I’ll never forget that day. Many times I have rehearsed the same scene in my mind, that day in late December 1997. Claudia and I drove many miles from our hotel to the mountainous rural location, a foster home where our to-be son had lived for the longest period of his foster care experience. Entering their kitchen and glancing around the table it was easy to spot him. He was eight, eating blueberry pancakes with a number of other kids at a large table. His carrot-red hair and broad smile were dead give-aways that this was the kid we would be taking home with us a few days later.
The social worker had told us he had challenges, but I don’t think she really knew how deep they were. Who could? His foster mom encouraged us by saying, “Well, he doesn’t scream as much as he used to; he’s made real progress. And we’ve worked really hard to improve his reading ability.” And I thought, “Well, what this kid needs is stability and people to really love him. That will make the difference.”
We hd heard all about his early years of neglect. His drug-hazed mother, his abusive father. His six or seven prior foster placements, all within the period of two years. We thought we knew what this might be like. We were naïve and spirited and hopeful and optimistic. The dream of providing a child with a better life, a hopeful opportunity and consistent security enveloped me in a cloud of certainty. We could certainly do better for him than others had in his past.
I’m not sure when the dream began to fade. Maybe it was the first time he spent more than an hour screaming at the top of his lungs, rocking himself into a cortisol-induced sense of pseudo-self-care. Or maybe it was the tenth or the fiftieth or the one hundredth time he responded in the same way to anything he interpreted as fear or threat. Who can count those episodes with accuracy after all this time?
Or maybe the optimism began to ebb away after observing time after time the consistently negative interactions with his older birth brother, a brother he had ensconced as hero, but a brother who wanted nothing but to be left alone. The numerous verbal attacks, the periodic negative physical interactions in which the younger was subdued by his elder brother’s aggression continued to poke holes in my hope.
Did the vision become blurred when he and his friend contaminated the school’s ventilation system with pepper spray? Were my aspirations dampened when time after time I held his raging, underdeveloped body in my secure embrace, assuring him of our love and devotion, only to be cursed, spit upon and pushed away. How many times did I hear, “You’re not my real dad. You can’t tell me what to do. I wish I had never been adopted. This family sucks.”
Was my hope diminished when he began sneaking out at night without our knowledge? When night after night he skipped sports practice in order to hang out with friends more troubled than he? Did my confidence in the future seep away when time after time I would drive to the sheriff’s office to pick him up, to reunite with our family after his self-imposed exile of two, three, six days?
The fact is that through all of those arduous, painful, self-denying moments the dream remained alive. There were moments, of course, when the possibilities seemed questionable, when I doubted, when I wondered. But the dream lived, quietly, confident that somehow, at sometime my investment would matter. While our adoptive parenting roles were not well understood by those around us, at least I felt respected. I felt that the system appreciated what we were attempting to do, that the pain was worth the tacit recognition by others that we were doing a noble thing.
No, the dream was alive through all those years.
But the dream began to die when our recommendations and preferences as parents were disregarded by those in the power structure. The dream began to die when as an adoptive parent of an out-of-control child I had to watch a video designed for abusive and neglectful parents about how I “needed to follow the social workers plans” or I “would risk the termination of parental rights.” When a young social worker no more than twenty-five years old is empowered to disregard the insight of experienced adoptive parents with higher levels of education than she, the dream began to die. When a system finally caves into the demands of an attachment-disordered sixteen-year-old and expects the parents to be positive and supportive, the dream dies. When, somehow in the social services process, the adoptive parent moves from partner to pariah, from player to observer, the dream dies.
How does a dream die? It dies not because of a child’s behavior or defiance (after all, prepared adoptive parents expect that); it dies when respect, nobility and partnership are excised from the human equation. Social service systems were never designed to raise children; families are by nature the places to raise children. And so, once again, the system – inanimate, impersonal, unhearing – raises its grimacing face of victory as the remaining vapors of a dream gasp in defeat.