Thursday, August 31, 2006

Show Me A Sign: What Six Months Can Do

Nearly six months ago our now-seventeen-year-old son Mike left our home. He had come home from more than a year in institutional settings in December and lasted less than two months in our home before his historic, predictable behaviors got the best of him. We realized we could not keep him safe, nor did we want the continuing negative influence upon our other children. He was placed in foster care, from which he left less than two weeks after his arrival. His behaviors in foster care were nearly identical to those in our home -- disappearing for hours at a time with no explanation and the like. He was placed in a group home, from which he ran continually as well, and finally managed to violate his probation as the result of a tell-tale UA ("urinary analysis"). He was placed in detention until a court hearing, which occurred June 1.

The June 1st hearing is the one where Claudia and I discovered the lengths to which Mike was able to manipulate and deceive even trained professionals. His primary therapist (although he had not seen this therapist for more than nine months earlier) submitted a report which indicated that Mike should never return to our home, reunification should never be attempted, and that "he deserves a loving family who really cares." The judge determined that Mike should complete a Department of Corrections consequence-based, work program in northern Minnesota. Mike is now within days of his anticipated September 15th graduation and discharge.

On Tuesday I drove the seven hours to visit with Mike. Along with me were my mother and three of our children. We had received three letters from Mike and in the past three weeks have been cleared to have telephone contact with him again. The telephone conversations have been pleasant, but I was a bit anxious about what the face-to-face visit would be like.

Over the past three years I have visited Mike numerous times in institutional settings, and his typical response to visits has been challenging. Historically there have been moments of enjoyable conversation, but also many hours of badgering, whihning, complaining, threatening and manipulating. It has not always been pleasant to visit with Mike, but between Claudia and me we have always seen to it that he has been in regular contact with us. Except for the past six months, we have connected with Mike regularly as allowed by the institutions and his social worker.

Thistledew is located in the middle of nowhere (or "everywhere," as they sometimes say in desolate parts of South Dakota). The nearest town of any size (population 20,000) is over twenty-five miles away. For miles in any direction of the camp is swampy, northern Minnesota timberland. They have few runners, and I doubt they have ever had a successful "escape" as it were. While it is operated by Minnesota Department of Corrections, it is not a lock down facility. There are uniformed officers and signage to remind residents and visitors that it is, indeed, a corrections facility, but it "feels" relaxed and therapeutic.

Upon our arrival we checked in and Mike was summoned to meet us. He arrived quietly a few minutes lately and waited anxiously for us to acknowledge him. We greeted him and went to a small area with picnic tables and pine trees. This fifty-foot-diameter area would be our visiting grounds for the next 2.75 hours.

The visit was surprisingly pleasant. Mike seemed calm, focused and at ease. His eyes had a clarity that I have not seen in him for some time. In the past he has often presented as depressed, scattered and nervous. But this visit seemed very different. In most visits he asks "Am I coming home?" or "Will you buy me a new pair of shoes?" But in this visit he initiated no such talk. He asked about our familiy members, what was going on at home, whether we liked our new church and community. After an hour's conversation he pointed out the dorm, the dining area, the part of the camp dedicated to adult women offenders ("they can't even look at us our they're out of here," Mike described, indicating that those in his all juvenile, male program were separated from the women, most of whom he said, "are here on drug charges, nothing violent"). Then he pointed out the small chapel, "That's where we go to church." I couldn't resist asking, "So, Mike, do you go to church?" "Yeah," he replied in tones that indicated he thought I was foolish to ask the question. I had to follow up, "And are you required to go to church?" "Nope." This time with a sparkle in his eye and a slight smile of self-satisfaction Mike waited for my approval. "I'm glad to hear that, Mike. And I'm proud of you," I said.

Our chapel-related conversation reminded him of something else. "Oh, yeah. I made something for you." His hands, calloused from hours of work with cutting saws and splitting mauls, reached into his t-shirt. He pulled out a hand-beaded celtic cross, green and white, with a black necklace. "This is for you," he said. As I took it into my hands I thanked him, acknowledged that it was a celtic cross, and told him I would wear it the first time on Sunday when I preached. (Perhaps it is because of his red hair and freckles, but Mike has always sensed an affinity for what we assume to be his Irish genetic roots).

A few second later he pulled out another necklace, a smaller celtic cross, manufactured of metal, but matching identically the color and style of the gift he had made for me. "I have one, too," he said, with a look in his eyes I have not seen for a long time, maybe never. It was a look of attachment, the kind of look a child gives a parent when s/he feels a connection deeper than the surface, "I'll love you for what you can do for me" psuedo-attachment many adoptive parents have experienced.

"No," I told myself in the fleeting array of synaptic processes occuring in my lambent pscyhe. "Mike is the least attached of all of our kids, so I must be imagining this." I know that psychologically sometimes we humans dream into being what it is we want to see, whether or not it is factual. From my momentary stir of emotion I quickly moved back into a logical frame of thinking. I have been too long stymied my Mike's challenging and manipulating ways to be seduced again into hope.

We continued our conversation. Mike talked with his siblings, with his grandmother. He interacted positively and appropriately. Finally I initiated the question. I wasn't sure if it was his question (after all, in previous conversations like this he was always the one to put it "on the table"). This time it was my question. "So what's going to happen when you're done here in a couple of weeks?" I asked.

"I'd like to come home," was his direct response.

"Well, you know Mike, mom and I don't have the last word on that decision. You've done a very good job over the past few months of convincing the people who make that decision think we are bad parents and that you should never even be allowed to talk to us again."

He didn't say anything, but I knew my words registered with him.

I continued. "You know, all this time Mom and I have continued to love you and stand with you. Even though you haven't been able to live in our home, we have loved you, and we always will."

"[My guardian-at-litem] is a liar," were Mike's next words. "He told me before court last time that he was going to recommend one thing, and then he changed his mind and in court said something different."

"Well, [your guardian-ad-litem] has a lot of things to consider, so sometimes they change their minds. And you realize, Mike, that the people who are "the system" are not very good substitutes for a mom and dad who love you."

He said little, but nodded his head in acknowledgment.

"So," Mike asked. "What did you and mom tell [my social worker]?"

"We've thought about it a long time, Mike, and we've told [your social worker] that if the others agree, we would like you to come home."

Warily, his two words quietly punctuated the air. "That's cool."

"I'm proud that you've been able to accomplish so much here, Mike," I said. "But you realize, for some people it's better to be in an environment where there are a lot of controls. A group home or an independent living skills program might be betetr for you, because our home is not a department of corrections facility."

"Yeah, but those programs haven't worked for me, either," Mike said, referring to his stays in a residential treatment facility, his brief foray into a foster home, and his couple of group home stays. "And it's not like a family anyway."

We moved on to other subjects. I asked him whether or not he liked the other guys who were part of his assigned group. "Not really," he said. Inwardly I was relieved. That he had few attachments to the malcontents who were part of this program was reassuring to me. At least he won't feel the need to try to reconnect with them on "the other side." "I don't really trust them at all," he said. "So," you're not going to miss them when you're gone?" I asked. "Not at all," was his quick rejoinder.

