On Failed or Disrupted Placements

Image result for grieving motherHello Readers,

This post has been long in coming, but I honestly wasn’t ready to write about it until today.

My husband and I have spent the last year trying to adopt older kids. These older kids came with a hard past and a lot of mental health issues. That didn’t scare us. It’s also not what destroyed this placement.

What destroyed this placement and this adoption was the lack of accountability for the professionals involved in the case. Guardian ad Litem’s, for instance (that’s the kids’ lawyer), hardly have any oversight at all. Sure, one can file a complaint with the local Office of Child Representation, but more often than not those complaints are unfounded.

And it’s appalling.

In our case, the GAL had a personal vendetta against me. She’s been on this case for over five years now – WAY over the legal limits for children to have attained permanency. Why she had a personal vendetta against me, I don’t know nor will I ever know, but nevertheless she persisted. Her attacks on my character, and the department’s unwillingness to do anything about it, destroyed our placement, and as a consequence, disrupted our kids’ third adoptive placement. Third. Adoptive. Placement.

At one point we sat down and had a meeting with our department of human services’ attorney and the kids’ caseworker’s supervisor. A question was put to the department about who was keeping the department accountable. The county attorney gave a longwinded answer about how the department keeps the department accountable.

That’s NOT okay.

Because at the end of the day the children lose. Due to the lack of accountability for human services professionals, GALS, and any and all other decision makers on foster-adoptive cases, the children ALWAYS lose.

The adoptive parents lose too. We lost the last 14 months of our lives to this case and these children. We still love them and always will, but we are also currently grieving their loss. The last 14 months of my life have been the hardest I have ever endured, period.

Yet I still have my foster license and I still have a voice. I want to do something about this lack of accountability. So I’m starting a grassroots movement to increase accountability for GALs, caseworkers, and any other professionals who get to dictate what’s best for kids because kids, especially older kids like the ones we tried to adopt, are getting lost in the system and left behind.

I want to go to policy makers to change laws around the foster system. I want to advocate for positive changes for children. This lack of accountability has been going on for years and it needs to stop.

Some things we’ll be advocating for include, but are not limited to:

  1. Greater accountability for Guardian ad Litem’s and incremental reviews on cases open longer than twelve months. This can and should include appointing a second GAL or special official to cases that have had one or more placement disruptions, have been opened longer than two years, or have reached adoptive status.
  2. Court appointed counsel for foster parents from day one of a placement. Everyone on foster/ adoptive cases gets their own lawyer EXCEPT for foster parents, who are easily targeted scapegoats on cases, and can easily get lost in court documents, hearings, and department meetings without legal counsel.
  3. Greater accountability for county social services departments. This accountability should come from both the state and federal level. Currently, county departments’ only level of accountability comes from annual audits by the state. If “bad” cases don’t get pulled in that audit, there is absolutely nothing left to make sure the kids or families in those cases are protected.

Will you consider joining us in this fight to help children achieve permanency more effectively and efficiently? Will you help us fight for those who can’t fight for themselves? If you want to join this movement, please follow this blog and fill out the contact form on the “Contact Us” page.

 

 

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From the Outside Looking In

I’m a people pleaser. This is something about myself that I’ve acknowledged and been working against, because some time ago, I came to the all important realization that I can never please everyone. At some point, I have to be true to myself and my family.

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Back from the family vacay, I now possess new wisdom from hard lessons learned, the most important of which is this: when you’re on the outside looking in, you never have the full picture, so don’t judge.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from my first trip traveling with kids. Kids are kids and make mistakes, sure, but traumatized kids are rarely predictable. For me, what started out as an easy, argument and bickering-free road trip, slowly morphed into something I never expected: the vacation in Judgement Town.

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My foster kids are smart. When I say “smart” I mean really high IQs combined with an extra mature measure of street savvy due to having to learn how to survive from a very young age. So what looked like gross overreactions from me to what seemed like “typical” preteen behavior from my daughter, was actually my escalation after several days of being treated disrespectfully, being disobeyed in even the simplest of tasks, and then being judged by the rest of my family for it and told how to parent.

What everyone else saw: I was being too hard on my daughter. She was perfectly charming to everyone else, so she therefore was being mistreated. My son, on the other hand, was the one I should be paying more attention to, because he “plays” us and stretches the truth a lot.

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What I saw: My daughter being fully aware of how horrible she was treating me and how she deliberately was making me look bad, while being perfectly behaved and respectful to the rest of my family. What she didn’t care to share with those she charmed is that she admitted it all. My son was being exceptionally well-behaved, at least during the first week of the trip. My husband and I knew he was trying to get his way by going to one of us first and then going to the other. It didn’t work well for him very often. We were aware that he tends to stretch the truth, but these were petty lies and easily corrected. He was doing really well, so we let him be a kid and let him have his way some of the time. We were on vacation, after all, and wanted him to have fun.

What I knew through it all: My daughter looks and acts like the “good” child. She seems like she’s perfectly put together and well-adjusted. She learned how to do this before I ever knew her, because that’s how she survived in the midst of abuse. During that time, she also learned how to manipulate people into getting what she wanted and/or needed and learned that people who don’t know her well trust her easily when she’s charming. She’s a skilled liar, and until recently when she let down her guard and we saw through the facade, she’s gotten away with it without consequence. My son, on the other hand, looks like the “bad” child. He whines and acts much younger than his age when he doesn’t get his way, he’ll lie about little things even when we all know he’s lying and he rarely owns his actions. He used to have huge meltdowns and at one point a few months ago tried to pull a dresser onto himself. Dresser dismantled and removed, we held firm and maintained the structure, which he eventually admitted he liked, and the meltdowns eventually subsided. Regressions in his behavior today do not even compare to how he acted when he first moved in. He’s practically a different child now.

