Friday, February 29, 2008

What You Can Learn At the Dinner Table

The past day has been a much better one for our family. The deep, dark emotions have been expunged, and everyone is responding so well to the change. We are grateful for that.

These days we seldom have dinner with every family member present (even excluding those who are in jail, residential treatment or college), and tonight we had one person missing, too. But the rest of us were eating our hamburgers, munching on our chips and eating orange slices. We are nearly finished eating and our sixteen-year-old son looks at me and says, "Dad?" "Yeah," I reply, just before drinking my last sip of water.

"There's a newspaper article about Mike."

"Oh, there is? How do you know?"

"One of my teachers showed it to me at school."

"What did it say?"

"Something about how he broke into the church and then put a gun on a table or something."

I promptly excused myself from the table and jumped online to see what I could see. (We do not subscribe to print versions of any daily newspaper, so we wouldn't have seen it that way). Because the church is located in a county different from the one in which we reside, it is in that county's newspaper that the following article appears. I'm not linking it to this blog because sometimes the link is inactive after a short period of time, but full credit for the article belongs to the St. Peter Herald:

2/27/2008 2:41:00 PM Email this article • Print this article
Mankato man charged with felony witness tampering

By Kurt Hildebrandt
Staff Writer

ST. PETER - An 18-year-old Mankato man faces five felony charges including witness tampering for his role in a break-in at a Methodist church in North Mankato on February 15.

Michael Ward Fletcher has been charged in Nicollet County District Court with felony counts of first degree aggravated witness tampering, terroristic threats, first degree burglary, theft and first degree criminal damage to property. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

On February 15, North Mankato Police received a report from an employee at the United Methodist Church's education building that someone had entered the building between 9 and 10:30 p.m. on February 14 and removed a safe. The suspect(s) gained access by breaking several windows as well as doing damage to the main office and its contents.

The employee informed police the safe contained several blank checks, several signed checks and other financial information belonging to the church.

Later that day, Mankato Police contacted North Mankato Police to report they found a safe matching a description of the one missing from the church. It appeared as if the safe had been drug on the ground to the 500 block of West Sixth Street in Mankato. A tool box was also found at the scene as well as tools that appeared to have been used to open the safe.

A subsequent investigation determined that Fletcher and a 17-year old male from Mankato were the main suspects in the case. The 17-year old had originally told police he had been with a female friend of his the night in question, but the female denied his claim when police called her to verify his story.

They also learned the tool box belonged to the 17-year old's stepfather.

According to the report, the female friend and two other females who were at her residence later informed police that on the morning of February 17 Fletcher had entered their residence to talk to them about the night in question. They claimed that while Fletcher was talking to them he pulled out a black handgun and laid it on a nearby coffee table which frightened all three of them. One of the female witnesses informed police that Fletcher had pointed the same gun at her one time prior to this incident.

With these five felony counts, plus the other counts he's managed to rack up in our county over the past year, I fear that Mike's public accessibility has come to a screeching halt.

It's strange what you can learn at the dinner table. Even when you don't really want to know.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

When Those Closest To You Despise Your Most Important Relationship

We had our court date with older daughter this afternoon, and I returned back to the office to continue working until I return home in a little while. I have been thinking since our pre-courtroom conversation (the daughter, my wife and the probation officer) about what transpired.

Daughter is compliant, remorseful, embarrassed to be back in court in shackles. She expresses dismay that she finds herself in this position again. She is glad to return home, but not necessarily happy to return to her family. It is, however, better than detention and better than a long-term treatment stay.

When confronted by the probation officer about her recent disrespectful episodes concerning church attendance (one of our family's expectations), she replied: "Why should I have to go. I don't believe all that." Both her mother and the probation officer reminded Salinda that we are not mandating that she believe anything, but that part of the way a family functions is to be mutually respectful. The PO asked, "Well, maybe your parents don't believe in your boyfriend." (She had earlier mentioned that he is the most important thing in her life). "Have your parents been disrespectful about him?" Her sullen response, "No." Then proceeded an explanation about how our family expects its members to worship together; and when family members meet expectations they then receive individual privileges they believe important.

