Friday, March 5, 2010

Insisting on the Right to Parent

Well, we had high hopes for the wrap-around service we were referred to by our beloved adoption caseworker. (Wrap-around is a model for counseling and support for foster and adopted kids. There are different tiers of wrap-around and it can be very intense - a team of behavioral specialists who support the parents and the kids, often through crisis periods.) We aren't in a crisis, but we thought it would be good to be proactive and get involved with some of the support services available to us through the county, and our social worker thought this program (through a reputable mental health organization) looked like a good bet. (The county only funds certain mental health models - due to budget cuts - so getting a family matched to services is tricky and our caseworker was being creative.)

Mostly we were hoping for a good in-home family counsellor to help us sort through issues like birth family contact, past trauma, and the day-to-day parenting stuff like how to get T. to eat something other than a cheeseburger. We've never been parents before, and we want to rock it.

Like many aspects of the foster/adopt process, the wrap-around program sounded good and turned out to be quite awkward. I think the problem is that the wrap-around team had a one-size-fits-all approach. They kind of stormed in, with a "parent advocate" (someone to counsel us); a "behavioral specialist" (someone to counsel T.); a "team lead" (a CSW to head the team), and a therapist. They brought flip charts. They told us they had 30 days to work through various "assessments" and that we'd have to commit to weekly 90-minute meetings and some interim appointments. They started out with a "strengths assessment", asking us all to identify what each of us brings to the family - that part was fun. I thought, hey, this is going to be great! Then they moved on to the "safety plan" - that's when things started to veer off course.

I started to suspect this wasn't going to work out one afternoon about two weeks into it. T. had a root beer and it exploded in the car and got all over his clothes. He totally unraveled - rocking back and forth and moaning "I'm going to lose my mind!" He REALLY cares about having a neat and clean personal appearance, but his reaction was out of all proportion. Our conversation eventually came to the wrap-around appointment we had later that evening. Finally he burst out, "I don't need wrap-around! It's not for ADOPTED kids! It's for kids in GROUP HOMES! I KNOW what wrap around means! It's for PSYCHOS!"

T. is never melodramatic, so this outburst was most unusual. Although his perceptions of wrap-around might not be accurate, they are informed by a brief, terrifying stint he did in a group home before he was placed with us, where he was surrounded with kids with very serious problems with crime, gang involvement, drugs and truancy. He knew that wrap-around was an attempt to stabilize those kids, and he felt deeply insulted and worried that he was being addressed in what he saw as a similar way.

I am all for safety planning. Traumatized kids often have dangerous behaviors and identifiable triggers. And T. DOES have behaviors that concern us - a marijuana habit we've been working on, a tenuous connection to school, and some "friends" who use him. But he's in a good place right now. He's getting good grades. He's abiding by our rules. He's communicating with us openly. We gave him a crystal clear set of rules when he moved in with us, regarding the teen triumvirate of drugs, violence and sex, and he has done an astonishing job of working with us to make smart decisions for himself. The safety plan involved meeting with the whole team (three professionals, plus the family) to fill out a form where we were to fill in the blank for categories like "dangerous behaviors" "triggers" and "resources - ticking off whether we'd call the police, the fire department, or the social worker in response to whatever dangerous behaviors we came up with. It made T. feel like everyone thought he might hold a knife to our throats.

When we tried to guide the process in a way we knew would secure his buy-in, the team lead implied that we were naive and that they knew of "certain information" in his case file from his adoption worker that "raised red flags for them." They wouldn't be explicit about that information unless we agreed to come into their office with T. to meet with a "supervisor". I hate this sort of innuendo and veiled threat. We are hand-in-glove with his adoption worker, and there is nothing in that file that we don't know, and very little that we didn't unearth ourselves. None of us felt like they could hear what we were saying.

We cut it short. Our caseworker completely backed us up. In the end, it came down to a simple realization: we are his parents. We still share guardianship with the county until our adoption finalizes, but that hardly matters in the day to day. We feed him. We counsel him. We sit with him when he needs to talk. We take him to visit his birth family. We tolerate his annoying attitude during holidays when he feels confused about his relationship with us versus his birth relatives. We know his friends, and whenever possible, their parents. We talk him down when he's upset, and we laugh with him when he's being hilarious. We play tickle games, we snuggle on the sofa, we wash his clothes, and we call his teachers to check up on his progress. He calls us his "fam bam" and his "peoples". Nobody is going to come in my house and tell me they know more about what he's up to and what he needs than I do - especially before they take the time to know him.

