Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Am Not Invisible

So U2 has been my favorite band since I was about eight years old which may sound strange to anyone who doesn’t know me very well. Most people my age didn’t “find” them until The Joshua Tree was released in 1987, but I remember hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day for the first time thinking they were awesome. I was drawn to the music, but also drawn to the message their music held – even at the young age of eight. It seems weird to me now that as an eight year old I would appreciate such controversial, almost militaristic music – but I come from a home that was rife with violence, alcoholism and chaos so I don’t think I was ever truly a normal eight year old. The year I first heard their songs was the same year my parents finally split up and divorced, my Grandma Estee (actually my great-grandmother) passed away and my Papa (Grandfather) passed away, too, making it easier for my father to abandon me to my dysfunction alcoholic of a mother permanently – so maybe a lifetime of witnessing the destructive behavior of my parents and a year of extreme upheaval just naturally coalesced into the unusual listening habits of an odd eight year old.

The year I turned nine the band released The Unforgettable Fire , and by this time I had started clipping and taping to my bedroom wall every news article I found in the paper about the religious and political struggles in Ireland – I knew everything the IRA was doing (everything that made the World Section of Lake-Sumter Sentinel or the Orlando Sentinel of course) and had read as many library books on the various revolutions taking place in Ireland as I could get my hands on in a rural southern school library. I identified, strangely, with the struggles and wants of both sides – which probably just points to the fact that my inability to choose sides goes back many, many years – but most of all I was disturbed by the loss of life that I kept reading about. I would read the newspapers at the school library, and I was probably the only nine or ten year old in Sumter County who knew or even cared what a Contra or Sandinista was, let alone who the Irish Liberation Army was, or that there was unrest in South Africa. The librarians probably thought I was cute or weird – most people thought I was weird at that time (cultivating weirdness is a coping mechanism many children from abusive homes develop) – my English teachers likely thought I was overly dramatic, if not maudlin, in the assignments I turned in, and most of my classmates basically tolerated my oddness and eccentricity.

Going into my teenage years, The Joshua Tree came out and my love of U2 became apparent to anyone who knew me as my fandom started to morph from simply a love of the music to a love of the band itself – I guess the long hair Edge and Bono sported just appealed to the rebel side of my personality – so that when my grandmother and aunt gave me my very first CD player and my very own copy of The Joshua Tree I was in heaven. Every night for months and months I would fall asleep listening to One Tree Hill or With or Without You or Running to Stand Still. The years between Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were rough for me as my mother and then step-father were spiraling more and more out of control by the minute and I was left to care for my three year old sister and new baby brother, to handle the entire household and to try to maintain my grades in school while dealing with the fighting, screaming and physical violence from my parents. It was a dark period for me.

I would sneak out of the house every night after my parents had passed out from their boozed fueled evening, climbing out my bedroom window and dropping the eight or nine feet to the ground as quietly as I could, then walking up our driveway beside the marsh creeped out the whole time as I had never really gotten used to the sounds of the frogs and crickets at night. I’d wander the streets of Wildwood through the roughest neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks slowly winding my way to the police department where I would sit for hours with the dispatchers until it was morning and time to go home again. I think they knew how bad things were at our house, but back then no one really knew how to handle child abuse – and lord knows my parents were a bloody nightmare if you tangled with them. So I think the dispatchers and patrol basically kept watch over me as best they could from a distance until I was old enough to make a stand on my own. I was evolving on the inside during this period of my life – I was learning to hold in secrets and to hide what was happening at home, but I was also furious that no one would do anything about it. How do you, at thirteen or fourteen or fifteen, convince adults that you need help? That someone needs to step in and make what’s happening stop?

I was lucky that my dad’s side of the family had finally figured out a way to weasel me away from my mother by offering to let her keep the child support my father paid each month yet having me come to them and them support me, freeing my mother up to continue in her dysfunctional spiral. The first year I went to Darlington was the first time in my life that I had any consistency or normalcy – but I had no idea how to function in consistency. I had no idea how to be normal. My freshman year at Darlington was rough as a result. Fitting in with a whole slew of new kids while learning how to fend for myself in a college-like setting almost threw me into a tailspin. But it didn’t. I figured things out and settled into a decent routine of going to classes and participating in eighth period after school activities. I had several faculty “adopt” me and start mentoring me in how to be a normal teen – I don’t even think they knew how much their actions helped me because I didn’t know how to tell them then and even now have a hard time thanking people for what they did for me then. By my junior year, Achtung Baby released and was basically the theme CD for that entire year – I still can’t hear Mysterious Ways without thinking of Kari Nelson.

