Advocacy

Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded this morning that one year ago I was court-ordered to stop talking about my oldest daughter completely, much less her situation and needs, or risk numerous consequences including jail time and losing my parental rights (i.e. I would no longer be a parent to my children). So, today seems like a good day to get started on some advocacy efforts.

 

Christmas Card 2015At that time, I was also instructed by the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) to shut down this blog completely. (Not just the kid parts – the whole thing.) I was also instructed by the ADA to remove posts and photos from Facebook, including, and especially, our family portrait which appears here.

After that my kiddo was in upwards of 10 failed placements in less than 10 months with more than 60 days of juvenile detention thrown in and seven weeks on her own in Oklahoma City, because she ran away, and they couldn’t locate her. Because they couldn’t keep her placed anywhere, they couldn’t provide the court-ordered services that she required, like GED classes, therapy, transitional living, services, etc., and I was generally only allowed to see her in court. I also had a court-ordered parenting plan that included paying the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) child support of $640/month, attending parenting classes, opening up my therapist’s notes to OKDHS and the court, and allowing OKDHS to search my home at any time without notice. That was after OKDHS’s investigation literally found no fault on my part.

When my oldest daughter turned 18 last February, the legal case against me went away formally, but I’ve been advised by more than one attorney not to “advocate” about these issues until my other two kids turn 18, lest OKDHS remove them from my home out of vengeance. If you think this sounds crazy, welcome to my world and the world of many adoptive parents who step up, do the right thing, and end up being crucified by OKDHS, the DA’s office, and the Tulsa County Court, in an environment where we are literally allowed to say/write nothing about what is happening to our families.

I think my best bet against having my kids taken into OKDHS custody over the next six years is to be loud, because then if they’re taken away from me, you’ll all know why and be more likely to advocate on our behalf.

  • If you know parents who have been through similar experiences, please ask them to email me at shelley.cadamy@gmail.com.
  • If you know people who adopted from a government entity, and their kids have undisclosed mental health issues/behaviors that are unmanageable, ask them to email me at shelley.cadamy@gmail.com.
  • If you know people who were forced to “abandon” their adoptive children so that their kids could get help that is only available to kids in foster care, please ask them to email me at shelley.cadamy@gmail.com.
  • If you’re an attorney who would like to share, confidentially, your experiences and/or ideas for system reform, email me at shelley.cadamy@gmail.com.
  • If you’re an advocate and have a plan for reform, including legislation, please email me at shelley.cadamy@gmail.com.

I appreciate my friends who were part of the “if Shelley goes to jail today” plan, wherein friends would 1. pick up my two younger kids and take them to an undisclosed location, and 2. call the media and organize a march on the Tulsa County jail.

This is just the beginning – there is much more to the story above. If you have questions, please post them in the comments below. Big love, people.

Advertisements
Advocacy

White Women

I’m part of a great group of women who are mothers to black boys. Some of those women are, like me, white. During a candid discussion (the best kind) about ways in which we would keep our kids safe, one of the black moms wrote that she warns her black sons about being careful around white women. One of the white moms was offended, and quite a discussion ensued.
 
So, here’s the deal – I will have the very same discussion with my son. Is that incredibly awkward and heartbreaking? Yes, it is. For not the first time, I will warn my black son about the harm that may come to him via people who look just like me. For those of you who are as offended or as hurt as the white woman in my group, I understand your shock and offense, and I hope you’ll keep reading.
 
Historically, interactions (real or perceived) between young black men and white women have ended tragically for the young black men and their families and friends. The Atlantic wrote a piece this month, How The Blood of Emmett Till Still Stains America Today, for example, about the recently released The Blood of Emmett Till
“…it wasn’t too long ago in American history that millions of Americans were trampled under the heel of a repressive, anti-democratic kleptocracy and faced economic reprisals, violence, or death for any dissent. And nowhere was the iron grip of that system—known as Jim Crow to some of us—stronger than in Mississippi. That grip manifested itself most notoriously in the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, in 1955. That year, Till was tortured and lynched by white men after allegedly making lewd comments toward a white woman. His mutilated corpse became one of the first mass-media images of the violence of Jim Crow, and the trial of his killers became a pageant illuminating the tyranny of white supremacy. And through protests across the country, Till’s broken body became a powerful symbol of the civil-rights movement.”
In my own back yard I can read about how a 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, and a young white woman, Sarah Page, riding in an elevator together provided the tipping point for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. The Riot, which was actually a massacre, resulted in the destruction of 35 city blocks, including  Black Wall Street, injuries to over 800 people, and nearly 300 deaths.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “but that was a long time ago. Those things don’t happen anymore,” unfortunately they do. Another example from my own community is that of white police officer, Shannon Kepler, who killed his daughter’s bi-racial nineteen-year-old boyfriend, Jeremy Lake. Mr. Kepler searched for Jeremy’s family’s address, drove to the address with his loaded firearm, shot Jeremy to death, shot at two other people including his own daughter, fled the scene, and later turned himself in. His two trials have resulted in mistrials. A juror from his last trial posted on facebook that two of his fellow jurors were so biased against black people that they wouldn’t even discuss the case with their fellow jurors, much less consider that Kepler could be guilty. Thankfully, the Tulsa County District Attorney is preparing a third trial. I’m hopeful the prosecution can find 12 people without racial bias, but I’m also realistic.
I am so thankful that the black moms in my group shared openly and honestly about their fears regarding people who look just like me. Honestly, before I adopted three black children, I had no clue what the world of black people was like, something I wrote about here. Black people have had “talks” with their black kids about how to behave around white people for hundreds of years, if not longer. I look at my beautiful, black son, and I am terrified, because at 11-years-old, he keeps being mistaken for 14-years-old. I’m terrified that he will be confronted with these issues much sooner than his child’s brain can prepare him for. I’m also resentful that I have to break his heart repeatedly by explaining that people who like me, me his protector and nurturer, are potentially a threat against which he has to protect himself. If beautiful, black children are ever going to be safe, white people have to
  1. Confront our biases (I am not calling you racist. I’m biased, too. Breathe). Here’s a great way to understand your own bias.
  2. Listen to what black people have to say about their own experiences (they’re really not making this stuff up – promise).
  3. Leave our defensiveness at the door (Again, I’m not calling you racist. See above.)
  4. Be uncomfortable for a good, long while.

