Friday, February 28, 2014

Happy Birthday Warren!

Having a three year old was supposed to be easier than having a two year old. Unfortunately for me, my three year old never got that memo – instead the terrible twos that never really developed until the last part of his two year old year ramped up until I was quite certain that I would lose my mind in quite a dramatic show down over bedtime or back talking or daredevil stunts off the living room sofa. Indeed, three was a challenging year for my little mischief maker – probably because three was also a year fraught with so many changes in our home life that it made me and the hubs a little crazy, which makes the Monkey’s transition to Chief Mischief Maker all the more understandable.

Shortly after his third birthday, we learned that we were going to have another baby placed with us. We ended up changing childcare centers to a more affordable center who would take all three kids (including the new baby) and Warren did fine with that transition – he asked about his little buddies from the old school a lot and really seemed to miss Jay and Malik – but he quickly made good friends with Ariani and Skyler and Arlis. So it worked out well in the end.

Two weeks after the move, our little Bunny baby joined our family, and Warren fell in love. Even though he was getting more challenging by the minute, he did such a great job being a big brother first to Liam and then to Elie – he always wanted to sit with me to help give her bottles. This was a huge change from just two years prior when we had a little girl placed with us for a few days and he did everything in his power to push her out of the house as quickly as a case manager could come get her. I’ve watched him grow into such a wonderful and protective big brother over the last two years since then – he was even more attentive to Elie than he was to Liam when Liam first came to us (though don’t be fooled – he is fiercely protective of his little brother, too, just watch him if someone tries to do something to Liam he doesn’t approve of).

He helped Liam celebrate turning into a one year old by teaching him how to expertly lick the frosting off of a cupcake and then eat the entire cupcake without missing a crumb. He even offered to help Liam with the leftover frosting if it was too much for him to eat. He helped Liam learn how to walk by moving toys just out of his reach until the poor baby was forced to learn how to take a few steps on his own just to steal back what he had rightfully taken earlier.

Warren started taking jazz and ballet lessons over the last part of spring and loved the classes a lot – to the point of being quite disappointed when the season was over. He looked forward to the fall when dance would start again – and he was able to take classes for a few weeks until taekwondo classes sort of took over every last second of free time we had as a family and we abandoned ballet in favor of taekwondo.

We spent the summer going to the Trousdell activity pool, where Warren, Liam and Elie splashed and played to their hearts’ content, and Warren eagerly awaited the day when he would be finally big enough to go down the big water slide – he had finally gotten tall enough to ride his first rollercoaster at Disney (Barnstormer) in March – but alas he did not gain enough height prior to the season’s end. He is now (as of Friday) 42 and a quarter inches tall, so it looks like this summer he will be graduating to the big slide.

We made a failed attempt at moving him to a preschool in Tallahassee at the museum – which was a huge tactical mistake – one that made me seriously question every choice I had ever made as a mother. But it led us to actually switch him to the larger location of the school he was currently attending, which has been a HUGE success. This actually helped me get on board with him going to the Wakulla County schools next August when he starts kindergarten.

Two weeks ago he tested for his yellow belt in taekwondo and passed. I was so proud of my little monkey! He answered the questions beautifully and showed his newly acquired skills like a little ninja warrior. And next weekend he will compete in Spring Nationals for the very first time.

I’ve noticed a big change in Warren over the last month or so that is making me start to tear up a little thinking about it. My baby is growing up. The challenging, mercurial days of his third year are winding down and he’s finally starting to show some real progress in self-control and big boy behavior. He has finally started to sleep through the night in his own bed, he goes to bed without fighting and whining anymore, he is much easier to reason with and get a point across to – and he’s even starting to recognize when he’s back talking saying, “I know, mommy. I shouldn’t back talk. I’m sorry.” All of these things are wonderful, but they also make me realize my boy is growing up!

I took him to Karen’s Bakery this morning on the way to school so we could pick out some treats to take to his little friends at school to celebrate his birthday. Oh my goodness, it was such a fun morning activity to share with him too! He was amazed by all the cookies in all of the cases and watched in glee and wonderment as Miss Karen iced 35 cupcakes for us to take to school today. He was even more excited when she offered him a little thumbprint cookie – which made me remember fondly the times my aunt or grandmother had taken me to the little bakery in Perry to get me thumbprint cookies.