That's all very rational and sensible, I suppose, but it still tears at my heart, which I'm sure is exactly why she is maintaining the position she is. I suspect her real objection to church has more to do with the fact that her birth brother John never completed confirmation (due to his numerous in-and-out times in our family's life), and she believes that it would be disloyal to him if she were to accomplish what he has not (yet) done. I believe she is also embarrassed by the behavior of her two other of her brothers who have, within the same period of time, broken into the church and stolen money from the offering. Hey, I'm embarrassed by that myself. I am sure she is mad at God (whom she currently does not believe in) because it was God who made us leave a town she was content to live in to move to a larger, new community where things have been challenging. After all, if her father had a different job, this wouldn't have happened (at least in her mind).

But the irony does not escape me. The very thing (her parents' Christian faith) that caused her to be part of our family is the very thing she currently despises. I guess that makes sense in a twisted sort of way, too. If she is unhappy in or with her family or parents, she can blame the very "thing" that brought her into this family in the first place. So, it's not as though I can use that argument to help her understand how God has benefited her. To her it is no benefit at all.

One of the consequences of adopting "older" children who are still too young to remember the horrific beginnings of their lives (this daughter was six when she came into our family, having been in foster care for at least two years before that), is that they do not remember what it was like when they were that age. They assume, wrongly, that they were removed from healthy, loving families at the whim of some social workers and dumped into a family who may say they love them but never really could or can. I think when there are cross-cultural issues this only compounds the feelings. (Our daughter is Hispanic; her parents are white; her siblings come from multiple ethnic backgrounds).

It is painful for me to know that the one relationship that matter most to me (my connection with the God who called me and daily empowers me) is the one she chooses to attack. But, I am also relieved, because I know that the God I serve is big enough to take the disbelief of an adolescent trying to sort through what really matters in life. That Claudia and I are not only committed Christians, but that my vocation is in direct relationship to this God and the community of faith, does make me feel a little inept, or at least humbled. I know that I am not the only Christian parent who has had to deal with the agnostic railings of an angry adolescent, and I am reminded that even those who attempt to lead others in developing their faith lives may face opposition from those closest to them. Claudia says it only provides more integrity for my task, and I only wish integrity could be earned in less personal, painful ways.

As the Air Clears

I shouldn't be surprised after all this time, but I was taken aback again last night. Our older daughter has been brooding for days about an unspoken situation, her attitude and cooperation waning day by day into an abysmal pit of malaise. It would be one thing if it were only herself ebbing downward, but she has the ability to pull our entire family system into a quiet, sullen place that makes everyone ill at ease. So, by the time she and Claudia engaged in an interaction that resulted in Claudia being assaulted, I was not surprised. Well, that wasn't the surprise, because we had been expecting this to occur at some point. The cycle of history is a hard thing to break in the world of emotions. The surprise for me was how relieved everyone else was when the police finally arrived and eventually removed her from our home.

I was in my office yesterday afternoon when I received an instant message from our younger daughter.

Daughter: Hi, daddy.
Me: Hello, M______. How are you?
Daughter: Fine. But the police are here?
Me: What do you mean the police are there?
Daughter: : Yeah, the police are here.
Daughter: Yeah mom and S_____ got into it and mom got hit or something. But yeah, the police are here.
Me: Are you OK?
Daughter: Yeah, I'm fine.
Me: Do you think I need to come home?
Daughter: I don't know. If you want. I don't care.
Me: OK. I'll come home.
Daughter: Bye.

I arrived home, the police were with the other daughter and Claudia in the living room, and I went to the family room to see how the other children were doing. They were nonchalantly, happily engaged in electronic pursuits. There was no tension in the room, no expressed concern. They were calm and content. I asked some ordinary questions ("How was school today?") and assessed the situation as well in control.

In a few moments the older daughter appeared at the stairs, came down to the family room and entered in grandiose, dramatic fashion, moving directly to her younger (birth) sister. Sobbing uncontrollably she managed to pull her younger sister into her chaos, pushing both of them to tearful hugs. The remaining siblings and I, along with the friendly police officer, watched the scene unfold, and he finally said, "OK. We need to get going now." Hoodie pulled over her head and face, older daughter was escorted from the room and into the waiting squad car. Our younger daughter went to her room to cry a little longer, while Claudia and I took a few moments to debrief. Then I headed back to the other kids while Claudia went to talk with the remaining crying chid.

