Wow, I wish I’d written this.
My oldest ran away this week. She’s run away multiple times (it’s her thing), but she’s never stayed away overnight before, which she did this time. She apparently landed at her friend’s house where I went to pick her up today and take her to the CALM center where she can stay until we (I, her therapist, her psychiatrist) get her a bed at a psychiatric unit that specializes in traumatized females. I’m a fairly tough individual, but days of wondering where your kid is, especially your kid who is ripe for re-victimization, just wears a person out. Our local police department had been to the house to take my report, then I’d filed paperwork the next day to generate an arrest warrant, and had another officer out the next day to advise me on what to do once I found out where she was. With a RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) kid, it’s not as simple as just going to pick her up. During this time I’d been holding down a fairly demanding job, and parenting my other two kids who were also freaked out that their sister had left.
So, I can’t tell you how pleased I was when I went to pick up my child to get a lecture from her friend’s dad about my parenting fails and his advice for overcoming them. According to him, because I’m single, I can’t possibly spend enough time with my children, and he was sure that none of them feel safe, secure or as though we have an actual home. I confirmed that statement a couple of times, because he was speaking on behalf of all three of my kids, two of whom he’s not actually been around for more than 30 seconds. In the same breath, he told me I should rent out a room in the house to a stranger, to improve our financial situation. And, finally, the best part, that I was clearly not attentive to my children’s spiritual life, because we don’t attend church, and that my children needed a “church family,” just like his daughter has.
So here’s the thing – unless you have raised a severely traumatized child for a minimum of six months, you have no idea in what world I and people like me live. It is a world as foreign to you as Mars. I don’t care if you’ve lived on the streets, made a million bucks, have three doctorates, are black, white or purple – your certainty of your understanding of our family and our issues, and supposed solutions, is absurd. You may have the best intentions in the world and fancy yourself a good Christian, but your unsolicited advice will ring false each and every time. And, you will do harm to a family who is already struggling.
The good news is that to be part of a much-needed support network for families like ours, you need to know a few things. Kids like mine are ridiculously good at manipulation, and they love control. And, I don’t blame them. Those are the tools that kept them alive through their early lives. However, they will say and do anything to appear victims and gain control of the situation. They have high levels of defiance. So, they will likely be very convincing when they charm the pants off of new teachers, therapists, friend’s parents, and neighbors. They’re like tiny politicians. And, after they’ve charmed the pants off these people they will carefully and skillfully convince them that their parent is a monster. They do this with husbands and wives often. Husband is charmed, kid only acts out when husband is not around, husband thinks wife is insane. RAD kids cause a large number of divorces. Hopefully, I don’t have to explain why this is disconcerting. I have friends whose RAD kids have convinced court advocates, psychiatrists, grandparents, teachers, etc. that their parent is an abusive monster to the point that human services is called and sometimes arrests are made. Thankfully, someone who has a clue usually intervenes, but not always.
The other thing that’s good to know is that, especially with single parents of RAD kids, we’re vigilant 24/7. There are no “down” days when you’re parenting traumatized kids. When you let your guard down, they go in for the kill. My daughter opted to run away days after we returned from a really lovely vacation to Chicago. She had a great time, appeared relaxed and comfortable, and then went into defiance mode on the trip back and didn’t speak for 12 hours. There is no rhyme or reason, so you have to be on guard all day, every day. Consequently, we’re a bit emotionally exhausted just about every day.
Finally, there is no magic pill or secret sauce for what ails a RAD kid. Not love, discipline, affection or religion. I completely respect people for whom religion plays a vital part of their lives, and I’m not undermining those beliefs. I’m actually deeply spiritual, but I find God much more present in Chagall’s America Windows than I do in church. I find spirituality in the miracle that is my children and in how we found each other and became a family.
Keeping all this in mind, the very last thing a RAD parent needs to hear is that she’s failing her kids. My days, and the days of my fellow RAD parents are filled with doubt. Our parenting is basically an informed crap shoot, by necessity. For the record, we are just fine financially, and my kids are pretty awesomely secure. They’re also pretty self-sufficient, because I do not cater to their every whim. They see someone who takes time for her career and for herself, which is what I want to model for them. I think I kind of rock as a parent. I’ve had therapists ask to write theses on us, because my kids are doing so well considering their extreme histories. I know these things intellectually, but when you’re vulnerable, like I was today, it’s pretty tough to hear all the ways in which you’re supposedly failing your child. I think sometimes people are certain about their answers, because it’s too scary and threatening to them not to be. To consider that the reality of the situation doesn’t have a quick fix. But in this case, if you’ve not walked the walk, please do not attempt to talk the talk. In the worlds of my friend, Voltaire, doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
Though it’s taken me years to learn, I’ve finally figured out that one of the the most vital parts of my kids’ history and their issues is shame. When I really sit and analyze why they have the unhealthy behaviors they have, it always come back to the shame they feel from their early lives. in fact, the turning point for two of my kids was when fabulous therapists helped them progress to the point that they felt comfortable sharing with me something of which they were deeply ashamed and then realizing I wasn’t going to run away and leave them. It turns out that no matter how many times I told them I loved them, no matter how many violent tantrums and running aways I endured, and no matter how many birthdays and Christmases we shared, they were convinced that if I knew the “real” them, I would abandon them on the spot. Six years into this journey, it’s pretty clear to me that little tidbit was the missing puzzle piece that made so much more make sense, and it changed completely how I parent.
