Saturday, January 22, 2011


Next month we are moving. In part, we're moving because T wants a dog. In part, we're moving because our landlords/duplex neighbors are racist.

When T moved in, readers of this blog might recall that the landlords went to see their attorney before they even bothered to shake his hand or speak to him in person. Despite the fact that he was only 15 at the time, they tried to block him from moving in by claiming that he was an "adult roommate". They told us that they "know what these kids are like" and that there "used to be some gang bangers in the neighborhood" whom they knew to carry weapons. What any of this had to do with T went unsaid; they clearly saw his Black face and felt sufficiently justified to form paranoid opinions on that basis alone. We quoted the advice we'd received from the Office of Fair Housing back to them, and they backed off.

I've never been able to forget it, nor really to forgive them. Over time, I realized that I am subtly stressed and angry raising T in close proximity to people who may not wish him well. If he comes in the house late, or makes too much noise, or fails to speak to them politely when they cross his path, I find myself fretting over how they might treat him. I do worry about (and try to support him in preparing for) the effects of racism in his life - the teacher who assumes he can't read, the police officer who pats him down on the subway. Worrying about it at home is just one thing too many.

So we're moving. We live in a great neighborhood in a central part of Los Angeles that is not only truly integrated, but also has an unusual number of interracial and non-traditional families. We rent rather than own so that we can stay in this area, for that reason. On our block, we have several African American families, several white families, a group home for developmentally disabled adults, a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, a postproduction studio for an African American television station, and a couple houses full of recent college grads.

So we're staying in the neighborhood. But we're trading the racist landlords for a professional property management firm. I want my lease to be a business deal, not an opportunity for comment on my family composition. We have new neighbors including two young female rock musicians and a fashion designer - they make noise, and are unlikely to find us particularly odd. T wants to graduate high school next year and live at home while he goes to junior college. We are feeling good about finding a place we can all commit to long term.

I often notice the impression we make on new acquaintances. In general, people are nice and perhaps a little curious, though we often have to be fairly explicit in the beginning in order to establish that we are, in fact, T's parents. For example, recently T and I went to the animal shelter to look at dogs. The volunteer asked me how many children were in the home. I pointed to T and said, oh, he's the one. Confused about what I meant (and perhaps by his height) she said, "Oh, T, how many children do you have?" He looked at me aghast. "T is my kid," I explained, and laughed. "He's our only child." "Oh!" she exclaimed. "It's okay," I said. "He's very tall." The moment passed, and she was very kind and took to T and helped him find his perfect pet. It just took a moment for everyone to figure out what was going on.

But things aren't always so friendly. People do stare, and sometimes leap to conclusions. Planes seem to be particularly awkward - T often travels in his pajamas, and he tends to hang all over us on the plane. More than once, other white passengers have openly stared throughout a flight, obviously unable to conceive of our relationship. Recently, on a ski trip, the lift attendant saw T and I approach together and said to me "Oh, it's okay, you can ride alone." I said, "I'd prefer to ride with my kid," and got on the lift with T.

I find that African American women have been the most openly skeptical and also the ones with whom I feel the greatest mutual understanding. They are not afraid to raise the topic of race, which I appreciate. I work with a number of African American women older than myself who see me with T on a regular basis. At first, I had the sense that some of them questioned my qualifications and my motivations. They probably also felt concerned about a Black child being separated from the community. At the same time, because that dialogue is on the surface with them, I find it can evolve. Recently, an African American colleague who had been polite but distant witnessed me in the hallway at work giving T some guidance - I was handing him his allowance, reminding him of our agreement about how he'd spend it, and telling him what time to be home. He was hopping from foot to foot, pulling my hair playfully and agreeing to abide. After that, she gave me the nod of approval. Whereas before, I had the sense that she regarded us with critical distance, now we are friendly and familiar - she asks after him and after me. I think she is convinced that I am doing the work. And I think she'd be pleased that when T talks about my work, he talks about people like her. "African American people work there," he tells his friends with great pride.

Recently I read an excellent article that is more than 20 years old and still captures a great deal of truth about interracial relationships. The focus of the article is on interracial romantic relationships, but I think much of the insight contained there pertains to interracial parenting as well. I think interracial parenting is probably hardest on those who are most sensitive to other people's opinions. I might seem so here, but in general, I am independent minded and so is T. We are both introverted and autonomous by nature, which I think protects us from some of the more intrusive attention we attract by being an interracial family.

I have heard it said of interracial romance that it matters greatly where you live, and I that's just as true of interracial parenting. I am satisfied that we live in the midst of a major city on the West Coast, where I think it is perhaps easier to be an interracial family than in other parts of the country. I'm also grateful for T's friends and for his generation in general, which is astonishing in its total embrace of diversity. The gulf between people his age and people like our former landlords is enough to make the latter look antique, and I hope that soon they are.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The United States foster care system has a higher turnover rate than most fast food industries.