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Toward the end of the school year, my daughter got herself into some nasty trouble at school. She came clean, and since then, has been really difficult to relate with. Every time I think she wants to get close, she uses that to hurt me. We’ve talked time and time again about how it’s not okay to hurt others just because she is hurting. She asks “why?” and “who am I supposed to take it out on then, if not you?” every. single. time. we have this discussion. Every time I give her more constructive ways of dealing with her emotions, such as journaling, drawing, tearing up paper, etc. Every time she asks for goals, and I give her some manageable ones, like “think before you act” and still, I’ve made very little progress. What I’m learning, however, is subconsciously, she wants and needs to be held accountable for her actions. She needs to know that no matter what she does or how much she hurts us, we’re not going anywhere. That doesn’t mean, however, that we will allow her to get away with destructive and disrespectful behavior. 

I will admit there was one point during the trip that I had absolutely had enough and ended up flipping off a family member from the shore as she sailed away in my brother’s shiny speedboat (trust me, she deserved it, but that doesn’t excuse my actions). I’m not sure if she saw me, but my husband did, and he wasn’t impressed. Before that moment, I had tried to sit down and have an adult conversation with that family member, and she blew me off, blamed me for all of it, and said that I “was the situation.” This, coming from a woman who didn’t exactly win the award for best-parenting-practices and who is absolutely not trauma-informed, and has absolutely no idea what it is like trying to build a relationship with kids with such a rough past. Other family members tried to school me on my reactions toward my daughter as well, saying that I shouldn’t make a big thing out of it, but those same family members also parented their own kids with the same overreactions and strictness that I did, over things that I perceived as “typical” kid behavior. Unfortunately for me, I can be loud when the rest of my family is quiet. I am a trained opera singer; sometimes I can’t help it.

It all goes to show that when you’re an outsider looking in, don’t be so quick to judge. I don’t have the full picture of my brothers’ journeys with their kids, and they really don’t have the full picture of my journey with my kids. At the end of the day, as parents, we need to provide the structure and discipline that only we, as their parents, know they need and know they respond to. We have to listen to our “gut” when it comes to handling inappropriate behaviors from our kids, and sometimes, we need to tune out the “noise” created by the advice of others who don’t know better, like advice from parents who gave their fifth graders smart phones, for instance. We told our kids that their high school graduation present will be a smart phone if and only if they get accepted to college and plan to attend. Before that, they get the “dumb” phones. This is our choice because I honestly can’t imagine surviving middle school and parts of high school with the presence of social media, and then having access to it at my fingertips. That’s something my kids simply don’t need. They’ll hate us for it in the meantime, and other parents will attack our decision because they’re insecure with their own decision to let their 12-year-olds have smartphones and Facebook accounts, and we’ll ignore that noise too when it happens.

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The other important lesson I learned: toys don’t add to one’s happiness. Sure, they’re fun and provide a certain amount of entertainment for a time, but when all those toys cost thousands of dollars every month in payments that force one to become a slave to the 40-hour work week, do they really add to overall health and happiness? Do they really bring that much joy two out of seven days? Are they worth it?

One thing living in Colorado has taught me is that the best pleasures in life are simple. The beautiful scenery is better enjoyed with a light backpack and a good pair of hiking boots than in a fancy off-roading vehicle you only drive once a year because it was so expensive you don’t want to scratch it. Driving in a car you own — even if it is old and beat up — to meet friends for lunch is always better than driving a car you make payments on just to impress the stranger at the stoplight. Your true friends don’t care about the car you drive, or the size of your house, or your 72″ flatscreen TV, or any other “toys” you might own. They care about you. They want to spend time with you. Over the past few years, I’ve been slowly getting rid of stuff I never use. Some of it was sentimental and hard to let go of, but I felt a lot freer once I did. My house stays cleaner with less clutter everywhere as well. My cupboards and fridge are filled with the food and goods I need for two weeks, tops. It forces me to shop at the local farmers’ market more often and it also helps to prevent waste. Knowing that there are so many people in the world who have nothing, makes me absolutely despise wasting food. There’s an old saying: less is more. I would agree with a slight amendment: less but better. Just because I have a large closet doesn’t mean I have to fill it. In fact, deciding on my daily attire takes a lot less creative energy when I only have a few high quality and versatile pieces to choose from. I also am discovering that I find joy in a clean house and organized closets.

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Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox. Moral of the story: DON’T JUDGE (unless you are a licensed judge, in which case, judge on, but only in the courtroom)!!!

Traveling Light w/ Kids: Part 1

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Road trips are one of our favorite summer activities. Every year, we load up the car with our gear and pets and head west to visit my family. This year, however, is our very first year road-tripping with kids.

I must admit I’m a bit mortified. We are lucky that our first experience traveling with kids is with older kids (pre-teens), but they are still kids, nevertheless. They are also kids with a past, so they surprise us everyday with new behaviors we’ve never seen before. Who knows what could happen when we’re all stuck in a car together for 12 hours?(!)

So, I’ve been doing lots of research. We have a Jeep that we’re planning on taking, but with two big dogs in the back and kids taking up the backseat, we are limited on space for all our stuff. My husband borrowed a carrier designed for the top of cars such as ours, but that hasn’t stopped me from my obsessiveness with minimalist packing. My goal is to pack one duffle bag with everyone’s clothes. Everyone will also be allowed one small bag for toiletries and underwear (that’s mainly for our daughter’s privacy as “the lady” has shown up and it’s really none of her brother’s business).

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I know some of you more experienced parents out there are thinking that I’m totally bonkers for wanting a minimalist packing list, but I know it can be done because lots of other people out in cyberspace have tried it successfully. I also have realized that dragging that extra stuff along has never made long trips less stressful. In fact, all that stuff has had the opposite effect.

So here’s my game plan based on my own traveling experiences (my husband and I successfully refused to check any bags on our way to Europe last fall, we’ve moved a lot, and we take this road trip every year) and the research I’ve done preparing for this particular road trip. This is part 1, because this is before the trip. Be on the lookout for Part 2 to find out what worked and what didn’t. Hopefully it will help others get their traveling game on!

1) Plan ahead.

