Monday, August 31, 2009

A quick reflection, between weekends, because I want to remember this moment. As first-time parents, getting to know our teenage son-to-be, everything seems so sweet, and comic and fresh. Tim says that it's like falling in love, but it's a kind of love that we haven't experienced before and didn't really know about.

We knew we wanted to adopt a foster kid, and that the kids would have special needs and sensitivities, and that the adoption process itself would be grueling and tedious (though we probably underestimated that aspect.) What I never really understood is how tender it would be, or how much I would care for this other person, or how fierce those feelings would be. I thought bonding and attachment would be goals, something we'd work toward over time. It's not like that at all! It's a lot more like becoming totally enchanted in a way that eclipses everything mundane and ordinary.

Just last month, adopting a foster kid was entirely theoretical. And now that empty room actually belongs to him and it's full of ordinary things, like toothpaste and a hairbrush that we shopped for and bought together. This afternoon I went and sat in his room just because I miss him. We root for football teams we've never cared about, and hum pop songs we used to hate, and eat food that I used to worry would make me fat, just because he loves these things and they bring us closer to him. On Sunday, I told him I was doing a load of laundry and he brought me his undershirt and socks and carefully placed them in the laundry basket and it felt so sweet to wash them with our own clothes. We look at photos we took with him just last week, or the one before, and they already feel precious.

So many things in life, you imagine and then you get there and they disappoint. But this is SO much better than I ever could have guessed. Certainly this is the proverbial "honeymoon" period that the books about older child adoption so often try to puncture with their grim clinical realities. Why do that? At a wedding reception, do people hasten to tell the bride and groom all about the grim realities of divorce statistics? At a christening, does anyone dare to tell the new mother that the baby is likely to disappoint her someday?

There wasn't any absence in our relationship. We didn't long for a child and we didn't try for a baby before T. There was just life before him, then the thought that we might like to try adopting an older child because it seemed like a good thing to do and a good time to do it. And then WHAM - there was this captivating person with this incredibly complex mix of strengths and vulnerabilities, doing his 15-year-old best to join his life to ours. And suddenly we were just so smitten.

It reminds me of a feeling I had after my grandmother died, when I realized that grief had elements of sublime joy, and every perception seemed heightened. Parents must feel the kind of joy and awe and fear and exhilaration we feel right now all the time, but I really just had no idea. I was so driven by principle and logic - I didn't know how much joy he would introduce into our lives. I don't doubt that much sooner than we're ready for, we'll find ourselves waiting up for him to come home, or fuming over some act of defiance, or worrying about some lie he's told. I'm sure we're not at all ready for such an event. I'm sure we'll make terrible mistakes. That's when I'll re-read this, or look at the pictures from this weekend and remember this incredibly sweet moment of agreeing to be what the adoption workers call a "forever family."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting to Feel Like Family

We had another great weekend with T. This weekend, it felt like we settled into a family dynamic, with less of the everyone-on-extra-good-behavior feeling of our previous visits. There's a real compatibility among the three of us. Certainly, T. has tried to make himself easy to get along with, but, beneath that, there's a mutual recognition that seems to spring from pure chemistry. In fact, the less self-conscious and "good" he acts, the more we settle into a relaxed habit of being together. Some things to remember from the weekend:

We met up with his brother at a rock-climbing event for the program we're all in. His brother is a cutie, about three years younger. He has a laid-back vibe similar to T., but he's a lot more hapless. Within minutes, I was holding his stuff for him and helping him climb the starter wall, which he was doing with great trepidation. By then, T. had already worked his way up the advanced wall and was attracting a small crowd of admirers.

There's a heartbreaking aspect to this, because T.'s brother obviously idolizes him and probably just became aware this weekend that T. is with us now, while he has yet to find an adoptive match himself. In fact, he's about to transition to yet another foster home - I believe he's been in more than a dozen in his twelve years. And while the prevailing wisdom is to keep siblings together as much as possible, these two have often been separated and T. doesn't want to be with his brother right now.

After the event, in the car (which is where all significant conversations happen, it turns out), we told T. that since we're approved through our program to "host" kids on weekends, if he wants to visit with his brother, we can probably arrange to have him over for a weekend. He stared into my eyes and shook his head silently "no." I said, great, we just wanted to be sure you have the chance to spend more time with him if you want it. This time he spoke, "no" in a gentle but firm way. I told him about how the agency originally told us they wanted to be together, but we suspected otherwise and pressed his social worker who told us T. would prefer to be on his own. He nodded his head enthusiastically and somewhat gratefully.

A few minutes later, he explained, in his own indirect way. He and his brother had once lived with some extended family. T. had been very young - first grade - but he was put in charge of caring for his brother (then a toddler), and doing certain housework. "I think that's why I'm so clean," he offered. I said, "Yes, I imagine that's also why you are wise beyond your years." He looked at me intently and nodded in his gentle way. He told us a little bit more after that about how they went on to a foster home after that where the foster parent mistreated T.'s brother. As always it was offered as a matter-of-fact statement of truth. I said something after that about how, having been in charge of responsibilities so young, he now had the chance to be a kid - I probably said it in a tangled way, but I think my tone of voice conveyed that I understand support his desire to be the only kid in the house. I'm glad we were able to talk it through. It's a big priority for us to give T. ways to define what he needs and wants.

