Wednesday, June 15, 2011


We're making progress. T has spent two weeks in a group home, a situation for which he volunteered in order to simmer down before entering treatment. He's been doing the requisite pre-treatment intake appointments and exams and we've been sorting through the bureaucracy to get him admitted. It's official now that he'll move to the residential treatment program in a few days. We feel really good about it. We miss him, but we communicate about a thousand times a day by text message and occasionally by phone. He is obviously, audibly more relaxed. I believe he is now ready for the intensity of residential treatment.

His adoption is proceeding apace. In fact, the dependency court judge who hears his case every six months was so impressed when T explained his decision to enter residential treatment that she ordered his adoption completed "post haste", congratulated him and us, and reminded him that "the teenage years are rough, and it is very impressive to see a young man who is asking for help, with the support of committed parents." I am so pleased that the system recognizes T's efforts to salvage himself. It sends a great message.

I thought it might be useful to capture my advice based on our experience so far, in case anyone else is ever facing a similar decision. I'll keep the list running, but here's what occurs to me off the top:

1. Trust your gut. I've learned that once you're bonded to a kid, whether they are six months or sixteen years old, nature has set up the "gut sense" as an advanced early warning system. Our sense that something was VERY wrong was accurate and proceeded in kind with the intensification of his crisis state. This kind of knowing-without-knowing feels a little crazy - but in my experience, it is deeply instinctive and reliable.

2. Know who you can turn to for support. My parents were great, and even relieved us for a weekend so we could go away and clear our heads and renew our energy. My therapist friend was, of course, fabulous and confirmed for me that it was time for more intensive care than we could provide at home. My boss, who has grappled with her daughter's ongoing mental health needs, has the unshockable quality of a mom who's been there. Pretty much everyone else is overwhelmed by our situation. I understand. From the outside, it seems like a lot of turmoil. But the bottom line is that this is what we signed up for. We knew when we joined up with T that we'd be helping him deal with trauma and substance abuse. What looks like a disaster to one family is a success story to ours. It helps to have friends who understand that the fact that T isn't at home with us doesn't mean we aren't family.

3. Be prepared to navigate different definitions of normal. Kids like T come from very extreme backgrounds and have experienced things that it's hard for us to even imagine. So their definition of normal is informed by a broader spectrum of experience than I'm accustomed to. It took us two years to absorb this fact. But in order to reach him, and gain his trust, we have to understand and sometimes accommodate his sense of normal. You can lose yourself quickly in that kind of relativism. I've found that it takes a lot of talking and thinking to be both flexible enough to stretch one's own definition of normal to make room for a kid coming from an extreme background and strong enough to assert certain non-negotiable norms in order to keep the family safe and take action when it's necessary.

4. Invite the child to be part of the decision about treatment. That sounds obvious. But when you're talking to an angry, intoxicated teenager about treatment, it's harder and riskier than I had imagined. At his age, I cannot commit him to residential treatment without his cooperation. Through his haze, he was able to listen and recognize that it was time. I really respect him for that. I suspect that having been more or less without consistent parents for the first 14 years, T developed the ability to function as his own caretaker at times - if you speak to him as an equal, sometimes you can tap into that sense of responsibility and self-determination.

5. Communicate from a position of love. It has helped me a lot in the past few months to know that T understands that our intervention has been entirely motivated by love. We wrote him countless letters and had many, many talks all of which had the same these: I love you, and I would not be a good parent if I allowed you to continue harming yourself. We tried to tell him at each step along the way what we intended to do next, even before we knew whether it would pan out.

6. Do not aim for perfection. I would have liked to hasten T to the best residential treatment facility in the land the moment he gave his consent. In reality, we needed to slog through a great deal of bureaucracy - obtaining an order from a judge, involving his caseworker, getting his medical history from DCFS over to the prospective facility. That has taken about two weeks, during which T elected to stay in a group home so that he would be basically under lock. I don't love that scenario, but it was the best one available to us and it worked out fine. The legal complexities of adoption out of foster care are such that perfection is often unattainable. I am bad at accepting that. Tim is great at it. He's done a fantastic job of reminding me that we are making steady progress toward the end goal, even if the road is bumpy and unpleasant sometimes.

7. Count on the child's resilience. It took me two years to fully appreciate how resilient T is. I think witnessing his pain perhaps led me to believe on some unconscious level that he was fragile. But suffering and strength are not at all mutually exclusive and I understand that now in a deeper way than I did before. T has both the ability to really sabotage himself and the ability--way beyond any I've ever seen, even amongst adult friends-- to look himself squarely in the eye and do the hard thing in order to make things right.

8. Communicate even the hardest things in positive terms. I strongly believe that T was able to get where he is right now because he saw - through our eyes and those of a few other adults like the adoption court judge - a version of his predicament that preserved his self-esteem. Also, as a child who survived extreme abuse, he detects and rejects anger and disapproval very quickly; if he catches even a whiff of those things, he disconnects. On the other hand, he is very motivated by affection, optimism, and the promise of future return.

9. Call on everyone else who matters and assemble a united front. We worked past and present social workers, teachers, therapists in order to send a consistent message. In the end I pulled out the final stop: I got in touch with T's relative who was his caregiver in early years. I told her exactly what was going on and asked her to help me convince him to get treatment. We have been polite but somewhat distant until now - she has no reason to trust me, and assumed I was naive and indulgent. When I opened up the conversation with her about T's substance abuse, she heard me right away. She responded as a mother. She spoke frankly about the family's problems with addiction that led to T being in foster care in the first place. As soon as she spoke to him, he sensed a united front. There was no crack to slip through, no way to exploit divided loyalties to justify self-destruction. It was powerful. And she and I are close now and we tell each other the truth.

I'm sure I'll return to these themes in the coming weeks as we support him on his path.


Fi said...


Great advice.

Claudia said...

This is extraordinarily wise advice.

Really, really really glad to hear that the adoption is proceeding quickly. What a gift to have a judge who is able to see just how necessary you all are to each other.

mikeco said...

I am learning so much from your posts and insight on your family's experiences. Thank you and I am still rooting loudly for you and your family :)

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