Monday, November 30, 2009


We just returned from a five day Thanksgiving trip with T. There's a lot written about the stress that the holidays put on traumatized kids and kids in foster care. It's not hard to imagine why the holidays might stir up grief and anger and loneliness. So we were prepared to manage some complicated feelings and behaviors.

Add to that the fact that T. has never been out of LA County before, so this was his very first vacation out of town.

We chose my brother's place in the Bay Area, because he and his wife are social workers and generally sensitive and low key - plus T. met them a couple months ago when they came to visit us in LA. Our parents were there, and T. hadn't met them before.

He was very very quiet in the car on the way up to the Bay Area. That morning, he took some time to phone some of his relatives with whom he keeps in touch - we encourage and respect this. When I hear them talk on the phone, I'm struck by the bonds of kinship and T.'s capacity to integrate a very complicated past and present.

Once we arrived at my brother's house, T. greeted everyone, which is major progress since his usual m.o. is to avoid greetings and farewells altogether. (Before we arrived, we described how my family would greet him - with a smile and a handshake - and I was glad we remembered to do that, because he walked right up to my dad and extended his hand.)

We asked our parents not to ask him a lot of questions and not to say things like "Welcome to the family!" They've been very supportive all along and they followed our suggestions. We were fairly bossy and probably seemed sort of controlling, but we wanted to anticipate T.'s needs and make sure he felt welcome but not emotionally pressured.

My 18 month old nephew toddled in to visit T. while we were all making dinner. When we peeked in, T. had the baby balanced on his hip and he was playing Wii with the other hand. The next day, they rolled around in bed together playing peek-a-boo under the covers. T.'s magic touch with animals apparently extends to babies as well. He looks like a typical urban teenager, but he has the soul of St. Francis.

Dinner went well - T. ate, and his appetite is often fleeting, especially when he's nervous. Then we played cards - my dad taught him to play poker, which made him beam with pleasure. He seemed to enjoy being part of the group, and even avoided text messaging all day, which is a first.

The next day we moved on to a hotel in San Francisco. He got a great laugh out of hiding in the bathroom of our hotel room and suprising us when we didn't know he was there. It was hilarious and reminded me of the hiding games that much younger kids often play. Sometimes when he's very happy (or very sad) he behaves in these younger ways, and it's always a great gift, to see and parent the child he must have been years ago before we knew him.

This weekend, for the first time, he touched us of his own accord. It took four months to get to this point. T. typically sort of stiffens when he's hugged or kissed. We've been low key in our approach, sneaking in a goodnight kiss to the top of his head at bedtime, for example, but not forcing hugs. Something about Thanksgiving was a milestone for him. Starting the very next day, he was physically more relaxed. He took to playing little games from the back seat that involved tugging on my hair, or putting his face right next to mine and whispering in my ear to suprise me in the car. At one point he gently palmed the top of my head like you would a basketball - something I've done to him as a gesture of affection almost since he first started spending weekends at our house. In the hotel suite, he came into our room and flopped on our bed to play cards with us - such a natural thing, but intimacy and physical ease do not come easily with him; they have to be earned.

As usual, he offered us about a billion opportunities to parent in regards to what I think of as the triumvirate of teen parenting: drugs, sex and violence. He asks our opinion all the time, in a comic way, as if he's got a script, and he is eager to see if we're going to perform the parent lines for him. It usually happens in the car, and he sort of springs it on us out of the blue - usually a shy story about something he's thinking about, or something he's heard about from friends and family. Some of his family background is harrowing, and sometimes we're a little tongue-tied and overwhelmed. But now we know that if we don't say exactly what we wanted to, we're likely to get another opportunity in the near future! And he responds. He is amazing in his capacity to reason and consider. If we don't make a good case, we can tell immediately that he's unconvinced. If we're logical and explain our position, he very often agrees on the spot, and describes how he thinks this new lesson might translate into more careful behavior, leaving us sort of slack-jawed.

Once in awhile, I panic and wonder if we're going to guide him sufficiently. But I derive a lot of hope from T. because he so badly wants to be parented. Sometimes I think he actually enjoys it when we describe guidelines and expectations. He kind of beams a smug satisfied smile, like "Look, I made you parent me!" And he did! I think sometimes we're just as suprised as he is, especially when it's so much fun.

As we got close to LA on the return drive, T. was eager to make Christmas plans. He pulled out a pad of paper and made Tim and I list our favorite colors and musical artists, because he wanted some help selecting Christmas presents. He's hoping for a turtle and an iPod. I said I'm hoping that the three of us will pose for a photo together. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I'm thankful for a few things. I don't usually take any note of that at Thanksgiving - frankly, I usually find it kind of boring as holidays go. But after spending months trying to adopt an older kid out of foster care, I'm struck by an unlikely sense of gratitude.

More than anything, I'm thankful that we bonded with T. these past few months. I'm thankful we met him in the nick of time. I'm thankful that we humans are so odd that occasionally we match up with each other like puzzle pieces and form unlikely families.

I'm thankful that T. hasn't been arrested.

