Sunday, November 28, 2010


For a year now we've been full-time parents to T. Our dynamic at home is highly idiosyncratic but it works for us. However, we're fairly isolated. We don't know many parents of teenagers and we don't know anyone who has adopted an older child.

Over Thanksgiving, we made a week-long visit to my hometown. The best part was spending time with my oldest and dearest friends, who finally got a chance to get to know T, and with my dad, who genuinely likes T. and connects with him. It was relaxing to share T. with other people who know us well, who don't puzzle over our choice to adopt a teenager.

One of my friends is a licensed clinical social worker who once worked with homeless teenagers. Another comes from a family where she had a foster sibling; she now works as a private investigator specializing in family histories in death penalty cases. Traumatized children are not new to them; they are easy and accepting with T.

One evening, we all went out to a trampoline park, and then out for dinner and arcade games. T. astonished me with his glorious behavior. He was polite, quiet, engaged, playful and outgoing. Often, he has a low tolerance for time spent in public. He can be very sensitive to noise, crowds, and chaos. However, this evening, he rolled along with the plan as it unfolded spontaneously, even eating dinner with the adults in a crowded noisy seafood restaurant where his cheeseburger did not meet his exacting specifications.

He is not a kid who attaches easily or indiscriminately. And yet at the end of the evening when one of my best friends invited us to her house, he announced that yes, we would be going, and that he would be riding with her in her car. This was most astonishing to me. As they pulled away from the curb, he gave me a playful wave from the passenger seat as I stood on the sidewalk with my mouth gaping in surprise.

The next day, he said to me and Tim: "I was so good last night! Wasn't I good with your friends? You could say that I the center of things!" Gleeful smile.

From time to time, I am struck by the thought that it is very important to him that he be successful in his new role as our kid. As a young child, he intermittently lived with a cousin whom he loved. But it's clear that he never thought of himself as her kid - she had biological kids in the house who filled that role in his mind. The county located her and urged her to take him and his brother in and from that moment on, he clearly thought of himself more as a house guest.

He's an introverted person, so his feelings are rarely obvious. We catch glimpses of his internal life now and then. When we were preparing to become parents, I read a lot of books about traumatized kids, adoption and attachment. I think they led me to expect that his internal life would be filled with suffering, anger, confusion and grief. And of course, he experiences those things too, more than most kids. But what I didn't prepare for were these expressions of joy, pride in being successful in his new family, and love.

As an aside, my friends and my father all said to me at different times that despite his age and formidable height, T. struck them as a much younger child - about five years old. That's exactly right. When he is happy, he often seems about five. Not coincidentally, that is when he was first taken away from his cousin's house. Something froze then, and when he is feeling happy and secure these days, he appears to pick up where he left off.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


I'm working on a new homeland security advisory system for our little household.

Red: severe behavioral turbulence ahead; batten the hatches
Orange: high likelihood of tantrums, outbursts, insults and defiance
Yellow: elevated antics with no threat of harm
Blue: guarded relaxation; constant supervision not needed
Green: all systems go; no precautionary measures required

I think traumatized kids (and ALL teenagers) probably spend a lot of time in the yellow and orange zones. But as we head toward the holidays, security systems indicate we are in the red zone.

How did storm season announce it's arrival? With not one but two suspensions in a single week, two calls from the dean, one call from the guidance counselor, and three nights of not arriving home as requested for dinner.

Discipline has its limits. I figure self-discipline is a skill and a developmental achievement, not something one can just demand and expect compliance. We have rules and consequences, but this kind of shitstorm (pardon me) of misbehavior defies that kind of logic.

Today when the dean called me at work (she's great, it was a good talk), I said, "Have you noticed that T. has really been acting differently for the past, oh, two weeks?" And she said with a sharp relief, "Yes! Exactly!" He's got his history teacher on the brink of a nervous breakdown, he was hauled into the office by campus security, and in one of his classes he flatly refuses to stay in his seat. The dean and I agreed that I'd take him to work tomorrow instead of sending him in for "campus cleanup in lieu of suspension" and we'd see if a week of Thanksgiving vacation with us calms him down and helps us figure out what in the hell is going on.

Tonight when we all got home, we suggested that he take some time and come to us when he felt ready to talk. A few hours later he came to chat. "I don't usually get suspended," he said. "Something is wrong. I need to work on my behavior." He really does say things like that in a genuine way. At the same time, it sounded a little like parroting the sort of thing he thinks he's supposed to say. "Sounds good," I said. "But sometimes our behavior gets away from us and we just can't control it, even if we try. That can happen when something is bothering us inside and we maybe don't even know it."

"I think it's my brother," he said, right away. "Like, if I don't take him with us for the whole Thanksgiving holiday, then I feel like I'm not doing the right thing and I'm doing bad, but...." he trailed off, ashamed.

Oh shit! Why did I not stay on top of this?! Exactly two weeks ago, his brother called and invited himself for Thanksgiving. But we have plans to go away for a week, and that's a little more time with his brother than T. can really handle. So he dodged and said he'd call him back. I saw the confusion on his face and offered a fix, but when he didn't respond right away, I moved on and didn't try hard enough to go back and help him resolve it.

His brother lives in a group home, and longs to see T., but having grown up together in some severely traumatic situations and then been separated for prolonged periods, they don't have an easy dynamic. T. was very clear that he did not want to be adopted with his brother, long before we met him. He does however feel obliged to stay in touch and we encourage and facilitate that whenever we can. Visits are hard for him.