There were a few funny moments this weekend, too. Before the rock climbing event, I asked T. and Tim whether we should have a private signal in case one of us got bored and felt it was time to move on. T. said "I'll make a bird sound (demonstrated something like a hawk cry) and then I'll flap my arms like this (gestured with full wingspan)." Later, as we were preparing to leave the rockclimbing event, there was a sudden flurry of activity - one of the social workers was asking the kids to fill out a form, while all sorts of desperate unmatched adults were hovering around trying to catch the kids' attention one last time. And it was about 105 degrees in the room. T. turned his head and looked right in my eyes and let out a giant hawk cry. We cracked up completely, as he flapped his long arms. I jumped to my feet and we were almost out the door when we got stopped on our way by a prospective "host" parent, who had taken a liking to T. and wanted to "say goodbye" to him - which involved a prolonged, rather intimate hug. We were somewhat panicked, but he navigated the situation with grace and then jumped in the car.

This weekend we also talked about taking a trip this fall. But he looked totally overwhelmed by the invitation to weigh in on a destination. "I don't know any places," he said helplessly. Whoops! I think we need to provide more guidance and less democracy on this issue. He has never been out of Los Angeles. It occurs to me also that a trip might feel like a vacation to us, but like a relocation and an upset to him.

But here's the best moment: We went out to get frozen yogurt and do some errands later in the evening. He was chatty, as he often seems to be in the evenings (not a morning person!) and after consuming sugar. From the back seat, he piped up: "When I'm 18, I'm going to get wings tattooed on my back. But they're going to be kind of torn up." I said, "Oh yeah, like wings you had to fight for?" "Yes!" he said. "Because I'm going to soar, with some help from you guys. That's what I'm going to tell the social workers. Please just let me be with Amy and Tim, because I like them and they like me. And they're going to help me soar." At times like that, we are almost struck dumb.

We also joked around about all the stories we might come up with when he moves in, like telling people he's in witness protection, or that he's in a special gifted program and we've been hired by the government to watch over him. He came up with one story where he's Obama's nephew, and he's staying with us while he finishes school to get away from all the hoopla. It was a generally hilarious conversation and one that released a little tension about how we all explain to the outside world how we came together. Tim also did a great job of using it as an opportunity to convey a serious message, by saying "We'll back you on any story you want to tell to explain how you're with us white people." That had to be said at some point, and humor floats it without making it too heavy.

We miss him now when he leaves. I think he misses us too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Us vs. The Impossible

Oh shoot me. Tonight we went to the requisite foster/adopt orientation necessary to become licensed foster care providers. Our Kidsave training appears to have been a complete waste of time, except that it let us meet T. - we're starting at square one in terms of our permission to adopt him.

The orientation was helpful in clarifying this fact: in Los Angeles (and only in Los Angeles) in order to have a foster kid in your home you need to work with two agencies, one state (California Care Licensing) and one county (DCFS). The first is all about scrutinizing your physical place of residence; the second is all about scrutinizing you. It is a WONDER that anyone ever adopts an older child. You could get lost in the maze of requirements just trying and never come out the other side.

As far as we can tell, the state licensing agency is a nightmare of senseless regulations. Maybe they make sense if, for example, you are setting up a nursing home or a group home as a business. But if you are adopting an individual child, the requirements are akin to preparing for a white water rafting vacation by getting coast guard certification to steer an oil tanker, or planning a birthday party by setting up your own balloon manufacturing plant.

To make matters worse, they have slightly different requirements than DCFS. So, for example, we already did what's called Live Scan - basically a fingerprint and criminal background check. But that was for DCFS - the county bureaucracy. The state licensing agency requires their own Live Scan - it's EXACTLY. THE. SAME. PROCESS. except that you have to go do it in one of THEIR offices, instead of the county office where you go for the DCFS fingerprinting. And you have to pay them $55 and wait several weeks for the privilege.

We also have to retake CPR. We took adult CPR, to satisfy the DCFS requirement. Since we're adopting a 6' 1" teenage boy, we elected ADULT CPR. But the state licensing agency requires that we be certified in INFANT CPR and First Aid, regardless of the age of the child we're adopting. So back we go, to practice resuscitating rubbber babies, so that we can have T. for the weekend, so that we can teach him to drive. If you think too much about it, you laugh or cry.

Then we have to fill out a 35 page application, get our elderly cat vaccinated (I'm not kidding), get a physical for ourselves, take six weeks of parenting classes, and then wait for the doorbell to ring, whereupon a state inspector will poke through our house to make sure all our knives are in a lock box, any prescription medicines are under lock and key, our garage isn't messy, and we are otherwise "in compliance."

Travion's story this weekend, titled Travion vs. The Impossible, set a properly absurdist tone for the road ahead.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Doing It Anyway

This weekend was salve on a wound. Last week was so utterly frustrating and dispiriting, but a weekend with T. put the focus back where it should be and made us feel like however the bureaucracy decides to make things difficult we have a bond now that overruns any official channels.

This was our first weekend overnight. On Saturday, I did the pick up from the foster home, and the 75 minute drive back home with T. On the way, I distracted him from any frustration we both might feel over the recent procedural delays with a discussion of the driving permit I'm arranging for him - which of course thrilled him completely. After we got back to LA, Tim took T. boxing. Then we went to the copy store and printed out the driver's ed manual. Although he was moody on Saturday, he greeted the driver's ed manual with a smile that looked as if I'd just handed him his own heart back. He picked it up off the printer in the copy shop and beamed at me from all the way across the room for a long, long minute.

