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.


FosterMommy said...

Actually this is mostly in response to your previous post about "saying too much". It took us a while to figure out how to talk to our social workers. The right balance of pushy and compliant. It's so hard, because you want what's best for these kids, but part of what's best is for you to be in the good graces of the System. We're not used to caring what The System thinks of us!

Good to find someone else on this journey. Mind is I link to you?

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