation, and looking generally unsettled. The agency had a pizza lunch for everyone. When the boys only picked reluctantly at their pizza, I wondered whether they weren’t terribly nervous. After all, what 15 year-old doesn’t lunge at a pizza under normal circumstances? But I suppose nothing is normal about a situation like this one and despite everyone’s best attempts to keep the atmosphere light, they must have felt scrutinized.

None of this is getting me any closer to explaining how excited I feel. We vowed to proceed with measured deliberation, attending a few more events before further discussions with the agency about hosting one of the kids. But I know we’re going to do it and I can hardly wait.

These kids are obviously not going to have easy lives and nothing we do for them will reverse their early misfortune. They are hungry for attention, highly reserved and perhaps mistrustful, and plagued by all sorts of difficulties. But they are so obviously deserving of some comfort and so brave to do what they did today. And doing whatever is required to give them a home seems so natural and so logical.

We’re having dinner with some good friends tonight, and I know they’ll ask about the event, and our plans to adopt. I know they think of it as an “alternative” to having a “real” kid of our own. One is a teacher, and she has sound advice about choosing a younger kid, to give us more time to influence. She’s kind and insightful, but I know I’ll feel like we’re missing each other. I won’t be able to explain why these kids are the ones for us, and I won’t know how to talk about the alternative parenting that we have in mind. We’ll make a joke like we always do about how we just really like the tricky teenagers, and then we’ll change the subject. And that will be it, until someday, we introduce our friends to a shy, agonized teenager who has come to live with us for awhile, and we all figure out how to break being a “family” down into a series of manageable tasks like we did today at the dog wash.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Getting the House Ready

Getting ready for a home visit from the DCFS social worker, and it’s raising some awkward and amusing questions:

Where did all this alcohol come from?

There’s the globe bar in the dining room, the rolling bar cart in the living room that we use for parties, and the built in liquor cabinet next to the television that came with the house and holds the special stuff. When we were single and having cocktail parties it all seemed sort of glamorous. Now I’m looking at it in a different light!

How did I end up with so many clothes?

We have to have a room ready for the kid, and that’s no problem. We even have a spare bathroom. But closet space is another matter. The closet in the spare room holds my collection of coats. I could move them to the hall closet, but that’s where my trousers live. And I can’t put them in the bedroom, because that’s where I keep tops and shoes. When I worked 60 hours a week and traveled on business, the wardrobe seemed deserved. Now it just seems vain! Might be a good time to hit Goodwill.

 Is that art?

Until now, our collection of art mostly made by friends seemed cool. The neat little drawing in the guest room, made by an illustrator with an environmentalist bent, showing a fox cut in half as the ground beneath him is rent in two? Now looks a little grotesque. What about the blow-up photo of a doll’s head made from the tangled roots of a tree? That’s what my dad would politely call “challenging.” And the baby blocks in the office, that spell out “F@** you”? Well that’s just rude. Already tucked away in a dark corner of the garage: the ceramic cast of a deflated baby doll made by a friend who was deploying to Iraq. And thank god we didn’t buy anything from series of sex doll photos that a New York artist friend was selling last year. We’re gonna have to buy some pretty posters or something.

 How clean is “clean”?

I thought I was doing a pretty good job, until I started looking at my housekeeping through the paranoid lens of a social worker inspection. How did I not notice the dust hanging from the corners of the bedroom ceiling? What is that caked on the floor behind the sofa? Is it bad that I don’t really care about the grout in the corners of the shower?

Inspection happens next Tuesday. We have to childproof the house, including getting the cleaning chemicals out of reach, even though we’re interested in teenagers, not toddlers. I’m running out to buy the requisite fire escape ladders for the bedrooms today. And we have to write out an emergency evacuation plan. I’m struck once more that you can get pregnant willy-nilly but if you adopt an older kid, you’ve got to contend with government safety inspections, mandated trainings and endless paperwork. I can’t knock their interest in making sure the kids are heading to a safe home – I just marvel at the double standard for biological versus adoptive parents sometimes.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cold Feet and the Morning After

So here's what this rollercoaster has been like of late:

Last night, I started reading some blogs about adopting an older child on the website (and whatever I have to say below aside, it's a FANTASTIC resource). I actually googled "older child adoption success" looking for some happy stories to tide us over. Somehow I ended up reading the ones that said things like "After many, many years of HARD, EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL PAIN, things finally improved..." and "Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't do this again."

I went to bed feeling scared and discouraged. Actually, I felt terrified and frozen. I felt relieved that we hadn't yet committed to a particular child, and embarrassed about what I was going to have to tell my few friends and family who know we're in the process of trying to foster/adopt an older kid. Why were we doing this? We have a great life, and we're pretty happy with our routines. Why throw that all away? Was I being COMPLETELY idealistic and naive? Worse yet, was I destined to fail?

This morning I got up and read a story in the paper about four Mission High students in San Francisco who are graduating this spring and going to college ( All of them have faced significant challenges. One girl ran away to Los Angeles in her junior year, stopped going to school altogether, and was living in a foster family that barely cared for her. The attendance liason from her old school in San Francisco called to see where she was and learned she was in LA, not going to school. They got talking, and the girl asked the woman to be her foster mom. After thinking about it long and hard, the woman said yes. So the girl returned to San Francisco and moved in with her new foster mom, who set just three ground rules: no tv on weekdays, we go to church on Sundays, and I'm doing this so that you go to college and have a career. And the girl had a stellar academic year - she designed a class about the Pan-African Diaspora; she served as president of the school's Black Student Union, and this fall she's starting at Spelman College, an all-Black women's college.

I felt so happy reading these stories, I got tearful. I looked up all the profiles of all the kids in our program and started looking for those who resembled the kids in the story. I felt like I could hardly wait to get started.

And so it goes! I don't know, I bet maybe parenthood feels this way, full of highs and lows. I'm trying to manage my feelings so that the rollercoaster evens out a little bit. My partner is better at is than I am - better suited by disposition to maintaining an even keel and following through on a commitment. He doesn't worry much about the daily fluctuation of emotions. Clearly I have some work to do. I intend to follow through, and I KNOW there will be some rough times and some huge hurdles. Sometimes I wish I could find more examples of people who have done this before, successfully, rather than all the gloomy warnings one finds by googling things like "older child adoption." Maybe I'll just stop googling. There's an event coming up, sponsored by our agency - show up and wash dogs with kids who are looking for adoptive parents. I'm sure I'll learn more by washing dogs alongside teenagers living in group homes than I will be late-night googling.
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