Later, we went to a UCLA football scrimmage, and afterward attended an autograph session with the entire team. Then we hung around home late at night watching television together. We also let him fool around with our digital music libraries (where he immediately uncovered all sorts of music I'm quite sure has been forbidden in his foster homes) and text message his friends and family via our computer. Though the latter gave me heart palpitations, we have a much better sense of who he keeps in touch with and how as a result. I even saw a text message in which he told a friend that he was with the people who are trying to adopt him - those are more or less his words.

All day Saturday he was a bit moody. He may have been hungover - he's already told us that he spends his nights at the foster home hanging around the park with older guys and playing dominos. I'm sure there's at least some drinking involved, but it's not high on my list of concerns. I figure if we keep him busy all weekend, he can only get into so much trouble Monday through Friday for the next few months. He did tell me that he dropped woodshop and changed to "all college prep" classes - which was a gentle bit of advice we offered just a week ago. I'll take that over investigating his weekday sobriety.

On Saturday when he arrived at our house, we also hit him with an "about us" document we prepared that lays out everything from our full names and contact info to a map of our neighborhood, and a few photos of our friends and family. He stared for a long time at a photo of my dad with a message saying he looks forward to meeting T. We wanted T. to get the message that we come with friends and family of our own, and understand that he does too, and that our life together will involve a merging of the two. I'm sure it may have raised some grief and uncertainly about his own people. But I figure you cannot prevent grief and confusion from surfacing, you can only provide manageable opportunities for those feelings to arise and address them with compassion. (Also, we tucked a photo of him from last weekend into our living room mirror, and he noticed within 30 seconds of entering the house and smiled to himself.)

The document also laid out our "rules" (keep in touch; stay safe; make smart decisions). After reading several books, we decided to go with deliberately ambiguous rules - ones that require the use of judgement and negotiation, and leave most things open to discussion. Rather than talk bedtimes and curfews, we wanted to turn the matter of discipline over to him for joint consideration.

The document also spelled out express permission to use the television and the computer and watch video games when he wants. During our previous two visits at our house, he's been excessively polite and reserved, sitting quietly on the sofa awaiting instructions. After reading the rules, without a word, he beelined it for the video games. It was nice to see him at home, acting like a teenager. I am sure our decision to leave all forms of digital entertainment more or less unregulated is controversial, but our feeling is that given his disposition and his history, the focus should be on freedom tempered by lots and lots and lots of attention.

Saturday night when he finally started to fall asleep watching tv at 1 am we sent him to bed with a hug. He slept for ten-and-a-half hours, and woke up groggy. He declined our offer of Trader Joe's breakfast cereal but later eagerly accepted a suggestion that we stop by Starbucks where he ordered the largest, sugariest drink on the menu. (Food is clearly an ongoing game of "getting to know you.") We decorated his room together - I gave him my limited-edition Obama "CHANGE" poster as a gift, and he had his autographed UCLA team poster. He picked out a spot on the wall and then held the posters while I taped them up .

Later we went hiking in Griffith Park and then on to see the new Harry Potter movie. He was a total ham all day on Sunday - singing, dancing, showing off his new boxing moves, chatting unguardedly. We're not sure if it was the sugar, his relief at having survived his first night in our house, or just time getting comfortable with us that set him off, but he was hilariously at ease all day. I think his social worker would not have recognized him (they always describe him as serious and shutdown.) He talked about:
- his mom - she's very clean, and he thinks that's where he got his tendency toward cleanliness from (he's meticulous bordering on obsessive)
- his cousins (we have no idea how many there are, but they are numerous and he used to live with some of them)
- his siblings (his mother has five kids that he's told us about, whom he refers to as his sisters and brothers, and he's in the middle - he's not the eldest of two as his DCFS profile suggests)
- his former teacher who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him into Future Farmers of America (he resisted, and he thinks he'd like to try debate instead)
- an impromptu fanciful story he made up about himself as a superhero, slaying animals of all sorts using his new boxing moves
- Michael Vick's dogs - I said "Some got rehabilitated!" and he said "I need to be rehabilitated!"
- his general awesomeness, which he assures us is formiddable, as in "I'm awesome." (nod of the head) "Everybody say so. Don't they?"
- my housekeeping skills (As we were talking about his generally obsessive cleanliness, I said "I'm not so good at keeping the shower clean" and he said cheerfully, "That's okay! I don't mind!")

In our house rules we described a "prayer" we say every Sunday where we ask each other "What do you hope will happen this week?" and then after each person answers, we say "Amen." When we sat down to lunch, he asked "Don't we have to talk about what we hope will happen this week?" We did the prayer (his hope is that he won't get a lot of homework), and after Tim said he hoped our elderly cat would remain healthy, T. exclaimed "Amen to that!"

He's such a quick learner. Last weekend while bike riding, we had to make a decision about which way to go, and I suggested that each person vote silently in their mind, then on cue, reveal their decision with a hand gesture. Today, on our hike, we came to a similar situation where we had to decide whether to take a shortcut back to the car or stay on the main route. T. exclaimed merrily that it would be decided using the method set up last weekend. Apparently democracy makes a big impression.

The best part was last: on the way home he said "I can't wait to move in!" Followed by "That bed is so soft! My pillow is soft too!" Then when we got nearer to his foster home he tried Tim with "Fontana is a bad influence on me!" Crafty last resort of a kid in foster care, as they are always being told what is and is not a "good influence."

I wanted so badly to tell him how angry we are that he can't move in with us right now - I think he thinks the delay is all about us filling out paperwork, maybe too slowly. But I don't think it's ultimately very helpful to play an us-again-them game with him. I think it's better just not to promise him anything until we're totally 100% sure we can deliver what we promise.

