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.


Anonymous said...

I would start talking in terms of your last paragraph. One truth in our family is that we never finalized our Older Kid's adoption. He just wasn't comfortable with us taking that step. Adoption is a piece of paper signed by a judge. It does not make a family. A family is commitment between people. "legal status" is just that. The only real difference it has made in our lives is that Older Kid has to sign a release for me to be involved with his doctors. Just another piece of paper.

Tell T. what you wrote in that last paragraph. Tell him every day so it sinks in and becomes his truth. Because that is what matters.

You are doing everything right, Friend. You are the perfect mother for T.

obladi oblada said...

Complicated to say the least. In our county, they will not place a child with an "adoptive family" until that child is legally free. Sounds like T's case really has been handled wrong. I dont understand why the court doesnt just take the rights away after this long...they do here, but every state is different. Btw, I love what your grandmother did....that is love for sure.

marythemom said...

I think you did the right thing. This system is just so broken. What's important is that you guys are a family.

Hugs and prayers,
Mary in TX

Anonymous said...

Please keep going, please keep up the fight with all the lawyers and case workers and procedures who/that don't want to support a child in need.

You are amazing.

SocialWrkr24/7 said...

Ugh - that is awful for the social worker to have asked!

Our state is the same way - until there is a family that is 100% committed to adoption, the parents' rights are not terminated. I have to say that I support that decision most of the time - but there are occassions, where the parents and child have mutually agreed being one of them, that I think that it is better for a child to legally have no parents. But in my state, so many children lingered in care and eventually aged out and went back to their bio families - yet legally were not recognized as such because their parents' rights had been terminated.

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