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I think I’ve read this on a dozen blogs and in a dozen different journals so far. Everyone starts with planning. Fortunately, I’m a natural planner, so this one was easy. I planned ahead by doing my research on what products are out there that will make our family trip easier, how to pack and what to pack, types of snack foods to bring and how to avoid eating out, etc. Once I had finished my research, I started making lists of the things I thought we’d need on our trip. I adjusted those lists several times by choosing to make some sacrifices. For instance, I really don’t need a sweater and a sweatshirt and a jacket. I chose the sweater and the jacket, but will be leaving my Porto University sweatshirt at home. For one, it’s super bulky. For another, it’s special, so I don’t want to risk losing it on the trip. I decided that my son also doesn’t need 8 pairs of underwear. We’ll have access to washing machines! On this trip, we will also be taking a three-day camping excursion, so we need to pack our tent, camp chairs, and air mattresses. This is honestly the bulkiest bit of our packing, and had we not been planning on camping with my brothers for this trip, I dare say we could leave that ugly luggage carrier off of the top of our Jeep.

 

2) Invest in the right products.

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During my research, I discovered Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap. I haven’t tried it yet, but apparently it has 18 different uses, from shampoo to dishes to laundry. It comes in different scents — I chose peppermint because I know that’s a smell my whole family can agree on — and comes in big family size bottles so I only had to buy one to fill everyone’s body wash, shampoo, and shave cream (for Hubby) travel-size bottles. It’s not difficult to find in stores, either. I picked mine up from the local Target in the organic soaps/ cosmetics aisle. It was near the Burt’s Bees products. Extra bonus: it’s fair trade and organic, which makes me doubly happy about my purchase and it was totally affordable. The large bottle only cost about $15. I filled 9 travel-size bottles with it and still have some left. That’s a lot cheaper than taking everyone’s individual shampoos and body washes to fill the travel bottles with. Also, the castile soap is concentrated, so it should go a really long way…as long as I can convince my kids that they don’t need as much as they think…but I digress. On my shopping trip, I also bought space-saver ziplock bags for clothes, travel toothbrushes that are full size but fold in half, travel-size toothpaste (one for each of us…again, this was a decision I made to preemptively stop fights between the kids), and mini deodorant for everyone (my son can really stink when he’s sweaty…). Below is a list of some other things that are necessary for traveling (specifically road-travel) with kids:

  1. Full-size first aid kit. I decided to skip the travel-size kit because it lacks some necessary components, such as tylenol and Neosporin. Now I won’t have to bring big bottles of that along.
  2. Snack-size ziplock bags. For all the snacks I got at the grocery store. A couple days before the trip, I’ll be preparing everyone’s “snack packs” so that the temptation to buy those sugary treats at the truck stops won’t be so hard to conquer. This is also inevitably healthier than eating at fast food places.
  3. Movie-theater candy boxes. Currently, King Soopers (Kroger) is having a sale on movie-theater candy (10 for $10). I got everyone four boxes of candy and labeled them by name so there are no arguments about who gets what. This will save us tons of money on the road.
  4. Our family’s favorite fizzy drinks and water bottles. We like Kirkland’s (Costco-brand) flavored waters because they are carbonated, taste great, and aren’t full of crap like most sodas. They are sugar and aspartame-free, and the only bad ingredients are food dyes. I’ll definitely take that over truck stop fountain drinks. We plan to freeze most of the water bottles so that they work as ice packs for our perishable foods, but as they start to thaw, they will make nice refreshing drinks as well!

 

3) Pack efficiently.
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As mentioned above, I plan on only taking one duffle bag of clothes for the whole family. Because we’ll be visiting family, this works out well because we’ll have access to washing machines, so, I really only need to bring one week’s worth of clothes for a two-and-a-half week trip. I also spent a lot of time researching how to pack clothes, with folding tips, and color-coordinating. Some of the best advice I saw was to color-coordinate everyone’s clothes and to keep it neutral. The last thing I need while on vacation is to have to do 30 loads of laundry. If everyone’s clothes are color-neutral, such as grays and blacks, I can wash the clothes all together. If I pack my son’s favorite red shirt, along with my daughter’s favorite white shirt, however, I will be forcing myself to do at least two loads of laundry. Why do that to myself? It’s a vacation, after all. Also, color-coordinating everyone means that our family pictures will look that much nicer. Anyone with kids knows that getting that nice picture is a lot harder than it should be.

 

4) Dress for the occasion.

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This probably works better for air-travel, but having everyone wear their bulkiest clothing items during travel-time will save a lot of packing space. I’ve also been told (though I admit I don’t take this advice often because I want to be comfortable) that wearing closed-toed shoes such as sneakers or hiking boots is best in case the worst should happen and I suddenly find myself traveling on foot.

 

5) Plan the route ahead of time.

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When we finally are on the road, I know of at least one place my husband and I always stop for a special tradition/ road-trip treat: Little America. That place is great. Best bathrooms ever. Cheap ice cream cones. By planning out our route efficiently, we can make time and room in our budget for this special tradition. On the flip side, we also happen to know that fuel prices at Little America are super high. So, using apps like GasBuddy (or gasbuddy.com) to navigate our fuel stops, we won’t get caught also needing fuel at our favorite roadside stop.

 

6) Keep your kids entertained for less.

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There are so many different products available for keeping kids entertained. One of the pieces of advice I’ve come across is surprising your kids with new toys that they can play with in the car (not expensive toys, but things you can find at the dollar store). Some people take the time to wrap these like presents. Personally, I don’t have time for that, nor do I want to deal with the trash, but I think the kids will appreciate it anyway. For my kiddos, I got sketch pads with new colored pencils for both, a fidget toy for my son, and a fashion designer coloring book for my daughter. I also grabbed some new books (I wanted to get these from the thrift store, but they didn’t have the ones I was looking for, so I ended up buying some on sale at Target), and they both have portable dvd players they can use. One of those dvd players was borrowed from a family friend. The other we had to buy, but Amazon has some really good deals, so don’t overspend on things like that if you don’t have to. We thought about downloading movies onto our iPad, but decided that portable dvd players only allow the user to do one thing, where as the iPad has some other things like games and documents that we don’t want our kids messing with. We also typically limit their screen time, so eliminating the temptation to do anything but watch a movie was worth the investment.

