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.

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