Having noticed his calloused hands (a study in contrasts since Mike has long, thin, artistic hands and fingers), I said, "So how much wood have you cut and split." In this program infractions result in the individual "doing a rick" of wood. A rick of wood is roughly equivalent to the amount of cut, split wood it would take to fill the bed of an average-size pick-up truck. "About 35 ricks" he said, a wan smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

"Oh yeah," he said, "I also hold the all-time record for tree-climbing. I climbed to the top of a tree in 5 seconds. And that's bear-style [i.e., no gloves or other helps, just bare hands]."

We were bringing our conversation to a close, and I had to ask him. "Mike, if you come home, what's going to be different this time?"

"I have to focus on finishing school, getting a job and going to college."

"And what about running and stuff?"

"I'm not going to do that anymore."


"Because it gets me nowhere. It's dumb."

I thought about his response. These are not new words. This is the way Mike has always described how his behavior will change once he gets back home. And time after time the result is the same: he flounders, he falters, and he begins a long, long descent until he finally hits bottom. It is difficult for Claudia and me to witness, knowing there is little we can do to intervene (and we try, believe me), and difficult for his siblings to experience his anger, his protracted absence and his defiance. I am reminded of the cliche psychologists toss around, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." I am not hopeful that this time will be all that different, should Mike return home again.

In our conversation I had detected remorse, I sensed that he felt good about his accomplishment, I heard him say the right things. But his history, his disabilities and his patterns are so deeply entrenched I wonder how it might all turn out. In those fleeting moments I sought a sign. Really, I did. As we began to say our goodbyes, my inner being desparately sought something from Beyond. So many times we have done a similar thing. I had driven seven hours one way to visit. Was it worth my time?

I was the first person Mike hugged goodbye. It was a solid, warm, assuring moment. Quickly he hugged the others and began to trot away. "I love you, Mike," I said as I glanced at the back of his head, his flowing orange locks undulating in the tree-refracted sunshine of a late August early afternoon. "Love you, too, Dad."

I didn't see it. I guess I was looking for something else, some other kind of sign. But my mother, as only one a generation removed can do, did. "Did you notice?" she asked.

"Notice what?"

"I do believe he had tears in his eyes."

It was the sign I had been seeking, and I nearly missed it. To parents of ordinary kids, tears at parting might be normal, expected. But to parents of attachment-disordered children, whose lives have been riven with chaos and upset from the beginning, tears communicate something deep, something primal. Tears, especially hidden tears not intended to manipulate or coerce, are a sign of connection, of attachment ... and dare I say it: of love.

I am not naive. I believe we have more very challenging days ahead with Mike, whether he returns home or to another location. The journey continues, but for right now there is enough for me to have hope. The few misty-eyed tears of a seventeen-year-old young man whom I call son -- tears I nearly missed -- are the rain of God for my tired, parched, parental soul.

Once again God has visited me in a unique way. And once again I am glad that I decided with my spouse nearly nine years ago to claim as our own an eight-year-old, red-haired, green-eyed, freckled, emotional wreck of a child.

Just a few drops of hope, but they are enough.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Another Reason It's Good to Live Where We Do

If you have read this blog for any length of time you have probably gathered that we have recently moved, as of June 1, as a result of an employment change for me. As a United Methodist clergyperson, I am subject to “appointment” by our Bishop (which means, roughly, that in our polity it is the Bishop who decides when and where clergy move). We knew that after seven years in our previous church a move was to be expected; in fact, I assisted with the process by communicating with our District Superintendent (who works with five others and the Bishop to form what we call “the Cabinet”) that while we would be happy to stay where we had been, we were open to a change in appointment if there seemed to be a good match. There was, and so we moved. I have told others, in fact, that if we could have hand picked our next appointment, we would have chosen the community to which we have been appointed, and our inklings have proven positive. We really enjoy our new church, our new community, and the new opportunities we have before us.

But it is always good to have a reminder that where we live is good for us as parents and good for our children. Today, once again, I have had the opportunity to be reminded of God’s providence in that way. This morning I left our new town with three of our children – Benjamin our 14-year-old, Mercedes our 11-year-old, and Dominyk our 10-year-old. Tonight we are staying in the town where I grew up, and tomorrow we will head another three hours north (by which time we will be closer to Canada than I have been in years) to visit our seventeen-year-old son Mike, who is due to finish a Department of Corrections work camp in the next three weeks.

One of the things I like to do when I bring my kids back “home” to where I gew up is to take them to the places that had some meaning to me when I was a kid. While the topography and natural beauty of this part of the state is spectacular, it isn’t exactly the epicenter of social advancement or community development. Truth be told, things haven’t changed here much in the past one hundred years since its pioneer settlement at the turn of the last century.

And something I’ve learned about visiting here is that other than my family members there are few other people I really want to connect with. Although I spent my first eighteen years here, the only people my age left in the community are those who were unable to “get out” of the small town. Typically they subsist with menial physical labor jobs, and often their lives are characterized by chemical dependency and other forms of abusive living.

But tonight, in our limited hours before departing early tomorrow morning, we visited my eighty-seven-year-old grandmother who recently experienced a stroke. Her quality of life has visibly changed, and her ability to communicate will be forever stunted. My mother and her two sisters rotate shifts to care for grandma in her own home, with an occasional “outside” respite person who will sit with grandma for an hour or two while the “sisters” tend to other responsibilities. We also visited my cousin’s twin babies (who are charming enough to entice me into thinking about what life would be like with babies of our own ... even with our youngest now ten years old). It’s been a whirlwind tours of the relatives, but we also had a chance to visit two area fire towers.

For those of you with urban or suburban roots, or for those who grew up in a part of the country without fear of forest fires, this is probably something new to you. Years ago the fire towers were constructed at various places in this forested part of northern Minnesota so that “spotters” could watch daily to detect forest fires in this sparsely populated part of the world. They would call in any suspicious sightings and sent rangers to evaluate the situation. These days technology allows for a more direct and less personal involvement in preventing forest fires, so they are largely abandoned.

When I was a child two of the towers were actively used, and my grandmother (the same one to whom I refer above) would occasionally take me on “field trips” to visit them during the summer days I often spent with her. These days they are abandoned, but they bring back a flood of memories for me.

So we started, first, with the tower twenty-five miles north of my home town. It is becoming more and more delapidated month by month, but still sports an impressive view from atop is ninety-foot top. My three kids scampered to the top in no time, carefully scaling the missing steps and fortunately exercising fairly appropriate safety manners. Dominyk, to whom I will refer shortly, always achieves a less-than-average score on the safety scale, and tonight was no exception. I was happy to see them climb and to hear the excitement in their voices as they described the view to me. After cresting the coniferous and deciduous tree tops, they could see for miles. The green leaves of summer are already fulminating into scarlet and yellow; fall is on the way. With the cool early evening breezes refreshing our spirits, we decided to visit a second tower, miles away from the first.