So that's it 'til next weekend, when we'll do it all over again. From what I can tell, T. fully intends to spend every weekend with us until he moves in. Which is more than fine with us. In fact, we miss him tonight now that we're home and he's back in Fontana. The apartment is a little quiet and I went into his room just to look at his football poster.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stupid Angry and Tired

I'm feeling really traumatized and angry about this process which has turned out to be the opposite of what we were led to expect when we joined the Kidsave program. In my earlier post, I explained that - although we were told that once we bonded with a kid and she or he felt ready to pursue adoption, they could live with us under a special provision called a non-family extended placement - the Department of Child and Family Services now says we have to have a full foster license.

Well, here's the new twist: I wrote to Kidsave and said, "This isn't what we were told when we joined Kidsave and we carefully checked that we would not be required to have a full foster license, because we didn't want to bond with a kid only to go back to square one. So is there no avenue for recourse?" Five days went by, before the executive director finally replied in a very formally worded email stating that she's "sorry we feel we were misled" and stating that we must have a full foster license before T. can even spend one night in our house - in other words, until we can do a full weekend visit. That is much worse than the situation I was writing to object to in the first place! My complaint had been that permanent placement is delayed - now she's saying we can't even do an overnight with him. She even attached a document I have never seen before, which is a mirror image of a document in our orientation packet, EXCEPT that it has a clause that we have never seen or heard of saying "overnight visits require a full state foster license." I swear I wonder if she wrote it this week to cover herself because of some breakdown in Kidsave's relationship with DCFS.

So T. is on his way today for his first overnight, and we're upset and confused and angry. At precisely the time when the DCFS and Kidsave should be supporting us in bonding with him, they have pulled the rug out from under us and left us unsure what we're able to promise him, frightened that his weekend visits can be cancelled at any moment, and very angry that we've all been misled.

In terms of strategy, we've decided to ignore the email from Kidsave - to reply in detail, talk about our weekend plans, or argue the point seems at this point only to further threaten the delicate arrangement we have for weekend visits via DCFS. We just wrote back and said "There seems to have been some confusion. At this point we're working directly with DCFS." Unfortunately we have to continue to be involved with the agency because we go to their events so T. can see his brother. Had we not done the Kidsave program, we wouldn't have met T. - but we're utterly confounded to find that beyond facilitating introductions, it seems there is nothing they provide in the way of moving forward towards permanency with a child with whom you're matched. You're more or less on your own, to begin the DCFS licensing process from scratch at that point.

Our social worker at DCFS is the one we place our trust in, and I am just really hoping with every cell in my body that she has the power to withstand whatever changes in policy and bureaucratic policy are going on there. I just have to believe that ultimately, they cannot stand in the way of a situation where a kid who has been in foster care for 15 years has found two stable adults who want to adopt him.

For anyone who ever asks me about how to adopt an older kid out of foster care, I now know that the answer is that you must get a full foster license and go through the full and lengthy process of licensing and training. And I would advise someone not to seek out a child until they have that license, to avoid painful delays. We're now going that soulless route just as fast as we can. I cried hard for the first time in this entire process while writing this blog entry. I'm going to pick T. up now for the weekend, and I hope I've worked it out and that he never knows that any of this is even going on. We're taking him to a scrimmage at UCLA and telling him that we're going to enroll him in driver's ed. So I think for him it should be a pretty good day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

So High and So Low

What a weird disappointing and exhilarating day.

We got terrible news today - the DCFS supervisor in charge of adoptive placements says it's too soon to move T. into our home under the special clause permitting such things that we've previously been told is available to us. And now they insist we get a full foster care license before he can live with us and before we can start the adoption process. This was crushing, because he is ready to go now, and we wanted him to start school on schedule this fall, three weeks from now, so he'd have a continuous three years in the same place to help him prepare for college and make friends. Now the earliest he can move is at the break in the school year, in December.

We wrote letters, made phone calls, and tried every avenue we could to appeal and failed. After all, when we entered the program, we asked explicitly whether, should we meet and bond with a child, we would then be required to have a foster license before they could live with us. And the answer was a clear and definitive no. But it turns out there is a great deal of subjectivity involved here, and somebody in a powerful position thinks we haven't known T. long enough to be committed to him.

There are multiple layers of supervisors supporting one another's decision on this, despite the pleas of our social worker, who knows us best. So after a frantic afternoon of appeals, I am resigned that it is not actually possible to achieve another outcome. And I do not say that lightly. I understand the logic that says that to move a kid too fast during the honeymoon phase can lead to heartbreak for everyone. But every child and every parent is different and it's utterly aggravating and upsetting to be treated like a statistic by a blind, dumb bureaucracy.

ON THE OTHER HAND! T. called his social worker today and told her that he is ready to be adopted by us. He has no idea all this drama is going on - it was pure coincidence that he called. And the phone call was TOTALLY unsolicited. He didn't even have the social worker's phone number. He had to seek it out with help from his foster mom, who didn't have it either, and had to call around to find it for him.

The social worker says that in the two years she's been working with T., he has NEVER called her on the phone. And she said he was really, really happy when he called. "Happy" isn't a word they have ever used in describing T. before. She says that after she congratulated him and chatted with him about his decision, she explained the likely timeline to him, and he didn't seem to have a problem with it. It probably didn't even occur to him that we might move him within the next month. We didn't share that with him for fear of disappointing him if we couldn't make it work - thank god - and so he never knew it was an option.

