Removed Part Two

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Several months ago I wrote about an incredible film, Removed, that obviously resonated with you like it did me, because more than two hundred thousand of you viewed it from this page, and now the creators of Removed have launched a kickstarter campaign to craft Removed Part Two, and they need your help in creating what they believe will be an even better film than Removed.

I’m excited about this project, and have already made my donation. If just half of the two hundred thirty thousand people who viewed Removed from this blog gave a dollar, the film would already be fully funded and on its way to being made. Please visit their site, donate, and share so they can make another beautiful film. 

From the site:

The truth is, there are so many dimensions of this issue, and the underlying causes and situations are internationally relevant. Domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, abandonment, government custody, adoption, and identity issues that stem from these root cases — these transcend country borders and reach into all of our communities, impacting some of us more than others. Nonetheless it is something needing to be addressed and explored further, and we believe that exploring this further through art, and specifically through film, expands its impact and its reach.

Some of the current focuses within the foster care system are to decrease time spent in foster care, focus on permanency for the child, increase positive relationships between birth parents and foster parents, keep siblings together, and empower birth parents with the tools they need to improve their parenting.

After spending countless hours in research and talking to families from many different places (birth parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, foster alum, social workers, kinship adoptions, etc), we are eager to give the world another art experience that reveals important truths in a beautiful way.

Please view, donate & share! Thank you!

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What Adoption Classes Didn’t Teach Us About Raising Black Children

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Wow, I wish I’d written this.

What Adoption Classes Didn’t Teach Us About Raising Black Children.

Mars

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My oldest ran away this week. She’s run away multiple times (it’s her thing), but she’s never stayed away overnight before, which she did this time. She apparently landed at her friend’s house where I went to pick her up today and take her to the CALM center where she can stay until we (I, her therapist, her psychiatrist) get her a bed at a psychiatric unit that specializes in traumatized females. I’m a fairly tough individual, but days of wondering where your kid is, especially your kid who is ripe for re-victimization, just wears a person out. Our local police department had been to the house to take my report, then I’d filed paperwork the next day to generate an arrest warrant, and had another officer out the next day to advise me on what to do once I found out where she was. With a RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) kid, it’s not as simple as just going to pick her up. During this time I’d been holding down a fairly demanding job, and parenting my other two kids who were also freaked out that their sister had left.

So, I can’t tell you how pleased I was when I went to pick up my child to get a lecture from her friend’s dad about my parenting fails and his advice for overcoming them. According to him, because I’m single, I can’t possibly spend enough time with my children, and he was sure that none of them feel safe, secure or as though we have an actual home. I confirmed that statement a couple of times, because he was speaking on behalf of all three of my kids, two of whom he’s not actually been around for more than 30 seconds. In the same breath, he told me I should rent out a room in the house to a stranger, to improve our financial situation. And, finally, the best part, that I was clearly not attentive to my children’s spiritual life, because we don’t attend church, and that my children needed a “church family,” just like his daughter has.

So here’s the thing – unless you have raised a severely traumatized child for a minimum of six months, you have no idea in what world I and people like me live. It is a world as foreign to you as Mars. I don’t care if you’ve lived on the streets, made a million bucks, have three doctorates, are black, white or purple – your certainty of your understanding of our family and our issues, and supposed solutions, is absurd. You may have the best intentions in the world and fancy yourself a good Christian, but your unsolicited advice will ring false each and every time. And, you will do harm to a family who is already struggling.

The good news is that to be part of a much-needed support network for families like ours, you need to know a few things. Kids like mine are ridiculously good at manipulation, and they love control. And, I don’t blame them. Those are the tools that kept them alive through their early lives. However, they will say and do anything to appear victims and gain control of the situation. They have high levels of defiance. So, they will likely be very convincing when they charm the pants off of new teachers, therapists, friend’s parents, and neighbors. They’re like tiny politicians. And, after they’ve charmed the pants off these people they will carefully and skillfully convince them that their parent is a monster. They do this with husbands and wives often. Husband is charmed, kid only acts out when husband is not around, husband thinks wife is insane. RAD kids cause a large number of divorces. Hopefully, I don’t have to explain why this is disconcerting. I have friends whose RAD kids have convinced court advocates, psychiatrists, grandparents, teachers, etc. that their parent is an abusive monster to the point that human services is called and sometimes arrests are made. Thankfully, someone who has a clue usually intervenes, but not always.