The second tower is at the end of what becomes a very narrow township road. It has had little care over the past ten or so years, so it is fairly rugged. Our Town and Country minivan edged its way through the narrow, branch-secluded road until we reached the bottom of the tower. Parking the van we began a five-minute hike up the hill to the tower. By this time it was nearly dark, and I was anxious to get the job accomplished and be on our way. As we approached the tower I could hear voices and through the brush-shrouded dimness of dusk I could see three male figures at the base of the tower. I tried to encourage our children to follow me back to the van, because I know that three males in the middle of the northwoods gathered at an unused tower nearing dusk are probably not the friendliest of social connections. Undeterred, my children would hear nothing of turning back. We were too close by this time to turn around without causing an even more obvious intrusion, so we forged ahead.

I exchanged social pleasantries with the three men of various ages while the kids began their ascent on the rickety ladder leading some eighty feet into the air. This tower was even less well maintained than the previous one we had visited, and its ladder offers little protection, so I was a bit ill at ease to begin with, but to be interlopers into the masculine trinity made me even a little more apprehensive. They were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer (not an uncommon sight in this “neck of the woods,” so to speak) and offered a word of advice to the first up the ladder, who happened to be Dominyk, our socially filterless child. They said, “It’s a nice climb, but watch out for the bee’s nest at the top.” Dominyk of course challenged their advice. “There’s no bee’s nest up there!” he declared as he continued his skyward trek. Trying to add a little fatherly, sage wisdom, I advised, “Well, check it out for yourself, then.” So he scampered to the top, all the while doubting what his resident advisors had told him.

During their move upward, the guys at the base asked, “So, where are you from?” I said, “Actually I grew up here, but we’re from Mankato now.” “Oh yeah,” one of them said, “where abouts?” I described the geographical location, told them my last name and indicated my parentage. One of the guys, the older of the bunch, said, “Yeah? What’s your name?” I told him my first name, and he queried, “You the minister?” “Yeah, that’s me,” I said. A second of the guys, talking to his buddy said, “Hey, you guys probably graduated together.” I said, “1982.” The older guy said, “1978” and then identified himself. I immediately knew who he was and indicated that I did. The other two guys said little more.

About this time Dominyk began to yell from the top of the tower, “Hey, you guys are liars. There’s no bee’s nest up here.” I attempted to distract him to something else, but his obsessive compulsive ways would offer him no retreat. “You guys are dirty liars. There’s no bees at all.” Oblivious to the fact that they had been drinking, Dominyk continued his barrage. If they had known Dominyk it would have been a trifling matter, but I could tell they were getting a bit agitated, verbally attacked as they were by a ten-year-old they did not know, crawling on “their” tower, the son of a guy who hasn’t been around the area for years.

I was concerned that things might turn ugly, so I encouraged the kids to begin their descent so we could move on. The three guys at the bottom, though, remained fairly congenial and decided to depart on their motorized vehicle, offering me an appropriate goodbye. I’m hopeful that the sound of their vehicle covered Dominyk’s parting verbal salvo: “Hey, you guys are fricking liars. There’s no bees up here at all.”

On the way back to the van I reprimanded Dominyk and said, “You can’t talk that way to people you don’t know. Especially in the middle of the woods when we don’t live here, they do and when they’ve been drinking beer. One of these days you’re going get yourself beaten up when you talk like that over and over.”

Unscathed, Dominyk offered a repeated, consistent syllogism: They said there were bees; there were, in fact, no bees; therefore, they were liars. I finally threw my hands up in emotional exhaustion and said, “Well, I guess you’re going to have to learn the hard way, but I wish you would just listen to what I’m saying.”

We left, arrived back at my mom’s home, where of course my children regaled her with their evening’s accomplishments. They did not forget to include the verbal altercation at the second tower. When my mom asked me who was there I identified the individual who introduced himself to me, but indicated I did not know the other two. “Hmm,” she said. “I wonder what they were up there for?” Referring to the individual by name she said, “He’s a meth user, that one” and then went on to assail his character and recite his personal history over the past twenty-five years. Based on what I had remembered about him some twenty-five years ago in high school, I found her description quite accurate. He is, sadly, one of those who never left the small town. He will die here one day and his life will have accomplished little.

However, it is situations like these that remind me of how fortunate we are to live in a community which is big enough to include people who have seen enough of life not to be agitated by the inane mammerings of a special needs ten-year-old. It is a relief to me that in the community in which we live our children will have the opportunity to see others who have made successful choices in life. And as parents we will not have to worry in quite the same way about what might happen to a socially inappropriate kid who verbally taunts drunken, drug-using adults.

This is one more reason – and frankly, not the first I would have thought of were it not for the happenings of tonight – to be grateful to live where we live at this time in our lives.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Beautiful on the Inside, Too

Bedtime at our house can be chaotic. We have some specific expectations for our children, and these expectations are reinforced on a nightly basis. We expect that by 9:00 PM all electronic devices will be turned off (specifically we mean television and movies, although we are OK with music in kids' rooms if it's not so loud it disturbs others). And we expect that by 9:30 PM they will be settled in the rooms, preferably in bed, with noise to a minimum and conversation quiet enough so others don't have to hear.

I cannot remember if we have ever had a completely successful bedtime in our home. There is always at least one person, often more than one, who has a last-minute question for mom or dad, or who needs to get a drink, or who needs to find a book for school the next day, or who "remembers" at 9:29 that they have a homework project to complete. And sometimes it's mom or dad who remembers at the last minute someone's medication or a load of laundry that needs to be started or finished or put away. In any case, the sixty minutes between nine and ten in the evening in our home is often a stressful time.

Last night things went as expected and so Claudia and I were trying to head off several fronts of barrage at the same time. When we had reached a place of relative calm, we could hear Dominyk, our youngest son, speaking in his normal (read that "loud and clear") voice, telling his eleven-year-old brother and room companion about the "love" of his life.

(He met this girl during Vacation Bible School last week, and while I am yet to determine which girl this is, he is taken by her). Earlier in the week I was visiting Dominyk before bedtime and he said, "Dad, I just love her so much, but I'm not strong enough to tell her." This was the very night that Dominyk's behavior at VBS had been especially objectionable (multiple episodes of nasty words and defiance of his superiors) so I said, "Dominyk, if you continue to act the way you have, no girl is going to want to be near you, because that kind of behavior scares people. You need to focus on being appropriate." In addition, I suggested that most ten-year-old girls do not want or need to hear a male peer declare his love. I was trying, most of all, to prepare him for what would be almost certain rejection ... I don't think most girls his age would respond very favorably to a love declaration, and knowing Dominyk's lack of social filters, I could only imagine how this all might come about.

So, during our nightly bedtime process last night, it was worth hearing the penultimate sentence of Dominyk's explanation to his brother. I didn't catch the whole sentence, but it ended like this: " ... but, Tony, she's beautiful on the inside, too." It made me smile, and here's why.

