Monday, October 31, 2011


Recently, T began to smile. A lot. It's not that he never smiled before. But his smile has changed of late, in a quite noticeable way.

He has a slow smile that gradually takes over his whole face. It's a cute little face, with a lot of muscle in the cheeks, and it can really wear a smile.

He smiled at our adoption worker on a recent visit. She gawked. We had some family friends over for a visit, and he smiled easily and laughed while he played Monopoly with them. The other day, I tickled him and he smiled, even giggled - a totally unexpected and brand new response. His smile spreads gradually and goes on much longer than seems likely. He puts his head down and looks a little embarrassed while his smile just grows and grows, as if he's caught offguard by his own unhindered sweetness. Often, he looks away, overcome for a moment, presumably by joy. He smiled in court today. His sweetness startled the judge, in a good way. He smiled when his attorney kidded him. Everywhere we go these days, people exclaim, "That smile!" Sometimes they actually gasp. It's quite a smile.

Something about this smile has captivated me and I realized what it is: it reminds me of a baby's smile. It's the smile you see on an infant's face when he begins to realize that you can see him. It seems to mean "I exist!"

I don't know why this smile started up just now. Partly, perhaps, it's shame falling away - kicking marijuana made him feel proud. And, for the first time in a long time, he's experiencing emotions without the weedy goggles he used to cut himself off from reality.

I think his smile also means "don't hurt me". Or maybe it's just the release of tension. I don't know. It's fascinating. He is particularly sensitive and perceptive. Facing the world without shame, and without addiction, he's pretty naked and new. He seems to be experiencing social connection in a new way. His smile suggests a new realization that he is connected to other people in a world we all share. It's a beautiful smile.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


We "finalized our adoptive placement" tonight, which means we signed a million pieces of paper, got T's history from the adoptive social worker, and have entered the final legal process, which will be expedited because of his age.

Looking through those files, my heart breaks. It's odd to parent a child for years without anything to go on other than what he's told you (his social worker gave us a one-page summary of his early history when he moved in with us and that was it), and then receive such a thorough history only now. The information contained in these reports would have been extremely helpful at several junctures last year when we were having a tough time. As it is, we figured out what we needed to know. There were few surprises in the papers, but a lot of confirmation of what we found out just by loving T and gaining his trust and listening to him and observing his behavior.

Of course I'm not going to share what we learned. But I will say this. There were an awful lot of people "evaluating" him over the course of his childhood, and not enough people loving him. It makes me very angry to read those reports. They are written in pseudo-medical language, while it's clear that T was howling in pain. Reading them, one wants to reach backwards across time and just make it stop.

It feels to me that there is so much that was missed in all the discussion and diagnoses - so many positive qualities that must have been apparent even then, that are bypassed in favor of shining a spotlight on his imperfections. To diagnose a child going through what he was going through feels to me like approaching a weary soldier in the midst of a losing battle to ask him how he's feeling. How objective a sense of who that person really is can one get at a time like that? What might he be like when he's calm, and safe, and understood? We know the answer to that question now - in fact, we've just come off a month of intense togetherness during which T, because we're now homeschooling him, is mostly calm and connected. The child we know doesn't appear in the reports, because that child was never allowed to emerge.

You can't order someone to love a child and stick with him. But looking back over his turbulent life in foster care, it's plain to see what's missing. On his second weekend visit with us, I recall asking him how he thought adoption might be different than living with a foster parent. "When you get adopted, they love you like their own and work with you on your problems and stick with you no matter what," he said. And he was right. That was exactly what was missing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Like a Dream

On the way to dependency court today, T was walking in super slow motion with his head down. I figured he was anxious and conflicted. We had been warned that his social worker might file a petition to have him removed from our home, having concluded from afar (without visiting for the last six months) that his recent troubles rendered our home "unsafe". We were running late though, so I asked him gently to pick up the pace. He looked at me with clear eyes and said "I can't! I'm wearing new shoes. If I walk slowly, they won't get scuffed!" Then he asked Tim to pull the car up so that he wouldn't have to walk across the lawn and risk the morning dew dampening the suede.

I've learned from him the fine art of not thinking too much about things that you can't do anything about and that will probably turn out okay in the end--at least I can say I'm trying to learn that from him. I'm not good at it. I try to use my willpower to solve everything and protect myself and the family. Sometimes willpower runs up against insanity and chaos, and you just have to ride it out. I have a long ways to go.

He did look nice. A new cardigan, a plaid shirt that his bestfriend picked out for him, fresh jeans and suede and patent leather shoes. Sober, he's found refuge in fashion. I think he's discovered that when you have to show up and claim your fate, the right outfit helps. I'm also impressed that he's learned at such a young age that damp grass ruins suede shoes.

Court was a clusterfuck, pardon my language. We sat for four hours. The social worker did not go so far as to file a petition, but she did something weirder: she showed up in person. Through more than a decade as his social worker, she has never come to court. She lives and works more than 90 minutes away. I suppose the recent threat of sanctions roused her from her usual ineptitude. She walked right past us and into the courtroom without saying hello. Stood in front of us conferring with the DCFS attorney for a long time. Left, and never so much as exchanged eye contact with T. She looked like a ghost.