The other thing that’s good to know is that, especially with single parents of RAD kids, we’re vigilant 24/7. There are no “down” days when you’re parenting traumatized kids. When you let your guard down, they go in for the kill. My daughter opted to run away days after we returned from a really lovely vacation to Chicago. She had a great time, appeared relaxed and comfortable, and then went into defiance mode on the trip back and didn’t speak for 12 hours. There is no rhyme or reason, so you have to be on guard all day, every day. Consequently, we’re a bit emotionally exhausted just about every day.

Finally, there is no magic pill or secret sauce for what ails a RAD kid. Not love, discipline, affection or religion.  I completely respect people for whom religion plays a vital part of their lives, and I’m not undermining those beliefs. I’m actually deeply spiritual, but I find God much more present in Chagall’s America Windows than I do in church. I find spirituality in the miracle that is my children and in how we found each other and became a family.

Keeping all this in mind, the very last thing a RAD parent needs to hear is that she’s failing her kids. My days, and the days of my fellow RAD parents are filled with doubt. Our parenting is basically an informed crap shoot, by necessity. For the record, we are just fine financially, and my kids are pretty awesomely secure. They’re also pretty self-sufficient, because I do not cater to their every whim. They see someone who takes time for her career and for herself, which is what I want to model for them. I think I kind of rock as a parent. I’ve had therapists ask to write theses on us, because my kids are doing so well considering their extreme histories. I know these things intellectually, but when you’re vulnerable, like I was today, it’s pretty tough to hear all the ways in which you’re supposedly failing your child.  I think sometimes people are certain about their answers, because it’s too scary and threatening to them not to be. To consider that the reality of the situation doesn’t have  a quick fix. But in this case, if you’ve not walked the walk, please do not attempt to talk the talk. In the worlds of my friend, Voltaire, doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

Don’t Mind The Man Behind The Curtain

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Though it’s taken me years to learn, I’ve finally figured out that one of the the most vital parts of my kids’ history and their issues is shame. When I really sit and analyze why they have the unhealthy behaviors they have, it always come back to the shame they feel from their early lives. in fact, the turning point for two of my kids was when fabulous therapists helped them progress to the point that they felt comfortable sharing with me something of which they were deeply ashamed and then realizing I wasn’t going to run away and leave them. It turns out that no matter how many times I told them I loved them, no matter how many violent tantrums and running aways I endured, and no matter how many birthdays and Christmases we shared, they were convinced that if I knew the “real” them, I would abandon them on the spot. Six years into this journey, it’s pretty clear to me that little tidbit was the missing puzzle piece that made so much more make sense, and it changed completely how I parent.

So this morning, when I awakened to what is a new and improved social media policy from my state’s department of human services, I was excited. You may wonder what in the world social media has to do with shame, but they actually have quite a lot to do with each other, because one of the most well-intentioned but harmful policies I encountered when I was fostering was my state’s privacy rules for foster kids. To be clear, I suspect my state is like a lot of other states, and I’m guessing most of their policy has to do with federal mandates, so this isn’t a witch hunt. I hope it’s a bit of perspective building and impetus to change the whole system, because when I looked at the new and improved policy, it wasn’t as new and improved as I’d hoped.

In short, the privacy rules for foster parents involve not identifying your foster kids as “foster kids.” The new policy does allow you, finally, to post photos of them online (such as on Facebook), but you still can’t “out” them as foster kids. The intention is to protect the privacy of the kids and of their biological families, which I completely get and respect. However, in reality, this is the foster parent equivalent of Spanx. They seem like a good idea until you’re actually wearing them, and then you feel so ridiculously constricted as to be incapable of functioning in polite society. Here’s how the privacy rule played out for us in reality.

Imagine 30-something, never-married, no biological kids, Caucasian, “know half of Oklahoma City” Shelley and three African-American children are strolling through Target. The three-year-old is in the basket, and the six- and nine-year-old follow behind, chatting and throwing items into the cart. They run into friends Shelley has known five years or so:

Friends: “Hey! Good to see you. What’s up?”