That’s a good start.

White Women

This time last year I learned that friends of a friend, the Márquez-Greenes, had lost their beautiful daughter at Newtown. This morning, I read their incredible story of compassion and grace in creating the Ana Grace Project whose mission is promoting love, connection, and community for every child and family. They recently hosted a seminar “aimed at building community, connections and compassion” which are the qualities that are “the antidote to the kind of isolation that always seems to be the story of deranged mass shooters.”

I am drawn to their story, because I believe Ms. Márquez-Greene’s approach of compassion and connection is so much more powerful than any arguments I’ve heard about gun control, anti-bullying, or any other misguided attempts at stemming the increasing tide of disconnection and violence in this country. I’m guessing lumping anti-gun, anti-bullying attempts together as misguided will draw the ire of many, but you read that correctly. As a mother of kids who have both bullied and been bullied, I can say that kids bully for a reason. They bully because they’ve been bullied by adults, because they’ve been damaged through abuse or trauma, they don’t have appropriate boundaries at home, because they’re mentally ill, or all of the above. The anti-bullying efforts in our community appear to make things worse by labeling those kids as “bad,” punishing them, and further marginalizing them, at a time when their actions demonstrate that they need our help, not punishment. What is the end result of these strategies? Should we create a island where we put all the bullies, like the Island of Misfit Toys, where they can all be bullies together and not sully our non-bully kids? It doesn’t work that way. The world is not that black and white.

Last year, one of the ways that my kids’ grade school counselor attempted to deal with a bullying situation was to guide the bullied 4th grade child to attempt to friend his bully. That’s the strategy we take in our house, and it’s been successful a majority of times. Unfortunately, the counselor’s guidance resulted in a rambling midnight e-mail from the boys’ mother to all of the 4th grade parents explaining how ludicrous this advice was, advising us that the school wasn’t taking the bullying seriously, that she was removing her child from the district, and that she was sure the bully was working up to a rampage.

Last year my oldest daughter was the subject of extraordinary bullying that I won’t even describe here, because it was so awful. She reached out for help to school administration, who did nothing. (They didn’t get it, they were overwhelmed, they’re not trauma-informed, they dropped the ball, etc.).  She and her two best friends took things into their own hands and came up with a fairly effective vengeance campaign, which I then got a phone call about, because my daughter was then accused of bullying. No one connected the dots. My daughter hadn’t been forthcoming with me, which is part of her Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis (she’s absurdly self-reliant, and had already been ignored by one adult). She was getting consequences at home and at school, the pressure was too much, and she ended up setting our house on fire and being committed to inpatient care that same day. It was only through intensive family therapy that I connected the dots and understood what had happened. So, how successful was that? Wouldn’t we all have been better off if someone asked the question “Why is this kid who was getting As and fabulous reviews from her teachers 2 months ago now spinning out of control?” Wouldn’t it have been even better if someone had asked why my daughter’s bully was bullying in the first place? The kid’s dad was in Afghanistan, and she was dealing with other issues at home, but that question was never asked.

 

 

Mr. Lanza used in the Newtown tragedy were legally purchased. I can’t imagine what reasonable restrictions might have been put into place to prevent his mother buying them. I realize the urge to quickly label the Newtown massacre as a gun issue is appealing, but Newtown wasn’t about guns – it was about mental illness and this country’s failure to care for its mentally ill.

Aside

Courage

I was not going to write this. I was going to follow the rules and play it safe (or what counts for playing it safe in my world) and only go public if nothing else worked. And, then I went to church.

And in church, our visiting minister, Right Reverend Doctor John L. Selders, Jr., gave an incredible sermon on courage. Not blustery bravado, but courage. And, in that sermon he paraphrased Dr. Cornell West, and encouraged us to look in the mirror and ask “when did I become so well-adjusted to injustice?” And, I held my breath. And, then he spoke on about being courageous enough to speak up when you’re not surrounded by your people, like when you have to fight for your baby at school, and you know s/he is one of many babies who need fighting for. And, that’s when I audibly gasped, and decided I have to write about this. Because, compared to so many other families I have tremendous privilege and resources, and I can stick my neck out when others can’t. And if not now, when?

Yesterday, a Friday, I was ironically sitting in a meeting with my local school district, the one which my kids attend and one of the districts I partner with in my work, when I got a text from my 7th grader that she’d gotten in-house detention again. She explained the situation via text  – a boy who constantly annoys her was doing it again, she asked him to stop, he kept on, and she screamed. She got sent to the Assistant Principal’s office, a place and a person with whom she is very familiar, because this happens multiple times per week. Sadly, the only time it happens is when she’s in her Special Education class, the class where she’s supposed to receive extra supports to help her learn. But the teacher doesn’t manage her class well, the kids run all over her, and her class is chaotic and loud, which is not a good envirnment for any kid, least of all as special needs kid.

My daughter has both diagnosed Reactive Attachement Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She’s medicated for the ADHD and has it fairly well under control, but the first one is a killer and results in her mistrusting most adults. She’s also a very good con artist and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In short, she can smell blood at 100 feet. So a teacher who she doesn’t respect is done for pretty quickly. This is the situation with the Special Education teacher she’s had for nearly two years. From her descriptions of the classroom, I would say she’s not the only one who runs all over this teacher. Since kids learn from people with whom they have a relationship, this makes learning difficult. To the school’s benefit, when I adamantly requested that my daughter be removed from this woman’s class, they mainstreamed my daughter in all but Math and Science, for which I was very grateful. I still see no improvement in those topics, though, and I’m unhappy with the lack of any real approaches to helping her in those subjects, and I’m of course unhappy with her being sent to the Assistant Principals’ office on a nearly daily basis. And, yes, I signed the IEP and said I was OK with it, because my requests for different interventions were met with blank looks. But, I thought if my daughter could tough it out for the rest of 7th grade, I’d make sure she didn’t have this Special Education teacher in 8th grade. I thought I could get her a tutor over the summer, get her up to speed, and that would be a good solution without increasing the drama in our family.

