Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Poem

T called my voicemail at work today while I was in a meeting to read me a poem he had just written. He gave me permission to share it, so it appears below, verbatim. I hope it will communicate to some potential foster/adoptive parent out there why--although I'm sure my story sounds horrifying of late--I would never think twice about doing it all over again.

It goes:

"I was truly blessed to have met you guys.
God placed me in a place I can be taken care of through his eyes.
You guys are my angels, I love you so much.
I found you or you found me.
Either way we became a family.
I am happy. I know you guys are too.
You stood by my side when some would have run.
I am happy that I can reach out and know there will be a hand.
You don't care of the obstacles, you will fight through it.
You understand me when some can't. We are similar in many ways.
We're intelligent too.
I love you guys. I'm glad to know you love me too.
We've been through so much, but the good thing is, we never gave up.
We are survivors through this difficult phase.
We are truly blessed."


He's back home after a dramatic and irresolute day at court.

In short: this was a detention hearing, simply to determine where T lives while we sort this all out, but we presented proof that he didn't commit any crime.

The prosecutor argued that they have a strong case against a different kid, someone known to T - T's attorney, of course, pointed out that a case against a co-defendant is absolutely no legal justification for holding T whatsoever. Much drama ensued that I shall not recount.

In the midst of this craziness, T's social worker, for reasons that can only be described as diabolical, filed a report with the judge asking him not to release T back to us, because we have been deemed "unsuitable foster parents" by DCFS (her) due to the fact that we did not report T's problems to them in sufficient detail. This is an outright lie, and stems from the fact that she is currently being sanctioned in the dependency court (the court that handles adoptions, not juvenile delinquency matters) for failing to complete his adoption. She, confused as usual, reacted by sending this report to the juvenile court judge. Her evidence of our unsuitability was the fact that THREE YEARS AGO, we declined wraparound services in favor of family counseling through a local university. Do you feel crazy yet just reading this? To whom did she propose that he be released? Nobody. She wasn't even there. Had the judge agreed with her, T would have remained in juvenile hall for wont of another option.

Thankfully the judge looked at the report from DCFS for less than five seconds, looked right at T and his attorney and said, "I am not paying any attention to this report. I have an EXCESS of confidence in these people, they have been present at every court hearing, they have given him a HOME. They have done nothing but consistently act in this child's best interest."

Finally we were allowed to take T home, but we have to return for a pre-trial hearing and perhaps a trial, despite the fact that the DA appears to have absolutely no case whatsoever.

T is quite a bit more resilient than I am at this point. Last night, he told me that I needed to "count backwards from ten and visualize pleasant imagery" because I seemed a little stressed. Out of the mouths of babes.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Last Wednesday, there was a knock on our front door. I answered in my bathrobe. A probation officer asked to enter the house. I assumed he was there for a random check as T. is on "house arrest" at the whim of the juvenile court judge who has him on informal supervision, although he's not charged with a serious crime, nor is he actually on probation. I let the officer in. He was followed by six police officers, some with their hands on their holsters. I sensed that this was not routine.

They asked where T's room was, made me go into another room, took T from his bed in his pajamas, took him into the courtyard of our apartment building, handcuffed him and surrounded him. He stood there for half an hour before they put him in the police car. The neighbors all came out and stared. The police wouldn't let me talk to him. They asked me who I was. I said I was his pre-adoptive parent and he had been living with me for two years. They asked me if I lived alone with him. I said no, I live here with my husband and we alternate days at home to supervise his schooling, as he does independent study at home. I begged them to give him his medicine before they took him away. I asked what was going on. They told me T was being arrested for armed robbery.

They took him to a police station, took a statement from him with no parent or attorney present, and then took him to juvenile hall for processing. That night I got a call from juvenile hall saying that T had verified that he was with his social worker at the treatment house in another county on the date in question. The probation officer had verified this alibi and called me to say he expected charges to be dropped and T released home the next day. He asked if I would pick him up and if I would be happy to have him home. Of course, I said.

