Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pins and Needles

Yesterday we went to a party in Malibu on a private beach. We drove one of the kids from South LA, which took about two hours in traffic. The kid – he’s twelve – spent the last twenty minutes of the drive yelling at the top of his lungs “I’m bored! Bored! I'm bored! Bored! Bored! Bored! Bored!” That was after telling us fanciful tales of the gun he carries, and the ski mask he wears when he’s doing robberies and the hit CD he recorded at his father’s recording studio. (His assessment form described in my previous post does say he tells tall tales.) He interrupted his manic chant briefly to bark like a dog at a passing car so loudly that our car shook and we attracted notice from a nearby motorcycle cop.

Arriving somewhat shattered, we immediately spotted the kid we’re really interested in – I’ll call him T. He was meticulously and fashionably dressed, with bright white socks pulled up over his ankles, old-school black sneakers, long black shorts, and a very clean t-shirt. I learned later that his current foster mom is out of town, so he’s temporarily staying in a “substitute foster home.” Any credit for keeping his clothes so neat is his own.

He’s 15 and very shy with adults. He attends these events with his younger brother, with whom he has never lived. I wanted to be careful not to put any pressure on him. I know from reading what his social worker has written about him that he’s been frustrated that nobody has expressed interest in him yet. He “presents” (as the social workers say) as very standoffish and disinterested. If I were he, I would do the same. I think his behavior suggests that he’s intelligent enough to understand what the event is about, how high the stakes are, and to protect himself from disappointment.

We all headed down to the beach where a volleyball game was getting started. I went up to T and his brother, introduced myself and reminded them that we had washed dogs together at a previous event. He looked alarmed, but he also shook the hand I offered immediately. I asked if they wanted to play volleyball and he shook his head no. I said, “Are you sure?” and smiled. He shook his head no, but he stood rooted in place, and he smiled quickly. I said, “I could keep asking until you say yes.” He shook his head and smiled again and looked down at his feet and I let him go.

Later he went upstairs for a moment and re-emerged in a second outfit, one he brought with him for swimming. Long orange board shorts and a tank top, no socks. He has the stretched appearance of a young teenager whose bulk hasn’t caught up with his height yet, and he holds his head on his long neck sort of like a turtle. He stood quietly at the edge of the water with just his toes in the waves, near the group playing volleyball but out of reach. After several minutes, I saw him notice a seal swimming offshore. He cocked his head to the side and watched it with a far-away expression.

Later, we were playing flag tag with the kids and he came and stood on the periphery. I had a hunch that sending an emissary might work better this time, so I grabbed one of the young college-age coaches who had come to organize the games for the kids. “There are two young athletes standing over there and I know they’d like to play but they need to be encouraged,” I told him. That worked great –the boys responded to the coach immediately. They lined up for the game behind us, and I heard T. speaking to his brother, softly, telling him just to stay put in the back of the line up until the scrimmage was over, so he could hold on to his position – a defensive strategy, calculated invisibility.

Later we played a little volleyball with a big group. He’s a natural athlete, easy and confident. Eventually he drifted away from the game and went to sit by himself, very still, watching and listening. He reminds me of a cat. His younger brother hung in – asking me how the game is played, why the sun made spots in his eyes, and offering his sandy ear for me to clean for him. He wasn’t particularly interested in me – he’s just a bit hapless and in the habit of being taken care of and told what to do.

Our agency told us both boys want to be adopted together, but we had a hunch that isn’t true. We sought out the boys’ social worker and told her the truth. “We’ve met T. twice and we think he’s great,” we said. “We’d like to offer to host him on weekends, and we’re interested in adoption." We also explained that we didn't want to put T. on the spot. We suggested that she talk to him about us, and pass along any questions he has.

She had to chaffeur the boys, which added up, return trip included, to about six hours in the car for her. Her enthusiasm about our offer was limited, for no reason other than she seemed tired. But she did tell us that T. had no interest in being adopted with his younger brother – in fact, he finds his younger brother quite annoying. A brief attempt was made to unite them with their birth mom, with whom they’ve never lived, sometime last year, and when that fell through, T. committed himself to the idea of adoption and he’s been frustrated by the slow progress toward that end ever since. In fact, he recently told the social worker that he expects he may not be adopted, and he wants help preparing for "emancipation" - that's what they call the time when the kids turn 18 and are booted out of the foster care system without any further support. He's planning ahead.

The social worker told us that the next step would be to organize some sort of social outing with T and his current foster mom (he’s only lived in his current foster home for a few months), because she has to “get to know us” and agree to the plan for weekend hosting. And she’s out of town, so that could take a couple weeks. Our instincts tell us to move on this right away, because if it turns out that he likes us and we get through some weekends together intact, we might like to offer to have him live with us full time before the new school year starts. But this process moves at the pace of the bureaucracy and doesn’t respond much to instinct.

We didn’t try to talk to him again after that. We figured the social worker would likely pass along the message, and he might feel overwhelmed. Later in the evening, we were down on the beach watching the volleyball game as the sun set, and he came down and circled the group, then climbed up on a distant rock, and sat quietly watching us from afar. After about 15 minutes he went back up to the house and when we went upstairs, he was gone.

We still had to drive the little maniac we brought with us back to south LA, so it was a late night. Fortunately he was tired on the return trip. All I can think about is T. I share his frustration with the process – and it’s not clear that there’s anything we can do to speed it up. So now we wait – for exhausted social workers and chaotic agency people to facilitate the next step. This process is incredibly awkward, in every way. I fear disappointment most of all – that he won’t like us, or he’ll change his mind about wanting to be adopted, or some other circumstance will interfere. There is something about him that I can't easily summarize that makes me feel like he's the only one for us. But it’s hard to indulge my own fear of disappointment when I consider his. He is reserved and dignified and diligent in the way he approaches these events, and I’m going to try to respond in kind even though I don’t feel nearly so cool. Most of all, I want to give him space to make a decision about whether we are right for him. I mistrust my own sense of urgency and I'm wary of pushing him.

More to come.

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