And, then when I got home the letter that had been sent home was not about in-school suspension for my daughter, as we both thought, but an actual suspension from school. A three day suspension from school. I honestly didn’t believe my daughter when she said it was for screaming at the boy who wouldn’t stop talking. I thought surely she had punched someone, or been caught with girls who were smoking pot in the bathroom, or some other action that would require such a punitive response. I grilled her, and her story didn’t change. When I looked closer at the letter, I noticed the reason given – “214 Disruptive Conduct; a Tier 2 offense.” I searched the school district’s website for a definition, still thinking my daughter wasn’t being truthful, expecting to find some explanation that made sense. Here’s the definition – “214 — Disruptive Conduct: Inappropriate behavior, including horseplay, offensive language and arguing, that substantially disrupts, hinders, or interferes with school activities” which was right in line with my daughter’s explanation of her actions. And, listed in the same document are the possible disciplinary response, which follow:

“A. Parent/guardian conference

B. Administrative conference

C. In school disciplinary action (loss of privileges)

D. Behavior Support/Modifications Plan with interventions /consequences

E. Detention (teacher or site based)

F. Community Service or Saturday School

G. TRAICE Satellite

H. Student Conduct Contract

Responses above must have been applied in previous infractions first or in rare occasions as the incident warrants.

M. Short term out of school suspension

N. Referral to TRAICE Academy

O. Long term school suspension”

Of the A through H options that should be applied first, we’ve had conferences, which are of course required with an IEP, which my daughter has. We had one within the last 30 days, with no discussion of suspension as a possible option. The school has never written consequences into the behavior support/modification plan, nor have they modified the plan when Trinity fails. For a kid with an IEP, this appears to be a fairly obvious response, especially before a kid is kicked out of school. She’s had in-house detention but not in the last two months. She also doesn’t have a Student Conduct Contract. Also, ironically, on the same day my daughter was suspended I received a letter from the district  (below) encouraging me to bring my kid to school (my daughter has missed zero days of school in 1 1/2 years at this school) and that “missing just a few days a month can add up to a lot of lost learning time.”

In short, I’m shocked that the school didn’t follow their own district’s policies and went for the nuclear option, especially with a kid who has an IEP and is clearly not getting the supports she needs in the one class where she’s supposed to be getting them and when I’m receiving condescending letters about how important attendance is.

 

Trinity Attendance Letter

 

Here’s the thing, though – I shouldn’t be shocked. My daughter shouldn’t have been in Special Education to begin with. She was failing 6th grade, because she wasn’t doing her work and talking too much, and so I had a conference with the administration and her teachers. The educators at that meeting suggested a “smaller classroom environment” where my daughter would get “more specialized attention,” which sounded pretty good to me. I was clearly naive – please learn from my mistakes. The phrase “Special Education” was never mentioned during that meeting. I only learned my daughter was in a Special Education class when she broke down at the end of 6th grade, because kids were making fun of her. Let me be clear – I have no issue with Special Education classes when warranted, but my kid doesn’t have any issues with learning. She has issues with closing her mouth and doing her work, like a lot of other 6th and 7th grade students do. She should never have been put into a Special Education class. And, since the beginning of 7th grade, I’ve been doing what I can to get her out, because it’s negatively impacting her emotional health. There are only so many times you can be sent to the Assistant Principal’s office before you become hopeless and give up on the relationships and trust you have built with adults. Unfortunately, my experience represents a nationwide trend that is being addressed by the Obama Administration, one where minority students are more often singled out for Special Education and receive harsher discipline than their white counterparts.

The District itself has gone public with its need to revamp its discipline system, and the new Superintendent has moved quickly in doing so. At the last school board meeting, two proposed contracts were discussed that would address the district’s discipline issues – specifically its high rate of suspensions especially for minority children and it’s special education programs. One of the consultants would “help train teachers and others on how to incorporate restorative practices, or de-escalating situations on the front end, to reduce the number of suspensions.” This is a practice that’s been used very successfully in many urban districts and one that will hopefully be implemented in our district in a quality way, but also as quickly as possible. You can read about Restorative Justice on the Resources page of this blog. In laymen’s terms, Restorative Justice is a way to figure out what’s keeping a kid from succeeding, and re-engage the student so he’s successful in school, rather than kicking him out. There’s a ton of research that demonstrates kicking kids out of school doesn’t help with bad behavior – it only helps the kid to disengage from school further, trust less, and to ultimately be much more likely to not graduate and to become involved in the justice system, thereby feeding our country’s tremendous school-to-prison pipeline. I can’t overstate what a huge issue this is.

I am a huge advocate for public education, especially urban districts, which are the only districts my kids have ever attended. In Oklahoma, where I live, we have worked hard to defund the public school system, and districts are struggling with massive cuts. Educators in my state are so mistreated that many of them are leaving the profession, not because of the dismal pay, but because of the environment we’ve created in which they work. So, let me be clear when I say I am not criticizing education overall, or educators overall, but a very broken system where a kid like mine, a minority 14-year-old with needs I’ve very clearly articulated via multiple meetings with faculty and staff, can be booted out of school for yelling. Yelling in a classroom where the teacher clearly needs professional development, which she’s obviously not getting.

I question who that’s helping, exactly?

Does it help her to modify her behavior? No.

Does it help her teachers, all but one are doing their best to help her learn? No.