I hate that this news is bittersweet because of the disappointment of the day. But it seems somehow appropriate that we should have to be baptized by a touch of the crushing stupidity that has governed his life for the last fifteen years before we can be together for the rest.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Quick Aside About Animals

After the big news of this week, I want to remember a small observation.

There is so much writing about abused kids and how they sometimes torture animals as an expression of their rage and frustration - google "abused kids and animals" and you'll begin to see what I mean.

Unfortunately, there seems to be far less written about the opposite phenomenon: kids who have an intense love of animals that goes beyond the ordinary. We've now volunteered at a dog wash with T. and let him spend hours at our house with our cat and his connection to animals is astonishing to watch. His tenderness toward them is one of the first things that drew my attention to him. It's intense. He's a big gangly teenage boy, more than six feet tall. And he is so, so gentle with dogs and cats, like he's handling an infant of his own.

I told him yesterday about how mother cats lick their baby cats, especially on their heads and faces, and showed him our cat's favorite brush and how it mimics the way kittens are groomed. And not two minutes later, I came back in the room and he very gently brushing her all around the face. I asked him if he could hear her purring and he said no, and I pointed it out to him and he looked amazed. We let the cat on the table while we're eating, which I'm quite sure has not been the case in any of the foster homes he's been in. And he loves it - she lies in front of him and he puts his face down to hers and they watch each other.

I had a friend with a similarly intense instinct to care for animals, and she had also been mistreated as a kid - her mom tried to drown her in a toilet when she was 3. She was very tough, but utterly devoted to dogs and cats and eventually made a career of it at the SPCA.

Whatever the connection is, it seems deeply instinctive and healing. There is definitely a nonverbal and pre-linguistic aspect of it. Watching T. it is as if he is giving the care that he probably did not receive in his first years. That sounds simplistic and I'm not an expert, but it looks exactly like a new parent with a small infant. It seems like he's intensely aware of how small and defenseless the cat is, and that makes him very very solemn and careful. I also imagine that for foster kids, having a pet is part of the fantasy of adoption - when you get moved around all the time, without any warning, you can't have a dog or a cat. That privilege belongs to kids with homes.

In any event, T.'s interaction with animals is beautiful to watch.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

We're In!

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!! Had a GREAT conversation in the car with T. Thanks to my boss who raised two boys and said, if you want them to talk to you, go on a long drive. I picked him up this morning and we had a drive of just over an hour. Instead of playing music, I left it quiet and started with a couple questions about school.

Once he got warmed up, he volunteered, "I talked to April this week." April is the social worker who visited to talk to him about how he's feeling about us so far. I played cool for awhile, and said, "April called us too. She likes to check in and make sure we're doing a good job and not freaking you out." I knew he was trying to open up a conversation, so a few minutes later, I said, "April asked us how we feel about adoption, because some of the people in the Kidsave program want to adopt, and others are more into weekend hosting. So I told her we definitely want to adopt. But if you decide you would rather just do weekends with us, that's totally cool too. We're in it to help you, whatever you decide you want to do."

Bingo! "I want to get adopted," he said softly. I asked him how he imagines adoption will be different than foster care. He had a complete analysis ready to go! Foster parents give you back if you get into trouble or do something bad, he explained, but adoptive parents work on it with you and they are there forever. They "treat you like you're their own," and make you part of their family. I said, yeah, I think adoption is an awesome way to make a family. We always wanted to adopt, and I like the idea that when you adopt you become a family because you all really like each other. I got a little smile for that one so I kept going.

"Well, we'd be psyched to adopt you whenever you're ready, and you can come live with us while we do the adoption if you want," I said (the Kidsave program is set up so that a kid can be placed with you as a substitute foster family as you're pursuing adoption). "And we think you're the best kid in the Kidsave program and we liked you right away. We knew we wanted to do the program, but we didn't imagine we'd meet someone we like as much as we like you!" He was beaming. Hooray!

I also said, "But you know, if we adopt you, you're stuck with us. I mean, you'll be, like, 35 and you'll have your own kids and we'll be calling you up all the time, asking if you're coming over for Thanksgiving." He seemed surprised about that and amused. So I said, "I think that's one of the things that's really different about adoption - it isn't just til you're 18. And I know I needed my parents for a long time - to help me with stuff like college and getting a first apartment, and just giving me advice when I needed it." He was quiet about that part - I think it might be a new consideration. I also snuck in a word about how we would help him keep in touch with his brother. And I asked him who his favorite foster moms have been - which included the one he's with now - and said, being adopted doesn't mean you don't see those people anymore. You can totally keep in touch with all the people who are important to you. He was quiet, but I wanted to make sure he didn't feel like he had to give up what he has.

And OH MY GOD I felt relieved to have gotten all that out. I was really having trouble figuring out how to broach this subject - there aren't a lot of precedents for telling a 15 year old that you'd like him to be your first and only child! I realized last week that I was clamming up because I was uncomfortable with the emotional intensity of the conversation - it took me some effort to get down to emotional brass tacks and set aside my own fear of rejection.

We chatted all the way home! T. totally cracks me up. A little while later, he said "What do you think about tattoos?" I said, "Why? Are you thinking of getting one?" He nodded and smiled slyly. I said, well, for our anniversary, Tim got a tattoo of a big anchor with my name on it, so I think tattoos are pretty cool. What will yours say? "On my arm, it will say Live Life to the Fullest," he said. "And on my back, Liberty." I said, "I like tattoos to mark big life transitions, because a tattoo is forever. Wouldn't it be cool to get a tattoo like Liberty on the day you get free of the foster system?" "Yeah!" he sighed.