The next day came and went and nothing happened. We called to inquire and were told we were to appear in juvenile court the following morning. We waited four hours at court until T's case was called. When we entered the courtroom, no public defender was present although we asked to speak with one. Without pausing to even read the case file or ask any questions, the judge told T he was "sickened" by the charges and ordered him detained - in other words, he remains in juvenile hall until his next hearing on this matter. I rose, began to cry, and explained T's whereabouts in another county on the date in question, and that we expected him released, and that we had an attorney at a local children's legal center ready to represent us. The judge looked stricken for a moment, then repeated that he would not be releasing T under any circumstances, due to the seriousness of the charge. Although he began by saying he was setting a trial date in a few week's time, after my outburst, he set what is known in our state as a Dennis H hearing for 72 business hours (excluding the weekend) later, a hearing at which the District Attorney must prove they have reasonable suspicion of guilt and that the defendant should remain in custody. I noted for the record that no public defender was present at the time and I was ignored.

The judge said something to T I will never forget. He said, "If it turns out you did not do this - and I hope you did not - then you can consider your time in juvenile hall this week karmic payback for whatever you've done in your life that you didn't get caught for."


That is what he said.

My son went back to juvenile hall, where he is currently being held in an overflow unit where no nurse is available because juvenile hall is overcrowded right now. As a result, it was four days until he got the medication that I sent with the police and instructed them to administer twice a day. He has no books, no paper or pencils, and no recreational time outdoors. He sits in a cell all day long. For the first two nights, he did not sleep at all.

We have spent days pursing legal counsel for him. Through a very good friend, we have a kind lawyer willing to represent T next week to present the incontrovertible evidence that he was not within sixty miles of the crime scene at the time of the incident. We have statements from a social worker and the chief administrator of the treatment house where he was under close supervision at the very time of the crime. By contrast, the DA apparently has only the word of a teenage victim who thinks that someone with my son's name did the crime.

The charge is a felony. It will remain on his record for life if we aren't successful in exonerating him. The incident in question took place near our house on a day when T, by some miracle, was in the custody of his social worker IN ANOTHER COUNTY, being VOLUNTARILY admitted to residential treatment. Both the police and we have contacted the treatment house and obtained verification that he was in their custody at the time of the incident. In short: the crime happened to occur on a day when, by some stroke of fortune, T's every move was documented hour by hour. He has the perfect alibi. Nevertheless, due to a harried juvenile courtroom and a judge accustomed to playing God with children and parents who are intimidated by the system, our kid remains in custody while the system takes its sweet time catching up to the fact that he is innocent. There is a police report taken at juvenile hall where they called his social worker and the treatment house and confirmed his alibi, but nobody had time to read it on the day of his detention hearing.

To say I am sick with worry is an understatement. I saw T today and he is glassy eyed and overwhelmed. He is understandably angry. He is a smart kid and he knows what is wrong with this situation. He told me today that he hates the city we live in and wants to move. He is on the verge of falling apart. It is a real bitch raising a son and trying to teach him to respect the law and avoid cynicism when the system treats him this way.

I will concentrate right now on getting him home this week. And then I will focus all my resources on having the charges dropped, or having him declared innocent. Then I will not hold back in seeing that the system hears from a parent about what it means to bring a legal minor up on felony charges with no legal representation and no attention to the evidence.

Please keep us in your prayers in the meantime.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


About a month into his stay in treatment, T asked for a coloring book and crayons, without explanation. Unsure of his intentions, we sent him a book of color-your-own-sneaker designs and some skinny colored pencils. At home, we wondered aloud whether perhaps he intended to send them to one of his young half siblings, whom he doesn't really know - perhaps he wanted to reach out, for a birthday or something.

A few weeks later, he asked for more coloring books and more crayons. Something about the way he asked made it clear that we shouldn't ask questions. Soon enough, we were hanging out at the treatment house during visiting hours when one of the kids came by to say hello. "Thanks for the coloring books," he said. "T is always telling us coloring reduces stress! He never shuts up about it!" Our mouths hung open with surprise; we'd had no idea.

The next week we brought what we considered a pretty cool coloring book of African mask designs, and one of Egyptian motifs. T looked at them and said, in all seriousness and with an air of great diplomatic dignity, "I guess you didn't know, I only color flowers and animals." Of course! His appetite for coloring books grew; we burned through all of the botanical coloring books at our local Barnes and Noble.

Gobsmacked, we just continued to bring coloring books. T told us that he had organized "coloring crew" - to gain admission, one needed to be "working the program", as they say, and willing to color under his watchful eye. He assembled a group of several teenagers in the program, who joined for the privilege of spending an hour or two each evening with crayons and colored pencils, in silence.