Does it help her succeed in any way? No.

I don’t see the point unless the point is to make her feel tremendous shame, lose what trust she has in the Assistant Principal, and to fall further behind academically, which is certainly happening. And, what about all the other kids who are being suspended for disruptive behavior when they ask questions in class, or when they defend themselves against a bully, or when they’re just having a shitty day, because they don’t have enough to eat or their parents are fighting, or they don’t have parents? Where are their people? Who supports them? Where is the empathy, understanding, and patience they need to build relationships and learn? They’re just crushed by a system that doesn’t even see them or recognize their pain. When did we start treating kids like grown ups or like widgets? And, when did schools become prisons? While I commend the district for recognizing it’s weaknesses and attempting to repair them, I wonder if maybe a courageous first step might be to stop kicking black 5, 7, 10, 14 and 17-year-olds out of school? Can we do that please? If not, then perhaps we can just give them orange jumpsuits on their way out the door.

 

UPDATE: MARCH 2, 2016

Today I presented to the Site Suspension Review Committee at my daughter’s school, and they upheld the suspension. When I wrote this blog post a few days ago, I did so in an effort to build awareness around how broken our special education and discipline systems are in so many schools, and I’m going to continue that effort in this update. I had hoped to continue being somewhat vague about the district in question, because I really don’t want to draw special attention to our district – these issues are happening everywhere. There’s no way I can discuss what happened today without revealing the school district my children attend, and the organizations involved, however. Please remember – these issues are happening everywhere, not just in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Below is the text of the document I presented during the hearing today. It clearly demonstrates the school did not follow its own policies and is likely in violation of state and federal law as well. There are a few places where I was incorrect, because I don’t understand all the lingo involved, or I wasn’t sure what interventions had actually been used. I’ve noted where those inaccuracies are and provided revisions.

Presentation to the Thoreau Demonstration Academy Site Suspension Review Committee

This appeal is based on the 3-day Suspension’s lack of compliance with the Behavior Response Plan, per Oklahoma State law. I’m requesting that Trinity’s suspension be deferred in lieu of In-School Intervention (ISI) time served. Additionally, Thoreau administrators have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by implementing disciplinary removal of Trinity for more than 10 cumulative days during the 2015 – 2016 school year for behaviors that are a manifestation of Trinity’s Reactive Attachment Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, since Trinity has been sent to the Assistant Principal’s office by her Special Education Teacher, on a nearly daily basis, and has served many days of in-house suspension as well. Please see the attached “An Open Letter to Educators Who Work With Students Who Have Been Diagnosed With Reactive Attachment Disorder Or Who Have Suffered Early Trauma” By Carey McGinn Ed.D, CCC/SLP for symptoms and recommended therapeutic accommodations. I assume this Committee is familiar with the symptoms of ADHD so thus have not included them here.

Trinity’s three-day suspension is not in compliance with the Behavior Response Plan, because she has no Behavior Response plan. [Edit: I confused two plans that have the word “Behavior” in them, so technically this is incorrect, but the gist is still the same for all the reasons below. The Behavior Response Plan is another name for the Student and Family Guide to Success.] Additionally, of the responses that “must have been applied in previous infractions first or in rare occasions as the incident warrants” according to Tulsa Public School’s own policies, many responses have not been applied or have been applied so long ago to call into question whether they have been used progressively, leading up to suspension, as required by TPS policy. Specifics follow:

  1. Parent/guardian conference – two have been held during this academic year.
  2. Administrative conference – I assume these have been held, but I cannot confirm.
  3. In school disciplinary action (loss of privileges) – I am unaware of when this has been applied.
  4. Behavior Support/Modifications Plan with Interventions/consequences – This does not exist.
  5. Detention (teacher or site based) – This has not occurred this semester to my knowledge and may not have occurred this academic year.
  6. Community Service or Saturday School – This has not occurred.
  7. TRAICE Satellite – This has not occurred this semester or potentially all academic year. [Edit: Today I confirmed the last time my daughter was in TRAICE was last September, five months ago.]
  8. Student Conduct Contract – This does not exist.

In addition to the many options listed on page 18 of the “Student and Family Guide to Success” that are Intervention Options and Student Supports, many have not been implemented with Trinity to my knowledge, including a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) nor a Functional Behavior Plan (FBA). Additionally she has not been assigned a mentor/coach, received peer mediation and/or other behavioral supports including restorative approaches as applicable.

As mentioned above, the administration at Thoreau has substantially violated the IDEA by changing Trinity’s educational placement on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, by removing her from her classroom environment and instead placing her in In-School Suspension or in the office for part of or entire days for behavior that is a manifestation of her Reactive Attachment Disorder, as represented by the repeated 214 violations documented within her record.

Consequently, I’m requesting that Trinity’s suspension be set aside, since it violates TPS policy and federal law. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Prior to my presentation, the Assistant Principal provided information on the infractions that caused my daughter to be suspended. She explained that my daughter told her teacher that she didn’t care what the teacher said, that my daughter was angry and defiant, that she wasn’t doing her work, etc. Sadly, those behaviors directly correlate with the behaviors of Reactive Attachment Disorder, which can be found in the “An Open Letter…” document above, which I also presented to the Committee. The Assistant Principal is so ignorant of my daughter’s disability, its symptoms, and the appropriate therapeutic interventions, that she literally made my argument for me during her presentation to the Review Committee.

I’d like to think the Tulsa Public Schools Special Education Program Coordinator and her staff for attending the meeting. They asked great questions, ensured answers were clear, and gave me great guidance about next steps. It turns out my kid is likely in the wrong category and likely shouldn’t be in a special education classroom at all. And, she needs a Behavior Plan, which I’ve been asking for for over a year. It was nice to have that confirmed. I know you’re likely saying to yourself, “but wait, they’re with the District, can’t they just clean this mess up?” No, they can’t. Have I mentioned the system is broken? I think it’s important to note the District’s good faith efforts, though.