 

7) Clean the house before you leave.

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There’s nothing like a clean house, clean sheets, and clean bathrooms. There’s also nothing like coming home after being away for a while to a messy house. I think the last thing I want to do when I get home is have to worry about cleaning. So, that’ll be taken care of before leaving so that when we all get home and get to enjoy our own sheets for a change, they’ll be fresh and ready to accept us.

So, now it’s off to finishing the packing and prepping the food! Our trip is in t-minus three days. I will let you know (probably when I get back from vacationing it up), how it all went in “Traveling Light w/ Kids: Part 2.”

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Walls: A poem about the very real consequences of parenting children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

Walls.

My house is full of walls.                                                                                                                    Not the brick and mortar type,                                                                                                            Not the dry, papered, or paneled.                                                                                                      You call them imaginary because you can’t see.                                                                             But they are real.

They block my way every morning.                                                                                               They rise up in my path in the afternoon.                                                                                     They sometimes have doors that slam themselves shut                                                                  In the dusk of the evening hours.

Every day I work to tear them down.                                                                                            Every night they rebuild themselves.

I’ve become tired. I’m exhausted.                                                                                                         No one believes me.

My house is full of walls.                                                                                                                   Walls made of fear and anger.                                                                                                        Walls made of anxiety and hatred.                                                                                                     You can’t see them because they hide well.                                                                                     But they are still there.

Every now and then a window will appear.                                                                               Every now and then I’ll find a door.                                                                                             Every now and then I think I’ve found my way through                                                                 In the dawn of the morning hours.

Every night I cry at my failures.                                                                                                      Every day I try again.

I need help in this battle. I’m fighting a war I can’t win.                                                               The help I need never comes.

I’m paying for the sins of another woman.                                                                                      Sins I can’t possibly repay.                                                                                                                     Yet the debt is owed and the bill is due.                                                                                             The Collector is here to collect.

My house is full of walls.                                                                                                                      Not the type that shelter from the storm.                                                                                         Not the type that keep the cold at bay.                                                                                               You tell me there’s no winter chill                                                                                                      But I feel it all the same.

They whisper conspiratorially.                                                                                                           They make you believe that I put them there.                                                                               They make you believe that I started the fight.                                                                                  In the heat of the afternoon hours.

Every day I scream in agony from the pain.                                                                                 Every night my fingers bleed.

I’m screaming but no one hears me.                                                                                                   I’m screaming but no one comes.

My house is full of walls.                                                                                                                      Not the brick and mortar type,                                                                                                           Not the dry, papered, or paneled.                                                                                                      You call them imaginary because you won’t see.                                                                                      But they are real.

They are so real.

 

How to support foster children: a 5-step guide

Hello faithful readers!

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Today I’m going to talk about how you can support your local foster children with a handy dandy guide! Hopefully, you’ll find some useful information on how you can make a difference, especially if you can’t become a foster parent yourself.

 

  1. Let go of the guilt. If you know that you can’t become a foster parent, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, your awareness of your inability to be a foster parent is commendable. There are a lot of ways you can still get involved.
  2. Get in contact with your local DHS (Department of Human Services). Most likely, they are looking for people to volunteer at events or help out in other ways.
  3. Get in contact with with any foster parents you may know and ask them how you can help. Parenting is hard. Parenting traumatized children is even more difficult. Chances are, your foster-parent-friends would love for someone to do any of the following for them:
    1. Babysit. As long as the babysitting time period doesn’t exceed four hours, babysitters don’t need special certifications, training, or licensure.
    2. Clean their house. Between cooking meals, transporting kids to and from school, therapy, counseling, and visits, basic household chores get left by the wayside. If you really want to help out a foster family, this is probably one of the best ways of doing so.
    3. Make or buy them dinner. Like #2, time is something that foster parents simply don’t have the luxury of anymore. Buying a pre-made meal or making one yourself and bringing it to them will go a long way. If you plan on doing this, make sure to ask about their child(ren)’s preferences, allergies, and any food restrictions the parents might have on their kids (for instance, in our first placement, we didn’t allow our 3 and 5-yr-olds to have anything sugary after 6pm because sugar made them “crazy”).
    4. Offer to do their grocery shopping for them. Again, time is a luxury foster parents don’t have. When we first took in kids, between both my husband and I working, we rarely had time to do the grocery shopping and were forced to use our precious weekend time for that task instead. I realize this is a problem for most families, but foster kids have so much on their plates that it can become ridiculous at times and foster parents are pretty much powerless to change it. Those weekend hours are better spent on creating happy memories (see my “On Creating Happy Memories” post for more info on that) and providing a family-like dynamic with their foster kids. Don’t worry about funds; if you offer to buy their groceries for you, they will probably bend over backwards to make sure you have a list and money.
    5. Ask if there’s anything specific they need. Knowing is always better than guessing. If you’re unsure if your local foster family would appreciate any of the above, ask them how you can help. They will appreciate it!  Get in contact with local charities and nonprofits that support the foster system. Charities and nonprofits are always looking for volunteers. If you don’t know of any near you, Google is a great resource. I guarantee there is at least one organization in your community that supports the foster system.
  4. Get in contact with local charities and nonprofits that support the foster system. Charities and nonprofits are always looking for volunteers. If you don’t know of any near you, Google is a great resource. I guarantee there is at least one organization in your community that supports the foster system.
  5. Donate. If you don’t have time to volunteer, I understand. If you really care about the cause, chances are you have funds you’re willing to give away. Donating to the local organizations mentioned in #4 can go a very long way in supporting kids in foster care and making sure they have what they need. Recently, I led a fundraiser with a local nonprofit to make sure that kids in foster care could dump the infamous garbage bag for a brand new backpack of their very own filled with all sorts of goodies such as gift cards, blankets, artisan hand-made journals, socks, and so forth. I was really proud of this work, and I know you would be too!