Shelley: “Hey! We, I mean, I, am just shopping for a few things. How are you?”

Friends: “Good. Who are the kids?”

Shelley: “Kids? What kids? Oh, you mean the one here in my cart and the two girls who appear to be hovering near me? They’re, uh, friends of the family.”

Friends: “Friends of the family? Really? Your family? Because you’re single with no children? How are they friends of the family? What are they doing with you?”

Shelley: “Well, yes I am single with no children, and these children’s potential tie to my extended family appears to be ridiculously tenuous at best, but yes, they are friends of the family. I’m just caring for them for an undisclosed amount of time.”

Friends: “Really? Where is their family? How did they decide you would take care of them? Was there no one in their family better suited to care for three children? Because you don’t know how to raise children, having none of your own. The whole things seems a bit odd. Are you sure you didn’t kidnap them? Or, maybe you’ve just lost your mind, and we should have an intervention? Are you on drugs? We’ve not ever known you to be evasive or dishonest. Are you a spy? Are you undercover and these children are somehow involved in a national security concern?”

So, no, that didn’t actually happen. But the reason it didn’t happen is because I broke the rules. I always introduced my kids (no last names) to friends and family and was very proud that they were in my home. I wanted them to be proud that they were part of a system that was meant to care for them until their biological parents could care for them once more or until adoptive parents came along. I was proud to be a foster parent.

Sadly, what the privacy rule really does is a few really negative things:

  • Helps kids to feel more shame. What’s intended to protect them actually makes them feel that they’re part of a system of which no one is supposed to admit being a part. They also suspect that their biological parents must be terrible people if they did something that got the kids into a system about which no one is allowed to talk. And, what they feel about their biological parents translates to how they feel about themselves.
  • Helps kids to learn that lying is justified. When I told my kids what I was writing about today, each one of them said individually, “But that’s a big lie, and it would make me feel weird.”
  • Adds to the already plentiful pile of shameful secrets these kids have been asked to keep.

So, while I applaud the improvements in the privacy rules for foster care, I think we have a long way to go. By sharing my kids and their story (always in a way that did not endanger them or disclose who their biological parents were) with friends and family, I helped raise awareness for the needs of foster kids and the issues that contribute to kids going into the foster care system. I also gained a much-needed village of support that has come in remarkably handy over the last few years, because every foster parent needs a village. My kids felt welcomed and loved by a much larger group than just me, and they knew that they were part of something that was intended to care for and “foster” them onto the next stage – not something they should be ashamed of. They didn’t feel like second class citizens or less than.

Moving forward my hope is that we can move away from the “don’t mind the man behind the curtain” philosophy of foster care and just acknowledge that sometimes parents aren’t able to parent. Rather than demonizing those parents, we should acknowledge that they need supports. The whole process should be more transparent, far less medieval, more supportive, and more positive for everyone involved. I think we’re definitely moving in that direction, but not as fast as I, other parents, and I suspect a lot of professionals in the system might hope. Until we do, we’re part of the problem, not the solution, for a growing number of foster children in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview on NPR’s “Tell Me More”

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Thanks to NPR’s “Tell Me More” program for doing a story on the complicated nature of Mother’s Day for foster moms and kids. Cris Beam, author of To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care was interviewed as was Jeanne Pritzker, the fabulous founder of an annual Foster Mother’s Day celebration. You can hear my very brief two cents as well and see and read about the kids in the web highlights here. Again, thanks to Tell Me More for shedding light on a world of which most people are not aware.

Public Service Announcement

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My friend, and adoptive parent in crime, Michelle Kelley sent this to me tonight. I have literally been asked ALL of these questions. I have watched this video six times, because it’s ridiculously on target. And, I’ve been known to respond to people who ask “are those your real kids? with “Are those your real breasts?” so this is especially fabulous to watch. Bravo, Rain City Church, the creators of the video.

Click here to view the video.