Unfortunately, in spite of the Assistant Principal’s unwillingness to follow the district’s own policies, state, and federal law, the committee upheld the suspension, and my daughter will not attend school for the next three days. Tomorrow she’ll go with me to Oklahoma City where I’m doing a presentation in the morning, and then we’ll swing by the State Capitol for a tour and to visit some legislators, so she can see firsthand how our legislative process works. Friday she’ll spend the day with a friend of mine who is like her second mother, but way cooler. Monday, I’m lining up job shadowing opportunities with professional women friends. I’m doing all this, because I don’t want her sitting at home by herself all day, feeling demeaned and broken. This is a kid who was beaten, raped, and starved by her family of origin, and she manages so well that the majority of her teachers don’t even realize she has a seriously traumatized background. She has fought hard to get where she is and to be who she is, and the last thing in the world I want is for her to begin feeling shame, because that’s what will jump and bite her and send her back to inpatient psychiatric care or worse. So, we’re treating her three days of suspension as a learning opportunity, which I hope to hell is successful.

Finally, I’m asking that you share this blog post far and wide to help build awareness of not just my kid but every kid like her.  Use the hashtag #3.5 to call attention to the rate at which black children are suspended versus their white peers. If you’re local, I’d love to drop off some #3.5 lapel stickers so you can wear them around town and share with friends. If you and your family have had similar experiences, please comment below, so your story can join our story, and we’ll build a mighty, mighty chorus, my friends.

Courage

Amazing

Today I arrived home from church to a package in my mailbox with “Santa, North Pole” as the return address, a lovely note that said “Merry Christmas! You are AMAZING!” and a gorgeous red necklace (I really love, big, gorgeous jewelry.) This was a completely anonymous, incredibly generous gift that left me a bit flabbergasted. My first reaction was to cry out to the universe that I am not, of course, amazing. That’s been my go to response for the majority of my life. After lots of therapy and some spiritual guidance I am trying so darn hard to be open to love, so I didn’t do that. After some self talk I have to admit that by all objective measures I am kind of amazing, and I’m admitting that here on the world wide web.

Here’s the deal, though. We’re all amazing.

My 13-year-old was knocking holes in walls and being driven away in handcuffs less than three years ago. Once she left strapped to a gurney after an intervention from three police officers and two EMTs (she was 10). She spent six months in inpatient care for Reactive Attachment Disorder and came home about two years ago. A few weeks ago during family therapy, her therapist let us know she and her brother had been at level one behaviors (“regular kid” behaviors) for months. Today, her therapist knocked us down from weekly family therapy to every other week, and we may move to “when needed” therapy. That is an amazing kid.

Here are some of the other people who are amazing. The new friend who gave me a bone crushing hug and wished me peace this morning is amazing. The reading specialist who took my “not at all reading” fourth grade son and sent video of him reading two days later, telling me he knew all he needed to know and just needed someone to help him let it loose, is amazing. The therapists who help my kids, when the odds are stacked so far against them are amazing. The friends who treat me normally and provide lots of silly distraction while I’m dealing with absurd choices, are amazing. Friends who call and say “hey, it’s raining, want me to pick up your kid from school today?” are amazing. The stranger who offers a cough drop. The sister who seriously considers taking my totally un-takeable kid. And the anonymous friend who sends an unbearably kind note with beautiful jewelry when I am struggling so much to be in the spirit of the season, the season of rebirth and of letting God and love in, is amazing.

 

Amazing

All in their Places with Bright, Shining Faces

Yesterday was the first day of school in Tulsa, and we had one of the easiest back to school weeks ever. I’m knocking on wood as I type this. I’m a fan of school. I miss going back to school myself. I might head back to grad school soon for no other reason than I just want to learn new stuff. Having said that, there are a few things about school that are issues for us each year. We put tremendous pressure on teachers in our country, and in my state we pay them abysmally, so I don’t want to make it harder, but that’s exactly, sadly, what I’m about to do.

Seemingly sweet “get to know you” assignments that involve baby photos or explaining why your parents named you what they named you (two actual assignments I’ve seen in my Facebook feed since school started) are really uncomfortable for foster/adoptive kiddos/families. So are genealogy projects. And, family “heritage” projects. And, Mother’s Day gifts made by your kiddo when you’re the foster mom, and their bio mom hasn’t made it to a visitation for 6 months. Or Father’s Day gifts made by your kiddo when they have no father (I adopted as a single person. My kids don’t have an adoptive father).

For example, I have zero baby photos of my kids. I’ve tried to get some from the bio family, but it’s never happened. And, as far as why they were named what they were named, all the reasons I actually know of are really sad, and I wouldn’t even want my kids to know them much less their new classmates. I have one kiddo who was named after his bio father, right before the bio father promptly abandoned him forever, for example. I literally know of children whose first names had to be changed when they were adopted, even though they were older, because their names were Marijuana and Chlamydia. As far as genealogy or family heritage, about the only thing I have to go on is the Department of Corrections website where I can find all the vital statistics and full legal name of my kids’ bio parents. There is no way to explain that in any kind of feasible way to 4th graders. In the words of my super smart fellow adoptive parent friend, Sundra, there is no adoption story, whatever the situation, that doesn’t have a lot of pain and abandonment attached to it.

So, again, I don’t want to make things harder. Teachers cannot possibly allow for everything that might be painful for a kiddo. But offering some options might help. For Mother’s Day, help the kids make a gift for the person who nurtures them, whether that’s a grandparent, guardian, father, or someone else. As an option to baby photos, kids can bring a photo of themselves at a proud moment or a photo they just really like.  A kiddo can look up the meaning of his name or discuss someone in his world he respects who also has his name, or some such other option that doesn’t further traumatize/marginalize kiddos. Discussions about genealogy or heritage are tougher. As soon as my black children stand up and say their (adoptive) family is Irish and German, that’s just going to create lots of questions they likely won’t be excited to answer. And, I frankly don’t know their biological family’s heritage, so I’d just have to make stuff up, which I’m not going to do. Sorry I can’t be more helpful here. If you have ideas, please post them below.