Dominyk entered our family's life at the age of nine months, attached to only his bottle and to moving figures on television. His early days with us were spent with our "forcing" his attachment to us ... we would hold his rigid, chubby, unwieldy body against ours so that he would learn how to be cuddled. We would hold his pudgy little cheeks between our hands in order to make eye contact with him. We played peek-a-boo until he would giggle and seek us out. We worked very hard to facilitate developmental attachment, and we often have wondered how successful our attempts might be. If you know Dominyk you know how very unique he is. He lives in his own world and enters others' worlds only when pulled there with intentional efforts on the part of others. (Although he has not been so diagnosed, we suspect his symptoms are consistent with Asberger's, a mild form of autism).

So, my smile at the comment he didn't know we would hear is because I can see how our early efforts to nurture and care for him have resulted in some success. That we have been able to love Dominyk into seeing the value of relationships, and that he is able to yearn and pine for a girl he "just isn't strong enough" to tell is heartwarming. It means that someday he will be capable of the kind of human relationships that will provide him with joy and a sense of security. He has learned from us what it means to be attached to others, and he can continue forward in human relationships because of the work we did and continued from early on.

Funny thing, Dominyk. You are beautiful on the inside, too!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Just the Way It's Supposed To Be

This morning I returned our oldest son to college, where he will begin his third year as an Elementary Education major. Two years ago I experienced a great deal of heartache and pain at his departure from our home to college. I felt his absence deeply, more deeply than I thought possible. Last year, returning him for his second year, I experienced a sense of loss, but it was much more tempered and didn't result in hours of grief on my part. This year, the third time I've now done this, I'm glad to report that it feels just the way it's supposed to be.

Because Kyle has (wisely, in my opinion) decided to forego the purchase of a car until a later date, transportation to and from college is in one of two ways: his friends or his parents (usually his father). This summer we are two-and-a-half hours closer to his college, so I wondered if he would be finding a ride with a friend. But several weeks ago he asked if we would bring him back to college again this year. Claudia and I agreed that this would be possible, and so we put the date on the calendar. Because of some job training Kyle needed to be back about ten days earlier than his fellow collegians, so I was disappointed his summer with us would be cut short, but I understood the reason why.

A week or so ago he queried, "So, dad, are we going to be going back to college like we always do?" I smiled to myself, since two previous times now constitutes "always." I said, "What do you mean?" "You know. We drive up there, unload my stuff, see a movie, get something to eat, shop at Target for the things I'll need, and then we call it a day?" I told him the plan sounded good to me. There are, after all, some traditions that are meaningful enough to maintain. This is one of them. I can't really imagine Kyle going to college in August without his being accompanied by a parent. And I'm not sure Kyle imagines going back to college in August without a parent, either. For someone as independent and self-sufficient as Kyle has been all his life, this to me marks positive change. Each year he seems more human and relaxed about life, and this is a momentous thing.

Kyle came marching into our life over eight years ago, a parentified, in-charge, take-control eleven-year-old. He was accustomed to telling adult caretakers in his life what he would and wouldn't do; he was used to calling the shots and making the decisions that affected his life. He didn't trust anyone beyond himself, although he had learned how to use people to his advantage. The early years were difficult ones, but we stayed close to Kyle. I was optimistic and determined that my presence would make a difference in his life, although for years I have struggled to believe that it has mattered much. There has been enough residual conflict and disagreement over the years to make me doubt my earlier work and commitment. Surely, I convinced myself, Kyle would have turned out about the same without my presence in his life. He could have found ways to get what he wanted in order to procure a college education whether he had a loving parent or not.

I am not so inclined to believe that any longer. I am beginning to see that perhaps it is precisely because he has had a very committed father, continually nipping at his heels, refusing to let go completely and steadfastly believing God was in this whole enterprise, that Kyle is becoming the young adult he is.

I had today one of the best days I have had in many months, maybe years. As a melancholy, moody, introverted, self-loathing person, this is not a declaration I make lightly. But today has been a good day.

On the way to Bethel University we talked about his early years of life; I shared with him (as I often have in those moments) the little information I have about his birth parents and origins. I reminded him again of the importance of staying free of alcohol or other chemicals because his family history is so strongly predisposed to addiction. I told him how very proud I am of him that he has been able to move beyond his early challenges to pursue a college education. I envisioned with him a day when he, too, will marry and have children, and how his children will be the first in multiple generations in his birth family to have a normal, happy, healthy life. He didn't say much, but his eyes appeared a bit misty as I recounted and as he listened to the past eight years of his life with us. I shared with him my expectations and we agreed that this year we didn't need to have a written agreement as to lifestyle expectations. "I think I'm pretty good with that now, Dad," was his response. "I've got it figured out, and I don't want to go through the ordeal of my freshman year again," he said, referring to several less-than-our-family expectations he violated in those first nascent months as a first-time college student away from home.

By the time we dropped off his stuff, eaten lunch, seen a movie together, picked up his food and other supplies at Target, I was ready to let him go again. I miss him already, but the pain I feel is not my previous insecurity about whether or not Kyle will forget us at college and never want to return home again. It is a pleasant pain, the pain of knowing that because I have done a good job as a father my son will do what he needs to do and absent himself for another year of college and growth as a young adult. It could be, I remind myself, a completely different kind of pain. It could be the pain of visiting him in prison, or of watching him self-destruct by using chemicals and experiencing joblessness. It could be the pain of regret that I gave up years ago and just let him do whatever he damn-well pleased. But tonight I feel the pleasant pain that a loving parent feels for a young adult son. He's doing what he needs to do. I'm doing what I need to do. And it's just the way it's supposed to be.

The Best Interests of Whom?

If you have had any connection with the social services systems in our country, you know that the prevailing mantra is that all decisions are made with "the best interests of the child/ren" in mind. While I find this stance noble, even laudable, my firsthand experience leads to believe that it is not the best interests of the child that the institutional structures have in mind. It is my thesis that systems, by their very nature, function for their own self-preservation, their own "best interests," if you will. As a consequence, it is uncommon for a social worker, or a probation officer, or a judge to act in ways that others would perceive to be non-systemically reinforcing. I will acknowledge that the egregious errors of the social services system in years past have been largely rectified. For example, the racism and classism often associated with "the system" of the past have at least been acknowledged, and the evil of these predisoposing factors has been brought to the light of recognition. For example, while it is cumbersome for agencies to insure that Native American children are not under the care of a tribal nation before pursuing adoption in a non-Native family, I support the need to do this for legal, ethical and moral reasons.

What my experience "on the other side" of the social services system has taught me, however, is that first and foremost agencies are concerned with protecting themselves, both individually and corporately. They may purport that it is for legal reasons ("we need to follow the state statute in this regard" or "the federal guidelines allow for this"), but I suspect the reasons are far closer to home than simple law-abiding concern. There is the reality of job security and the indemic, systemic issue of self-preservation.