 

Tightrope

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Today, I had every foster/adoptive parent’s nightmare – getting a visit from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, because I had been accused of child abuse. Someone called the child abuse hotline to say that there was a child in my home in handcuffs and shackles. What they didn’t explain to the child abuse hotline was that child was being escorted by two Tulsa Police officers to one of three waiting police cruisers. She was being escorted to a local psychiatric facility, because she was out of control. I’m not sure how the caller missed the two police officers on either side of my daughter, or the cruisers with their flashing lights, but he or she certainly didn’t provide that very valuable context to OKDHS. So, when the ladies arrived, I explained what had happened – that I’d just arrived home with my daughter. They are required by law to fully investigate complaints (for which I’m very thankful), so they proceeded with their questions. I explained my kids’ history, gave vital statistics, and showed them that my kids all had beds and that there was food in the refrigerator and pantry. Then, they interviewed my kids, which they’re required to do. I had already invited all three kids into the front room to laughingly explain what had happened, in hopes that it would transparently lighten the mood for them.  Because what was truly terrifying me about the visit was not what would happen to me, but what it would do to my children on a day when they’d already been seriously traumatized. My kids were removed from their biological parent’s home a day or two after Christmas about seven years ago. They were eventually split up into different homes, spent time in shelters, and sometimes with abusive foster children and with abusive foster parents. So, the very last thing my kids needed was the threat of being removed from me and my home. The very last thing.

The ladies were incredibly compassionate and gentle in their questions. They reassured the kids they could see the kids were well cared for, and the interviews were something they just had to do. So, all three of the kids answered very basic questions about whether they were attending school, if they had enough food, and other mundane things that I’ve honestly forgotten. I offered them coffee, apologized for my messy house, and then they were gone.

We’ve obviously had a tough day today. I’ve written several times about my middle daughter’s issues, and today’s were no different. Violent fit; police called; handcuffs and shackles; waiting for the third cruiser with the cage to arrive so she doesn’t kick out the glass in the cruiser; as soon as I’m out of her sight she calms down; arrive at hospital. What was especially frustrating about today was that there were no beds in our entire county for my daughter. I had already called the three hospitals who provide psychiatric care for juveniles, and none of them had beds. I called COPES and learned that they’re not mobile on the weekends. Eventually, I was told what psychiatric hospital was doing the “rotation,” this weekend, which means they are responsible for figuring out what to do with my daughter, whether they have a bed available or not, and we went there. While there, my daughter calmed, and she and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting, where I explained she can’t ignore her coping skills and throw fits once a week, or she’s going back to the psychiatric facility. She’s twelve and African-American. I’m terrified that if I don’t help her manage her anger now, one day she’ll have a violent rage at school or on the job, and someone who doesn’t understand what’s happening will shoot her dead. I’m hoping that our talk today is enough to help her make good choices, because I wasn’t sending her to another county an hour and forty-five minutes away, which likely would have been my only option. I didn’t complete papers to have her evaluated, because once I did, she would have been in the system, and I wouldn’t have had any control over where she went. It may have been a very poor decision, or a very good one – my parenting life is a constant tightrope. Our life is a circus without a safety net.

The tightrope that I and every other foster/adoptive parent walk is maddening, and one of the reasons I write this blog. I have friends who have been told by psychiatrists that their adoptive children cannot come home from inpatient psychiatric care, because they will be a threat to the other children in the home. But if adoptive parents relinquish rights to their adoptive kids, even in dire circumstances like those I just described, they will owe a substantial amount of child support to the State of Oklahoma until the child turns 18. What kind of option is that for a family? Last year when my oldest daughter was living in our garage (yes, our garage), I was threatened by an intake worker at a psychiatric hospital with a call to OKDHS. That was while I was trying to get help for my daughter who had just created a blaze at our house that required a couple of fire trucks to extinguish. Parents of “normal” children are likely cringing as they read this but when your kid is communicating online with strange men about all the sex acts she’s going to perform on them, and she won’t give up the stolen cell phone she’s using to stay online, then guess what – the garage is a nice alternative to being kidnapped into sexual slavery. It’s warm, dry and safe. It’s just not terribly comfortable, and it’s a pretty serious clue that your mom is going to stubbornly keep you safe from yourself and your incredibly self-defeating behavior. And, it worked ultimately. These are the kinds of creative parenting techniques that parents like me have to come up with every day, and if your world is not quite as gray or complex as mine, then that might look like abuse. Unfortunately, once someone like me has made the decision to adopt, there are very few resources, and lots of living between a rock and a hard place. Our state has a massive effort currently to recruit more foster parents for the 11,000 that are currently in care, but there are no additional resources for those parents. You’re just on your own. And, I’m ridiculously stubborn and resourceful. Consider all the foster/adoptive parents who are not.