He's been home for a few weeks now. He left his coloring books behind. Last week, he announced, "I need to color." We headed back to Barnes and Noble. For the past several nights, he's spent at least an hour or two coloring intently. Sometimes he says, "You can color with me," and we do. Sometimes, if I'm being bossy or acting stressed, he says "You need to color," and I do. If I talk too much while I'm coloring, he says "Shhhh! Color." Tonight, I said, "Thanks for letting me color, that was very relaxing." He objected. "Coloring relieves stress, but that doesn't mean it's relaxing," he said. I'm unsure of the distinction. But whatever it is, this coloring thing is serious.

Our dining room table is covered with crayons, colored pencils, sharpeners, botanical coloring books, and torn out pages of colorful completed works. His coloring is delicate, thoughtful, neat, and nuanced, rather like his personality. He likes to listen to oldies while he colors. He takes a light hand, and uses the side of the crayon or pencil to get a feathery texture. It is hard to explain how a kid who just spent a week in juvenile hall because he so annoyed the staff at the rehab house can be the same kid who wants to spend most evenings quietly coloring pictures of flowers with his parents. I guess I can't. That's just how it is.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Home schooling (really we're doing supervised independent study if you want to get technical) is going well.

I like a few things about it. Number one, T gets to sleep more, and so do we. Teens need their sleep! If T can sleep til 9 and have an afternoon nap, he's a lot mellower. He benefits from a lot of "down time."

Also, schooling him from home is like having a lot of homework, in a good way. The homework is directly linked to his credits - it's not seen as "extra" on top of other expectations, like showing up and behaving in class. The learning is the thing. He has a nice retired teacher who meets with him once a week, reviews his assignments, and gives him new assignments. There are fewer distractions and clearer expectations.

Which brings me to my next point: homeschooling strikes me as a healing opportunity, because it gets him a lot more one-on-one time with adults. His teacher sits with him for an hour at a time and focuses only on him. We sit with him for part of the day and help him with his work. He likes to sit very close to us, and he organizes our schedule, letting us know who is helping with what each day. It's a chance for a lot of proximity, and eye contact, and engagement, and yet another way to show him that he's important.

Neglect is a bigger factor in his background than I realized, and only as we've settled in to a deep long-term attachment have I been able to see that. He has many of the hallmarks of a neglected kid to this day, which is especially evident to me now because his more distracting, dramatic trauma-related behavior has settled down. He behaves like a parent sometimes, he has trouble in school, he has bursts of temper that he can't control, and he's extremely controlling about his food. Anything that surrounds him with love and attention helps him relax and grow. In that context, it makes sense that sitting close to us and getting daily attention from us and from his teacher are beneficial. In place of traditional school, with its emphasis on discipline, it feels like we've arrived, for the moment, at a situation where his needs rather than his behavior are the focus.

Sometimes he's bored and lonely for his peers - he's taking a class at the local junior college one night a week, as much for the social stimulation as for the credits. But I'll take a little boredom over the chaos of trying to navigate him through the school system anyday. Plus, I think having him out of school forces him to try harder to make actual plans with his friends, rather than just hooking up after school. For a kid struggling with impulse control, that's a good thing.

Friday, September 9, 2011


We've spent a lot of time lately thinking about why T seems to alienate some people completely, and totally endear others. I have never known anyone with quite this effect on people. Older people, babies and small animals flock to him like he's Saint Fancis of Assisi, and at the same time, police, school administrators and hallway bullies fixate on him like he's got a bull's eye on his back. In any setting, we could take a poll, and half the respondents will tell us he is smart/gentle/thoughtful/helpful/mature, and the other half will tell us he is a out-of-control/angry/controlling/difficult. The people who love him RAVE about him - from teachers to school nurses, administrators and friends of the family. The people who don't "get" him tend to come quite unglued describing his misbehavior - they almost seem fixated by how frustrated he has made them. We've been thinking about why he has this extreme effect on people, because all our lives took a bizarre turn this summer after he really alienated the director of the program where he was getting addiction treatment.

First of all, I think strangers struggle to make sense of him, because he is highly intelligent and mature on some levels, and almost infant-like on others. At home, he is often like a young child - he likes to be close to us and spend more time with us than most 17 year-olds spend with their parents. Abandonment and neglect as a young child left him with an unfulfilled need that we're quite happy to fulfill. But when he is separated from us, he often becomes anxious and unruly. What would be perceived as quite normal in a young child is hard for people to understand in an older kid of his size. So he gets misinterpreted a lot.