Image result for how can I helpI hope there is at least one point on this guide that has helped you to feel more empowered to support foster children. Remember, the system is set up to protect the children in it, so don’t be immediately discouraged if you don’t get to hang out with the kiddos. Sure, feeling appreciated by the people you aim to help is super rewarding, but most of these kids either don’t know how to show their appreciation or flat-out don’t appreciate it. Why? Because no one would appreciate being ripped from the only home they’ve known. Exercise empathy for all parties involved – the police, the county, the foster parents, and most importantly the foster children. That will be an excellent guide for you as you decide how you can best help!

Cheers, and thanks for reading!

 

 

Differentiating between “normal” behaviors and “trauma” behaviors

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Parenting is hard. No really,  it is. If you’re a parent, you understand this very fundamental truth. If you ever want to be a parent, recognize this very fundamental truth now and save yourself a lot of frustration later.

If you’re a foster parent, differentiating between age-appropriate behaviors for well-adjusted children and behaviors that are only associated with children who have trauma pasts can be a difficult and confusing path to follow. That’s why this post includes several charts for your reference!

The big problem in telling the difference between “normal” behaviors and “trauma” behaviors is that often they look really similar. The best advice I can give you is to remember that your traumatized child is still a child and, despite having gone through some things that he never should have at that age, more often than not, he will act his age. That being said, if you’re child has a traumatized past, always choose the trauma-informed parenting techniques. They work for well-adjusted kids as well.

Let’s take a look at Lucy, an 11-month-old foster child. Lucy was recently removed from her bio-parents’ home when reports of neglect caused the police to make a visit to her home. When the police found Lucy, she was wearing dirty clothes, acted hungry, and seemed to be very inactive as far as crawling around the space. She was extremely quiet for her age, and though she responded to someone directly talking to her or picking her up, she didn’t seem to know her own name. Take a look at the chart below to see what the police should have found upon meeting little Lucy:

Age (0-2 years) Developmentally appropriate behavior

0-3 months

  • Reacts and turns toward sound
  • Watches faces and follows objects
  • Coos and babbles
  • Becomes more expressive and develops a social smile
  • Develops a general routine of sleep/ wake times

4-7 months

  • Babbles chains of sounds
  • Responds to others’ expressions of emotions
  • Grasps and holds objects
  • Regards own hand and explores objects with hand and mouth
  • Sits with, and then without, support on hands

8-12 months

  • Changes tone when babbling
  • Says “dada” and “mama” and uses exclamations
  • Imitates sounds and gestures
  • Explores in many ways (shaking, dropping, banging, poking)
  • Pulls self up to stand and may walk briefly without help.

2 years

  • Says several single words and two- or three-word phrases
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Points to things when named
  • Finds hidden objects
  • Scribbles
  • Stands alone and walks well

Chart Credit: Child Welfare Information Gateway – chart credit website link.

Developmentally, Lucy should have been actively exploring her environment. She should have been able to respond to her name and been able to “talk” to others via babbling, changing her tone, and imitating sounds.

If you jumped to dirty clothes and acting hungry as an all conclusive sign of neglect, think again. Babies are extraordinarily hard to keep clean. It’s perfectly acceptable for a parent to not change their baby’s clothes in many circumstances. Acting hungry also is not a good indicator. Now, if the police noticed that she was ravenous and tried to look around for age-appropriate food for Lucy and found none, there we have a problem.

Lucy’s behaviors are really what gave away signs of neglect in this case. These behaviors developed over several months in the same way normal behaviors develop over several months. One day or even a week of neglectful actions on the parents’ part isn’t enough evidence to conclude that Lucy had been neglected.

Trauma can take many forms, however, and can happen in a moment. Consistent acting out behaviors, however, come from consistent trauma or a lack of guidance and healing from traumatizing moments.

Let’s take a look at Thomas, a six-year-old boy whose parents were just tragically killed two months ago in a car accident. Thomas had been a part of that accident as well, but was the only survivor due to his location in the car. Thomas refuses to go anywhere near a car anymore. His kinship family (foster parents/ family who happen to be related to the child in someway) has been struggling to go anywhere or get any place on time because Thomas throws a huge temper-tantrum every time it’s time to get in a vehicle. His kinship parents understand why he’s so afraid of cars, but they also know their lives need to move on. Thomas has been making that very difficult. The moment it’s time to go, he’ll scream, kick, bite, cry, and thrash about; he seems to lose his entire sense of self, others and the environment. Obviously, these are not normal behaviors and need to be approached from a trauma-informed perspective. Let’s look at the chart below to see how Thomas should be acting:

              Age (3-7 years)    Developmentally appropriate behavior

3 years

  • Uses four- to five-word sentences
  • Follows two- or three-part instructions
  • Recognizes and identifies most common objects
  • Draws simple straight or circular lines
  • Climbs well, walks up and down stairs, runs

4 years

  • Uses five- to six-word sentences, tells stories
  • Understands counting and may know some numbers
  • Identifies four or more colors
  • Copies or draws simple shapes
  • Walks/ runs forward and backward with balance

5 years

  • Speaks in full sentences, tells longer stories
  • Draws circles and squares, begins to copy letters
  • Climbs, hops, swings, and may skip
  • Tries to solve problems from a single point of view and identify solutions to conflicts
  • More likely to agree to rules

6-7 years

  • Reads short words and sentences
  • Draws person or animal
  • Takes pride and pleasure in mastering new skills
  • Has more internal control over emotions and behaviors
  • Shows growing awareness of good and bad

Chart Credit: Child Welfare Information Gateway – chart credit website link.

At age six, Thomas should have more self-regulatory ability to control his emotions and behaviors, which he clearly lacks; Thomas is acting emotionally on par with a two or three-year-old. It’s important to know that kids are resilient and with the proper help and guidance, can and will find healing. Since Thomas knew a loving home before the accident, it is very possible that his emotions will stabilize after he has gone through the grieving and recovering process. It is also possible that Thomas will have a difficult time getting in vehicles for the rest of his life because the trauma associated with such an event is the type that adults sometimes can’t even handle. As long as his emotional needs are being supported, Thomas can conquer his fears and be able to function at age-level once again. Trauma of this type, or really any type, takes time and patience to overcome.