We went about the rest of the evening's activities, which on Wednesday means a number of church-related things. By the time I returned home at 9:00 from my responsibilities, nearly everyone was gathered at our kitchen table (which hasn't happened for some time, because older daughter is usually nearby affixed to the television or on the telephone, and her mood isn't exactly welcoming to others). We sat at the table, ate some Girl Scout cookies, and the children chattered happily with Claudia and me. The air had cleared, and everyone felt relieved that the emotional stress had dissipated.

Younger daughter was gregariously recounting her sixth grade health class discussion of sexuality, which led to fairly (I thought) appropriate comments from her brothers, including a few giggles and such. Claudia and I had to laugh when we heard younger daughter describing the reproductive process. After describing the female contribution to conception, she declaimed, "And then the guy gets an expression or something so that the sperm can get in there." I said, "An expression?!" "Oh, dad, you know what I mean, something like that." "You mean an erection?" "Oh yeah, that's it."

We all laughed. The air had begun to clear, and we were happy again, enjoying one another's company, unassailed by the dark, menacing mood that had attached itself to us for so many days. I only wish we could have as much joy when all of us are together.

It seems unfair for so many to endure so much emotional duress when one person is unhappy and committed to not resolving her issues. This path is a difficult one to navigate, but for now I am simply enjoying the momentary emotional freedom we are experiencing.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Why Adoptive Families Are Often Misunderstood

We've been fostering and adopting (mostly adopting) parents for nearly twelve years now. In those twelve years we have learned many things and faced significant challenges. It is the most interesting and challenging journey I have ever engaged. For me the biggest challenge and source of frustration, however, have come from well-meaning professionals who really don't understand. Lest you think I am painting with too broad a brush, let me be quick to say that I have also met my share of competent, informed and accessible professionals who have helped us and our children. Too often, however, those with the greatest opportunity to leverage change in the lives of our children assume that we who are the parents are the source of the problem.

I am reminded this morning of how that stereotype is reinforced in the professional community. I received in the mail a flyer advertising a professional training led by an individual with excellent academic credentials (he is an Ed.D. and evidently an accomplished author as well as trainer and psychologist). Here's how the session is advertised:

"Overindulged Children and Conduct Disorder: Treating Overindulgent Families"

While I haven't been through this training (and therefore can't make any particular criticisms) I am concerned, both as an adoptive parent and as a professional in the people helping world, that his assertions only reinforce the stereotype that it is parents who cause their children's psychological disorders.

The flyer says: "Overindulgence of children has become a serious issue leading children and teens to conduct disorder symptoms." "Bright and loving parents, with intense cognitive distortions, confuse love with overindulgence. Their overindulgences stop them from mentoring their children, leading children to develop ... a life without boundaries, balance and conscience. The complications of overindulging children include symptoms of conduct disorder, acute self-centeredness, intense detachment, leading to anger and resentment fueling misbehavior, excessive dependency, 'it's-all-about-me entitlement, manipulation, loss of self-esteem, missing social skills and impulsiveness."

Hmmm. I have no reason to doubt this speaker's assertion that we have social difficulties with parents who overindulge their children. But I am concerned with the strength of the link this author places between postulated overindulgence and conduct disorder symptoms. I am especially concerned because the symptoms described above could fit any number of our children, and I doubt that we would classified "overindulgent."

As parents we have clear boundaries and expectations, we do not "buy" our children's love, we are not filled with "cognitive distortions," we are not abusing our children (a reason he gives for some parent' overindulgences). The professional stepping into this seminar is likely to step out believing that many adoptive families are overindulgent and this is the reason why their children act the way they do.

Perhaps I am too jaded by my experience of the past twelve years, but I find seminars such as these dangerous and unhelpful to those of us caring for children whose early years of neglect or abuse are not represented in the course content (the content is also included on the flyer, and there is nothing I see that allows for biological bases or for special situations like those of adoptive parents). I wonder if those majority of clients mental health professionals see are from families where overindulgence is an issue, or if it is something else? (How likely, for example, are "overindulgent" parents to have their children in therapy, versus parents like us whose children are there because of deep, long-held issues that did not originate from their years with us?)

Unless the professional is savvy enough to remove his or her own cognitive distortions about adoptive family life, this kind of training is not helpful for those who find ourselves in situations that may appear to be the result of "overindulgence," but are in fact the result of earlier years of abuse or neglect.