Also, there is an element of racism at play. As a young Black man, his tantrums and irritability are readily interpreted as aggression or hostility in some settings. What might be seen as brattiness in another child gets read as threatening behavior because of stereotyping to which he is vulnerable because of his physical size and the color of his skin. In a few settings, including the treatment house, he's been accused of being "threatening" despite having never once laid hands on another person or purposely caused anyone harm.This can be a real challenge when you have a kid with complex mental health needs that you're trying to address. Because people don't perceive him as vulnerable, it can be hard to get him the services he deserves -- and the help for which he is asking. He is tall (six-foot-three), and dark skinned with enormous Bambi eyes, a sweet baby face, and tremendous gentleness. But he is often held to a different standard in terms of how vulnerable he's allowed to be, because of the stereotype-infused lens through which he is sometimes perceived.

I also think his instincts are cranked up much higher than is probably healthy, because of his abuse history, and for this reason he is exquisitely sensitive and easily triggered. Someone's tone of voice, their smell, a facial expression, a gesture can all set him off. His perception is exaggerated or even distorted because he is an elevated state of vigilance pretty much all the time. This is improving, gradually, the longer he lives in safety. I have tried explaining this vigilance to officials involved in his schooling or his care before, with mixed success. About half the time, I get a variation on "Well, he's a big guy, nobody is going to hurt him." See paragraph three, above. It doesn't matter if he is actually in physical danger in the present moment - he was hurt, badly, as a young child, and some part of his brain still reacts to everyday situations from that position of pure instinctive self-preservation.

Finally, I think he is smart and independent, and some people love that and some people aren't comfortable with someone so self-assured. Particularly in combination with his sensitivity and vulnerability, his confidence and intelligence are confusing. He sends conflicting signals all at once. He's extremely funny. He talks back...and he's often right. He is articulate when he wants to be - sometimes unusually so. He can be profound, and he can also be painfully dismissive of that which he perceives to be beneath him. All that makes for a complex personality. I happen to like complex personalities. But not everyone responds in the same way.

We've decided to home school him. Despite his difficulties, he's managed to be ahead on his school credits, eligible for early graduation. One of us can work from home, and there's a home schooling option in our district that provides structure and weekly check-ins with a teacher at a local campus. He'll take an elective at a local junior college where he can get a taste of life post-high school. He can sleep a little later in the morning. He'll get a little more time with us. He can still build social relationships with peers but he can do so outside the classroom, on his own time in less provocative circumstances. Eventually, he needs to learn not to push buttons, to take direction and to keep himself in check. But it takes time to move beyond the chronically stressed limbic state where he got stuck. Meanwhile, I like the idea of keeping him out of traditional school, because of the extreme reactions he tends to provoke in other people, particularly officials.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Crazy Crap

Well, that was crazy crap. We finally hit an experience associated with our adoption that I really just couldn't even talk about. I went a week in pure crisis management mode, with no commentary to share with anyone about what we were going through. The short version is this:

- T had a court date in front of the judge who has him on informal supervision for a prior petty theft charge.

- In the weeks leading up to that hearing, the place where he is in residential treatment got frustrated with his behavior and wrote a report to the judge about how he'd been causing problems - fighting with other kids and losing his temper.

- They repeatedly cited his size as a problem, stating that he "intimidates other kids" because he is so big. He's tall and skinny, and although he can be a real pain in the ass, he has no history of physical bullying or violence. It was hard not to feel that the repeated comments about his size reflected an element of racism.

- In any event, the judge, upon reading this inflammatory report, got mad and put T in juvenile hall for seven days, although he's not on probation and wasn't being charged with or convicted of a crime, just to teach him a lesson.

- While T was in juvenile hall and unbeknownst to us, the treatment house phoned in a "7 day notice" to T's social worker, and thus washed their hands of him.

- The judge's order only permitted T to be released to the treatment center, so when they phoned in the 7 day notice and refused to go get him, he was stuck in juvenile hall with no way out.

- Meanwhile, a child is not allowed to be under the jurisdiction of both the juvenile probation court and DCFS/dependency court, so by placing T in juvenile hall, the judge inadvertently triggered a legal administrative process about jurisdiction. That meant that DCFS felt they weren't responsible for picking him up or resolving his situation either.

- We tried appealing to DCFS for help, and instead found out that they had now decided that, based on T's behavior, he shouldn't remain in our home, at least not under their jurisdiction. As if we were expected to "fix" him, and having failed, they would just move him on to a group home - or, their true desire, hand him over to the probation department to take over where they left off.

