Saturday, April 08, 2006

If I Had Known Then What I Know Now

More than fifteen years ago I was a volunteer Guardian Ad Litem in the Minnesota judicial system. I was in my mid-twenties, single and thought I knew quite a bit. I was, after all, a college graduate in a humanities field, had several years church-related experience working with youth and was a strident advocate for children and youth. The training and consultation I received as a Guardian Ad Litem reinforced my sense of self, as I was reminded that my role was to be the "eyes and the ears of the child" for the court, and that at all times I was to consider the best interest of the child.

My cases, by their nature, were all conflict-ridden and animosity-laden. Most of the cases involved custody evaluations; few were cases involving defiant or out-of-sync children. And, in all the cases, the instruction I was given, either implicitly or explicitly, was to be wary of the parents involved. The assumption was consistent that the parents were the ones who were the primary culprits contributing to the child's distress. In no case was I trained to consider that the child might have been part of the issue.

I approached my early experience as a foster parent, this time in conjunction with my spouse, in a similar fashion. Surely there was a reason the child in question acted the way he or she did. And, to be fair, in each of those situations there was considerable dysfunction present in the family systems of our foster children. From situations of abject poverty (digging for lunch from the trash in back of Burger King, for example) and mental illness (parents diagnosed with anti-social personality disorders), to parents who were simply emotionally incapable of their role, I believed naively that the problems our foster children had were related primarily, if not exclusively, to their families of origin.

I must confess in retrospect that I was blinded by a child welfare system that seldom takes into account a child's choices and autonomy. Don't misunderstand me. Children who spend their early years in dysfunctional, abusive or neglectful family settings will surely present with significant issues. And no child should be forced by society to subsist in such emotionally skeletal ways. There are, after all, important reasons why child welfare advocacy found it origins a hundred or so years ago. However, I am now more aware than I wish I were of the harm that a determined, anti-social, manipulative child or teenager can cause for him/herself and their family.

Good, caring, committed parents too easily become the "reason" a child does what he or she does. If a fifteen-year-old child leaves the house after the parents have said "goodnight; I love you" it is because the parents have too lenient or too strict (take your pick) guidelines. If a ten-year-old tells the parent that his or her homework is finished and is at school (when it is not), then the parents are not "involved enough" in their child's life. If a seventeen-year-old asserts that he wants a new family because the family he has "never spends time with me" while day after day, night after night, he runs wherever he can run, then, of course, it must be that the parents are too busy or preoccupied to provide for his emotional care.

Take these propositions, none of which are fictional, multiply by five or ten for large families, add by 50% to account for the professional bias of the social services field toward families with more than 1.9 children, and you have a sense of the indemic challenges facing courageous, committed, loving adoptive parents who find their pure intentions and socially just aspirations discounted, ignored and misunderstood by misguided social services professionals (not all professionals, I might add) whose stated purpose is to "serve."

If I had known then what I know now, I would have approached my role as a child welfare advocate in the judicial system with a much more balanced view of my task. I would have understood that parenting, by its very nature, is one of the most difficult tasks afforded humankind. I would have understood that children exert much more autonomy than my training would have led me to believe, and I would have been much less critical of parents, no matter how dysfunctional in my eyes, whose parental efforts were rebuffed, defied and ignored by very difficult children.

If I had known then what I know now I probably would never have become an adoptive parent. I guess it's a good thing I was naive, trusting and hopeful. Otherwise I would never have attempted to do something I find so emotionally exhausting and humanly impossible. I would have known better.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Saying Too Much

I said too much. Really I did. In preparation for this meeting I advised Claudia, "All we're going to do is to be factual and perfunctory. We don't have to express much emotion. It won't be helpful to us or them." Funny how sometimes we can't take even our own advice.

I was all right for the first ten minutes of the meeting. The social worker for our seventeen-year-old son (who is currently in a ninety-day legal limbo until an adjudication from the judge is handed down) asked us once again to tell her what our stance is. Evidently in our previous conversations we had not been clear with her as to our intent. Did we, she wanted to know, in fact desire a legal termination of parental rights (TPR) or not?

Claudia and I clearly stated the case that we have never desired a termination of parental rights, that we are morally opposed to the idea that parents would simply walk away from a child. Granted, we understand that this might be an easier way to resolve intractable situations and that it might even prevent our family and ourselves the further emotional trauma of a journey paved with perpetual emotional up's and down's, but that we opposed to a TPR.

"Well," she said, "I just have to tell you at this point that this is what [seventeen-year-old son's name] is requesting."

I was too quick with my rejoinder. "So," I said, "you will take the words of a seventeen-year-old child diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Affect, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder with as much weight as the words of mature, college-educated parents who have made a lifetime commitment to a difficult child?"

"Yes, that's my job," we were summarily informed.

And then I said too much again. "So you mean to tell me that that of the three options -- termination of parental rights, a reunification plan, or permanent foster care -- that a TPR would be in his or our best interest? I know of many cases where abusive, neglectful parents whose children cannot live with them are never terminated of their rights, but their children are in long-term foster care."

"Well, in Minnesota, each county has its own way of dealing with the issue."

And, you guessed it, I said too much again. Way too much. "And you don't think you should ask other social workers in other counties what they have done in situations like this? I mean, you think with your two years of experience on the job, the fact that you are in your twenties and that you have no children in your home, you think you have enough experience to make this call?"

Her response was terse. "Well, I think I have plenty of experience. And it is my job to make sure that all the players have an equal voice in the matter."

At that point I decided to back off a bit. Typically I am fairly diplomatic, kind-hearted, a generous conversationalist intent on hearing what the other person has to say. But I can take what I perceive to be as attacks only so long without expressing some intensity. And so I sat back and let Claudia steer the conversation toward less controversial and less personal directions. I guess this is one of the reasons we make a good team. When she is emotionally riled I can calm her; when I am emotionally intense she provides balance.

And so, here I sit, an hour after our 1.75 hour conversation with the social worker and a time-delayed Guardian Ad Litem, questioning my moral underpinnings. Do I really believe, at the foundation of it all, that a committed loving family is what kids -- all kids, no matter how difficult their needs, no matter how treasonous their attitudes, no matter how significant the early dysfunction of their lives and the depth of their diagnoses -- really need? And if this is what I believe, then at what cost to parents, siblings and others in society?

How hard do parents fight for a seventeen-year-old son who has in eight years never attached to them? To what lengths do good, committed parents go to prove their fierce determination in loving an organically disturbted, character-disordered child? Do parents ever relinquish their claim on a child's life, whether the child arrived by birth or by adoption? How would a TPR help our son believe that we have meant what we have said over the years ("you will always be our son, even if you cannot live with us"). What about all of the years that I held his raging, red-faced, fetal-positioned body in my arms, close to my heart, assuring that things would be all right, and that I would always love him? Has it all been for nothing? What does my broken heart tell me?

How hard do parents fight a system that is not designed to consider the unique needs of adoptive parents? How much time, energy and money should be invested in a series of battles that will likely produce an inevitable result? When, if ever, should parents simply cut their losses (emotionaly, spiritually, physically) and move on?

Ah, but here I go again. Saying too much.