It Takes a Village to Support a Parent

Many times I fall back to the African understanding of life, popularized over the past twenty-five years by various ideologues: "It takes a village to raise a child." My experience as a pastor (which precedes my experience as a parent) and my life as a parent both verify the truth of this statement.

I want to expand the statement for a moment, however. I have learned that it also takes a village to support a parent. Being a parent is hard work, the toughest job you will ever love. There is no monetary benefit from this job, few social affirmations and ever fewer accolades from those with whom a parent works most closely, the children. It is selfless, tiring, and life-changing work.

And it can rarely be accomplished alone.

Having been raised in a culture that says to parents (and other kinds of adults): "We take care of our own around here," it is difficult sometimes to realize how important it is to have a support system as a parent. This is especially true, I think, of adoptive parents who often inherit challenges that are bewildering and unexpected.

Yesterday my premise was proven true.

Those who know me best in my vocational life would say, I think, that I am a pretty straightforward, transparent kind of person. I have little to hide and believe that one of the most important strengths I can exemplify as a pastoral leader is honesty and authenticity. Throughout the lives as parents of adoptive children, Claudia and I have chosen to be open, even when it is difficult and embarrassing.

Yesterday I stood before each worship service and explained that one of the culprits in our recent church break-in was our son. I apologized to the congregation, expressed our sense of embarrassment as well as our concern that this activity was one of the most personal ways our son could choose to attack us. It is one thing to break and enter a church and steal property from it; it is another to target the church that your father pastors. I explained that our son has a number of challenges, but the most significant one before him is his Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). I told the congregation I was not excusing his behavior, but simply trying to explain why someone might do what he did. I made it clear that we have never tried to shield any of our children from the choice they make and encourage the decision-makers to prosecute this violation to the fullest extent of the law. I appealed to the group to speak up if they see any pregnant woman drinking, reminding her of the significant cost (in so many ways) such activity exacts upon the child in the womb.

I didn't know what might happen. In some congregations this could be the catalyst to remove the pastor or to cast blame or to express disappointment or frustration. Everything I have come to know about this church has led me to believe we would receive a gracious, Christ-like response, but one never knows. Churches are interesting places.

How touched I was, then, to receive numerous words of consolation, encouragement and assurance of prayerful support. There were hugs of support, reminders that we as parents are not being blamed, and compassion expressed for our confused, brain-challenged son. One gentleman, relatively new to our church, shared with me on his way out the door that he has some understanding of the challenges Mike faces because he himself has been sober for twenty-some years now. Another individual said, "This doesn't make us think less of you as a pastor; it probably makes us think more highly of you."

It was a very bittersweet morning. No pastor ever wants to put his or her congregation in the situation we find ourselves in, but it has provided the opportunity for these dear brothers and sisters in Christ to offer consolation and kindness to their pastor and his family. To receive the grace of others is far more difficult than to offer grace. I am well-practiced in offering God's grace to other, but so much more inept at receiving it. Yesterday was one of those moments for me to learn fro my people. And what marvelous teachers they are.

I know that not all adoptive parents have found a community of faith in which they have been so graciously and lovingly supported. For that I grieve. But that we have such a place, for that I rejoice. (And if you're in our geographical area, we would love to welcome you to this village which knows how to support a parent).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

When the Soul Speaks in the Night

I had a dream last night. I'm sure I have many dreams, but I remember few of them. Claudia has been showing the signs of a cold of some sort, so I was awakened several times during the night by her restless discomfort, and it was during one of those liminal moments that I was able to remember what I dreamed and ponder it a bit.

Claudia and I were together at a conference where we had speaking responsibilities. It was a warm location (thank God for a respite, even if dream-like, from the subzero temperatures we have been experiencing in Minnesota this month), and we were enjoying the change of scenery and the opportunity to distance ourselves from our current set of parenting realities. In the midst of our time away, our son Mike appeared out of nowhere. (He is the eighteen-year-old who will be arrested for breaking into our church last week).

We have not had contact with Mike since early December when he had to be removed from our home by law enforcement. Our final moments with him before his escorted departure included threats on his part, both verbal and facial, that we would regret what we "were doing to him." Since that time we have had to obtain a harassment order due to his obscene and threatening phone calls, so our connections with him have been tenuous and conflicted since that time. (In case you are wondering we did not completely close Mike off from communicating with us. We asked that the harassment order allow him to contact us by US mail if he so chose. He has not chosen that means of communication).