Then I realized he's only 15! "Hey wait, can you even GET a tattoo?" I asked. He cracked up and said a friend is going to do it. I said, okay, not with a ballpoint pen, and it's really important to make sure to use clean fresh needles. He nodded solemnly.

I also brought up the school issue - I said something like "I wish we lived closer so that if you decide you'd like to live with us, you wouldn't have to move and change schools." As usual, he thought about that for a quiet minute, then said, "I don't mind moving schools. That's how you meet new people!" I said, well that's an awesome attitude to have! He chatted a bit more - about his mom, and how he was going to live with her, but decided he didn't want to, and how he has a sister that he doesn't really know who has autism. He told me his mom is tall - 5'11" - and that she says his dad was tall, too.

When we got home, I called out to Tim "We're home! And we're adopting T.! But he's getting tattoos, so you better talk to him." T. loved that and totally cracked up in his quiet way - I was checking to see how comfortable he felt with the outcome of our conversation, and that was my answer.

So now we're home and T. is in the den playing X-box live, after we all shared sandwiches. He played with the cat, and we quizzed him about what he does and doesn't eat. It turns out he eats pretty much everything except what we served him last weekend. And he loves sushi! He's still beaming, and quite easy going and talkative today. And he went in his room and took off his shoes and left them there! So I think he's claiming it for himself.

I suppose the next hurdle is convincing DCFS that we all three know what we want, and they don't have to keep worrying about whether he's comfortable with us. But first, we have a weekend to enjoy. And we're planning a camping trip for two weeks from now.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I learned a lesson today about advocating for a kid stuck in the foster system. Something has been eating me since Monday. After spending the day with T., I filed our requisite report with our agency and DCFS. In the report, I politely suggested that T. has indicated that he's ready to stay overnight with us, and we arranged visits over the next two weekends with him - and at this point, I think it would be great if a social worker checked in with him about how he's feeling. His social worker told me she was going to check in with him "in the next week or so."

At first that seemed okay, because I know she's stretched really thin and planning a visit with him requires at least 2.5 hours of driving round trip. But it started to bug me. He acts cool, but he's got to be experiencing some mix of emotions about this flirtation with adoption. Our program suggests you go slow and do casual activities with the kids a couple times a month - but I think because T. has been so set on adoption, and because he's clearly worried about aging out of the system without a family, his approach to this process is a little more intense. So I wrote to her again, knowing that I'm making myself a pain in the ass, and now she's going to see him and talk to him tomorrow. Phew. I don't think he should go into a third weekend visit with us without an opportunity to share any anxieties he has about us or about the process.

And the DCFS adoption caseworker is great - she's just really stretched. She's pulling medical and educational histories and setting up a time to share more information based on those reports with us next week.

Meanwhile, we're taking T. to the beach on Saturday, if all goes according to plan. Upon reflection, we realized that we overwhelmed him a bit last week with lunch at the local farmer's market - it was too crowded and noisy and he had to sit with his back to a busy walkway. By contrast, he was obviously very happy on a bicycle, following us down the street. So we're going to go for a long bike ride at the beach on Saturday, then eat a quiet picnic lunch on the beach. And then we'll let him hang at our house for awhile before taking him home.

I did all this reading about attachment disorders when I was getting ready for this process, and then got to know T. and realized that attachment doesn't seem to be his issue - the writing about trauma seems to hit closer to home. I found this awesome blog by a mom who has adopted two older kids out of foster care and she's got a great sense of humor too. It's nice to have a peek into the world of someone else who is several steps ahead of us. And I love that her kids are named "Bear" and "Kitty"!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

....One more thing.

I posted about our day with T. and then realized I haven't communicated lately why we like him so much! So here's the list:
- He is exactly as he first seemed, but more so - something I love in a person.
- He is extremely gentle and attentive to younger children and animals. He has a nonverbal bond with animals that's very moving to see.
- He is very contemplative and almost zen in his stillness. Surely he's inhibited after a chaotic childhood, but his stillness and thoughtfulness are obviously also a part of who he is.
- He's introverted, so when he speaks, he says exactly what he means because he took time to think it first. You can hear his mind working all the time.
- He has a mature and clever appreciation of humor and teasing.
- He is physically very graceful.
- He committed to this adoption process, though his foster mom and his social worker both say he repeatedly voiced skepticism that anybody would want him because of his age. I am truly awed by the self-possession and focus it takes to be 15 and go in search of adoptive parents.
- He smells like fabric softener all the time.

Another Step Forward

Phew! We spent 11 hours with T. yesterday. It's hard work figuring out what's going on in his head, but we think it went well! This process is INCREDIBLY emotional. I laugh at myself for thinking it would be otherwise. By now, we're quite attached to T. We haven't talked about the adoption option, because it's too early and anyway, he's a 15 year-old boy, so such conversations do not exactly FLOW. We could go crazy trying to figure out how this is likely to evolve - as usual, Tim is doing a great job of being really zen about it and I am not. But when I can gain a bit of objectivity, I see that what we are doing right now is valuable in its own right. Even if we never saw T. again, it's been quite profound. He has evidence now, after 15 years of frustration in foster care, that there are adults out there who think he's great and want to be with him forever. And we have evidence now that everything we imagined and hoped about foster/adopting a teenager is true and then some. It's the most deliberate, profound thing we've ever done - and that's just talking about the last two weekends!