I expect that other foster/adoptive parents feel some days like they're being second-guessed by social workers, mental health providers, teachers, counsellors, etc. No disrespect to those who labor in the trenches to help abused kids - I am the first to sing the praises of our absolutely amazing DCFS adoption worker. But these kids can come with a small army of well-intentioned "experts". Sometimes I find I want to please them - sometimes (I'm embarrassed to say) I find that secretly I want to impress them. But the only thing I have to do is be a good parent to T.

In the beginning of the placement process, it's complicated - you're getting to know the kid, his history and his needs. But there comes a day when you've made a total commitment to this kid, and you have to insist on your right to do your job as the parent. If someone offers him the wrong kind of "help", or forces him to fit a model that isn't aligned with his behavior, they have to contend with me. Getting between him and adults whose attention isn't benefitting him is part of how I show him what it means to really have a parent.

In the end, we said to him over dinner "We don't feel like the wrap around service is working out and we're ready to call it off. How do you feel?" He rolled his eyes and said, "I could have TOLD you that last week!" And that was that. That evening he was visibly relieved, resting his head on my shoulder while we sat on the sofa and chatted with Tim about music. We were alone, at home, doing regular stuff, and that was just fine.


SocialWrkr24/7 said...

It is always a fine line between being "helpful and supportive" and "borrowing trouble". I think its awesome that you realized that all these services were just causing T more stress and backed off. Everyone expects foster kids to have problems - but the truth is sometimes things fall into place easier than we expect! :)

TTBoot said...

Ah T just wants to be a 'real' boy, a boy just like everyone else, and 'real' boys don't need no wraparound services! :) I can so relate to your experience. Both my boys hate anything that reminds them hat they are foster care. Nothing can bring out the surly boy than a visit with the social worker. And I can also relate to the eating thing; for 2 months, FS#1 only ate Lucky Charms. Now one of the things he misses most when he's at college is home cooking

Babs said...

Thank you for reminding us that the standard answers just don't always work,... I think sometimes we have so much going on that we just fall back to what's worked in the past for others without remembering and listening to each individuals specific needs. Fantastic post!

Anonymous said...

We have a similar "service" - it's called a mental health waiver and it's not just for foster families. Caseworkers frequently discuss issues or even treatment plans that are triggers for our children and we have to remind them that those kinds of topics don't help our kids. Our kids are much younger. Furthermore, caseworkers are constantly telling us that they can't help us because we already know more than them. They spend their time helping families meal plan, other day-to-day tasks that functioning individuals can do. We need them to come on board and help us through those rough spots when our children are being oppositional, threatening to cut our eyes out, etc. We also need help maintaining when things are going well. These services need more flexibility.

Gab said...

From what you've said it sounds like it was absolutely the right decision. And that T. just wants to be "normal", not pathologized. What a relief it must be to T. to have someone (you) who can put a stop to the system set in motion.

A while back when T. got moved to a new foster home rather than come to your house, you said something about it being just a taste for you of what he's experienced being in the system his whole life up until now. That was so insightful, and helps me as I make my way through licensing.

My only concern is that he knows that there is no shame in getting help dealing with things, that therapy doesn't mean you're "psycho". I worry that he would try to tough things out on his own during times when having someone to talk to could make things easier for him. But I also see that it might be a challenge for him to find a therapist who doesn't pathologize him, who lets him be a healthy strong person.

Essie the Accidental Mommy said...

Mmm, the "we know more than you know" thing would have sent me over the edge. However I admit to having a hair- trigger response to the possibility of even an unintended jab at my parenting. Great post!

Lulu McCabe said...

Gab: That's so dead-on. The terrible irony is that we really wanted him to learn that therapy can be a really positive thing. We talked to him about it and got his buy in and he really trusted us to make it different this time. We wanted him to have the benefit of that resource, and to learn that it's not about pathologizing him or (and yes, this happened in his past) getting a diagnosis so you can qualify for a higher "D" rate from the county (double the monthly subsidy). It's about having someone you can talk to to help you articulate and recognize your feelings. That was what disappointed me most deeply about the rigid pathologizing approach they took. Our heroic caseworker promises she's going to get us a therapist - ONE person - with experience with traumatized teens, to provide him with that sounding board. Cross your fingers!

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