- All this meant that we couldn't get T out of juvenile hall, even as his release date came and went. As pre-adoptive parents, we still have very little in the way of legal status, so although he's been with us for two-and-a-half years and we are the only "real parents" he's ever had, according to him, we were not able to get him released. He sat there on his release date with nobody to pick him up, unable to make a phone call, frantic that he didn't know what was going on.

Happily, after we spent two days banging on doors at the courthouse, calling attorneys, gathering letters and sitting around waiting on judges, we finally got a hearing in front of the juvenile court judge to get him to revise the order. It turns out that the judge is the foster parent of an older child himself. He walked into the courtroom this morning, smiled at me, said "I'm sorry about this mess", called T in, gave him a speech about getting his act together, put him on electronic surveillance/house arrest, and sent him home with us. He announced that "Over the objections of all present, I am placing this child back with these people, who are his de facto parents, and who have shown up at every court hearing to speak on his behalf and proven over and over their commitment to him." At that, T chimed in himself: "It's true they could have given up on adopting me but they never did and that's why I have to get myself together!"

What. A. Mess.

We're pissed at the treatment house for abandoning T without involving us - after all, we've been doing three hours of family therapy at their facility every week with him, and they have involved us as his parents in every step of his treatment right up until they decided to leave him stuck at juvenile hall without telling us. Even the judge was mad about that.

We're pissed at DCFS for trying to take advantage of the administrative mess regarding jurisdiction to wash their hands of T - and for being generally negligent, and for continuing to fail to move his adoption forward, so that we can have legal status and we won't be subject to this constant bureaucratic chaos.

We're unhappy with the judge for putting a kid who isn't even on probation or charged with a crime in juvenile hall for seven days just to frighten him and make a point about his behavior. For all sorts of reasons (including T's various diagnoses, his abuse history, and the realities of juvenile detention in a big, rough city), I don't feel comfortable with that sort of extreme discipline. However, I will say, of all the officials who stuck their hands in this pie and messed it up, he is the one I have the most respect for. I don't agree with his techniques, but I do admire him for admitting the error when it became clear that something had gone wrong, cleaning it up, and recognizing that, with or without legal status, we're T's parents. He was gracious to us, and tough but very clear with T. I wish more people involved in deciding the lives of kids in foster care had firsthand experience as foster parents themselves. It makes a huge difference.

And of course, we are also frustrated with T for misbehaving at the treatment center, failing to complete the agreement we had about how long he'd stay, and so aggravating the staff there that we had no choice but to bring him home because they flat out abandoned him. Now we have to enroll him in yet another school, hasten him to outpatient treatment, and get back on the horse in terms of daily parenting on somewhat unexpected terms.

However, he's so worth it. When we finally got him out of juvenile hall today, he presented us with a long letter covered with hearts and smiley faces about how frustrated he is about "all my problems and how I put them on other people" and how he wants to keep trying, because he knows "we are a family and there's nothing I can't face down now." It wasn't a desperate letter - it was fairly realistic, very loving, and appropriately optimistic. Somehow, he has come out of this experience without any bitterness or cynicism, which is more than I can say for myself. He has a characteristic calm sense of endurance, coupled with a philosophical ability to scrutinize himself and recognize his problems and his promise. Now if only he could learn to govern his behavior!

Also of note: Tim and I made it through this insane and unexpected drama with our relationship intact. We worked hard every day to get T back - but we also slept at night, we went out for dinner, we got a little exercise, and we (kind of) did our jobs. We maintained our sanity. We stopped socializing, as we didn't feel like explaining what was going on, and we just conserved and focused our energy without getting all nuts. In my first year or so as an advocate parent, I had trouble accepting the turbulence and drama and I let it take a toll. I'm not a good parent and I'm not a good partner when I'm that stressed. We're battle-scarred but wiser and calmer now.

I will also admit that we are rather enjoying T's house arrest, at least for now. I think it might be the secret dream of every parent of a teenager. I jest, and don't advocate using the juvenile justice system for discipline - as we learned this week, that can be like lighting a candle with a blowtorch. But T is relaxed and engaging and fun to talk with at home, and now he has no choice but to be here. We missed him while he was away, and it's nice to know EXACTLY where he is for now. Which, at the moment, is in his own bed, in his own room, right next to ours, after a week when we feared we may have lost him.
Site Meter