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Now let’s talk about Sarah. Sarah is 16-years-old and has a decent social life. Recently, her parents have had a hard time with getting her to talk to them. She’s moody, is constantly on her phone, prefers the company of her friends and is sleeping in a lot later than she used to. Sarah’s parents are worried that she might be getting into some trouble at school with peer-pressure, but they haven’t heard any negative reports from her school and her grades have remained steady. Their only evidence is that she’s not as open with them or as talkative as she used to be and it doesn’t feel right.

Take a look at the chart below to see if Sarah’s parents need to be concerned:

Age (8-18 years) Developmentally appropriate behavior

8-10 years

  • Reads well
  • Multiplies numbers
  • Expresses a unique personality when relating to others
  • Solves conflicts by talking, not fighting
  • Is able to “bounce back” from most disappointments

11-14 years

  • May have frequent mood swings or changes in feelings
  • Gradually develops own taste, sense of style, and identity
  • Has a hobby, sport, or activity
  • Learns to accept disappointments and overcome failures
  • Has one or more “best” friends and positive relationships with others the same age

15-18 years

  • Begins to develop an identity and self-worth beyond body image and physical appearance
  • Is able to calm down and handle anger
  • Sets goals and works toward achieving them
  • Accepts family rules, completes chores and other responsibilities
  • Needs time for emotions and reasoning skills to catch up with rapid physical changes

Chart Credit: Child Welfare Information Gateway – chart credit website link.

Did any of Sarah’s recent behaviors pop out as abnormal? Probably not. Sarah is in the process of becoming an adult. She’ll start sleeping later and staying up later at night (known as “late phase preference”) because she’s still growing and her body is still changing. According to the chart, 11-14 year-olds are known to have “frequent mood swings”, due to hormonal changes. Often these changes don’t stop at a specific age, rather, mood swings caused by physical and social changes may occur until Sarah is completely finished with puberty. What about Sarah’s parents’ concern about her recent lack of openness? While it’s no fun for the parents, and probably a bit harder for Sarah herself, this is also normal behavior. Hopefully, Sarah knows that she can trust her parents enough to talk about the really tough things she might be going through. That trust comes from years of her parents talking to and listening to her about the small things: the things that adults don’t find important but that kids do. So, when Sarah has a real issue, she can feel safe talking to her parents or even an adult at school such as her favorite teacher. Sarah is beginning to form her own identity and self-worth. Part of this process is separating a bit from parents. Again, this is normal. Sarah’s parents, however, aren’t helpless. Signs of something wrong can come from a variety of places: are her grades slipping? Has she lost interest in hobbies or activities she once loved? If she’s on social media, is she being bullied? Is she bullying others? Has she stopped eating, or has she been excessively dieting? Have her hygiene habits changed drastically? If Sarah’s parents are aware of the signs that something isn’t quite right with their daughter, then they have the power to step in before things get worse or before Sarah makes a life-threatening decision.

Staying informed and up-to-date on current trends, parenting techniques, and what trauma looks like in kids 0-18 is a crucial step in raising happy, healthy, and successful adults. Be sure to check out the resources page on this blog for valuable information and educational materials that are widely accepted and available.

As always, thanks for reading!

On Creating Happy Memories

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Sometimes a case can get really stressful and it is SO easy to get on that train and drag your whole family down with it. Stressful situations, however, come up all of the time in everyday life, not just in foster homes. How we handle those situations can make or break our family. How we handle those situations as parents teaches our kids how to respond likewise. If a parent always responds anxiously to a stressful situation, their child will learn that responding to stress with anxiety is a coping mechanism. See the problem?

Decidedly, our kiddos’ case has gotten really difficult and the kids are unfortunately old enough to understand what’s going on. Young children can feel stress also, even though they don’t understand. Instead of being able to communicate that they are scared or angry or feeling pressured, they will act out (See: “It’s a Cheetos Thing”), because they simply don’t have the proper communication skills they need. This is true of young children who grow up in well-adjusted homes as well.

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As a pre-adoptive home for our older kids, when we took the placement, we also unwittingly accepted all of their therapeutic services.

{Bunny hole warning}: Piece of advice for aspiring foster/adopt parents: get used to having lots of people in your home and let go of that “to do” list of chores. Frequently there are dirty dishes in our sink that literally piled up in a two-hour period the day before and sometimes I don’t have time to rinse them off and put them in the dishwasher. Moms, you know what I’m talking about! I had to learn to let that go. Whenever I’m feeling embarrassed by my semi-messy kitchen when half the county is in my house, I simply have to take a deep breath and remind myself that dirty dishes in the sink means I feed my family. {Leaving the bunny hole now}.

So, when we got the kiddos, we also got a family therapist. He’s great, we love him, but it was an adjustment for sure. See, when you bring in kids who need therapy, you will often find that a family therapist is one of the best resources for your family because those kids will cause you to need your own therapy if you’re not careful, but I digress…again.

Anyway, when our case started getting difficult it was really easy to become overwhelmed by the stress of it. There’s a lot of legalities at play, a lot of language that’s hard to understand, even for someone with a master’s degree, there’s a lot of social nuances that are present that equate to walking on eggshells, and so forth. Of course, in a pre-adoptive situation, we as the parents want what’s best for the kids, but so does everyone else on the case, and sometimes the others have drastically different ideas of “what’s best” than we do. That being said, Brett and I have been feeling it and not always responding in a way that is helpful to the kids because we’ve never been through this type of stress ourselves.

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One of the things our family therapist recommended was to forget about the case (for now) and just focus on creating happy memories for the kids. It was a huge wake up call for Brett and me because we realized that in the midst of getting bogged down by the stress and the “ugly,” we’d forgotten about the “being a family” bit, which is the fundamental essence of fostering — this idea that while children’s bio-parents are working through treatment or the case is becoming complicated (few cases are simple), the kids still get to experience living in and being a part of a family.