So, Claudia and I are in an idyllic setting somewhere long away from our current circumstances when Mike appears. Funny, but that's kind of how Mike has done things for years in our life, even before the most recent round of indignities. I remember little about what he had to say, but I remember with clarity what my response to him was.

After getting over the initial surprise of his presence, I am torn between dismay and concern. I am dismayed because of choices he has made, especially those that are directly impacting us. I am concerned because I see so little hope for his future. I am surprised in my dream that I am angry. There is little sense of retribution or retaliation in my subconscious thoughts. I don't desire harm to come to him, I don't want to smack him for his stupidity, I don't want his brain-challenged purposeless human personae to sit in jail or prison.

I look into his face and see vulnerability, confusion, rage, perplexity, and void.

We talk in the dream, although I do not remember the specific subject matter. I tell him that his choices continue to distance us from one another. I express my grief that his life continues to move in a negative direction with little evidence of change or hope. I hear what I assume to be his accusations, his blame placed upon us as his parents. If only we parents had done things differently it wouldn't be this way. It's our faults, he says in my dream. He never had a chance because of our bad parenting over the years. We are the ones who should regret, he chides. He is not the cause of his own problems. We are. His fragile, disjointed sense of self can accept no responsibility.

And then I realize something. Something I have known all along but have sometimes forgotten. Mike is psychologically fragmented, organically challenged, chemically dependent, narcissistically focused. These are not conditions we caused after we adopted him at the age of eight. These are challenges he brought with him, none of which he asked for. He bears the marks of early years of neglect and abuse. We did our best to offer him a different way of life, a way out, but he has not been able to see it.

Yet. Maybe never. And maybe never in a way that is directly related to us.

"But you have done all you can do, all you have needed to do," my soul tells me. "Because you are not God. You did not create him, and you cannot change him. You can only love him, even if from an ever-lengthening distance. That will be enough. Because it is one thing he can never take from you."

So I continue to love our wayward son, hoping that the life in which he finds himself will teach him in ways that I have been unable. But for now my soul is at peace. And that is enough.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Consolation and Affliction

During the weeks of Lent I have been more intentional about my prayer life, using what is called a "daily office" (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, see as an example) to form my times of prayerful contemplation. This morning as I concluded the office I spoke these words: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction so that we may able to console those who are in any affliction."

These words are recorded in Paul's second letter to the Corinthian church. I have read them many times in the course of my Christian pilgrimage. Usually I read these words as a reminder of my pastoral commission to console others and to be a Christ-like presence to those who find themselves mired in affliction. But today I have the opportunity to see this a different way, to be the one feeling afflicted, needing the consolation of others. I must admit that it is an unnatural and uncomfortable place for me. I prefer to be the one offering consolation, not receiving it.

This morning one of the people who counts the tithes and offerings for the congregation I serve as pastor stopped me and shared a concern. Over the past several weeks he and the other "counter" have noticed that "loose offerings" (typically cash dropped anonymously in the plate) have been substantially lower than our historical pattern. He was raising it as an issue I needed to be aware of, but I instinctively knew who I needed to talk with.

And so, after school today, my wife interrogated our sixteen-year-old son, who admitted that he has been sneaking into the place where the offerings have been kept between services to take the cash out. He, of course, does not know how much money he has stolen over the past weeks (months?) but I suspect it is in the several hundred dollar range. I am, of course, outraged, humiliated and pained. It is one thing to steal from us at home (and he has done this, too), but to steal from the community of faith, the church where his father is the pastor? I console myself with the knowledge that his IQ is 62 (official classification: mentally retarded), but castigate myself for believing that he was somewhat trustworthy and could be allowed to have some freedom while at the church. His days of freedom are now over, and according to our family policy, he will repay double what he has stolen, which will completely wipe out his savings account, in addition to more money he will have to earn.

That was the first blow. The second began last week but was confirmed this afternoon.

