Don’t Mind The Man Behind The Curtain

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Mind The Man Behind The Curtain

As Good As It Gets

Usually when I write, I try to come up with some kind of lesson, something I’m supposed to learn, some bigger picture reason for why things happen the way they happen. Today, though, I’m just amazingly angry.

I just left T, my 10-year-old, at inpatient psychiatric care for the second time since November. It’s her third stay – the first one was a little over a year ago. She arrived at psychiatric care via a police patrol car. The same incredibly kind police officer who showed up at our house last Tuesday (five days ago) called me after she heard our address on her radio today and said “I’m on my way. I heard dispatch give your address, and I said “I know that kid.” I’m coming over.” By the time she arrived, I was drenched in sweat, shaking, afraid I might be having a heart attack, and pushing with all the strength I had left in my legs to keep our attic door closed as T threw her weight against it from the other side, as she screamed and yelled to be let out and kicked holes in it. She hurled her tiny little 10-year-old body like a weapon against the years of abuse and neglect that she suffered and can’t escape, though she’s been safe, loved and cared for for almost four years.

That’s where I find myself more and more lately. Sweating, exhausted, terrified and praying to God that my daughter doesn’t get out of wherever I’ve been lucky enough to trap her and accidentally break her neck or throw herself into the covered pool and drown. For years she would at least stay in her room while she was raging, which provided some level of safety. But over the last few months, she leaves her room, roams the house, the yard and our neighborhood if I don’t physically restrain her, which is getting harder and harder. Last Tuesday, with both my husband and I home, she managed to throw her closet door down the stairs, nearly falling down with it, then get out the back door, narrowly miss falling into the covered pool, out the gate, and run down the street wailing hysterically and tearing off her clothes. My husband and I stood in the driveway, knowing if we chased after her it would only get worse. So, we stood, feeling hopeless, doing nothing, hoping the police arrived soon.

So, here’s where I have to ask, how in the hell is this as good as it gets for mentally ill children in this country? I read with both horror and relief  “Thinking the Unthinkable” by the Anarchist Soccer Mom where she writes “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” and I thought, “yeah, that’s me. Is my kid the next one on the national news?”And I know a lot of other parents who are thinking the same thing.

My husband and I both have advanced degrees, we make what is an upper income for the state in which we live, we’re resourceful, and I’m assertive to the point that I’m sure I’ve been called a b*tch more than once. I’ve got a great supportive network, including a wonderful extended family, and I’ve read every book I can find on Reactive Attachment Disorder (her diagnosis). She has therapy weekly, takes medication, sees a good psychiatrist, and is on the waiting list for the Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) unit in our community. Though the RAD unit has a good reputation, there aren’t very many beds, and the stay there is a minimum of 6 months, so the beds don’t open up often.

There’s not much written about her diagnosis – in fact if you read attachment texts it’s generally not covered. My kids’ therapist has asked to write his doctoral thesis on our family, because both of my girls have RAD diagnoses, and in his words “are not burning down our house nor stabbing us to death in our sleep,” so we must be doing something right. So, basically, I’m the Mrs. Cleaver of the RAD set. I’m the Mrs. Cleaver, and I still can’t help my kid. I’m doing every damn thing I can think of, and I still can not help my kid.

In ten days, the psychiatric hospital will likely send T home, because she will no longer be “acute,” – no longer a danger to herself nor others. T can do 10 days in a psych ward like it’s Six Flags. She won’t show any of her defiance. She’ll be a super sweet kiddo, because she’s smart and she knows how the system works, and she wants to be in control. In foster/adoptive circles, we call this the honeymoon. If she didn’t have a RAD diagnosis, she’d be stepped down into residential care once she was no longer acute. But, because she has a RAD diagnosis, the hospital will send her home, because they know they can’t help her in the 90 days or so they could keep her and actually get paid. They know she needs the RAD unit (6 months to 2 years). So, they’ll send her home, and she’ll continue to have rages that require police intervention once a week, with no end in site, and it will traumatize my two other already traumatized children and stress my marriage and slowly but surely destroy our family. And, the best I can hope for is that she doesn’t hurt anyone else. And, this is as good as it gets.

As Good As It Gets