In the summer of 2008 my family took a hiatus from foster parenting. I suffered a rather traumatic ectopic pregnancy in June and the county had concerns about one of our dogs. At the end of the summer my husband and I decided that if we were going to continue to do foster care, we wanted to do it with older kids who we knew as much about as possible. We had only had one placement with the county, three sisters who were 6, 2, and 1. Having that many little ones in addition to my own 2 proved to be harder than I anticipated. And the 2 year-old had some behavior issues that nobody warned us about, which added stress to the situation.
Private agency foster care was what we ended up doing. Our agency placed kids that were generally 12-18 and all with clearly documented issues. Most of the kids were involved with the juvenile department for some reason or another and could not return to their birth homes. We completed training and became certified in November. We were told, in training, that the kids referred to us would get to meet us and then we would all agree if it was something we wanted to do or not – which we liked, because it meant the kid had to have an investment in being in our home.
Our referral was nothing like we had been told to expect in training.
First, he was 11. Second, he was in a residential treatment program for mental health issues and did not have a juvenile record – this matters, I learned later, because the juvi kids are under the constant threat of being returned to lock-up if the placement doesn’t work. Residential treatment is too expensive to put a kid back into if he doesn’t really need it. Third, this child was part of a “new contract” with county mental health which meant that everything we had learned about process and protocol was not going to apply here. We were essentially going to be the guinea pigs for how to make the contract work.
I have worked in children’s mental health for years, always with the disturbed kids that scared the hell out of most people, so I felt like I could handle this situation. His issues coming out of treatment were related to the physical abuse he experienced with his mother, so I expected PTSD and depression. There was also some question about ADHD vs. anxiety, and he was discharged to us on ADHD medication. We were also told that he was good with younger kids and loved animals, was into the outdoors and hunting, and had an interest with the Marines that bordered on obsession.
We visited him 3 times at the treatment facility to help decrease his anxiety over the transition into our home. He chose to go to foster care as opposed to returning home with his non-abusive parent, but was still pretty ambivilant about it. Our second visit to see him – the facility was 3 hours away – he refused to see us. Honestly, it sucked to be making effort that was not even acknowledged, much less reciprocated. I should have known then that my expectations were not in the right place but I didn’t see it.
I moved my 2 kids into one bedroom and changed the baby’s room from a cheery yellow to a warm brown. I found a large bed and other furniture. I chose a bedding set that was lodge-themed, with deer and trees, thinking the boy would find this comforting given his interest in the outdoors.
Did I mention he was discharged to us 3 days before Thanksgiving?
When he came to our home, he was super anxious and ignored everyone except for my husband. This tendency to avoid females was well-documented and seemed to make sense given his history. His first night with us he removed the pillows and comforter from his bed and instead slept with a dirty pillow he’d brought with him, a thin camoflauge blanket and a quilt the treatment facility gave to him when my husband picked him up.
He never used the pillows and rarely used the comforter the entire time he was with us.
He needed winter clothing and shoes so we brought him shopping once and never did it again because he was so controlling. He argued with the salesperson about shoes, his feet, styles, until it became apparent that we were not going to be able to get honest feedback from him about the shoes as to if he liked them or if they fit. I ended up going to another store without him and getting him clothes. In return, he refused to wear the clothes for months.
He avoided me as much as he could, unless he wanted something and then he would seek me out to try to manipulate me into giving him what he wanted. With my husband, he was always in his face and at his back asking him questions and trying to get him to interact with him to the exclusion of everyone else. With the kids, he was cruel to the 4 year-old boy who worshipped him and sugar-sweet to the 2 year old girl – just to be mean to the boy. My son would share things with him and ask him questions, and the child would act as if he didn’t hear him. At first I tried to be calm about that, tried to explain to my little boy that the big boy had problems and he was living with us so we could help him learn how to be a part of a family. Eventually, when things did not improve, I was unable to be calm about it and began confronting the child. His response was “oh, I didn’t hear him” and then he’d talk to my son in a fakey, high-pitched voice.
As time went on other problems began to surface. The child was quick to manipulate others into feeling bad for him, and if the adults involved with him did not communicate then he would basically run wild. The downfall was the day treatment program he attended. The staff was all female, and they had very, very poor boundaries with the students. At intake the therapist working with this child said to him “we like to give the kids who come through here lots of TLC. Do you know what that is?” Of course he didn’t so she explained that they would be loving and nurturing. She basically advertised to him “hey, I am an easy mark, play me for all you got” and boy did he. In one of our earliest sessions with her as a family, I brought up that I felt he and I needed help with our relationship as we really didn’t have one because he was unwilling to engage with me beyond a “hey, I need a coat and the foster care money you get is supposed to be used for the stuff I need”. So the therapist said to him “do you like Jennifer?” And then she encouraged him to just “share his feelings” and he went on about how he didn’t like me at all and I was left to sit there feeling like somehow I had done something wrong just by being who I was.
The school issue was a big problem. He’d go to school, fake cry and get away with not doing his work or anything that made him uncomfortable, and then come home and be horrible to everyone. One time the agency caseworker was there and he went into the kitchen to have a sandwich – he had food issues and needed lots of limits and supervision around how much food he could have at one time, and he also would reject the meals I made in favor of making his own sandwich if he was in a bad mood – and announced that he couldn’t find the peanut butter. So I said to him, from where I was sitting with the caseworker at the table, “it should be in the left hand side on the top shelf” and he looked up at me and said “I wasn’t talking to you.” I was the only there who would know where the peanut butter was.
He did make progress. One time he became upset over a cancelled visit with his father and actually asked me what he could do to calm down. He accepted a blanket I made for him and kept it on his bed. He allowed me to help him with his homework. And lastly, one time, the day before he was being moved to a new home, he apologized to me for being rude.
On the day he actually moved, he had already packed his things because he had decided after spending a week with a respite family while we were visiting North Carolina that he wanted to move in with that family permanently. While he was at school I packed the remainder of his things from his room and expected to feel something other than relief, but that was all I felt. When he came home, his new family arrived to pick him up and we carried his things to the car. As he left, without a hug or even a wave, I surveyed my home. And there, as a parting gift, were 2 paper cups on the counter that had not been there before he had come home. In them, a mystery liquid…and maggots.
In hindsight, I think I was unprepared for how it would be to have a child like this in my home as opposed to at my job. Having my kids complicated my ability to do what I needed to do with him. He did not end up being good with animals or younger children – in fact, after he moved into our home we learned he had once tried to kill his younger brother by strangling him. This information would have changed our decision to have him in our home, for sure. I was also surprised at how easily hurt my feelings were! I thought I knew what I was doing. In the end, all involved with this kid agreed that his issues stemmed from reactive attachment disorder – the worst label any kid in the system can get. I do not have alot of hope for this child.
Which is why I chose not to do foster care once we moved. If I can’t feel there is hope for a kid, how can I justify the work? How can I criticize a child for being superficial or manipulative when I am doing the same thing just to get through another day? I don’t think I helped this child at all. It was, I believe, one of my biggest failures.