My feelings are not simply the ramblings of a neurotic or an uneducated or naive observer. While I have a number of specific situations I could cite, I will limit myself (on this occasion) to one in particular.

Years ago -- more than two, probably three -- Claudia and I sought to support of our county social services agency to provide resources for the delinquent behavior of our now seventeen-year-old son. He was academically biding his time in school (doing little), socially falling fast (associating himself with friends of questionable background and activity) and often absent in our home (repeatedly "running" or "forgetting" to come home for days at a time). We were advised there was little they could do, but they did offer PCA (personal care attendant) services for a couple of hours a day and urged us to puruse in-home family therapy. We accepted the offer of PCA services (if for no other reason, for the opportunity for respite; at the other end of optimism we hoped the influence of older, more responsible males might have a positive impact on him), but declined in-home family therapy, believing that it was not our family system that was most in need of intervention.

In the months to follow, his running continued, his absences became more pronounced, other children in our home were affected (one in particular began to run with him, and the others in our home experienced the perplexity and uncertainty of knowing siblings were unaccounted for days at a time), he began to sell his prescription meds to "friends" at school, and we realized the situation was beyond our control.

We turned to system, with which we erroneously believed we were partners. After all, in earlier years in another county we had been respected foster parents, providing training for incoming foster parents and receiving the consistent affirmation of our social services supervisors. We had, we believed, been partners in adopting older, special needs kids from the foster care system so that they would not have to face a future of uncertainty after "aging out of the system."

What we discovered by this time, however, is that we were no longer partners. We were judged to be "the problem" ... with the child/ren in question, in requesting any services at all, in our refusal to pursue the only service they offered (in-home family therapy).

As partners-no-more we were informed that we could refuse to have our child return home, that this would result in his sitting in detention until a hearing would come before the court at which time a CHIPS (in Minnesota lingo "Child in Need of Protection or Services") would be filed. Knowing that Mike would not be directed by us and that our only option was to refuse his presence in our home, we reluctantly made this decision. We were uncomfortable with this forced option, and our intuitive discomfort proved well founded.

We endured hearings in which we were questioned as to why he couldn't live in our home, we were made to look and feel like problematic parents, it was implied and written in documents submitted to the court that our refusal to participate in in-home family therapy was the reason Mike could find no success.

This has been going on now for years. Nine months ago Claudia and I decided that we would remove Mike from the group home he was living in and bring him home. Because the placement was voluntary on our part, we still had that option available to us, and we pursued it. Mike came home Christmas Day 2005. His first two months in our home went well. He attended a small school that focused on kids with various special needs, he did well academically, and he followed our parental lead. By the time he started back at public school (and we believed he deserved the chance to try this again), started to hang out with his old friends and assumed his old behavioral patterns, we could see the "writing on the wall." After another prolonged absence from our home (a number of days), we asked social services to intervene because Mike was no longer safe for himself or for others.

Mike was taken into custody, we were back in court and again harrangued by the judge. "What is so bad in your home that your son doesn't want to live there? What kind of parents are you?" The judge concluded his interrogation by saying, "There must be something between the lines here that I'm missing. I don't hear it and I don't understand it." Similar questions were asked of Mike and his non-committal shrugs were met with irritation and perplexity on the part of the judge, who irritatedly ordered Mike into foster care. It was prior to this hearing (six months ago now) that Mike informed his Guardian Ad Litem and his social worker to no longer refer to us as his parents, but as "Bart" and "Claudia." He never wanted to return home, he told them, because we were bad parents. A surprise to us was Mike's therapist's report to the court, in which he made it clear that "reunification with these parents should not be pursued. This young man deserves the opportunity to live in a loving family for the few years of childhood he has left." We were shocked that Mike's manipulation was effective enough to suck a trained therapist into his perceived "corner."

Mike's social worker told us that she had termianted the rights of other seventeen-year-old's parents, and that she would not hesitate to do so for him. At that point much of the fight in us ebbed away. We decided to let natural consequences ensue. Mike went off to foster care, lasted less than three weeks, and ended up with charges brought against him for vandalism and drug use. Although we were never apprised of the situation (we were told to have no contact with him by his guardian ad litem and his social worker), it became apparent that a new, "loving," "committed" family was not in Mike's future.

By June 1 (less than three months ago) we learned that reunification should not be attempted because of our poor ability to parent and that Mike would be participating in a Department of Corrections work camp for several months. Mike needed to learn about consequences (another post for another time), so off he went in early June. We were again told that we should not have contact with Mike. So we did not.

Three weeks ago or so Mike began to request the opportunity to talk with us. His social worker agreed, so Claudia began to talk with him on the phone. He had written two or three letters in which he apologized for his behavior, assured us he would do better and requested a new pair of shoes (his consistent pattern). Yesterday there was a staffing (to which we received no invitation) in which the staff at his work camp believes Mike should return home. His guardian ad litem and social worker have yet to offer their opinion, but we are fairly certain that they would be relieved to be done with his case (which would be the eventual outcome since we are now living in a new county).

So, even though we have been adjudged by the professionals as not being good enough parents to have Mike live with us, we are being asked to bring him home. I really need to know what has changed. How, in three months' time could we have gone from being the worst option for Mike's life to his most pressing one? I can tell you this. We haven't changed. Our family's values are the same, our parental priorities are consistent, our love for Mike is unchanged. How can a system committed to proving that we have been Mike's issue and problem now recommend that he live with us? The only possible explanation is that the best interests of the system would now be served by our agreement to do so.

So, I ask you: in all of this, whose best interests have been served? Certainly not our family's (but that's never been the question). The parents? (No question here). Mike's? (Seems dubious to me). The system's?

You tell me.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

I Had Almost Forgotten How Good It Feels ...

to be believed by the social service professionals. I have been reflecting in the past twenty-four hours on our most recent court appearance with our sixteen-year-old son and the related consultations prior to the hearing. We met briefly with the prosecuting attorney, with the probation officer and with the social services placement person.

If you have followed our saga over the past year or so from Claudia's blog or mine, you know the depth of our frustration level. While I cannot speak for Claudia (there are some things I have learned after ten years of marriage!) I can say that the past two or three years have been the most depressing and dismal I have faced in my life. It is painful to know as a parent that your child is struggling and that every intervention attempted is unsuccessful. I can still recal vividly the sleepless hours spent knowing that Mike and John were not going to come home, day after day wondering where they were and concerned about what they might be doing. There was the night (or rather, an early Sunday morning) when we were called because law enforcement had found them, and we had to go to the courthouse to pick them up (or to sign papers "abandoning" them). It was a March or April early Sunday morning, and I had to preach two worship services within a few hours. But we dragged ourselves out of bed, got dressed, left our other kids slumbering alone at home while we went to pick them up. And, of course, this was not a one-time event. The lying, the manipulation, the new tattoos with every run, the newly pierced body parts.