Our church was broken into last Thursday night. A window smashed, an office door compromised, a church safe taken away in a stolen vehicle. As soon as I heard the details, again I knew in my gut who was responsible. Sure enough, this afternoon I received a telephone call from law enforcement asking if I knew the whereabouts of our eighteen-year-old son Mike. Since Mike has not lived with us for over two months (and seldom before that time), and since we have been forced to obtain a harassment order against him for his obscene and threatening phone calls, we do not know where Mike is. One person has already been arrested in this case, and Mike will be the second when he is found. Tomorrow he is scheduled to be in court on one of several felony charges, so perhaps he will show up and be taken into custody once again.

I am feeling the weight of affliction tonight. It is one thing to be afflicted for those things I have brought upon myself. They are unpleasant, but the consequences are deserved. It is harder when the affliction comes from a source not of your own, but yet as a result of choices you have made. I cannot help but wonder how our choice to adopt older kids looks to others in the community and in the church. I mean, it's one thing to have kids who are obnoxious at home or violate parents in their own home, but when it stems to a sacred place like the church -- especially when their father is the pastor -- it's a little much to bear.

I worry, of course, that my credibility has been broached, that my spiritual authority has been compromised, that my word means less when it is my own children violating God's "space." And tonight I am not the one offering consolation to oone who is afflicted, but I am the one afflicted who needs consolation.

What an ironic twist, indeed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When You Cannot Protect A Child From Herself

For better or worse one of the things that Claudia and I have not sought to do as parents is to protect our children from the consequences of their choices. Looking back over the past eleven years of parenting I can say that it was easier to do this when our kids were younger. It is one thing to "ground" your child from the phone or fun activities when school grades are not acceptable when he or she is eight than when she or he is fifteen. The fifteen-year-old challenges in new ways and the old ways of parental intervention no longer apply.

I was thinking about that this morning as I took our oldest daughter (15) to her therapy appointment in a community a number of miles away from our home. She and I are both introverts by nature, so I don't become nervous when there is little conversation between us during a routine drive like this morning's. I reflected to myself about how different things are now than they were six months ago. Less than 180 days ago she was hateful, embittered, guilt-ridden and an emotional nightmare. She was spending time with people she knew were not good for her and people she knew her parents would not find healthy. She was engaging in activities that were beyond our and her boundaries of acceptability. Everything seemed to crescendo in the mid-fall when her attitude, behavior and friends pulled down to a very low spot.

As her parent I had a good idea of where we were headed. I knew intuitively that things were deeply, horribly amiss in her life. But I knew even more strongly that there was only so much I or her mother could do to stop the plummet from occurring. We could remind her of our guidelines (which Claudia, especially, consistently did). We could provide a safe and loving home environment (which we sought to do). We could provide her the example she needed (which we did and do). We could love her in spite of her typical -- and atypical -- moodiness and anger. But we couldn't stop what she was unwilling to stop.

Having experienced similar (but not identical) situations with two of her older siblings, we knew that the time would come when the scenario would spin itself into a desperate place, and it would be only in that place that she would have to come face to face with her own self-imposed demons. And, as we knew it would, the time came. The gravity of her situation became reality only when she began to see the legal and other consequences of her actions. It has helped that law enforcement, probation, social services and her therapist have been supportive of our efforts as her parents. In our fifteen-year-old daughter's case we parents were not blamed for her behavior (as we were in the situation involving her two older siblings). The professionals have been respectful of us, our guidelines, our parental authority and our role. It has been such a huge difference from our previous experiences.

Part of it, of course, is the child in question. She is emotionally, psychologically, mentally in much better shape than her two siblings whose lives have progressively fallen apart for the past five years. She knows what is in her best interest, even if she has not been willing to abide by those principles. She believes that her mother and father do love her, can be trusted and are good people who can help her. She understands that working with the legal and social services systems will help her get out of her dilemma; she's smart enough to know how to cooperate when she must.

Sadly, her older two brothers have really never figured all of that out. It's not because we are different parents, or that we suddenly had different insight in how to raise her versus them, nor that our guidelines or principles have changed. They haven't. The difference is that the professionals have worked with us in this situation, and our daughter has come to understand that even if she wanted to she could not manipulate them into believing that somehow her parents are the cause of her choices.