Flash forward to this morning on my commute to work – I’m blasting Invisible and Beautiful Day at high volume driving down the Crawfordville Highway thinking just how much my life has changed in so little time. I am still that odd eight year old in my head some days. I read too many articles about the horrible things we do to each other and I’ve seen, first hand, what we do to our children and generations of children, and I wonder what the soundtrack of their lives would be. I was lucky that my ears found pleasure in a band whose idea was to protest through music and advocate for change and peace through words and monetary policy. The soundtrack of my life has been peppered by the suggestion of action and work and advocacy and hope and love. But what happens for the children whose soundtrack is not so plucky? We have to move forward as a society and change their soundtracks to change their destinies. Who’s willing to change the station today?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Working towards fixing a broken system of care...

I am copying a letter I wrote today to a couple of folks at our local Community Based Care partner to attempt to resolve some persistent issues in one region of our state. This is an issue I've had first hand experience with from this particular county and have actually worked with the individuals I sent my letter to before trying to address some of the things we thought needed tweaking to help better serve the kids who come into care. This is the kind of action I think all foster parents should be prepared to take when it comes to the kids they're entrusted with.

Dear So-and-So,

I'm writing to you because I have gotten another series of questions this week from three different foster families who have kids placed with them from Bay, and I'm not really sure how to advise these parents going forward. The theme of the last few days has been:

I have kids from Bay county and I'm not getting copies of JRs or Case Plans or any other documents that should be included with the kids' files. When I've asked for them I've been told I'm not allowed to have any of this information.

I've had kids placed with me from Bay who have been with me for over two years and the DCM still is not willing to work towards filing TPR even though the parents have not been compliant with any of their case plan tasks. (This particular statement came from two different families - one of which even said the magistrate gave the department 45 days to file a TPR which he said should have been filed months ago)

When my kids go for visitation, they often come back saying they have not gotten very much to eat during their visit. (this sounds eerily like what another foster family and I expressed two years ago about our kids going for visitation - so this one really concerns me greatly)

I hear several recurrent themes from families when dealing with Bay county quite frequently - and they come from multiple families which leads me to think that the experience is common and not limited to one or two case managers. Most of my conversations with other families usually end with the family saying they are unwilling to accept children from that county ever again and this really concerns me for several reasons I will outline below.

I'm concerned anytime a foster parent shares stories about case managers or other system employees who do not listen to the parent's concerns regarding the children in their care - but I'm more concerned with this when it comes from multiple families over long periods of time. With the Bay County issues, I've been first party to what happens over there, but I am now two full years removed from any first hand experience. I see where Life Management has posted that they have a critical foster home shortage over there and that we are not doing a good job retaining or recruiting families there. And when less than two days later I've gotten emails or phone calls from three different families dealing with similar issues as what I dealt with two years ago, I'm starting to understand why there may be a critical shortage of homes.

I'm not naive enough to think that there aren't other mitigating circumstances that affect the practices of that county - I get that it has a highly mobile population with a very low median income. I get that homelessness and drug use is more prevalent and that there's also a military base to deal with. But I also wonder if there are practice issues at the case management level and legal level that are affecting the support that foster and bio families are receiving which are making supporting the children in care more difficult? I am afraid that kids who are removed form Bay homes are going to be shipped to farther areas of the state as more families become unwilling to work with the county - I want to help combat that because like you guys, I truly do believe that kids need to stay as close to home as possible.

So with all of that in mind, what can I do to help? What answers or tips or suggestions can I give families when they come to me with questions, concerns or complaints? What is the right combination of people to put them in contact with and what steps can they take to have their issues handled?

I know with the first bullet I offered, they are entitled to the documents they are requesting as they are supposed to be a part of the resource record and the language including foster parents as appropriate participants to be included is specific in the statute and rule -- yet legal continues two years later to refuse documents to families. Who do we escalate this one to? And maybe the second bullet would be appropriately addressed to the same party?

The third bullet falls under the issues that stem from transportation, handing off to case management/visitation center, and the biological parents - so I know this one will certainly have to have a multiple party approach - but I think this one may actually be more pressing than the first two as it really bothers me that children are saying their basic needs are not being met during visitation/travel time.

Let me know what steps you think we need to take as a community to find workable solutions to these issues. I want us to get to the point to where all families are willing to take all children regardless from which county or circuit they originate.

I hope that they will take my letter seriously and that we can work to get some relief for both the families who are caring for the kids and also for the kids themselves. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could ever reach that wonderful goal of having three homes available for every child who comes into care - because that would mean we've either figured out a way to safely keep kids with their biological families or we've figured out an amazing way to recruit and retain amazing foster and adoptive homes!