This sense of alienation started well before we were T's parents, as soon as we announced our intention to be foster/adoptive parents to an older child. Everyone had a story. One acquaintance felt compelled to tell me about her neighbors who adopted a child who later got arrested. My mom told me quite a few times about the woman at church who decided to fill a void in her life by foster parenting a teenage girl who eventually brought her to her knees with her habit of running away and dating much older men. A longtime client told me a long, rambling story about a friend-of-a-friend who grew up with a foster/adoptive brother who later left home and never talked to the family again. The stories all had a pernicious similarity; the enduring theme was "it didn't work out."
Somewhere deep in our culture, we want to hold fast to the belief that hurt children just need love and opportunity, and that, given enough of both, they will be magically happy and resolved, even grateful. When a traumatized young adult finds a stable home, but then continues to struggle, we say that "it didn't work out".
Such stories are warnings. Warnings about children who are too wild, damaged, angry or remote for parents to "make a difference." Such warning stories make it hard to be honest when things are rough. I have grown wise and cynical enough to know that in casual company, answering a question about T's whereabouts and well-being is more likely to lead to a polite expression of pity and regret than genuine friendly compassion. And so we simply sidestep the subject, in order to avoid the great implied "I told you so".
(Occasionally we encounter another type of response: overblown admiration, as in "it's so amazing what you've done for him." This response strikes me as the flip side of the same coin described above, because the implication is that we have somehow been radically charitable, rather than simply parental.)
I'd like to think that I am being paranoid and cynical, and leave it at that. However, the other foster/adoptive parents of older children that I know have all acknowledged a sense of isolation similar to what I'm describing here. I have thought long and hard for the last few years about these dynamics. I understand that the thought of thousands of children who cannot return to their parents and are caught up in a dehumanizing child welfare system is very uncomfortable. It disturbs one's sense of justice. Stories about well-intentioned foster parents for whom "it didn't work out" serve as a justification for remaining distant or disengaged from the problem.
I also think that we understandably resist accepting that some of the wounds of child abuse can be psychically disfiguring. There may be no ready "fix" for such pain. Depending on your own relationship to suffering, that can be hard to accept. I think as a culture, we often believe that therapy and a change of scene should be enough. As a result, we shy away from children like T who are like dazed war veterans.
I wonder if discomfort with mixed race families also plays a role. I have heard so many times, from colleagues and acquaintances, variations on the "I know someone who knows someone who adopted an African American child, and...." What follows is a variation on the "it didn't work" theme described above. The implication, sometimes explicitly stated, is that "it didn't work" because the child was of a different race than the parents. I find that to be a superficial and uninformed explanation, usually given by someone who knows little about the complexities of older child foster/adoption, is uncomfortable with biracial families, or both.
Here is what I have to say to all of this: it is unfair. It is unfair to the kids, who are not a problem to be "fixed". If our kids crawl out the window at night, struggle with impulse control, bury their feelings and memories in drugs and chaos, that is an expression of the overwhelming despair they are feeling. They can't just STOP because someone loves them, or because they live in a nice home, or because they have adoptive parents who look like them. Nevertheless, they are more than the sum of their behavior. Our job isn't to control them or stop the madness; it's just to be there and be clear-eyed and calm, and bear honest witness to their experience. And of course, to love them.
And I really wanted to write this, because I hope someone who is thinking about being a foster/adoptive parent of an older child will read this and realize that all the warning stories they are hearing and all the skepticism they encounter from friends and family just might be misplaced. You could easily read this blog and take my story as yet another warning story about a foster/adoption that "didn't work out". But I want to make sure it's recorded here that I don't feel that way - at all. If you can read my blog and understand why I feel otherwise, and why I would do it all over again, then I hope I'll be a helpful counterpoint to all the warning stories and perhaps you'll consider being a foster/adoptive parent yourself.