So this morning, when I awakened to what is a new and improved social media policy from my state’s department of human services, I was excited. You may wonder what in the world social media has to do with shame, but they actually have quite a lot to do with each other, because one of the most well-intentioned but harmful policies I encountered when I was fostering was my state’s privacy rules for foster kids. To be clear, I suspect my state is like a lot of other states, and I’m guessing most of their policy has to do with federal mandates, so this isn’t a witch hunt. I hope it’s a bit of perspective building and impetus to change the whole system, because when I looked at the new and improved policy, it wasn’t as new and improved as I’d hoped.
In short, the privacy rules for foster parents involve not identifying your foster kids as “foster kids.” The new policy does allow you, finally, to post photos of them online (such as on Facebook), but you still can’t “out” them as foster kids. The intention is to protect the privacy of the kids and of their biological families, which I completely get and respect. However, in reality, this is the foster parent equivalent of Spanx. They seem like a good idea until you’re actually wearing them, and then you feel so ridiculously constricted as to be incapable of functioning in polite society. Here’s how the privacy rule played out for us in reality.
Imagine 30-something, never-married, no biological kids, Caucasian, “know half of Oklahoma City” Shelley and three African-American children are strolling through Target. The three-year-old is in the basket, and the six- and nine-year-old follow behind, chatting and throwing items into the cart. They run into friends Shelley has known five years or so:
Friends: “Hey! Good to see you. What’s up?”
Shelley: “Hey! We, I mean, I, am just shopping for a few things. How are you?”
Friends: “Good. Who are the kids?”
Shelley: “Kids? What kids? Oh, you mean the one here in my cart and the two girls who appear to be hovering near me? They’re, uh, friends of the family.”
Friends: “Friends of the family? Really? Your family? Because you’re single with no children? How are they friends of the family? What are they doing with you?”
Shelley: “Well, yes I am single with no children, and these children’s potential tie to my extended family appears to be ridiculously tenuous at best, but yes, they are friends of the family. I’m just caring for them for an undisclosed amount of time.”
Friends: “Really? Where is their family? How did they decide you would take care of them? Was there no one in their family better suited to care for three children? Because you don’t know how to raise children, having none of your own. The whole things seems a bit odd. Are you sure you didn’t kidnap them? Or, maybe you’ve just lost your mind, and we should have an intervention? Are you on drugs? We’ve not ever known you to be evasive or dishonest. Are you a spy? Are you undercover and these children are somehow involved in a national security concern?”
So, no, that didn’t actually happen. But the reason it didn’t happen is because I broke the rules. I always introduced my kids (no last names) to friends and family and was very proud that they were in my home. I wanted them to be proud that they were part of a system that was meant to care for them until their biological parents could care for them once more or until adoptive parents came along. I was proud to be a foster parent.
Sadly, what the privacy rule really does is a few really negative things:
- Helps kids to feel more shame. What’s intended to protect them actually makes them feel that they’re part of a system of which no one is supposed to admit being a part. They also suspect that their biological parents must be terrible people if they did something that got the kids into a system about which no one is allowed to talk. And, what they feel about their biological parents translates to how they feel about themselves.
- Helps kids to learn that lying is justified. When I told my kids what I was writing about today, each one of them said individually, “But that’s a big lie, and it would make me feel weird.”
- Adds to the already plentiful pile of shameful secrets these kids have been asked to keep.
So, while I applaud the improvements in the privacy rules for foster care, I think we have a long way to go. By sharing my kids and their story (always in a way that did not endanger them or disclose who their biological parents were) with friends and family, I helped raise awareness for the needs of foster kids and the issues that contribute to kids going into the foster care system. I also gained a much-needed village of support that has come in remarkably handy over the last few years, because every foster parent needs a village. My kids felt welcomed and loved by a much larger group than just me, and they knew that they were part of something that was intended to care for and “foster” them onto the next stage – not something they should be ashamed of. They didn’t feel like second class citizens or less than.
Moving forward my hope is that we can move away from the “don’t mind the man behind the curtain” philosophy of foster care and just acknowledge that sometimes parents aren’t able to parent. Rather than demonizing those parents, we should acknowledge that they need supports. The whole process should be more transparent, far less medieval, more supportive, and more positive for everyone involved. I think we’re definitely moving in that direction, but not as fast as I, other parents, and I suspect a lot of professionals in the system might hope. Until we do, we’re part of the problem, not the solution, for a growing number of foster children in the US.