Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Lately I’ve encountered a number of kindred spirits on Adoptionblogs.com. Some of them have been kind enough to respond to posts on my personal blogs, and have even helped me to promote my sites by linking them to their own.

One of these special moms, Diane, wrote me today to alert me to a three-part series on the fate of children who “age out” of the foster system. (To read the whole thing, go to www.prayingforaprodigal.blogspot.com.) It reads in part:

National studies (Child Trends 1999) have shown that within 12-18 months of leaving foster care:
  • 40% will not have completed high school;
  • 50% will be unemployed;
  • 33% will be on public assistance;
  • 38% are emotionally disturbed;
  • 50% had used illegal drugs;
  • 25% had been “involved with the legal system” (e.g. with criminal records).

Furthermore, 40% of the nation’s homeless were in foster care as children (Life Coach Homes, 1999). Diane observes that “foster children who age out of the system bring with them ‘an accumulated set of problems that make a successful transition to adulthood difficult.’”
Knowing the statistics, Diane writes, “how can any of us sit back, expect the government to solve these issues, and feel we are supporting our youth in trouble?”

In Michigan last year, 500 children “aged out” of the foster system at age 18. Given their prospects, it is gratifying to know that Jennifer Granholm has signed us up to participate in a six-state task force to study the problem, and learn what other states are doing to assist these teenagers as they transition into adult life and to “listen to the concerns” of the affected youth. (For more info, go to http://www.michigan.gov/dhs/0,1607,7-124--135046--,00.html)

Still, I wonder: Given the cash-poor, job-poor economy in which we find ourselves, is a task force really going to make a difference? Wouldn’t the money be better spent, say, funding a kind of “transition village” that would provide vocational training and life skills – budgeting, problem-solving, and other necessary skills through a kind of privatized mentor program?

When I lived in California, the state matched up schools with local businesses who supplemented the existing budget with school supplies, lunch-hour tutoring volunteers, and other practical assistance. Wouldn’t it be cool if each of the 500 kids “aging out” could be partnered with an organization that would not only offer them on-the-job training, but practical assistance as well, to get them started?

And wouldn’t it be cool if the first “batch” of recruits came from members of faith-based communities, who believe in the power of the human person to change for the better?

Hey, I have a dream… Anyone want to dream with me?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Light for Dark Thoughts

Each year around this time I sit down and write a letter to the children's birth parents, recounting highlights of the preceding year to go with the updated photographs. Some have suggested to me that this might come back to haunt me, should the birth parents decide to try something stupid (like kidnap the children). I don't see it that way -- I see it as the decent thing to do for two people who, though they were incapable of caring for the children themselves, did in fact give them life. Which is more than many people would have done.

I'll never forget the time I was sitting at the agency, playing with the baby while the older children had their family visit. A worker came down and, looking at the baby in my lap, said: "I'll never understand why she decided to have that fourth one. She might not be in this mess if she had just gotten rid of it."

I was shocked and appaulled (still am... too much to spell correctly, it seems), but after a moment I found my tongue. "I will always be grateful that Sarah's mother chose life for her. If she hadn't, it is very likely that the other children would not have a home today." The truth was, there were days when the only thing that got me through the chaos was the thought that I could not bear to give back this little bundle of joy. Which is a terrible thing, I know -- the older two deserved to be loved and nurtured as their younger sister, and I have since resolved my feelings on the matter. At the time, I was just coping the best I could . . . which meant looking for the bright patch in the middle of some VERY dark days.

There will be times, dear friend, if you are a foster or adoptive parent (or even a biological one, I'm told) that being high-minded and infinitely benevolent just isn't humanly possible. There will be times when you have some not-very-flattering feelings about the little rugrats who have come to claim every last drop of your rapidly depleting patience and energy. Your Mommy Monsters will come out in full force, particularly after you've been subsisting on Gold Fish and two hours of sleep a night for three days in a row.

Be kind to yourself, and send up a prayerful S.O.S. Stick the kids in front of a video, then lock yourself in the bathroom, turn on the water, and let yourself rant for five minutes. Hit or hug a pillow. Hard. Then take a deep breath, whisper a little prayer (perhaps in care of St. Thomas More, the patron of foster and adoptive children and their parents), and make yourself a cup of tea. Then find your favorite children's book, settle on the floor with your brood, and give yourselves some quality time. The dirty dishes and mismatched socks will be there when you're done. Another half-hour of television will just leave you feeling mentally flabby. (If it's not mental flab you're fighting, get out the stroller and walk the kids around the block.)

And remember, in your darkest moments, that you have just had a glimpse of what those birth parents must have been experiencing -- with far fewer resources to help them, most likely. If that doesn't give you empathy, to allow you to talk with your children about them in neutral if not cordial tones, nothing ever will.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Careful What You Say?