I read an article today that begins with this statement: "The United States foster care system has a higher turnover rate than most fast food industries. Of the estimated 200,000 licensed foster homes, from 30 to 50 percent drop out each year...Why are foster parents leaving? Of all the reasons, the biggest by far is that they are treated poorly."

All I can say to that is, yes, indeed. We might have fostered and/or adopted a few times in our lives, these days we are inclined to think that we'll do it just this once.

Our main reason is that we connected with T so deeply and have had such a profound experience becoming his parents that we fear there will never be another T and we might just hang up our parenting gear when he no longer needs us.

But the other reason we aren't anticipating a repeat performance is that the bureaucracy is too punishing. Unless we managed to meet a child with whom we can establish the kind of connection we have with T, we would surely be adrift without the support required to address the needs of a child with complex needs. We became foster parents after meeting T and only because we found him so compelling and there was such unusual chemistry amongst us. Without T as my motivating factor I just don't think I would be able to tolerate this bureacracy.

It's on my mind this week because we recently attended a court hearing to decide the matter of noticing his biological parents regarding the adoption (a discussion they have waited 18 months to even initiate). At the hearing, the court had to fire his present attorney who hasn't shown up in court on T's behalf for several years. The court appointed a new attorney exactly three minutes prior to the hearing, and the hearing moved forward despite the fact that the attorney knew nothing about the case. When we asked to address the court (about the fact that T's caseworker has asked him to notice his own mother) we were told that we can't speak to the judge. After I got back to my office that day, T's adoption social worker called me to ask what is going on with his case, and ask me to straighten out a huge misunderstanding between herself and his primary caseworker. Then T.'s biological mother called him at home to ask him what is going on with the court case because she doesn't understand the papers she's received from the court and the confusing phone calls she's had from his social worker and they've just managed to get her worked up and anxious, despite the fact that she's been aware of and not expressly opposed to his adoption all along. I wanted to scream.

To be brutally honest, we have mostly been treated like low rent babysitters by the social workers and inspectors and court officials involved in T's case. Often, to this day, have the sense that the myriad caseworkers and inspectors and bureacrats involved expect us to fail in our endeavor to provide him with a permanent home.

In my imaginary better world, becoming a parent should feel sort of like joining the Peace Corps must have in the heydey of the Kennedy Administration. There should be recruiters, and the recruiters should help people find a way to view foster parenting as a noble and unique endeavor, not a poor approximation and substitute for bio parenting. The training courses should be hard, and they should take place somewhere fun. (How about luxury hotels, that donate the rooms and facilities for a long weekend as a tax writeoff, like a gift to charity?) The trainings should include a panel of foster children to speak for themselves and their peers. Perhaps they could rank potential foster and adoptive parents: "This foster parent gets an 8 out of 10 stars in reviews from 32 other foster children..."

When we met T. we received a two page form describing his personality and interests. It was 90% inaccurate, with large portions that were frankly erroneous. It managed to be both clinical and superficial, a disturbing combination. Virtually everything we know about his background, his needs and his medical and educational history we found out from him. He in turn received nothing about us except the packet that we put together for him of our own accord. At some point (when his adoption finalizes? it's never been clear), the social workers tell us that we'll receive a thick packet of papers documenting his history; by then, we will have no use at all for the information it contains.

Thank goodness we fell utterly in love with him, I say, because we have mostly had to parent him from the gut while he has helped us understand over time where he's coming from. Had we needed to be more strategic from the start, and had he been unable to articulate his needs, we would have had a very rough time indeed.

Monday, January 3, 2011

In Tribute to My Friends

My friends rock. Two of them particularly rock.

My Friend #1 is a private investigator who investigates the social history of people on death row. She worked in a foster group home for a couple years right out of college and her parents adopted an older child from foster care.

My Friend #2 is a licensed clinical social worker who supervised a program for homeless teenagers for many years, worked with traumatized kids in Kosovo, and now runs a free medical clinic.

They will both touch many lives in the course of their careers. But this week, I get the benefit of their wisdom. Tim and I are getting four full days off, thanks to them.

This is how it came about: I have a business trip to my hometown this week, and decided to take T with me. I figured I'd put him to work and pay him a bit for his time so I wouldn't have to worry about what he's up to while I'm away (winter school break is interminable this year thanks to LAUSD budget cuts). Of course that also means struggling to keep him occupied while I go about doing my job, being with him 24/7, juggling his needs with those of my coworkers. I booked a hotel suite for us with cable, video games and room service and hoped for the best.

Well, unexpectedly, T. announced that he'd be staying with Friend #1, who lives in the town where we're visiting, instead of with me at the hotel. This news was shocking and delightful, because he does not easily take to strangers nor to spending the night in unfamiliar places. Some months back, we had dinner with Friend #1 and her partner, and I guess he was captivated by her stories about her current case, involving a young man who grew up in a prison camp. I think he was also struck by her low-key compassion and hard-to-impress demeanor. So he decided to make himself her house guest. She loved the suggestion, and immediately got in touch to let him know that he should bring his xbox and come prepared to entertain her new pit bull puppy. His complete confidence and comfort about staying for five nights at her house is really touching to me.

