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.