When I was a kid, we learned dozens of little Sunday school ditties that ran through our heads wherever we went, keeping us on the proverbial straight-and-narrow. One of the most popular went like this:

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say (repeat)
For the Father up above
Is looking down in love.
So, be careful little mouth what you say!

The song popped into my head again yesterday at the park, when the kids and I took their “Grammy” for a walk around the park while Dad and “Poppi” were gamely battling the wind and drizzle in an attempt to light the grill under the picnic pavilion.

In between nature discoveries (slow-moving bugs and fast-swimming mallards) we made up silly little songs – “Songs to Skip By,” if you will. To the tune of “Camptown Races,” Mammy sang, “Little Sarah, she’s so sweet, doo dah, doo dah…”

Before I could engage my brain, I offered up the next line. “Though she’s got such stinky feet, O doo dah day!” I looked back, expecting the entire group to chuckle (including Sarah, who just the night before stuck her toes in my face for a tickle, and hooted as she always did when I grimaced at her supposedly smelly soles).

Today, however, it was no laughing matter. The effect was immediate: My four-year-old daughter stopped skipping and ducked her head, her little shoulders hunched. I had embarrassed her – in front of Grammy, no less. “I do NOT have stinky feet!” she protested under her breath. All eyes flew to my face.

Wishing to “Rewind”

There are times in every parent’s life when we wish for nothing so much as a rewind button on our lips. Quickly I knelt in front of Sarah and wrapped my arms around her wooden frame. “Of course you don’t, Sweetheart. I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. Mommy shouldn’t have said that – and I won’t say it ever again. Will you forgive me?” After a moment she nodded, but she was quiet the rest of the walk, except to remind her grandmother, “Mommy said I have stinky feet, but I don’t really.”

That night I tossed and turned in bed, realizing with anguish that I had broken a mother’s promise. As a child I had frequently been on the receiving end of thoughtless and hurtful remarks that had cut to the core. Over the years my emotional armor became a permanent fixture, protecting me even from those who loved me. Thank God for Craig, whose gentle demeanor made me feel safe enough to let down my guard. (To this day we have the shortest fights on record: On those rare occasions a harsh or impatient word escapes him, my eyes tear up and he moves heaven and earth to make it stop!)

I promised myself that if I did nothing else for my children, I would teach them that their feelings were safe with me. I understood how much words could hurt, and they had already been subjected to horrific abuse and neglect in their early years. I was determined that they would never have reason to question whether they were loved and appreciated. They could be able to trust their mother not to expose them publicly for private shortcomings. “Praise in public, correct in private” was my motto. The incident at the park reminded me just how careful I needed to be if I were going to keep that promise.

Extended Protection Warranted

For many foster families, there are other important reasons to protect our children from the idle curiosity of others – even other family members. Extended family may object to the prospect having to include in the family circle a messy, noisy, energy-draining urchin or two with whom they share no biological connection. Furthermore, the behavior one can expect from traumatized children – verbal or physical outbursts, “prickly” responses to gestures of kindness and affection, bad manners and hyperactive tendencies – can be off-putting for those unaccustomed to dealing with such children.

One family I know saw their in-laws just twice the first year after their foster children arrived, even though the grandparents lived barely thirty minutes away. “We’re not used to having little children around,” they would excuse themselves. “We’re too old to keep up with them.” And yet, these were the same people who begged their daughter-in-law to keep their son’s teddy bear on their bed because they had read an article that it could increase the chances of conceiving a child.

My friend recognized the emotional impasse that was at stake here, and began “chatting up” her mother-in-law with the children’s progress, even dropping by unexpectedly and placing the youngest child, who was then less than a year old, in her grandmother’s arms. Gradually the ice began to thaw.

A year later, when the adoption went through, the grandparents began taking more interest in their new grandchildren. They had lost out on nearly two years of their adopted grandkid’s young lives. And the adoptive parents, who had struggled through that first year of foster care, had missed the benefit of having family nearby. And yet, there was nothing to be gained by mourning or harboring resentments about the past – and much to be gained by focusing on the present.

In this case, a little emotional armor – which enabled the adoptive mother to persevere in cultivating a relationship between her children and her standoffish mother-in-law – was a good thing, in the best interest of the family. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Love is patient and kind… Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). These words, pronounced frequently at weddings, are not just for newlyweds; it is the “Golden Rule” of all family life.

St. Antony of Padua, patron of humility, pray for me that I might safeguard my words, that I might never injure those entrusted into my care. In the name of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, protect my children from losing their innocence and joy from the carelessness thoughts of their mother. Pray for me, and for mothers everywhere, that we may be ever mindful of the “Father up above, looking down with love,” and to show our children by example how to “be careful, little mouths, what you say.” Amen.