Warren has learned how to write the alphabet, read some small words, draw actual pictures of things, tell really cool stories and seriously terrible knock knock jokes, and he’s even learned how to hit a T-ball and climb up the monkey bars he couldn’t even attempt last year. He’s grown 5 inches taller and six pounds heavier, had several funky haircuts, learned to love guacamole and how to manipulate me into letting him watch “just one more show.” All along the way, my love for him has grown deeper and more full every single day – something I didn’t know was even possible as I already loved him so fiercely!

Tonight, when he drifts off to sleep in his Lightening McQueen sheet set, I will put balloons outside his bedroom door so that when he wakes up tomorrow morning that will be the first thing he sees. I cannot wait to see how his four year old year will turn out, but I can definitely tell that we’re going to love every second of it! Happy birthday, my dear, sweet Warren. Mommy loves you to the moon and back – no – actually, Mommy loves you to infinity!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Forming a new family is hard work

I have been a foster parent for almost five years now and an adoptive parent for just over two of those years. In that short time, I’ve been through the dependency system with a dozen or so babies and have adopted three of the babies that came to me through foster care. Last month a judge banged her gavel and declared that my husband and I were the legal, forever parents of a brand new baby girl, Elie. And while that doesn’t really seem like an Earth-shattering statement as forever families are formed every day in court rooms across this country (though not nearly often enough in my humble opinion– but that is the topic of a future post), what is huge about that statement is that Elie is the third child my husband and I have adopted from the foster care system, and the biological sibling of the child we adopted back in October of last year, Liam. It is the story of how Liam came to us that put the wheels in motion for Elie becoming our child, too, and it is the story of the dedication of three very special women working in dependency that tells the story of my new and now whole family.

Twenty-three months ago next Monday, I got a call from placement asking me if I had space for a nine day old baby boy who desperately needed a home because he had been removed from his parents' care due to neglect and safety issues. The placement specialist, Rachael Bassett, had already called a slew of homes that evening looking for someone to take this little man in – I know this because my foster bestie, Sherri, had sent me a text message about thirty seconds before my phone rang telling me I needed to answer the phone because placement would be calling me. I remember the phone call vividly. I was actually in the middle of bathing my (then) recently adopted son, Warren, and our (then) foster daughter. I had bubble bath bubbles up to my elbows, was covered in water and sitting in a puddle of water that had been splashed out of the huge tub by one of the kids. I even managed to drop the phone while Rachel was talking to me- but she had placed children with me a few times before so she knew how spacey I can get during a placement call (yes - I am one of those mothers whose first instinct is to say "yes, yes, yes" even though my husband fusses at me for doing that). After briefly telling my husband what was going on and that we were getting a new baby that night (and I may have asked him if he was okay with this... or maybe I forgot to do that... not sure which), I raced out the door with my hair on fire to go meet the child protective investigator to pick up the new baby. And that was how Liam came to our family -- the first time.

Liam did not stay with us for very long initially. A judge reunified him with his family four days later because the family was able to find housing through the good deeds of a local church; but, sadly, this reunification lasted only about four weeks until a series of hotline calls led to him being removed again and resheltered with us. This is a dance many foster parents know too well. In this case, we sort of knew that it would not be a matter of if Liam came back into care, but more a matter of when he would come back into care and how much would have happened to him in the interim. Both of his biological parents had pervasive mental health issues, drug problems, chronic and persistent homelessness, unresolved and untreated health issues, issues with violence and self-esteem, long criminal histories and were, themselves, products of a broken foster care system. The cycle was repeating itself over and over again with this family. It was a long four weeks for Liam, and a very long four weeks in my head for the things that were happening to him.

When I got the second call from placement about Liam almost four weeks later I left my office immediately to go pick him up from the child protective investigator again. The CPI told me the case manager assigned to the case was going to be a Lead Dependency Case Manager named Bethanie Milford and gave me her contact information. I assumed that Bethanie was going to be just an average case manager and that I would begin that other dance foster parents know too well of tracking her down for paperwork or referrals or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to get to her at all. I was pleasantly surprised though as Bethanie was anything but average – in fact – as a ten year veteran case manager, she took her role as family advocate very seriously, and she was determined to do everything in her power to break the cycle of abuse in this family.