And, when you get right down to it, there are lots of families for whom these kinds of assignments, though well-meaning, could be sensitive. Bad stuff happens in life (divorce, death, incarceration, drug addiction, abandonment, to name a few) that kiddos don’t want to announce in front of the class or even write about to their teacher. One of my kiddos landed in psychiatric care after some serious bullying that was the result of her opening up about her background to a 6th grade friend who did not have the maturity or context to understand what she was hearing. So, again these assignments are well-meaning but have the potential to marginalize and traumatize kids.

So, on that note, again, I really appreciate great teachers! And, in Oklahoma, my home state, we pay them virtually nothing and expect them to hurl their bodies on top of our kids during tornadoes. They’re heroes until they ask to be paid a living wage, and then they’re just parasites living off the government teat, but that’s another post. Happy back to school, everyone!

All in their Places with Bright, Shining Faces

Relinquish

Every year at Mother’s Day I pay tribute to all the people who help to raise strong children, but this year I’m really mindful of the mom who brought my kids into the world and then very bravely gave them up. It was about five years ago I was sitting in a courtroom, waiting for a jury to be selected in my kids’ bio parents’ parental rights termination trial, and their birth mother’s attorney came and asked me if I’d chat with their mother, because she didn’t think a trial was a great idea. I told her I’d be happy to chat, but that their birth mom likely wouldn’t chat back – she blamed me for not having her kids and hadn’t had a civil word for me in a year and a half. The attorney thought I might be surprised. So, there sat the kids’ bio mom, let’s call her “A”, in an orange jumpsuit, with a sheriff’s deputy by her side. A day earlier, I had handed the sheriff’s deputy paperwork demonstrating she had an active warrant for theft, with the phone number of a friend who would confirm, and she was arrested. That might sound super cold, and it was, but after eight pre-trial hearings with no progress, I was ready to move things along for the sake of what were then my foster kids, and I thought their bio mother’s arrest might do that.

So, there I sat, with A hurling insults and language at me for the first three minutes. After some boundary setting on my part, I showed her photos of the kids. She said they looked so happy. I assured her they missed her, but they were indeed happy, and that I loved them very much, but they were her kids, and she had to do what was best for them. It wasn’t about her or me – it was about her kids and what kind of life she wanted for them. She said she just didn’t want them to hate her. I told her we spoke about her inability to parent, not hate. She sobbed. I held her hand. We were there at least an hour, and I really don’t remember what else was said except that what was coming out of my mouth felt more like spirit than words. And I’ve never been more calm, more focused, or more sure of my words in my life. I excused myself and twenty minutes later, I watched A come out into the courtroom, stand before the judge, and relinquish her rights, forever and always, to her children. I think that’s worth noting on Mother’s Day.

Relinquish

Never trust an overachiever. You never know what she is trying to prove.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how being called a Saint totally negates the complete and utter richness with which my kids imbue my life. It’s been so interesting to me the way that in attempting to parent my kids, I’ve actually learned so darn much about myself. Because, if you’re going to take on damaged, complicated children, whatever baggage you have (known or unknown) is going to come out and likely bite you on your fabulous ass if you’ve not dealt with it properly, which is exactly what happened to me. This has resulted in what has become the year of love. Not cheesy love. Not romantic love. Not Hallmark love. Naked, heart wrenching, gut punching love.

Everyone I know who has fostered or adopted has had revelations about his or her own childhood, about weaknesses or strengths she was previously unaware of, and about relationships. I get hilarious phone calls from fellow foster/adoptive moms about epiphanies that go like this, “So, it turns out this is how I actually grew up…” or “I never knew how strong my husband was until now.” My life has been epiphany central since I became a foster parent, and this last year the epiphanies crescendoed to the point that I felt like the universe was pulling the rug out from under me daily. Keep in mind I’d had really fabulous therapists for 20 years, and I thought I was pretty darn self-aware. By the way, you really, really need a fabulous therapist if you’re going to parent kiddos like mine.

So, here are the basics of what I’ve learned. After 20 years of therapy, and lots of overachieving, I realized that a lot of the self-doubt and constant need for validation I saw in one of my kiddos hit a little too close to home for me. My therapist recommended a fabulous book that I won’t mention here out of respect to others, and my whole world turned upside down in a completely terrifying, but “wow, this makes so much sense, finally” kind of way.

Things changed so much for me, that my nightly ritual of fiction reading has gone away, to the point that I was having an identity crisis over it. I’ve read at bedtime since I can remember. I finally arrived at the conclusion that I no longer need an escape from my life, which is what my nighttime reading had provided. Now I’m devouring books, but they’re non-fiction books on subjects I want to know more about. My son thinks it’s hilarious that I own several “For Dummies” books. Right now I’m reading “Buddhism for Dummies” because I’ve always been drawn to Buddhism, but never really got the basics.

I’ve had many realizations, but likely the biggest is that a lot of the walls my kids have, walls of protection, I share with them. I think I’ve been a loving person for the most part, but I’ve been truly awful at accepting love or caring from others. I am notoriously independent. And, as I lectured my oldest on how limited her life would be if she wasn’t able to become vulnerable and let love in, I was a bit dumbfounded at the irony of my words. (A bit like when I was lecturing her about taking personal responsibility as I ran out of gas and coasted to the curb.) It’s funny how that happens.

So, late last year, I made the conscious decision to embrace the love and caring that people offered me. This may sound simplistic, but for me it’s huge. It’s something I have to consciously decide to do every day. I breathe in the love, and I breathe out whatever negative emotions I have. I actually bought a “love” necklace as a physical reminder of my new efforts. I started reading the works of Brene Brown for the sake of my kids, because of her shame research, but I ended up learning more about myself. Her words about vulnerability and connectedness were life changing for me, to the point that I buy her books for friends. I’ve always loved Pema Chodron, and I find her words even more meaningful now.