It’s not easy. But it certainly is better. I get it, now, why there are some foster parents who don’t do much more than provide a “safe” place to sleep. It’s because the stress of these cases can be daunting and even destructive. Parents sometimes only have time to provide the basic survival tools to foster kids when the cases become challenging.

The happy memories matter though. Those are the moments that get families out of a stressful situation and back into a healthy family dynamic. It teaches kids that, despite these rough situations, we are still a family and we are holding onto each other.

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So, after a super rough weekend, we took our kids to a famous restaurant that features theatrics, diving, and other really fun kid-oriented activities. Our family really needed that. Did it make our problems go away? No. But our family, and more particularly our kids, now have a happy memory that will hopefully cover up the bad memories of this week. Of course, one positive isn’t enough to cover two negatives, so we are committed to continuing finding ways of creating happy memories for the kids.

Our hope is that by making time for fun family-oriented activities during stressful times, our kids will learn that handling stress with more stress is not going to work. We hope that they’ll learn to handle stress appropriately and in a healthy way, and be able to lean on their experience so that they can resiliently persist through the “dark tunnel,” even when they can’t see the light up ahead.

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And sometimes, you just have to put aside your pride and get your hands messy with your kids. Sometimes you just have to say, “it’ll be all right.”  🙂

 

 

It’s a “Cheetos Thing.”

Hello Faithful Readers!

Today’s post focuses on the different parenting techniques that foster/ adoptive parents may employ when parenting their traumatized child. Most of the time, this type of parenting might seem completely counterintuitive to traditional parents, so that’s why it merits its own discussion.

What you need to remember is that trauma is invisible. It might take on different forms in a child, but it is always invisible to the outsider. The next time you see a struggling parent in the grocery store with a tantrum-throwing child, please don’t be so quick to pass judgement on what you think is the parent’s poor disciplining skills. You might take that child and turn him over your knee for a good spanking, but the foster parent simply can’t do that.

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Spanking, or traditional discipline of any sort can actually cause more trouble for those parenting traumatized children. These children have most likely come from a place where adults were untrustworthy in some capacity or another. In the case of our tantrum-throwing tot, from birth, his needs were rarely met by the adults charged with his care and as a consequence, he rarely got fed. He ended up in the foster system because one night, Mom and Dad got into a big fight and the police got involved. Upon arrival, the police found the toddler in a dirty diaper, sick, and underweight. They removed him that night and placed him in an emergency foster home, now in the custody of the department of human services.

Two weeks later he was moved to a long-term foster home after his immediate needs had been taken care of. The new foster dad, due to the addition of a new mouth to feed, had to make a grocery run and needed to take the toddler with him. Little Boy was doing great until he saw a food he was regularly given by his birth parents – Cheetos – and when his foster dad didn’t stop to pick them up, he became extremely upset and started throwing a tantrum. Of course, Foster Dad knows better than to feed a toddler unhealthy snacks like Cheetos, but Little Boy has learned that Cheetos means survival. Suddenly that survival was threatened and on came the tantrum.

Foster Dad is beside himself. Little Boy doesn’t have the words to communicate that Cheetos means survival, so all Foster Dad can see is that Little Boy is unreasonably upset about something. His training has taught him that this tantrum isn’t just a tantrum and that, because Little Boy doesn’t have the words to communicate, is screaming because he doesn’t know any other way to respond to the situation. Little Boy has also not been taught self-soothing and self-regulating tools that he should have begun learning from the time of his birth.

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Here’s where the counterintuitive parenting comes into play. Foster Dad, trying to help Little Boy communicate, notices that he keeps screaming something peculiar: “toe-chee”, over and over. Being that they are in the chip aisle, Foster Dad is able to figure out that Little Boy means Cheetos. He points to the Cheetos and Little Boy immediately stops screaming. While Foster Dad isn’t happy about purchasing an unhealthy snack, he now has recognized that this is one of the things that makes Little Boy feel safe. He grabs a bag from the shelf and hands it to Little Boy who hugs it closely to himself for the rest of the shopping trip.

Miss Perfect happened to be standing in the same aisle at the time of Little Boy’s tantrum. She was annoyed by all the screaming and wanted to go over to give that dad a good talking-to. “If that little boy had been my child,” she thought haughtily to herself, “I would have left the cart right there, marched that little brat to the parking lot and given him a good, hard spanking.” She could not believe that the dad gave in to the boy’s tantrum. After the boy stopped his fussing, now clinging to the Cheetos bag like it was life’s bread, Miss Perfect marched herself over to Foster Dad.

“You do realize, that by giving into his tantrum like that, he’ll never learn the word ‘no’, correct?” asked Miss Perfect. She wasn’t so much asking as she was telling.

“Actually, that’s not at all what I think.” Replied Foster Dad calmly, though slightly annoyed with the woman’s attitude and assumptions.

Image result for judgemental woman“Giving in to a tantrum like that will only cause more trouble for you down the road. Where’s his mom? Surely she would have marched him right out of the store for that nonsense!”

“That’s really none of your business Ma’am. Now if you don’t mind, I would like to get back to my shopping.”

“None of my business?! It’s not my fault your son is screaming bloody murder. I’m sure everyone in this store could hear him!”

“Thank you Ma’am. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to get home before midnight.” replied Foster Dad, who then promptly walked away and into another aisle. The other people around also gave him dirty looks as he passed by.

Foster Dad felt extremely judged in that moment. Did he do the right thing? This was definitely a moment that he wanted to disown Little Boy. How much easier would his life be if he could just inform everyone in the store that Little Boy is a foster child. He wasn’t really Little Boy’s father and therefore he couldn’t be held accountable for Little Boy’s crazy behavior. He looked at Little Boy and noticed how calm he seemed clinging to the Cheetos bag. “Poor thing.” He thought to himself.

Yes, disowning Little Boy would be the easy thing, but it wouldn’t be the right thing.

“Now how am I going to get him to let go of the Cheetos so I can pay for it?” Foster Dad asked himself. He thought about what he was going to say to Little Boy in the checkout lane as he finished the rest of his shopping. Foster Dad began getting a little nervous the closer they got to the cashier.