She filed a report with the court, full of errors and negative statements about T. She introduced difficulties that he had a year or more ago as if they happened yesterday. She entirely missed the fact that he had successfully worked through getting off drugs--in fact, his four-month sobriety mark was just yesterday. She implied that she would have him removed from our home, just three months shy of his 18th birthday (and the end of her jurisdiction), because he is "at risk".

At the same time all this was going down, T's OTHER social worker (the one who handles his adoption, who actually visits him at home and talks to him) filed a report stating that his adoptive placement with us is final, that they're very pleased with the placement, that they would be delivering the final paperwork to us this week, and that they are happy to report that the three of us have come through recent hard times and remained committed to the adoption and to each other.

It was very strange. I assume a lot of chat happened before we were all called into the courtroom, because even the attorney representing T seemed baffled. By the time we got there, it was quick. The judge said she was happy to see his adoption being finalized, and that she understood that T's desire had been to finalize the adoption all along. He confirmed that. She smiled broadly at him and at us.

Then she dropped a comic bombshell, and things took the oddest turn yet. She said that she happens to be married to the judge overseeing T's case in juvenile court. "My husband and I talk about you and he's very impressed with you as well," she said to T. His jaw fell open. He giggled with incredulity. "You guys didn't know that?" she asked. We shook our heads. "Yeah, he's the mean one!" Then she laughed and wished us well.

Often times, it feels like we're having a very weird dream. Like a really good dream that turns into a bizarre bureaucratic nightmare, and then suddenly turns incredibly sweet again, and so on and so forth, until you just hope you'll wake up during the happy part.

We went out for McDonald's, and then we all went home and got back to our real jobs.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


We are preparing for an upcoming hearing in dependency court, followed by a hearing in juvenile court, and it's messy and it has me in a certain frame of mind. Lately I think a lot about morality. In my Catholic grammar school, the nuns were always trying to impress upon us that none of us is innocent and not one of us is better than any other. They were a little extreme, but the basic idea stuck with me: who are you to lord it over another person?

One of the things that sickens me about the mess (juvenile court, dependency court, warring social workers, etc) into which we have descended this year is that over and over, certain adults in authority make decisions that suggest they are only willing to help T and give him the benefit of the doubt if he is "good." As if people (children) are ever "good" or "bad". Not surprisingly, T picks up very quickly on people's assumptions and expectations of him. So as soon as they withhold approval and start waving the carrot and the stick, he starts to make unsound decisions. He doesn't like to dance like a puppet on strings. Like other abused kids, he knows on a cellular level that adults with power might misuse that power. The more they make overt demands of him, the more he recedes and throw up a smokescreen of misleading behavior. Given what he's seen in his life, that's just a clever defense strategy. Likewise, he was taught over and over again that misbehavior results in abandonment. So the more he senses that he's being monitored and judged, the more anxious and unruly he becomes. The more he is safe and allowed reasonable autonomy, the more his innate capacity for good judgement reveals itself.

Like all of us, T is neither good nor bad. He is human. So here's my bottom line right now: he does not need to be well-behaved in order to deserve treatment, or compassion, or a home, or a fair shake in court. Whatever new adult has just arrived on the scene - a new judge, a new attorney, a new teacher - is not going to suddenly "figure him out". We don't need more opinions, supervision or interference. He does not need to have a spotless record of good grades and good behavior in order for the judge to treat him with due process. He does not need to be unfailingly compliant in order to avoid being bounced around by his social worker. He does not need to get along with every adult who happens into his life and has an opinion.

We have what we need: a great therapist who has stuck by him and with whom he has built a relationship over time; an adoption worker whom we all trust, and a few family friends who have done big favors when we've really needed help. Notably, the reason all of those supports work well for this family has to do with meaningful personal connections that were allowed to develop slowly and naturally. Lately, we have a new cast of characters introduced by this extraordinary nexus of bureaucracies - juvenile court, dependency court, DCFS - who are frankly pointing in all different directions, arguing with each other, and driving us mad.

The combination of institutional racism and prejudices about kids who are in foster care combine to create harsh consequences that are out of proportion to the behavior in question. As parents, it is demeaning to be forced to work with so many adults who do not really know T but who have a great deal of power in his life, starting with his caseworker and extending to the court system. The fact that some of them are blatantly racist and seem utterly paranoid in the presence of a tall African American teenager is just sickening.

We talk to T a lot about making smart choices, about not putting yourself in the way of trouble, and about accountability for your mistakes. We also talk about what it means when there is a system ready and perhaps eager to lock you up, and the extra burden of that, and what steps one can take to navigate that peril. But as T's attorney said to me recently, sometimes you just want to say "Back off, we've got this covered." Things like speaking out of turn in class, arguing with other kids, failing to do his homework, having poor taste in friends, being irritable and obnoxious - those are his own business. He'll work that out in time. I don't need a dozen grown-ups lording it over him, threatening and cajoling and over-sharing their pseudo-clinical opinions. This is why it doesn't work for a bureaucracy to raise a child.

Let's give him the opportunity to grow up (and mess up, and figure it out) without a million adults interfering all the time.
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