I am a critic of much of the child welfare system as it exists, as anyone who reads this blog knows. But this is one situation where the players -- all of them, the "professionals," the parents and the child -- have come together, and the result has been promising. She is now getting her life back on track, but it is only because we did not protect her from the consequences of her actions. Early on we were encouraged by well-meaning law enforcement folks to avoid the legal process by not pressing charges and "just take her home." We knew, in our hearts, that would not work, and that even if it did, it would produce only a short-term result. I am more confident than ever that our choice not to protect her, but to let her receive the consequences of her actions while standing beside her. That's an important part. We didn't cut her off. We stayed with her, assured her of our love, reminded her that she was capable of much better and that we would not desert her.

But we didn't protect her from herself. If we had it is likely that we would be dealing with the same or an even more compromised daughter than we were six months ago.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why The Social Services System Cannot Parent a Child

Disclaimer: This is not a rant against individuals in the social services system who work valiantly on behalf of neglected, abused or mentally ill children. It is a commentary about the system itself.

In the past decade plus of parenting children who have come to us through the child welfare system, I have become convinced of this: the social services system cannot parent a child. The very system which was developed a hundred years and which has morphed throughout the ensuing century is the one authorized to protect vulnerable children in our society; however, it is not a substitute for human, committed, real parents. For some reason society as a whole has become convinced that because we have a system in place we need not be overly concerned with the children entrusted to that system. After all, we think, either naively or avoidantly, there are "people to take care of that, aren't there?" Any time we believe that any system, or inanimate structure created by imperfect people, modified by cultural mores and widely interpreted from county to county and state to state ... any time we believe a system can be trusted we are wrong.

This blog is not a rant about people working within the system who cannot be trusted, although there is probably room for that assertion as well. I continue to believe, even in the absence sometimes of much evidence, that there are, in fact, many competent, concerned, committed and good people working within the system on behalf of children.

Here is what brings this issue, once again, to the fore for me. If you have been following Claudia's blog you know that our son John has recently been transitioned from the one placement in the past four years that has worked for him. In the past four years he has been hospitalized several times, in emergency shelter care a couple of times, in juvenile delinquency center a number of times and in different foster homes at least three times. In all those placements, he has done the best in the boy's ranch where he had been for a year's time. His success there, however, meant for our county that it was time to "let him out to try again." The policy in our county, as I understand it, is that once a juvenile has been in a residential placement for one year's time he or she needs to be brought back out to see if "they can make it" on the outside. Against our concerns and our pleadings for John's best interest ("Why would you take a kid out of a place where he is doing well only to fail?") he returned back to our community at the beginning of the new year and was placed in a foster home.

We knew it would not work. In fact we were told that those making the decision on his behalf knew it would not work, either, but they had to try it because of the policy. Within three weeks his new foster care experience came to a crashing halt. He became aggressive in his foster home, having not taken his medication for a number of weeks. He has been placed in a residential setting more restrictive the one from which he was removed a month ago. "This will teach John that he can't act that way," is the attitude we receive from those in the system who have been entrusted with John's best interests.

Yesterday in the mail I received my copy of the judge's order placing John in his foster home. Yes, that's right. More than a month after John appeared in court (the first week of January), the order was finally processed three weeks later (coinciding, ironically, at about the same time as his departure from the foster home in question) and then mailed two weeks after he was already out of the foster home.

I understand that the court system is flooded. I know that judges are busy people. It doesn't matter to me that the paperwork took so long to be completed since we already know what the outcome of that decision is.

But what does matter to me is that our son John now sits in a restrictive setting (where he has been at some time in the distant past), rapidly approaching the age of eighteen, having been disrupted one more time from the only location where he had been doing pretty well. Those entrusted with his best interests have done well by their policies, but not very well by our son.

And the beauty of it for the system dwellers is this: in less than six months when John turns eighteen they won't have to worry about him at all. He will be out of their hands. When you work within a "child welfare system" you don't have to wonder with any sense of personal investment what happens when the child becomes an adult. After all, we have a criminal justice system that will pick up the pieces.

Another system, another broken, faulty attempt to care for children with mental health issues. And another panoply of individuals who no longer have an individual's "best interests" in mind, but society's. This is why a system cannot raise a child. Because a system has no heart, no flexibility, only a concern for its own self-perpetuation.

And it's parents, committed to the years beyond eighteen, who are the ones who absorb the pain, the frustration, the helplessness of life when someone you love does not fit easily or well into the strictures of society. It's the parents who are the heart, and sadly, the ones whose views are least often considered in the whole process.