Thursday, February 10, 2011

Loving Your Foster Child's First Family

I'm a little late on this, but I just read Thorn's post Thinking About Her First Family on her blog Mother Issues. It really moved me, in part because I've been doing a lot of feeling and thinking about my foster childrens' first family. Here is an edited version of what I posted in the comments to Thorn's post. I hope this doesn't sound preachy. I know not everyone will agree with me. I just found it useful to state my beliefs about birth families clearly. Please keep in mind I say "we" but my partner has not actually read this, so I really speak for myself and my perception of how she feels. Here goes:

I can say we truly do love our foster sons’ mom. She is sweet and loving, if sometimes a bit manipulative and often very indecisive. She loves her kids so much, even if she doesn't know how to parent them. She is slow cognitively, and paranoid because of her mental health issues, but my older foster son also has 9.5 years of memories of having fun times with her, including silly jokes and favorite foods. We love hearing these stories. She is childlike and sometimes it's annoying as heck but sometimes it makes us wish we could foster her, not just her kids. We tell our boys that we love their mom, and tell them she’s part of our family now.  We have a lot of contact with her, which can sometimes be challenging but I would not trade it for the world.

We have also met both dads, which is amazing given that our older boy’s dad has never been very involved in his life and now wants NOTHING to do with our son so he may not get to see his dad again until he’s an adult. It was a total fluke that we got to meet him. I do not feel any love for him, whatsoever, other than appreciation for his part in making our older boy.  But I’m glad we met so I can tell FS10 things about how he got his good looks or his height from his dad, so I can talk to him about his Puerto Rican history (which he never really knew anything about since he’s been raised without his dad or any other contact with the Latino community), etc. Anything else would be a lie. However, the baby’s dad (who our older boy thinks of as his stepdad) I have spent a good amount of time with. He has a lot of problems, and there are things he says that make me so mad. I do not think he can parent. But I do feel affection for him because of the quirky and funny and sweet things I’ve observed about him, and because he loves his son (even if he does the crappiest job of showing it, ever) and because he MADE this beautiful toddler we love so much. I am also so glad to have heard stories from him about his own family and his childhood so I can pass those on to the boys. Yes, these parents are all unquestionably inadequate in very overt ways, but they are also people who want their children to be happy and healthy even if I don't agree with them about how to raise happy and healthy children. They are also all traumatized people who've experienced abuse, mental illness, physical illness, poverty and other challenges and dysfunction in their families of origin.

It gives our boys a great gift to know that we both know and respect their parents. A gift that they deserve to have, and that I wish all fostered and adopted kids could have. It gives their mom comfort to know that if we end up adopting we feel morally obligated to allow her to have a relationship with them as long as it’s healthy for the kids and is something they want. It is important for both the kids and their mom to understand that we think success is her being able to safely and adequately parent the children again even though we don't actually think this will be possible. We enjoy modeling good parenting for her, even just by telling her how we deal with certain challenges when we speak on the phone. That is more help than she gets from anyone in her family. If the boys cannot go home, we will make sure they get to have contact with their mom. If they do go home, we will offer frequent respite. And even though in many ways it would make our lives so much easier if their dads were out of the picture, we are glad that the baby's dad is in their lives in at least a small way, and we will support these boys having contact with him (and eventually Big Guy's dad if he's willing) as long as that’s healthy.

I know a lot of people will take issue with this, but in my view keeping a child in contact with their family of origin and culture of origin is not something "nice" you do as a favor for the birth parent if they happen to behave the way you'd like them to. To us, it's just part of the OBLIGATION of being a foster/adoptive parent. Yes, I said obligation. Most foster/adoptive parents don’t see it that way, but I certainly do. We signed up to be part of a complex and messy family system for these children, not to steal them away from their “bad” family and pretend that their history didn’t exist by patting ourselves on the back about how much better we are than their birth families. I know there are kids for whom contact is not healthy – But for the majority of foster kids, I believe some level of contact with at least some part of their family of origin is not only healthy but necessary. I wish I could tell all adoptive parents: You CANNOT LOVE YOUR KIDS WITHOUT LOVING WHERE THEY COME FROM.

That doesn’t mean thinking everything that went on in their birth families was healthy or okay. It means learning, and loving, their culture of origin. It means finding good things to celebrate about their background and their early childhood experiences, even if it's hard because most of what you know is abuse or neglect. It means appreciating (openly) what is good about their birth families, and acknowledging what is “bad”. It means understanding WHY things happened the way they did (which means understanding how class and race and mental illness and addiction work). It means understanding your child was not "dropped in your lap by G-d". While G-d had a role in the creation of your child and in them finding a safe and healthy home, I can't imagine that G-d thinks that families being broken apart is a beautiful thing, and I think it's important to remember that your adopted children's birth mom was not merely an incubator G-d chose to grow YOUR child in. That's why I try to avoid the term "birth mom" to begin with.  Foster care and adoption are loss, period. No matter how abusive or neglectful the first family was and no matter how great the foster-adoptive families are. That doesn't mean it's bad or wasn't the best possible outcome for the children in question. However, our children were created in the context of another family and (in many cases) culture without which they would not be alive and would not be all of who they are. They must have connections to that family and culture to grow up with a sense of who they are and to understand their complex web of connections, even if it makes us uncomfortable or is messy or inconvenient.