Then there was the weekend when they gained access to our church (that's right, the church I pastored) and wrote terroristic messages on dry erase boards, left knives on other staff peoples' chairs (eventually resulting in one of our staff persons resigning, although she never said so, due to this trauma). After making their presence known in that way, they attempted to start a fire in the basement of our church. Painful, deeply hurtful ... not only to have my parental personhood assaulted over and over, but to have my vocational life and the lives of hundreds of other innocent people (whom I was supposed to be providing spiritual leadership) so threatened is beyond description. The stress of those years still haunts me. It was a helpless position to be in, and it was bad.

But we really kind of expected that, you know. Adopting older children is always a risk, and we knew we might have some very bad years. So, even though these were moments of frustration and resentment, I couldn't blame anyone but myself for agreeing to adopt such rapscallions. I tried to blame Claudia, but in honesty understood I was as much a partner in the process as she. It was no one's "fault" but my own.

What we did not expect was the mistreatment by those hired by our tax dollars to "help" families in such situations. I never expected our county social services agency to belive the word of warped children with histories of abuse and neglect. I never expected to be summoned by the sheriff to a hearing in which I had to "admit" or "deny" that my child was in need of protection or services. I did not expect that I would have to sit through the fifteen-minute, generic, state-produced video in which I was warned that if I did not comply with the social services plan I could risk having my parental rights terminated. I did not expect that it would be our family system questioned, our passion ridiculed, and our parenting abilities questioned at every turn. I did not anticipate that our son with FASD would be able to spin such an incredible yarn for his therapist that the therapist would write a report to the court saying that he advised absolutely no contact between our son and his family because he "needed a family that truly cared about him." I never expected that our county social worker would be an intern of the therapist in question, and that it would be permissible for reasons of conflict of interest for these two people to have some of the most decisive powers when it came to Mike's long-term placement. I did not expect at nearly every turn to be treated like the suspect, the culprit, the reason for our two sons' demises. I did not expect to hear the social worker tell us that her plan "at this moment is for a termination of parental rights." I did not anticipate that she would say to us on more than one occasion, "Well, not every parent can parent every child, and not every child can be parented by every parent" (whatever that means).

It has been a long, hard, five-year struggle of mistreatment, misunderstanding and manipulation. And through it all our time and energy has been stolen from our other eight children who genuinely love us, typically do what we ask, and are growing up as "normal" kids. I resent, not so much the time and energy stolen by John and Mike, for I expected that; I resent the time and energy stolen from us by unprepared, ill-educated, naive social services workers.

So, I have forgotten over these years what it is like for parents to be treated with respect, as if they know what they are talking about, and as if they might be the ones who have been victimized.

The prosecuting attorney yesterday asked us for our opinion and didn't bat an eye when we said that we feel John needs a therapeutic placement and that he cannot live in our home because he is a danger to our family. In fact, after talking with us for a few minutes, she said, "I admire what you do. I have thought about foster care, and I'm not sure I could ever do that." For her to share a human moment in which she simply acknowledged that perhaps we have put up with a lot of crap over the years was more of a blessing than she knows.

It was not only the prosecuting attorney in our new county who provided support. The probation officer made it clear that she understands why we feel as we do and that John needs to understand the consequence of his choice, that we are running out of time.

And the one that I dreaded hearing from the most, the social services worker, was fairly supportive as well. Although I do not fully agree with his initial plan (a residential treatment stay followed by foster care), at least he made it plain to us that we should not have to suffer any further abuse at John's hands. "I think," he said, "you need to have no contact with John at this time. He needs to understand the depth of what he has done to you and your family, and he needs to experience the consequences." No immediate talk of a "reunification plan," no pandering around about how we needed to maintain weekly contact in order for us to "complete the plan" and ensure our parental relationshp. A simple: "No, you shouldn't be in contact with him at any time in the near future."

Don't misunderstand what I have written. (I have become defensive, you see, over the years because my words have often been used against me as seemingly uncaring, or perhaps even the reason why John is as he is). Claudia and I love John with all of our hearts. From the moment we met that little, skinny eight-year-old New Mexican boy with a southwestern drawl, we claimed him as our own. He is no longer skinny, he is no longer a New Mexican, he no longer has a southwestern drawl. But he will always be our son.

I had almost forgotten how good it feels to claim a child and to know that those with the power (social services, corrections and others) understand that you can love and child and not be able to have him in your home. That a parent can do that, not as a knee-jerk reaction to some simple family rule violation, but after heart-rending, prayerful searching that leads to a solution no one likes, but that must be for everyone's safety.

It feels very good, and it will take some time to believe that in a new county we might have a new kind of life after all.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bridges Out of Poverty: Future Orientation, Choice, and Power

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a training titled "Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities," which was led by Jodi Pfarr. Her presentation is based on the work of Ruby Payne (and others). One of the first things Jodi did was to invite us to create mental models of "generational poverty" and "middle class" life. She briefly referred to "wealthy" as a third stratification of our society, but we didn't spend much time. With her audience consisting mostly of education and human services types, I guess it's no wonder we didn't talk much about the "wealthy."

In any case, one of the tools she related to us is one she refers to as "Future Orientation, Choice, and Power." It is her contention that those raised in generational poverty [and it is my assumption that many, if not most, older child/ren who are adopted have generational poverty as a predisposing issue] have little confidence in the future, feel they have little or no choice about anything and lack a sense of personal empowerment to change. Jodi says that a person is a victim when s/he does not have these three tools available for personal use.

Those who have been generationally poverty-stricken see today as the most significant moment. Yesterday has some pull, but tomorrow (the future) does not exist in the minds of those from a background of generational poverty. Making it through today is the goal. Thre is little expectation and little reason for believe that tomorrow will be any different or any better, so the focus is on getting through one day at a time. Is it any wonder, she asks, why parents dealing with the social services system often "lose" their children? Those who live in poverty have learned to smile and say "yes" when the professionals enter their lives. The professionals may say it ten times in ten different ways -- get your life together, follow this plan, keep in touch with me -- or you will lose your child/ren in six months. And when the six-month deadline arrives, the child/ren are removed and the parent says, "You didn't tell me that."

Jodi suggests that profesionals ask the parents (in this case, it's the parents) a question like this: "In six months from now, if your children are in the house, what does this look like to you?" After they have had time to think and reflect upon this question, ask them a second, reverse question: "In six months from now, if your children are not in the house, what does this look like to you?" After further discussion, ask: "Which choice do you want?" The best response for professionals at this point is, "If that's your choice, then that's our choice." Even with mandated services, she says, people need to know that they have a choice in the matter.

To extend her thoughts for a moment to children adopted from cycles of generational poverty, I think it is important for adoptive parents to realize some of these dynamics. If a person raised in this situation has little sense of the future, diminished personal choice and little power ... imagine how this is compounded for a child who has been involved with a middle-class social services system. They, too, live for the moment, feel victimized (and many times have been) and feel little sense of personal empowerment.

For middle-class parents adopting children who have experienced generational cycles of poverty, this is a significant challenge. The view of the world from these positions is drastically different. There is a different "language" spoken in poverty than in middle-class life. [Ruby Payne does a great job in distinguishing the "registers" of language and how they differ from group to group].