We are getting nearly no guidance at all at this point from the DCFS social workers, and T.'s foster mom isn't totally on board- she's not resistant, but she's not enthusiastic either. She runs a good, tight ship with T. and one other boy in the home, and she's obviously a good person who raised two biological kids and a bunch of grandkids before doing foster care. We represent a bunch of confusion for her - we're white, we're intruding a bit, and we probably just don't completely make sense to her. But we're interested in adopting T. and she isn't - and my sense is that he knows the difference by this point in his life between the commitments of a foster mom and the deeper bonds of adoption, which he craves.

We were going crazy tonight trying to figure out what our next move should be - finally Tim called T.'s foster mom to deliver a casual future invitation via T.'s foster mom. But she handed the phone to T. - and in his 15-year old way he said in reply "I can come this weekend" and then "I can stay over" without really being asked. So then Tim just about busted with happiness and came running to report on this progress, which we take to be an indication of T.'s comfort with us, though we don't want to get too confident! But T. says nothing unless he wants to, so the fact that he spoke up at all is a pretty good sign.

So we planned visits for the next two weekends. I'm pleased, because I figure for a kid who has been repeatedly abandoned, followup is everything. Now I'll have to reflect on what we've learned and devise another visit that properly balances fun activity and realistic at-home chill time. Can you believe how complicated this is? It is no small task trying to convince your potential first child who happens to already be 15 years-old that you're the parents of his dreams, without lying to him or distorting the reality of your day-to-day existence!

On that note, a little post-game analysis.

Here's what we did right on the recent visit:

- I cleared all personal items and photos out of the guest room, made the bed in navy blue and red boy colors and planted Sports Illustrated and Pac 10 magazine on the night stand. Tim accused me of setting a "boy trap", but my thought was that if I were 15 and pretending to act chill in the house of some strangers who might adopt me, I'd be grateful for the opportunity to thumb through something other than Elle Decor. And it TOTALLY worked. I showed T. the "guest room" and said "If you decide to come stay with us someday, this is where you can hang out." Then later when he changed his clothes for the gym, we told him he could use the "back bedroom." We found him sitting in there in his gym clothes engrossed in Sports Illustrated 15 minutes later.

- Tim took him to the boxing gym down the street and taught him some moves. He seemed to love this. Anything athletic puts him in his element. He returned visibly more relaxed. Tim's easy-going and direct style seemed to really work for T. and Tim said boxing gave them a chance for dialogue and eye contact without being too pressured. So overall, a good bonding opportunity.

- We gave plentiful, very specific praise. He obviously craves that and responds immediately with a quiet smile to any comment that shows that we are paying attention to that which is uniquely him. Whether it's complimenting his easy grasp of boxing techniques or commenting on his rapport with animals (our cat adored him and he was very gentle and attentive to her), he has ready ears for any indication that we truly see him. By the same token, I am quite sure that the sort of bland praise that the agency people sometimes indulge - things like "Tom is terrific!" - fall on deaf ears, because they aren't backed by any quality of attention.

- We let him play video games, including Grand Theft Auto. I am sure that would not be encouraged by anyone in an official capacity, but we play it ourselves, so why lie? Maybe he'll decide to live with us just because he wants to have an x-box - that's okay with me.

- I took him to UCLA to a town hall meeting with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West for African American teenagers. Although I TOTALLY failed to anticipate the dress code and thus left T. stranded in his Obama "One Love" t-shirt while all the other kids were wearing coats and ties, he seemed to feel perfectly at ease. He took notes and even raised his hand to volunteer an answer to a question, although he wasn't called on. I think he was psyched to be on campus at UCLA - he really dreams of going to college there, and afterwards, over ice cream in Westwood, he sighed and said so.

But it served another purpose: because the event was for African American teenagers, he got to see me in a room of 200+ where mine was the only white face - which may have embarrassed him (though I saw no indication of that) but also established (I hope) that we do not expect him to "act white" or live in a white world just because he's staying with us. I don't know how much he cares - he seems rather pragmatic about the whole thing - but until now, it's clear that he's always been in Black foster families, and I feel the burden should be on us to make sure he isn't divorced from the community. Should it come to it, better that he tell me I'm trying too hard than say someday that I didn't try hard enough. Besides, Cornel West is always captivating and it was fun to share that experience and see a room full of African American teenagers who treat Dr. West like he's a rock star - girls squealing, standing ovations at every opportunity, cell phone cameras going off constantly. I think it gave T. an idea of what college can be about at it's best.

Here's what we did wrong:

- His assessment form clearly states that he dislikes onions. It seemed trivial at the time, since the assessment form is full of other far more dramatic information. And so we forgot, and so when we took him out for tacos, we assured him that the carne deshebrada tacos at our local joint are just like the carne asada tacos he wanted. Well, they're not. They have onions. Which led to poor T. painfully extracting the nearly invisible shredded onions from his beef tacos while assuring us he was okay. It's hard to get him to ask for and accept things so he would not accept ordering a second entree and I felt terrible. Then, to make matters worse, we put chopped olives in the burgers we made for dinner - and I caught T. picking the olives from his burger when he thought I wasn't looking! We really have to try harder to make food he likes. In retrospect, I see that it was not incidental that his assessment mentioned his hatred of onions.

- I TOTALLY failed to involve him in conversation about this whole process. I thought I had a script, and then I couldn't find an opening. I understand from friends who have older sons that I am not alone in my utter bewilderment about how to engage a teenager in an emotional discussion. But I feel foolish. I wanted to tell him a bit about why we're in this program (that we always wanted to build our family by giving a home to kids in foster care, we think he's great and we're happy to give him as much time as he likes to get to know us at his own pace) in a way that doesn't put him on the spot but doesn't leave him guessing. But I just UTTERLY failed to do that. I have a terrible fear of sounding like a parent, and I guess it's probably a good time to start getting over it. Thankfully I have two more weekends to try now.