Then my blessed Friend #2, who also lives in the town where we're visiting, offered to have T work at her health clinic for a day or two while he's staying in the vicinity. She knows that he wants to be a nurse, and arranged for him to shadow a male nurse at her clinic as he goes about his day. She isn't bothered at all that just three weeks ago I was ranting and raving to her about my problems keeping him in school, off drugs and out of trouble. Like Friend #1, she's pretty hard to impress and she's seen plenty of complicated teenage boys in her time. She has taken the time to listen to him and recognizes who he is, underneath the misbehavior. Like all kids, he rises to the level of expectation, and he responds to her respect and good humor.

One of the hardest things about becoming T's parent has been the isolation. We moved to Los Angeles just two years before we met him. That's not enough time to form deep friendships in middle age. We do pretty well, and we get home to our friends and families often, but I wish sometimes that we had stronger local bonds. It can be isolating enough raising a traumatized kid, because his intense needs and struggles have a way of drawing all of our time and attention and energy. Living in a town without close friends and family makes things harder and we almost never get even an hour off, much less a day.

So this week, I'm exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to distribute the wonders of T.'s company across the safety net of my two friends. He trusts them and feels he can be close to them because he knows how much they are a part of me, and that makes me feel good. Visiting with them gives him a chance to grow and experiment, and it gives me a chance to relax.

I hope every foster/adoptive parent of a traumatized child out there gets a break like I'm getting this week. Knowing that someone you trust who "gets" your precious, complicated child is going to stand in for you for just a little while is SUCH a huge mental and emotional relief. And for T., finding surrogate parents who are willing to open their homes and lives to him sends a profound message about belonging to a family, growing into an adult, and the value of strong friendships. They are my family, and now they are his as well.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Our Second Christmas Together

Our second Christmas with T went a lot better than the first. We were smarter.

This year, we better understood that a lifetime of disappointment makes surprises very unsettling, and we let T make a wish list of desired gifts to guide our giving.

I didn't get a Christmas tree this year - I've learned that too much festivity just produces anxiety. We just had Christmas lights - like the frosting without the cake.

This year, I was better prepared for his...flawed etiquette around receiving gifts, and I didn't expect any display of happiness or gratitude. I just gave him things I wanted him to have.

And of course, in synch with my reduced expectations, T better managed his complex feelings about receiving gifts and even managed a polite thank you!

This year, I kind of got a present from T. T told Tim to get me something. I bought myself some nail polish. Tim gave it to T and T gave it to me. He took great delight in taking all the credit. Making himself emotionally vulnerable enough to make a passing gesture at giving a gift is a big step for T.

This year we didn't let the chaos of his birth family compete with our time with him. Instead, we gave him his gifts on the morning of the 24th and had a nice breakfast together. This worked well for him and he announced that forevermore, the 24th is "our Christmas".

We arranged the same Christmas Eve visit to the birth relatives we facilitated last year, and stressed less about it. We knew the visit would be chaotic, disappointing and depressing and that we can not control or prevent his feelings. (SocialWrkr24/7 had a great post about the complexity of holiday birth family visits here.) We kept in touch with him by text message, made sure he got fed, but didn't freak ourselves out completely when the adults took off and didn't supervise the kids. Their chaos is familiar to him, and he can manage it for short periods, particularly if he knows we are nearby and available.

I'm particularly pleased that T let us take charge of his visit with his brother this year. He was a "parentified" older sibling for many years and it badly frayed his nerves. This year, we made the plans for him: we bought his brother a gift, drove out to a neighboring county to pick him up, and delivered him to the relatives house on Christmas Day. We decided on the timing and duration of the visit. When T got frustrated with his brother in the car, we soothed them both and got them settled down. I felt really gratified by his concession to let us be the parents - that indicates a great deal of trust on his part.

I didn't feel so badly about missing out on T's company on Christmas as I did last year. Tim and I planned Christmas Eve as a treasured date night and we had a blast.

This year, I had a better understanding that the best gift I can give T as his parent is to reduce the burden of my emotional expectations and normalize and help him balance his scattered loyalties and relationships.

This year, my mom included his photo in her annual Christmas card collage, alongside my nephew. He plucked it from the mail, stared at it for a long time, then set it aside in a prominent location. Thank you, mom.

This year, he hoarded all the Christmas cards that had his name alongside ours on the envelope. "They're addressed to me!" he exclaimed. It is hard to explain the significance of Christmas cards and packages to a neglected kid.

This year, my parents joined us for a short ski vacation the day after Christmas. This year, T. referred to my dad as his "grampz".

This year, my cousin's 4 year-old daughter approached T and asked him sweetly if it would be alright if she called him her cousin from now on, and he smiled and nodded.

In our own way, it was a merry Christmas.
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