A Brief Debriefing, And Why The Boys Are Still Here

We are still here, alive, and mostly healthy. A brief update in bullet points:

  • The boys are still with us, and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere anytime soon, though with foster care anything can happen at any time.
  • Patty got notified that CPS' evaluations have found her incapable of parenting on her own due to her cognitive limitations and mental illness. That means she cannot and will not get custody of her children unless she is living with a capable family member who will be their legal guardian.
  • Patty's uncle Thomas, who sounds like one of the more stable members of her family (which is not saying much), moved in with her in hopes that they can get the kids back if he helps with them. However, CPS has doubts about how long-term his commitment is and whether he understands how much work this entails and that he will be signing up for no less than 16 years (until the baby is 18). So CPS could theoretically send the kids to live with Thomas and Patty, but we kind of doubt it will. 
  • In addition to issues with Uncle Thomas' commitment, we aren't sure that he has a job, and we don't know what they'd do about their living situation since Patty lives in a 2-bedroom and CPS does not look kindly upon kids and their parents (or uncles) sleeping in the same room, plus if Section 8 gets wind of Thomas living there they may have problems. Please understand I am not saying that I think that how many bedrooms there are should influence whether the children are returned - I'm just acknowledging the reality that while one wouldn't have their children taken away in most cases for simply co-sleeping or not having enough bedrooms, when a parent is trying to prove that they can have their children back from the system those scenarios are generally not acceptable to the Power That Be.
  • Patty had been complaining to me that she really didn't want the kids to go to their great aunt in another state. I felt powerless to do anything and I told her over and over she needed to tell her lawyer and CPS who are the only ones who can actually do something. Well, before court last month I reminded her again who she can tell if she wants to make sure that doesn't happen (which she had told me yet again). I'm proud of her because I actually saw her go up to her lawyer and tell him in no uncertain terms that she is not moving in with the aunt and does not want her children to go there. In addition, the great aunt seems to have been discouraged by the whole process of getting the kids. It is likely it would involve her losing the foster kid she currently has because she cannot be licensed by her home agency and our state simultaneously (absurd, right?)  It's doubtful right now that the kids will end up with this aunt.
  • The baby had been having seizures. Frequently. As some of you know, he started having them shortly after being placed with us but they went away for a long time. Now he is on medication for them, but it's not fully controlling them. It is slowly sinking in that we now have not one special needs child, but two. Granted all adopted and foster children are special needs in my larger worldview due to the specific attachment issues and grief they will deal with for the rest of their life, but having two kids with major emotional/medical/behavioral needs is different.
  • Little Guy is big! He is 21 months and is talking up a storm. He is still delayed in terms of his speech but he's catching up really fast with the help of Early Intervention. His newest word is "diaper." He says it almost perfectly. Between this and his patting his crotch when he's in the bathroom with us (watching us pee, one of his favorite pasttimes) I think he's going to be more than ready to start potty-training when my schoolyear is over in May! 
  • Big Guy at 10 is increasingly sophisticated in how he fights with us, tries to get his way, manipulates, and argues. But he's also incredibly loving and affectionate (you should see him when he gets overcome with love and comes up and kisses me 20 times on the cheek!)  He has started calling me Ima in public, which is a huge milestone for him, and let me come into the classroom with him after months of having aggressive meltdowns if I'd even show up at school because he was so embarrassed to be seen with a white woman who people would think was his mom.  He's talking a lot about his feelings with his new therapist. 
  • Big Guy is incredibly sad right now about being in foster care and misses his mommy so so much. He's going through a lot of fantasizing about how he could go home - Whether by running away, or by offering to never have behavioral problems again, or by saying he'll help mommy with the things she has a hard time with. It's really painful. The up side is we're finally being more honest with him about mommy's shortcomings and why he's in foster care and he's having to start to deal with the reality of why he can't be with her. This is so painful for him, but so necessary since within a few months the goal could change from reunification to adoption. We want him to have a better understanding of the problems mommy has instead of simply thinking "but mommy didn't hurt me! there's no reason for me to not be with her!" or thinking "but I'm only in foster care because of my behavior problems and if I stop acting out there's no reason she can't take care of us!" We have been carefully finding ways to describe her mental illness and cognitive limitations and asking him questions to help him realize on his own the ways mommy has "problems with how her brain works."
  • Overall, as a family, I think we're doing pretty darn well. We're moving to a house with a yard this spring, which is really exciting! We're also talking now and then about theoretically being open to another child or two in the not-too-distant future, though not actively planning for it yet.