Exhausted but happy - more anxious now than before as the stakes get higher because the attachment gets deeper. But that's a really good problem to have.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Yesterday we spent ten hours with T.! We wanted to start out with something a little less socially intense for him, but various practical complications dictated a long day. As I said to a colleague the other day, everything about this process is chaotic and less than ideal and we just try to roll with it.

So we got tickets to the X Games, which involved a long drive to and from. Those in the know tell me if you want a teenage boy to talk to you, go on a long car ride and don't make eye contact. My boss suggested X Games - she has 19 year old son. It was definitely high on the coolness scale. He was exhausted by the late afternoon and we left a BMX racing event a little earlier than planned after several hours in the hot sun. But it provided plenty of diversions so he didn't feel we were interviewing him and that was the main goal. We also somewhat accidentally did two things right: we took a pile of CDs and asked him to play DJ in the car, and we took a small video camera and let him loose to film whatever he wanted at the event. It took him about 3 seconds to figure out how to use the video camera and he clutched it all day long.

T. is about 200 times sweeter than I even suspected at our first couple meetings, which were in large groups. In keeping with first impressions, he is gentle, quiet, withdrawn at times and incredibly still - I've never seen someone sit so still. His answer to most questions, particularly the ones about whether he'd like something to eat and drink is a gentle "I don't care." Which means "I'm embarrassed and I'm not going to ask for anything for myself." So we learned to just put a cheeseburger in his hand now and then. But he was also way more conversational than I expected and younger and more open than first impressions had suggested. He seemed to want to be near us, and didn't have any inclination to wander off or want to do things on his own. He smiled quite often - when we teased him a little bit, or when I held a cold bottle of water to the back of his neck while we were sitting in the sweltering sun, or when he picked a CD we all liked. A shy quick smile. He seems very smart and extremely sensitive. I also find it awe-inspiring that he has it so together to show up and spend time with adults he doesn't even know. I can't imagine the emotional pressure and complication of being 15 and looking for parents for yourself, nor the mixed emotions and fear of rejection that must accompany a "first date" with a couple who might be those parents.

On the way home in the car, he had a series of questions, like "Do you like fishing?" "Oh yes, I LOVE fishing!" I said, which isn't entirely untrue. "I also like to kayak. Have you ever been kayaking?" He said no. A few minutes later he said, "I'd really like to learn to kayak!" I said "Well, I'd love to take you kayaking!" He asked me when my birthday is, whether I like to travel, and what my favorite sports teams are. We talked about perhaps going to see a college football game this fall, and his interest in being a therapist, or a paramedic, or maybe working with elderly people. I asked him where he'd like to go someday, and he said "Jamaica! And the Bahamas! And I really want to go to Hawaii!" followed by a little sigh. And he wants to be a therapist and "work with people on anger management," and made brief mention of his own experience in therapy "after my mom gave me back." I replied that I thought he'd make a very good therapist, because he's so calm and a good listener, and told him casually that I had a therapist for awhile she encouraged me to take a karate class. He like that, and said he thought he'd like to take up boxing, and thinks it would be beneficial for him "because they say I hold my anger in and need to find a way to let it out."

As we got closer to the home where he's staying, he got very quiet and stopped communicating altogether. I tried to explain next steps - that I'd talk to his social worker and make arrangements to get permission from his regular foster mom for another visit, and that perhaps he'd then like to come over for a day - but I got nothing back. I suspect that having been abandoned repeatedly throughout your childhood, promises at the end of a happy day from people you don't know well yet may invite a self-protective layer of extra defense. Either that or he doesn't want to come hang out with us - but I don't think that's it. I think we need to allow time to absorb and digest, and then time to come back together again under similarly easy circumstances.

I'm hoping we didn't freak him out and that he still likes us, in which case, we'll next invite him to our house for a day visit. Which will not involve vertical BMX racing or famous skateboarders, but will probably give him a better indication of what life with us might be like than the X Games did.

It's excruciating because I'd adopt him tomorrow if I could. There is just something about him that has been so familiar to us since we first met him, and I know we'd be able to "read" each other. I didn't really expect this level of emotional intensity, or to feel so attached to someone so soon. I'd like to stay connected, and the sooner we get involved, the more we can help him, because right now, he's not getting much stimulation and he's starting his sophomore year of high school, and things change fast at his age. But for emotional reasons as well as practical ones having to do with the tangled system of foster adoption, we can't do anything quickly. And I think we have to make and keep a series of small promises with him before it's even reasonable to ask him to imagine putting so much trust in us that he'd consider living in our home.

So much of the writing about adoption assumes that one is adopting an infant - I find very few if any sources about older child adoptions where the child actually has a say in the outcome. Usually older kids are just placed with licensed foster families without any opportunity for input, and in some cases, those families choose to adopt. But very rarely it seems do the kids meet prospective adoptive parents and get to know them in the way we are doing. I find it incredibly tenuous and suspenseful and emotional, but I also really see the value in giving the kid the time and freedom to decide whether a situation is right for him or her.

So we'll see. Phone consult with his social worker tomorrow about next steps. My great hope is that we can get set up for another visit next week so he sees that we're consistent and committed. But I want to do that without social pressure as well, and she'll give me some guidance about how she thinks he's feeling and how best to proceed.

Site Meter