After the kind ladies from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services left, the kids and I went to one of our favorite little breakfast places, because we were all worn out and starving. My kids ordered for themselves, then me. Then the very sweet waitress stopped writing, looked right at me, and said, “You have the most polite kids. I could wait on them all day long.” I thanked her and let her know, without sharing details, that we’d had a really tough day and that her words meant more than she knew. And then, the world’s most bad ass children and I proceeded to make our very own very good day.

To Look After Orphans

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Several years ago I began hearing this over and over again – “I can’t believe you don’t know Michelle Kelley!” I heard it so many times, I finally said, “Would someone please introduce me to this Michelle Kelley person?” So, we met via Facebook, and we’ve been soul sisters ever since. At the time we both lived in Oklahoma City. (I’m in Tulsa, now.) We were both foster/adoptive moms. (She adopted two biological siblings, I have three.) We were both unmarried when we adopted. (She is still. I am again.) We’re both determined, professional women who are well-respected in the business community. We’re both outspoken when necessary. However, when it comes to politics and religion (the biggies!) we’re opposites sides of the same foster/adoptive parent coin. While I am a Buddhist-leaning Unitarian, Michelle is a Christian (as is most of the population of our home state of Oklahoma, by the way). And, while I’m a Democrat, Michelle is a Republican. In spite of this, we agree on an amazing array of ideas and goals, and when we disagree we do so respectfully. This arrangement makes as un excellent tag team on legislative issues regarding foster/adoption, and we’ve actually visited our state Capitol together for this reason.

This morning I awoke to a powerful Facebook post from Michelle that I’ve reposted here. If it resonates with you, and if you think Michelle is as fabulous as I believe her to be, please let her know in the comments below. It takes a village to do what she and I (and lots of other parents from lots of other political/religious/ethnic/sexual orientations do.) We need your support.

To those who call themselves Christian in my FB feed: I rarely get very preachy in my FB posts, but I can’t seem to help this. Tons of you have been sending me the short film “Removed,” because you are touched by the contents of the foster child’s perspective. The film, although an accurate reflection, does not hold a candle to holding your child while she describes being tied to a toilet or punched in the stomach. What I am most concerned about though, is not the film, but the lack of understanding by my sisters and brothers in Christ, of our responsibility, our calling to those who cannot help themselves.

In the last four years, our family has been met with disdain, my kids told to their face that they were not going to have a good life because they weren’t going to have a Dad. I was told that I was doing my children a disservice, because I couldn’t provide a father, nor could I be a stay-at-home mom. I’ve been called a narcissist, because I refused to allow unhealthy emotional behaviors shatter the peace that we have created in our family. All in the name of Christ.

Thankfully, Jesus reveals himself to me and my kids. We are incredibly grateful for the scores and scores of Christians and non-Christians who support us. Every foster child needs scores and scores of people to play different roles to help them be who God intended them to be – not just foster parents, but therapists, counselors, teachers, daycare workers, doctors, lobbyists, social workers, legislators VOTERS, etc. There is NO excuse not to be involved in some way. If you’re waiting to be called, then check your bible. James 1:27 reads “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I’m not a theologian, but it seems pretty straightforward to me.

My point is, as a whole, we are getting it wrong. If you are confused on what should outrage you and get your back up about your spiritual beliefs, this “A Handy Guide to Christian Outrage” article is a good start.

Sermon over.

Dear Moms of Adopted Children | Kathy Lynn Harris

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This is almost a year old, but I’m just now seeing it, and I had to share. It is perfect. It describes me and so many of my friends so well that it brought me to tears.

 

Dear Moms of Adopted Children | Kathy Lynn HarrisKathy Lynn Harris.

New Facebook page

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So many of you have kindly followed this blog and reached out to me on Facebook, that I created a new Facebook page just for those who are interested in becoming foster/adoptive parents or are interested in advocating for foster/adoption and mental health care.  I’ll share shorter and more frequent posts there about our daily lives and about advocacy efforts. Please click here to go to the new Facebook page and tell me what you’d like me to post about. Thank you!

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