Bethanie went about setting up visitations with the biological family (which was complicated due to the everyday visitation the judge ordered), asked about our family's needs, got every single piece of documentation I asked for to me as soon as I asked for it, provided follow up and constant communication with both us and the biological family and provided referrals and services at least once a week. She would reach out to me before I could even reach out to her, and that threw me off because with the dozen or more case managers I had worked with prior, I had always been the one to initiate contact and generally had to spend the better part of a week or more getting the things we needed! Bethanie worked hard to anticipate the needs of both my family and the biological family and she worked very hard to get services in place to help the biological family start to overcome the overwhelming disadvantages they experienced in trying to parent this child.

I watched in awe as Bethanie did things I had only ever dreamed a case manager would or should or even could do to help heal a broken family. It was incredible. Watching Bethanie started to restore some of my faith in a system I have only ever seen fail since I was a young teen and watched my own siblings fall into the system having their lives slowly broken, piece by piece. It was also extremely disheartening to watch as the biological family systematically refused all of this amazing help and started to sink further into their chaotic lives and withdraw from the community around them. It was kind of like watching a horrific traffic crash happen in slow motion speed.

After many, many months of failed visits, lack of progress on case plan tasks, and then ultimately the disappearance of the parents, the posture of the case changed from reunification to concurrent goals of reunification and adoption and finally to adoption. I became acquainted with the Children's Legal Services attorney assigned to the case, Diana Korn, when she reached out to me to answer some of the legal questions I was asking about how the process worked. I was able to see, first hand, how well Bethanie and Diana worked together on this case during this time. Bethanie would talk to Diana about challenges she was facing managing the case, and Diana would actively reach out to Bethanie with suggestions for how to document certain things. All along the way, Diana would call me at various points to make certain that my family understood what was happening in the legal arena and had the opportunity to advise the court of various things we were experiencing as a foster family. I had never had a CLS attorney keep me so well informed of the process of the legal system, but Diana would answer every question I posed to her as soon as I posed them – no waiting for weeks or months for a return phone call. And I know this should be what happens with every case, but it simply isn't. So as I've told my other foster friends about how cooperative and professional Diana is, they've all hinted that they think I'm fibbing to them – until they meet her!

The other person who played an integral role in this case was the guardian ad litem, Karen Isch. I've had experience with wonderful guardians before, but Karen takes the cake. Karen visited Liam at his daycare (which was in a different county from where Karen worked), our home, during vistations with his parents - she even once came to a doctor's appointment to visit him while he was getting shots (and helped me calm him down after those shots). She actively interacted with the parents and the parents of the parents. She visited, wrote reports, asked about the kids and the needs of our family and remained a wonderful source of information throughout the case. I think we chatted weekly or every other week as I would update Karen about Liam’s different specialist appointments or new rounds of testing he was undergoing. When she knew he had an appointment or that we had to travel to Jacksonville for a test, she would call to check in to see if she could help in any way. At the holidays, she even put Liam’s name on the list to receive gifts through the GAL office – which I thought was absolutely sweet and kind!

A few months before Liam turned one, we were told that his mother was pregnant again and were asked if the baby was sheltered would we consider being the placement resource for that child as well. The maternal instinct in me was to say "yes, yes, yes" again, but I knew that my husband and I were already stretched very thin with the two boys we already had as Liam had some complicated medical needs that kept me out of work a lot travelling to the children’s clinic in Jacksonville for his specialists. Not wanting to give up on the idea of keeping the siblings together if the new baby was removed as well, my husband and I started a several-month-long dialog as to whether we could financially afford to take the new baby, whether we had the physical resources to fit a third car seat into our vehicles, whether we could find a center that would take a brand new baby, whether we could handle another child with complex medical needs like Liam had, and whether we had the emotional capacity to go through this again as this case has been the most emotionally draining case we've ever had. We knew our own relationship had been strained through the course of this case because of the emotional nature of the things that kept happening – and we were both exhausted because Liam did not sleep well due to some of his issues and we travelled a lot to the next county for ER, urgent care and doctor visits.

Long story short, after many, many emotional conversations, and many visits to a marriage counselor who acted as a mediator to our emotional conversations, we both came to the conclusion that we could not break up siblings, and we would be the resource for the new baby if it were sheltered - making the decision just in time for the new baby's birth (whew!). We bought a new van as our old car would not accommodate the extra car seat. We prepared our home for a new child and bought some additional furniture. And we told our employers the news as experience had shown us that you take a lot of time off with a new child. And we both decided to say goodbye to the possibility of any sleep ever again.