So, long about five months since I decided to intentionally let love in, it turns out I am engulfed in love and likely always have been. I feel like I’m living a whole new life. I’m a much more relaxed and better parent. I’m a lot less attached to outcomes and find myself living in the moment far more than I ever have before. My lifelong negative self talk is very nearly a thing of the past. When sweet friends offer me tickets to Elvis Costello, I accept them and have a fabulous time. (To be fair, i am still a little stubborn about accepting them, but eventually acquiesce). When a sweet woman explained to me the impact I’d had on her son whom I’ve met only once, my heart swelled. I’ve been asked to speak at several events, because it turns out people think I have something to say. And, I recently learned that the YWCA in my community, whose mission is to eliminate racism and empower women, received a glowing nomination for their inaugural Women of the Year class, of which I will be a part. This is the first award I’ve received that felt celebratory rather than validating, and I’m very excited that my daughters will be there to see me receive it. And, I hope that what I’m learning at 45 will be embraced at a much earlier age by children, because the Badassamy children are worthy of love, as are we all.

Never trust an overachiever. You never know what she is trying to prove.

Rehoming

By now I’m sure you’ve at least heard about the State Representative who gave away or “rehomed” his adopted children. The media has skewered him and painted him as someone who would happily hand over adopted children to a rapist while benefitting monetarily and protecting his political career. While it’s easy to vilify him and what appears to be his reprehensible behavior, I’m not going to do that, because his impossible choice is the impossible choice of many adoptive parents. His just resulted in media exposure, which frankly I’m glad about, because now we can discuss how impossible choices are not acceptable, especially when they surround our children.

So how does one find him or herself in the impossible choice of keeping children in the home who are a danger to yourselves and the other children in the home or giving them to a rapist? I’m going to explain that in a few easy steps.

1. Have good intentions, but very little information. This describes Representative Harris, me, and I’m guessing the majority of foster/adoptive parents in the US. While I’m a huge advocate for people becoming foster/adoptive parents, it is a total crap shoot. Any of us could be Rep. Harris. I have friends who have been faced with this exact same situation, and I nearly was. Here’s how this works. When you complete paperwork to become a foster/adoptive parent, you literally complete a “checklist” of what you will or will not accept in a child. It is potentially the most surreal experience of my life. It felt like a match.com profile, except for children, which is just disturbing. Instead of “I will accept a divorced person, but not a smoker,” I was making split second decisions like “I will accept an AIDS baby, but not a suicidal, sexually abused,14-year-old.” Below is an actual checklist from the State of Ohio. I’m not picking on Ohio – theirs is the only form I could actually find online. In fact, kudos to Ohio for actually having this stuff available.

Foster Parent Checklist-page-0

Foster Parent Checklist-page-2

Foster Parent Checklist-page-3

Foster Parent Checklist-page-4

As most adults don’t have the background to understand what accepting or not accepting kids with any of these identifiers into their home means, they have no business completing this document, because it is basically meaningless.

The super frustrating part about this document is that the agency who is handling your foster/adoption only has to note the “known” circumstances of the child’s case, which in my experience is the tip of the iceberg. There are several reasons for this. First, like most other state agencies, state welfare agencies base their contracts on cost. So, the therapists who get paid to provide mental health services to foster kids don’t get paid all that well and usually don’t stay with their employers all that long, and I don’t blame them. They get some experience and then springboard to the next job where they hopefully receive a better wage. Consequently kiddos in care might have a different therapist every three months. That’s not long enough to build a relationship with already traumatized, mistrusting children, much less understand what the kiddo has gone through or make a diagnosis. Secondly, foster care employees are under tremendous pressure to place a lot of children, so they’re often not completely truthful, which I can also understand, though not defend. Our child welfare system is broken, for lots of reasons, and this is one of them. Telling a potential foster parent “well, they act out sexually on pets in the home, but thankfully not each other or adults,” is not good marketing. I realize that sounds harsh, but it’s reality. Lots of kids who need homes and not enough homes means people lie.

2.  Live in a country where the mental health system has failed. I honestly don’t know all the details of Representative Harris’ case, but I know enough to know it’s a lot like every other case I’ve heard about. Kids in the system, kids like my kids, have very complicated mental health needs, and we just don’t have the system to deal with them. I’m guessing Rep. Harris’ kids have some form of Reactive Attachment Disorder, the same diagnosis as my kids, and there are very few places one can find services for RAD kids. I’ve written a lot about RAD on this blog, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but simply put, in what I was always taught was the greatest nation in the world, no one should be told their children are a lost cause, and there’s no help. I started this blog, because as resourceful and tenacious as I am, I couldn’t find help for my kid. That’s not a situation anyone in the United State of America should find themselves. I fly a flag every day, and I want to be proud of my country. How we treat our mentally ill children in this country does not make me proud.

2. Not be a gajillionaire, nor care to be imprisoned. So, when multiple psychiatrists tell you you can’t welcome your kid back from the psychiatric facility into your home, because s/he is a danger to others, and your insurance will no longer pay for inpatient care, you basically have three options.  1. Pay for inpatient psychiatric care out of your own pocket, which for most of us would result in bankruptcy in about three months time or less. 2. You can “give back” the kid to the State, which means you will likely incur criminal charges for abandonment and at a minimum will pay child support to the State until the child is 18-years-old. 3. You can “rehome” the child, hopefully to a family you trust who is equipped to deal with the child. These families are few and far between, and this is very risky as the Representatives’s story obviously illustrates. Below is a friend’s story in her own words.

The state actually preferred that we re-home our child. We did try three different private placements that we set up on our own. In order to get support from our state’s human services agency, I filed a VPO against my child. Ultimately after three different hospitals recommended it, we left her at the hospital on release day. That was the only way we could get our state’s human services agency to help with placement.