So when he described his dilemma tonight, it rang true right away. In short, it's the kind of dilemma that can produce a cascade of survivor guilt.

I offered, "I imagine also that your dilemma with your brother isn't just about this Thanksgiving - maybe it reminds you of when you guys were younger, and you felt torn about taking care of him." He gave me a long stare with the giant eyes and then a tiny nod. "Okay," I said. "I want to just give you two quick sentences of parental wisdom, if I may?" Tiny nod again. "I know it was hard and you felt responsible for him. What happened isn't your fault. You were a kid. There are things that happened that you just couldn't have changed. And you're still a kid, and that's okay if you just want to be a regular kid." Tiny nod. Huge eyes. Then he said, "Well, thank you for this talk." That's his usual exit strategy when he's reached his limit of emotional vulnerability. He hung around though.

After a breath, we came back to the issue at hand, and asked if he might let us take care of it for him. We agreed that Tim will call T.'s brother for him and offer a fabulous post-Thanksgiving weekend at our house. T. will be allowed to go out if he needs to. We told him he needn't worry about entertaining his brother, we'll take him to the movies and keep him busy.

He agreed quickly. He milled around a little more, said a nice good night, and went to bed early. The weird thing about T., in terms of security advisories, is that he often goes from the red zone straight to the green zone rather suddenly. We're in a crisis, and then we're fine. I guess that's life with a smart, traumatized older kid who is still learning self-regulation and sorting out some huge dilemmas.

It is a big deal for him to identify what's bothering him. It's an even bigger thing for him to allow us to tend to it for him, instead of trying to power through it all on his own, which has been his modus operandi for most of his young life. What an honor. I really mean that.

Friday, November 5, 2010


When I was twelve, I spent the summer at my grandmother's cabin in North Dakota with one of my boy cousins. One day I came in through the back door and she was on the phone in a darkened back bedroom. I heard her hiss "If he EVER finds out it's not from you, I'll kill you." She was talking to my uncle. He had forgotten my cousin's birthday.

When we sat down for dinner that night, she produced a brightly wrapped gift. "Your father sent this," she said to my cousin. He was in a terrible state that summer - only fourteen years old, smoking cigarettes and surly. His eyes lit up as he unwrapped his fishing pole. He didn't even know to thank my grandmother for it. Today he's a successful professor with a happy family of his own and he probably still thinks that fishing pole came from his dad.

Last week, T.'s caseworker wrote to us and asked us to "persuade" his mother to accept a notice of termination of parental rights, after she refused to meet with DCFS. I hit the roof (and never breathed a word of this to him)- how is this his responsibility, when he barely knows his mother, and has never lived with her or formed a relationship with her? Then his adoption social worker came to our house. Before I could stop her, she told him how his adoption process is being held up because his mother refuses to accept the notice. She told him how "worried" she is about the delay, and how it could be seven months or more before we can move to official adoptive status. T. was practically catatonic during this conversation with his social worker. Afterwards, he withdrew for hours, then he stormed out of the house without permission and didn't come home until midnight on a school night. He's never done anything like that before.

So I lied to him. I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on the phone with my uncle: a flash of rage and terrible pain that he was suffering, and a fierce desire to put myself between him and a cruel truth. Over dinner, I said as if it just occurred to me offhand, "Oh, I talked to your attorney for awhile today." (And indeed I did, though "talking" is a gentle way to put it, because what really happened is that I dialed up everyone involved in his case and voiced my frustration.) "He thinks everything will work out fine," I said to T. (The attorney didn't say that--instead, he told me that the county has, in his opinion, done everything wrong in handling his case.) "He told me that your mom doesn't mean to block your adoption--she just doesn't want DCFS workers bugging her at her house."

His face relaxed in an instant. For one millisecond, he looked up at me with such huge, naked eyes, even Tim was taken aback. All we can do is guess sometimes at what pains him. I don't know if what I said was the right thing, but he takes his mother's anger (which is diffuse and complicated) very personally, and in that instant, it was clear he needed relief.

I was so angry this week with his social workers (who waited to start the process of noticing the biological parents until AFTER the 45 day required window had passed, so that our court date next month is a total waste of time); with his attorney (who is rude and aggressive and told me he might not come to court on time because he has a dentist's appointment that day), and with the world. It pains me to think of process servers going to serve his mother, who is struggling to raise the fifth of her children, the only one she's ever had custody of. I hate everything about this process. I wish we could handle his adoption informally, perhaps sitting down with his mother, with whom he has never lived, to work it out. That's not realistic, for a variety of reasons. But the legal process of adopting an older child whose parental rights haven't been terminated prior to him being placed with potential adoptive parents is punishing to say the least.

And the reason I've been given for waiting to terminate parental rights (even as they put him in a "get adopted" program), freeing him for adoption after sixteen years in foster care? The county doesn't like to have "legal orphans" on the books. They knew he'd never live with his mom; he didn't even know her until he was twelve, and they mutually decided that it would not work out for her to be his guardian. The county adoption workers tell me that they like to wait to see if a potential adoptive placement is "likely to be successful" before moving to terminate rights. That makes sense in the abstract, but in our experience, it also starts to feel a lot like cooking the books, so to speak.

Anyway, I think T. has had enough "truth" about his legal status over his long life in foster care. It's time to construct our own truth, which is that regardless of when or even whether this adoption finalizes, we have made a family together. It's strong enough to last forever and flexible enough to encompass all of our other ties, including whatever tie he wants to build to his mother over time. And it's up to us, not to the court, or the county, or any external process.
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