The interesting thing here is that Bethanie, Diana and Karen were playing instrumental roles in our decision making process for accepting the new baby into our lives - though none of them knew it at the time. We were already drained from the emotional rollercoaster of this case - the highs were so few and far between, and the challenges and lows were so challenging and frequent that we had decided to close our foster care license and home to any more children. But we used the energy that each of the women poured into the job they were doing for the kids on their case loads to help us recharge and stay in it for the long haul.

The day we made the decision to take Elie into our home, I got the phone call from Bethanie that she had been born a little early and would be ready to go home the next day. I was emotionally freaked out thinking of all the work that goes into a new baby – the sleepless nights, the crying, the endless barrage of diapers and butt paste and spit up and laundry and visits from case managers and guardians and on and on and on. I was afraid my husband would end up not being on board with all of this and that it would strain our family to the breaking point. But my oldest son, who had just turned three, and I went to go pick her up from the hospital the next day, and even though it ended up being a nightmare that involved security having to whisk us to safety in another room and part of the hospital and nurses and security having to escort us to the car in teams to protect us, I fell instantly in love with this little squishy baby that would find shelter in our home and love in our hearts.

Things did get crazy again, too. The biological parents who had disappeared for months came back out of the woodwork and brought with them a whole new onslaught of emotional pain. We watched them struggle and once again refuse the help being offered. We watched, helpless to change the course of their destinies, but beginning to understand that Liam and Elie were likely not just going to be with us temporarily. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you foster sometimes – because you are so uplifted and encouraged by the gains the children in your home make but find such despair in knowing that their family story involves so much loss and pain.

I flash forward now to almost twenty-three months after I got that first phone call from Rachael about Liam. Liam and his little sister are now part of our forever family. Our house is a little messier... our schedules are a little more hectic... we have less disposable cash and much more laundry to fold... but our family is exactly the way it was meant to be! The journey has not been easy. Evan and I have fought and argued and fussed and whined at and to each other. We’ve had financial pain as we’ve discovered the costs of raising children are quite significant. We’ve had sleepless nights as one or more of the kids have been sick, or teething, or experiencing night terrors for the first time. Our marriage has had to grow with our growing family – and sometimes that has meant we’ve had to seek counseling to help us navigate each other’s meanings and fears and challenges and strengths. And we’ve had days where we’ve gone to bed angry with each other (even though they say don’t do that). But through this all, we’ve also grown fonder of each other and learned to appreciate the nuances of each other’s parenting skills.

It’s been interesting for me to observe Evan growing as a parent – watching him make decisions he’s never had to make before and learning how to debate an incredibly intelligent three year old who sometimes uses fuzzy logic. It’s been downright funny to watch him learn how to change a dirty diaper with a squirmy baby who decides to add to the diaper mid-change. And it’s been heartwarming to watch him teach our children how to put puzzles together or learn how to catch and throw a ball.

We made it through a challenging, complex case to form our final forever family partially because the ladies who were charged with seeing that the children in care are protected, safe, nurtured and loved went above and beyond what many people in the system do. The communication from legal, case management and GAL helped us stay focused on doing our part - loving the kids, keeping them safe and allowing them to grow. The support this team of women provided our family along the way helped us through a very difficult two years and ultimately helped us make a forever family of siblings who will always be able to stay together. Through all of this each of these ladies had their own personal lives to attend to as well - but they never lost sight of the kids and their needs - and they never lost sight on trying to help their biological family heal itself.

I know that in many years when my children ask me the story of their beginning I will have some challenges on how to present their beginning in a way that they will understand and not feel loss that their family was formed by graft rather than root stock - but I know that I can also tell them about three amazing women who helped them before they were old enough to even know! I am forever grateful for these ladies.

A few months ago the judge announced the arrival of our Elie for the first time to the world and in the process made us a legal, forever family of five. Now my husband and I will have to learn how to navigate the world simply as parents, and that is going to take some getting used to… for me at least. I think back to the beginning of our foster care journey and I can’t help but think how much life has changed for my family in those short five years. We have three forever children now, have fostered a dozen children along the way, have made many friends who have fostered or adopted, and have seen the ugly underbelly of the dependency system up close and far too personally. But we also have seen the amazing capacity of the human spirit to thrive and rebound, and we’ve met three wonderful women who worked very hard to ensure the safety of one child, but ultimately ended up creating a loving family for his sister too!

I think about all of this and know that my life is as it should be.