“I’m going to have to take those (pointing to the Cheetos) in a moment so the cashier can ring it up. Do you understand?” Foster Dad asked, to which Little Boy answered by nodding his head. “Okay, good. I’ll give it back to you as soon as the cashier is done with it.” he promised. Fortunately, the cashier was good with kids and played with Little Boy for a moment by pretending to ring him up with the scanner. This distracted Little Boy from his need to cling to the chips so Foster Dad recognized the opportunity and asked Little Boy to hand him the Cheetos. Little Boy was a bit reluctant so Foster Dad reminded him about what he said a few minutes ago and promised to give them back. Finally, Little Boy handed over the Cheetos so they could be paid for. As soon as the cashier scanned them, she handed them right back and Little Boy stayed calm.

“I’m really proud of you for staying calm and being patient.” Foster Dad said to Little Boy on their way out of the store. He felt a little silly using those words with a toddler but knew that the more vocabulary Little Boy was exposed to, the better he’ll become at communicating. “High-Five buddy!” Little Boy smiled and gave Foster Dad the best high-five a three-year-old could give. When they got to the car, Foster Dad started talking to Little Boy about how he’ll have to wait to have some Cheetos until after dinner. “I promise, if you eat most of your dinner, that you can have some Cheetos afterward.” said Foster Dad. He continued to say some version of this all the way home.

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When they got home, Foster Mom had gotten dinner ready and as she was helping to put the groceries away, started putting the Cheetos in the cupboard. She gave her husband a look of disapproval and he let her know that it was a necessity today. Little Boy noticed the Cheetos being put away and began throwing a tantrum again. Foster Mom was confused so Foster Dad stepped in to save the day. “Remember how I said you can have some Cheetos after you eat most of your dinner?” asked Foster Dad. Little Boy nodded his head. “Okay, good. We’ll leave the Cheetos out on the counter for now so you can see them.” said Foster Dad. When Foster Mom served Little Boy his dinner, he was a bit skeptical of the green things on his plate, but with some coaxing, tried a little bit of everything. That night, Little Boy’s foster parents found out that he loves green beans, but doesn’t really like fish sticks. True to his word, when dinner was finished, Foster Dad put about five Cheetos in a small bowl for Little Boy and let him have his after dinner treat.

Later, when similar items came home from the store, they would tell each other that it was a “Cheetos thing” which was their code for “means of survival” and knew that there was an underlying issue of meeting a child’s needs in that item.

While it is counterintuitive to most to give in to a child’s tantrum, and in some cases one simply can’t (e.g. in the case of safety such as a small child wanting to cross the street without an adult), parenting traumatized children is anything but typical. Every child that comes into your home will have different needs based on their different histories. Being able to recognize those needs is the first step toward creating a safe, caring environment so that children can heal and become successful, high-functioning adults.

If you’re not a foster parent and never plan to be, please remember that, when you see a parent struggling with a child in public, you have no idea about that child’s background. If the parent is doing something that seems counterintuitive to you, don’t be so quick to judge the situation and recognize that you don’t have all the facts. Of course, if a parent is being abusive to the child, please do something about it by contacting the proper authorities.

If you’d like to be supportive of the parent with that kid, either stay out of their business, don’t give them dirty looks, or encourage them by saying that they’re doing a good job, that most kids act this way at that age and they’ll get through it. That type of encouragement can go a long way.

As always, thanks for reading.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

The Test of Time

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In 2014, my husband and I started our fostering journey because we learned of 8-yr-old boy/girl twins through a family member. It looked like the placement they were in wasn’t going to work out in the long run (it was never meant to be a long-term placement to begin with).

Time went on and the county encouraged that family to adopt. More time passed. We let go of our hopes for adopting the twins. In 2015 we became foster parents to two little boys. We certainly never forgot the twins and they were still a part of our lives in some ways.

After nearly six months, the boys went back home. We put our home “on hold” as I was feeling overwhelmed with maintaining both a job and grad school. Then 2016 showed up.

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We missed having kids in our home so we opened it back up for placements. Weeks turned into months and we never got a call. I began wondering if the county didn’t like us for some reason. And then the email came:

“There’s a set of 10-yr-old twins who need a pre-adoptive placement. You might know them…”

Suddenly the twins were back in our lives and we were making arrangements to transition them to our home. It’s now been nearly five months since they moved in. One more month and they can legally be adopted. It’s been one of the most challenging journeys of my life. They’ve pushed boundaries I didn’t even know I had. We’ve butted heads and they’ve tested our stability, structure, parenting styles, and marriage. Yet things have calmed. They understand us now and we are learning to get to know them. There’s peace in our house once again. I know it can only get better from here.

On Saying “Goodbye”

It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.

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I’ve heard experienced foster parents talk about the grieving period when a child who’s been in the home for a while is placed somewhere else or goes back to their family. I knew to expect it – the emptiness, the quiet – I thought I was ready for it. I wasn’t.

Nothing can prepare you for the emotions you’ll experience when the time comes to send your foster kiddo(s) somewhere else.
Suddenly things you’ve taken for granted in the past months – that song on the radio he always sang to in the car on the way to school, that simple phrase they always used, the empty beds that became theirs but were never really theirs in the first place – all things that you didn’t realize made you love them more every. single. day.
After our first foster children left, we avoided spending much time at home for about two weeks. It was eerily quiet and suddenly our four bedroom house seemed way too big for comfort.

Image result for saying goodbyeEventually I was able to take comfort in the knowledge that the kids were alive and well somewhere. That even though it felt like I had lost a child forever, the truth was I hadn’t. I could still see them if I wanted to. Knowing the pain I felt in my grieving period after saying goodbye, I don’t ever want to know what it feels like for a parent to actually lose a child. I can’t even imagine the utter devastation. If I had been in that place, I probably would have decided to sell our house or do anything to avoid being reminded of that child.

Right after we said goodbye, a lot of people asked us if we’d do it again. Without hesitation both my husband and I said, “yes.”

Maybe we’re just crazy.