So, while you’re being appalled at the story of how this man gave away his kid to a rapist, imagine all the other families who are potentially doing the same thing. The above options are not really options – let’s find one that works for the child and the adoptive family, or better yet work with biological families before they traumatize their kids to the point that their kids would like to stab us all in our sleep. I know that’s wild and crazy, but a girl can dream.

Rehoming

Saints

I am really bad at accepting compliments. I’m working on it. I’m better than I used to be, but still awful. I’ve managed to begin at least saying “thank you” instead of “no, I’m not really that nice thing that you said I was.” However, one compliment that I will never accept and one that breaks my heart is “You’re such a saint for what you’ve done for those kids.” There are layers of wrongness with this compliment, the least of which is that I couldn’t be further from a saint. I’m very, very human, very fallible, and if I listed out all the reasons why here, some of you would judge me harshly I assure you.

The next layer of wrongness is that my kids have given me so much more than I’ve given them. If you’ve read any of my other posts you might question that statement, because there have certainly been some very trying times. The whole “one kid in inpatient psychiatric care, followed by another kid in inpatient psychiatric care 3 months later, followed by my then husband leaving for what would be the last time” was certainly a bad patch for example. And, there were days I wondered aloud, using some choice words (words a saint doesn’t use) how in the hell I arrived at that moment. So, having said that, if I tell you unequivocally that my kids give me double or more what I give them, you know it has to be good to make up for all that bad.

Lastly, and most importantly, logic tells us that if I’m a saint for adopting my kiddos, then anyone who chooses to do what I do must be a saint as well. Most people don’t self-identify as saints. So, that tells me that people look at what I do and determine there’s no possible way, due to their lack of sainthood, that they could foster/adopt kiddos, which is tragic and heartbreaking and wrong to the nth degree, because on any given day there are 402,000 kids in the US who need homes. Not perfect homes – good enough homes. my home is a “good enough” home. You’re home is likely a “good enough” home, too.

So, I’m going to explain all the ways you, too, can become a foster/adoptive parent, or at least support a foster/adoptive parent.

  • If you’re single, don’t be freaked out by the cost. I was freaked out by the cost and worked unfortunately as a car salesman for a bit, in addition to my day job, in an ill-advised effort to save up. What I actually did was make myself crazy and bump myself into the next tax bracket. Don’t do that.
  • Though the subsidy I receive from my state is not what it actually costs to raise children, it is enough to pay my mortgage. Subsidies are different in different states and are based on things like the age of the child, the number of children, the special needs of the child, etc. They’re basically a supply/demand scenario. There are a lot of older children in foster care, and a lot of sibling groups, and states need people to adopt them. Unfortunately, a lot of people want infants and toddlers, and there just aren’t a lot of those to go around. I adopted a sibling group of three older, minority children, one of which was special needs, so I basically get all the money the State of Oklahoma can throw at me. I like to tell people I “outsourced” the up all night/breastfeeding/potty training years, which is clearly the most effective and fun way to become a parent. I highly recommend it. And, you get money to help raise them without the annoying parts that come along with a former spouse, for example. it’s a win-win. The North American Council on Adoptable Children has a ton of resources including this handy link to subsidies in all 50 states.
  • My kids’ health insurance is paid until they’re 18. Each state receives funding from the federal government to be able to provide this, so wherever you live, this should be available. Without this assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to adopt.
  • While my kids were in foster care, their childcare was paid for, and after I adopted them, their childcare was paid until they were school age. Childcare is amazingly expensive, so this is a big help. Again, the fabulous NACAC has great information for each state here.
  • If you’re single/divorced/widowed/gay/transgender/old/young/disabled/cranky you are very eligible to foster or adopt, even in one of the most politically conservative states in the nation, which is where I live. I was never married when I fostered and then adopted. I have gay friends who have fostered/adopted. I have friends who were in their 60s when they adopted. The basic rule is that you need to be financially, emotionally, and physically healthy enough to support the kids into adulthood. If you meet that criteria, you can foster/adopt.

Though you may look at what I and other foster/adoptive parents do and think you never could, keep in mind that we are all just like you, and we thought we couldn’t do it either. The best explanation and advice I can give is that of the fabulous Tim Gunn – you just make it work. There are some fabulous resources around – the one that’s kept me going is Facebook, believe it or not. I can post on one of various Facebook foster/adoptive sites about what I and my family are going through at any given moment, and there’s always someone who has been there and done that before me, and can reassure me that it gets better, give me advice on what worked for him or her and/or just laugh their asses off with me about how absurd the whole thing is. There is tremendous reassurance in knowing you are not alone.

And, for those of you who really are not a good fit for foster/adoption, become a great resource for those who are doing it. Most of my foster/adoptive friends, especially the single ones, just need a break. Offer to watch their kids for an evening, or better yet a weekend. Or offer to pay the babysitter. Offer to mow a lawn, or do some laundry or pick up groceries. A couple of Christmases ago a fabulous friend had all of the Christmas gifts she’d put on layaway for her five foster/adoptive kids put back on the shelf by an unnamed retailer. it was December 20-something, quite a few of her kids are disabled, so she can’t just run right out to do errands. I picked up a Justin Bieber life-size cardboard cutout and some Project Runway kits for her kiddos, and relieved tremendous tension for her. What was absolutely no big deal to me was a big help for her. These are things almost anyone can do. And, if you can’t do any of those things, the biggest thing you can do to support a foster/adoptive family is offer a smile or a helping hand when you see them out and about. if you see a family struggling with an out-of-hand kiddo, give them a reassuring smile. If you see a family that is all colors of the rainbow a smile, a hello, and a bit of small talk is nice. One of the loveliest things I can ever hear from anyone is “what a beautiful family you have,” and I’m always grateful to hear that, especially on my worst days. Because we are beautiful in all of our brokenness, and you will be, too.

Saints