Our presenter also made an important point regarding two very different, foundational orientations. Those in generational poverty value "relationship" above all else. It is who you know, and these relationships provide the matrix of life. (For example, when your ten-year-old car breaks down, you don't call AAA to tow it for you to your local dealership. You call Uncle Fred, who comes to pick up your car for you to take to one of his friends, because he knows that in three days you are going to be providing childcare for his children while he takes his wife to the clinic).

Middle-class living, however, is based upon achievement. It's not about who you know as much as it is about what you have accomplished. Questions like, "So, what do you do for a living? Where did you go to college?" abound. When an appliance breaks down, the middle class person calls a professional to fix it, not your sister's friend who has some expertise.

Let me say this much. I am not sure that when it comes to human relations the middle class lifestyle is preferable to that of those raised generatioanlly in poverty. In this way those who live poverty understand a great deal more about human connections than the middle class. Life is harder for those in poverty, there is no doubt, but relationships are deeper and more meaningful.

I also did not appreciate the presenter's assumption that large family size is a deterrent to healthy development on the part of children and adults. She spoke of how it is preferable for children to have space of their own (as in a room of their own), versus one that is shared, and how homework is an impossibility in a home with many people living in it. Now perhaps I misunderstood what she was saying -- she may have simply been saying that fourteen people living in a two bedroom home is not a healthy situation, which I may or may not agree with -- but I find it insulting that large family size and poverty are so often grouped together in the minds of professionals. There are plenty of small families who living in griding poverty and plenty of large families who live healthily and well. Perhaps I am defensive because I have run into this same attitude from professionals across the spectrum -- that if you have more than two or three children, somehow the children suffer from lack of attenetion or a lack of resources. This assumption is insulting to those of us who raise large families as middle-class people.

Especially challening for adoptive parents dealing with the social services system is the assumption on the part of professionals that the reason the children do what they do is because of the adoptive family system. There is little credence given to early years of neglect and/or abuse, from their family of origin which may be one characterized by "generational poverty." Professionals, listen up! Kids who are adopted at an older age bring with them into good, functional family systems the system they have been most acquainted with. Their conduct disorders, or their opposition, or their distractability, their victim's mentality ... these may not have come as a result of the adoptive family in which they are now living! And the best chance many of these kids have to develop a future orientation, the abilit to choose and a sense of personal empowerment may come from the very adoptive family you are misjudging and critiquing! Understand your systems theories well enough to know that there are interlocking systems and layers of systems at work in families with adopted children. And contrary to what you may have been taught as standard practice -- that a family system is the child's major cause of self-destruction -- realize that it may not be the current family system that is the issue, but one of the child's previous family systems. (And if that child has been in foster care after living in a birth familiy and before living with an adoptive family, there may be multiple systems at work in his/her life).

I remain convinced that the best chance kids in the system have to learn a new way of life (at least characterized by a sense of the future, an opportunity to choose and a sense of power) is through permanent, nurturing, committed adoptive families. The greatest harm we inflict upon children through the social services system is repeated moves (and with each move the child acquires a "new" family system to carry with them) and what often becomes the suspcious glances cast in the direction of capable adoptive parents.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Calm Continues

When I blogged yesterday that there is a sense of calm that has flooded through our home in the past forty-eight hours since John's exit, I thought perhaps it would be short lived. I was making at that time an intuitive assumption that his volatile presence had created at best an uneasy situation for our family system, but I had no tangible evidence. As with most human interactions, there is seldom scientifically verifiable data to confirm assumptions.

The fact is that today the calm continues. To be sure each of our children have their issues to deal with, and Tony still has outbursts, Salinda will still be a thirteen-year-old girl (fill in the blanks), and Dominyk will still be an ADHD-afflicted ten-year-old. The difference, though, is in the general atmosphere. John's directionless pacing (whether literal or metaphorical) and unpredictability have created an adverse environment, one that is noticeable only with his absence.

When Claudia blogs that she responded like a victim of domestic abuse (feeling sympathetic as a result of his expressions of perceived victimization), I think she speaks for the whole family. We have all bought the psychological lie that we have been somehow responsible for John's controlling, manipulative, stressful behavior. He has been able to instill in us the idea that if only we could somehow change (our family policies, or our parental direction, or his siblings actions) he would be fine. The bottom line is that someone who is sixteen years old, who has been given every opportunity available for five years and who has dominated the family system must make some choices of his own. His behavior and outlook have been reinforced by social services providers (who have in the past year or so begun to see what we were saying all along), the supposed child protection system (which has been most interested in protecting its own self) and other well-meaning, but misguided, people who think someone like John needs only "love."

Love he has had an abundance of, and of every possible kind. Unconditional love, yes. "Tough love," yes. Forgiving love, yes. Second-opportunity love, yes. Let's-try-it-again love, yes.

But the issue is not love. It is not commitment. It is not parental concern. The issue is squarely his. He must decide how he will live his life. He must decide whether to use violence and intimidation to get his way. We have hoped that he would have learned this in the past five years, as we and others have attempted to derail him from the corrections system. But he could not or would not listen. He has been unable to see his own self-interest in making appropriate choices.

And now the consequences are his. Troublingly they are ours, too, because this means that we will spend more time in court rooms and at social service agency tables to make case plans that may result in little change. If Claudia and I are not intentional it will mean that we still will spend more time (actively or inactively) focused upon John's concerns and issues, to the detriment of our children who deserve and need our presence in their lives now more than ever.

For today I am grateful for the calm that exists in our home. I grieve that John is where he is, miserable and angry. But for the rest of us, I am feeling freer than I have in months. To experience this corporate calm of the soul is a balm for the wounded psyche which I will not be eager to relinquish.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Regrets ... I've Had a Few

I am not exactly a crooner fan, and the "brat pack" entertainers were a generation ahead of me, but I have often hummed selected lyrics from Frank Sinatra's "My Way" over the years. (I say selected lyrics because I agree with few of the lyrics, with its emphasis on rugged individualism and unshaded humanism). The lyrics I often hum to myself are these:

Regrets, I've had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

Over the past ten years (can it be that long already?!) of foster and adoptive parenting, I have acquired some regrets. I regret my naivete, my personal sense of invulnerability, and my lack of preparation. Realistically, I understand that there is no way one can be insightful enough, strong enough or prepared enough to work with children whose history is checkered with abuse and neglect. So, I've had regrets, but they mostly relate to my own sense of inadequacy, and not to the children who have become part of my life through adoption. So, really, along with old Blue Eyes, I can say that they have been "too few to mention." Claudia and I do what we have to do. We do not walk away, we do not abandon, we do not leave behind.