I'm thankful that our days of intrusive visits from multiple social workers who scrutinize our parenting skills and browbeat T. about his misbehaviors are about to end. I'm thankful we won't have to drive 100 miles every weekend to pick him up anymore. I'm grateful T. won't have 7 different adults sharing the role of "parent" in his life.

I'm thankful that T. is the neatest, cleanest teenage boy on the planet.

I'm thankful that the relationship between Tim and I survived and grew through this very messy, frustrating, drawn-out process.

I'm thankful for whatever miracle of biology and psychology produced a stubborn habit of gentle, optimistic thinking in T. It is so humbling to behold.

I'm thankful that next Tuesday DCFS is meeting to make the final call on placing T. with us full-time and all signs are go.

I'm thankful for my hot Irish temper because it keeps me going and keeps me from getting depressed.

I'm thankful to anyone who adopts one of the many foster kids waiting for a permanent chosen family in the United States. In way too many cases, we have really failed as a society to provide for them. But T. proves to us every day that kids in foster care, even kids on the cusp of adulthood, are still receptive and responsive to love and logic and commitment and guidance and, most of all, a sense of being precious to someone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A 180 Turns Into A 360

I've been offline lately and here's why:

- T. got into some serious trouble in his foster placement (he's been living in a foster placement and spending weekends with us while our adoptive placement is pending).

- During that time, T took a ride with another kid in his foster mom's car (he wasn't driving, but I'm pretty sure it was his idea). They crashed, left the scene of the accident in a panic, and eventually got picked up by police. (They are 15 years old and their foster mom left them at home alone that day, forbid them to go out, and left the keys on the kitchen he put it "It was wrong, but it was just so tempting!")

-In response, his foster mom called in a 7-day notice, meaning that DCFS has 7 days to get him out of her house. Of course, he had no idea she's given notice, and continued to go about his life until his social worker showed up and told him to pack his things. She drove him to a town 100 miles away, dropped him at a group home and then left us a phone message telling us how to contact him.

- That made us absolutely furious - nobody called us to ask if we would take him before they moved him. And we've been pursuing an adoptive placement since August and we're licensed foster parents. In another post someday, I'll explain the hideous DCFS politics that have caused this situation to drag on and on.

- This whole experience made T. frantic and re-traumatized him - he has PTSD-type symptoms stemming from early mistreatment and abandonment on a rather grand scale. He immediately started running away from the group home, staying out all night and otherwise demonstrating his suffering.

And here's the good news:

1. We all got through it. This weekend, we were back to "normal" - he spent the weekend with us and we had a lot of fun. As he got in our car, he sighed, slumped back in the seat and said, "This feels like a family reunion." Tomorrow we're picking him up for a five-day Thanksgiving holiday.

2. It showed us the strength of T's bond with us. Finding himself in a group home in a strange city and knowing we didn't know where he was, he took matters into his own 15-year old hands. He went to the park, challenged a group of men to a game of dominoes for dollars, won $20, took the money to WalMart and bought himself a cheap text-only cell phone that he now uses to text message us from morning to night. If you don't think that's funny, you probably wouldn't enjoy parenting an older foster kid, but I think it's hilarious and ingenious. He calls and writes to me in the middle of the day, with questions like "I'm thinking of getting a tattoo. What do you think about that?" and "I met a girl at my new school today. I think I've got game! Can I go hang out with her this afternoon?" As I've said before, open invitation to parent, albeit from afar.

3. We experienced a serious moment of doubt in the midst of all this, which I'm pretty sure is an unavoidable component of older child foster adoption. I fully admit that for a period there, we weren't sure we could continue to pursue this adoption - we felt inadequate in the face of his behaviors and totally unsupported by DCFS. I'm not proud that my commitment to him flagged for a moment. But it's done and it taught us that we need to find support wherever we can so we're prepared for the next crisis. Even as I tried to convince myself that it would be okay to admit defeat, it made me feel utterly sick and heartbroken to think about letting him down. We just couldn't do it. It was interesting to realize that even if we thought this was the worst decision we ever made, we wouldn't give up for anything. My mom tells me that's how ALL parents feel sometimes.

4. Because he got in trouble and got moved without notice, he was separated from some dangerous peer influences in his previous placement. He knew he wanted to leave those friends behind, but had he not been yanked out, it would have been hard for him to separate.

5. Our relationship as a couple stayed intact. We stayed friends through all this drama. We weren't always in the same emotional place at the same time but we did a good job of letting each other be honest. We made decisions together quickly when we needed to, and laughed at the situation whenever we could.

Now we're picking him up tomorrow for a 5 day trip to Northern California. He's never been outside of Los Angeles and he's never spent Thanksgiving anywhere other than in a group home. We're trying to keep things low-key because the holidays can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances. Thankfully, he's met some of my family before, so he won't be entirely among strangers -and everyone has been briefed: don't throw your arms around him, don't say "welcome to the family", don't ask him questions about why he's in foster care, and recognize that this is a stressful situation for him. If all else fails, we'll take him out to practice his driving, which never fails to make him feel good. Fingers crossed.
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