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.


Kathleenb said...

Except that it seems to me that my kids came from a system of generational poverty where even those relationships were tainted - everybody was messed up on drugs, in and out of jail, etc. I think generational poverty can be linked with either clean living - maybe only in rural areas or small towns? - or with substance abuse and such. Those two situations yield different results.

And AMEN to your comments about the source of adopted kids' issues not coming from their adoptive families - those adopted kids are often the abusers in the relationship, not the adoptive families. How many of us have PTSD as a result of the antics of our beloved adopteds?

Bart said...

Thank you, kathleenb; you're right, of course, about the relationships in generational poverty. I didn't report as accurately I needed to about the nature of relationships in generational poverty. These relationships are formed out of necessity and for survival, and more often than not include the issues you mention -- chemical dependency, criminality and other subtle or overt kinds of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual and the like). As I re-read what I wrote, I recognize that I erroneously communicated that the relationships of those in generational poverty as somehow idyllic ones. I stand corrected ... thank you!

yolie said...

Very well said, Mr.Bart. I coudln't agree more, and Mom and I talk about this all the time, often as a social service provider is once again "not getting it" when it comes to our family.