There is one thing my past ten years has taught me that I do not regret. These years have been transforming, and I have come to learn that transformation always comes with a price. Before this adoptive parenting journey I was naively idealistic. I believed that all troubled kids needed was someone to love them. I have discovered that troubled kids need someone to love them no matter how badly they treat you. I believed that nurture trumped nature, that the benefits of a committed and loving family could overcome early years of neglect and abuse. I have discovered that the benefit of a loving family is that at its very least it offers a challenging child the opportunity to see a different way of life. There is no guarantee that the child will (or will be able) to make that way of life his or her own. I once believed that children, given the opportunity to see two sides oflife, would readily choose the more positive, promising option when given the choice. I have discovered that the pull of personal history is very strong. I once believed that living in a family where faith in God, consistent guidelines and generous affection could transform any child. I have discovered, rather, that the parent is often the one who is most spiritually transformed through the years.

When I speak about The Spiritual Dynamics of Adoptive Parenting, one of the strongest points I make is that authentic spiritual transformation takes place in the presence of conflict, not harmony, and that all transformation comes with personal pain and sacrifice. God has given me the opportunity again and again to experience what it is I seek to teach others about deep, personal transformation. This unrequested gift results in authenticity, and it is never an easy acquisition.

The past forty-eight hours have provided yet more opportunity for personal transformation. It has come with a personal and familial cost. To tell the county prosecutor, "No, we do not want our son to return home, and no we do not want to have charges dropped" is a moment of personal transformation. After five years of trying all we can to move John away from the department of corrections system, I realize we have done all we can do. To watch as your son enters a courtroom handcuffed, legcuffed, shuffling in with a prisoner's gait is personally transforming. To observe his glower, his pseudo-machismo, his screw-the-world stance is a moment of personal transformation. To hear your son's court-appointed attorney tell the judge, "Well, your honor, if his parents won't take him home, then there's not much more we can do today" is personally transforming.

But my most haunting mental image, and one that bites at my soul hour after hour, is how closely his life is becoming that of his birth father's. Several weeks ago I did an online search for the prison system in John's state of origin to discover a photo listing of his birth father, who is incarcerated and will be for many more years. At the time the physical resemblance between the two caused the hairs on my neck to stand up. It was an eerie experience, and I prayed at the time that his birth father would be the last generation of that family to be housed in prison. Yesterday, watching John woodenly enter the courtroom in restraints, dramatically reminded me that my earlier prayer has not been answered.

Claudia and I (she more than I, frankly) continue to hold out hope that one day he will understand that he doesn't have to follow in his birth father's footsteps. And it's at this point that I recognize regrets ... regrets that John was not removed from an abusive and neglectful family earlier in his life; regrets that our time with him was not convincing enough to make a difference; regrets that begin with "What if." "What if we had been able to spend even more time with him than we have?" "What if he had continued to take his meds as prescribed?"

All I know at this moment in time is that our family's emotional system is already relieved. Last night in our home there was a palpable sense of peace. Bedtime was a relaxed affair, with light, engaging conversations and children who appropriately found their ways to their rooms with little argumentation or dispute. Claudia and I were able to talk for a few minutes before drifting off to sleep without fear of an intrusive knock at our door (a consistent, every-night expectation while John was home). We did not have to anticipate the every-evening dispute about whether or not John would take his medication, would refuse to, or would say he had, only to find piles of pills in shelves of the house later.

Based on this dramatic and blessed change in our lives, perhaps my greatest regret is that John didn't exit earlier. But if he had left sooner I suppose the regret would have been different ... it would have been the questioning about whether we did the right thing, whether or not this was giving up on him, wondering if we had short-changed him. The past few weeks have been transforming for me. This is a transformation I have not requested and, to be honest, have not welcomed, but it has been necessary.

And the story is, of course, not over. John has been our son for eight years, and he will continue to be our son, whether he is able to live in our home or not. We love him no more or no less today than we have all these years. We will continue to be in connection with him as we are permitted, and we will always believe God can do more for John than we have been able to. And maybe that's enough. For today, anyway, my regrets are too few to remember.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Victim

"So," the officer (who happened to be female) asked her male counterpart, "Is he a victim, too?"

Knowing the question was not directed to me, but to the police officer who had been taking my statement, the question confused me. My first thought, having been involved in foster and adoptive situations for ten years now, is that she was referring to our sixteen-year-old son, handcuffed in the back of one of the three squad cars parked at the curb of our quiet, residential neighborhood. Looking at me, the officer asked, "Were you concerned for your safety during this disturbance?" It was then that I realized, to my surprise, that the first officer was asking if I would be classified a "victim" of domestic assault as a result of John's barrage of filthy insults and baseball-wielding window smashing a few minutes earlier. Looking to me for my response, the officer noted my "yes" with professional emotionlessness.

It's strange being classified a "victim." In my work over the years, both as a pastor and in diverse forays into the juvenile justice system, I have worked with many "victims." All of my children, adopted as they were, to one degree or another, are victims of something. They have been victims of early childhood traumas -- too little food, too little nurture, too little structure, too little care. Some of my children have dealt with their early childhood traumas by overcoming their obstacles and finding success. We can look at them and feel that we have contributed to their personal good and to the ultimate good of society. But some of our children have to this point been unable to overcome their early years of adversity. They continue to lack trust, or motivation, or attachment or the skills to navigate life with any degree of success. They continue to be victims.

And now I am a victim, too. What a strange world is the one of adoptive parents. And to what or whom are we victims? I refuse to believe that I am solely a victim of a deranged son's abusive outbursts. Yes, I am a victim of domestic assault in the legal sense. The Minnesota statutes are very clear in that way, and an individual can be arrested for domestic assault whether the "victim" presses charges or not. And yes, I am a victim of domestic assault in the emotional sense. Hearing the repeated threats and the words, "This one is for you, fucking Bart" as the screen, window and frame of one of our large kitchen windows is repeately pummeled with an alumninum baseball bat feels quite personal to me. While I have not (yet) been subject to physical injury, I must admit that I wonder when that line might be crossed.

I am victim, and so is our son. He was victimized for years in a household that dealt with frustration and disappontment with beatings, verbal abuse and emotional torture. He has been victimized for the past several years by a social services system that empowered his manipulative ploys and believed his half-truths. He has been victimized by a lack of available and appropriate mental health interventions. He has been victimized by a legal system that knows only to initiate a CHIPS ("Child in Need of Protection or Services" it is called in Minnesota) petition against his parents, in which his parents are made the suspects and in which their motives are impugned.

Make no mistake about what I write. I am not defending our son's behavior. I am angry, I am concerned, I am embarrassed. I am wary. I am angry that our parental concerns of five years ago were inadequately handled by the professionals. I am concerned about what "next time" might look like should he return to our home. I am embarrassed that as his father for eight years I could not break thorugh the early years of abuse and neglect to inspire a different way of life for him. I am wary to trust him, wary of the damage this will have on our other children who deserve more in life than witnessing this behavior, and wary that my spouse and I do not share the same vision of his future.

I am a victim, but I am not alone. My spouse is a victim. Our other children are victims. John is a victim. We are victims together, but there is no victory in such camaraderie. There are no winners when it comes to domestic assault