The Summer of ’76

It was the summer of ’76 when my dad drove our family to California for a vacation. I was four-years-old in the backseat of a sweaty, hot car as we made our way to the Golden State – approximately 1,900 miles from my hometown. When we arrived, we checked in at the hotel and then headed straight to the beach. Warm sand hitting my toes. Sun setting across the distant ocean. Taking in the glory in front of us.

I cautiously approached the water with my green flip-flops on. Dipped my toes in and then took a few steps. The tide came up, pulled my flip-flops right off of my feet and swept them out to sea. Dad exclaimed, “Jaws got them!” as he tried to cheer up his sad little girl. (The original movie just came out the summer before our trip. Plus, about a mile from our beach, someone caught the largest Great White in California history, at that time.)

The rest of the beach vacation consisted of me digging holes in the sand, running close enough to the water to fill a small bucket, and pouring it in the sand; my attempt at building my own little ocean so that I didn’t have to go where Jaws lived.

Ocean animals have terrified me ever since. I love looking at the ocean, but you won’t ever catch me swimming in open water. I won’t book cruises and can barely watch movies that contain deep water/giant creatures that could eat me for lunch.

My four-year-old brain heard my Dad say, “Jaws got them!” My brain signaled that the ocean and sharks are something to avoid. Digging a hole to create my own little ocean was a way for me to build a safe place where I knew I could survive without the giant monsters looming in the water.

This is similar to what we see with children who have experienced trauma. (For the record, I’m absolutely not saying that my experience at the ocean is as serious as traumatic events of abuse.) This experience instantaneously changed my view of the ocean and it has stayed that way ever since the summer of ’76. The holes I dug really didn’t create more safety for me even though my brain convinced me otherwise.

Just as happy experiences alter development of the brain (in a positive way), trauma does so as well. But not in a good way. Instead, the brain develops patterns for survival. For some kids, it may look like hoarding food even though there is plenty to eat. For others, it could be locking every door they enter just in case someone tries to come in.

Some kids run away from their caregivers (even ones who are safe) and keep running to avoid any type of attachment or relationship. Kids may lie to avoid a beating, although they are no longer in an environment where beating occurs. For others, it looks like claiming control of everybody and everything they can (even animals) because they could not control what happened to them in the past.

Changing the landscape to which kids from hard places view life includes us changing our perceptions of trauma. The brain controls our action – even when we don’t understand it. From fear to elation, everything that happens all comes to down to brain chemistry, connectivity and development.

When I revealed that his words forever altered my view of the ocean and aquatic life, my dad was quite surprised. He had no idea that experience in the summer of ’76 had an impact on me. Families who care for traumatized children mustn’t be surprised when the child pulls away from nurturing or hides food in their sock drawer. Or, runs away from the home. They need to know that it isn’t the child’s response to them but to trauma.

As we end National Child Abuse Prevention Month and move into Foster Care Awareness Month in the US, let’s strive to truly and deeply understand trauma and the subsequent life-long impact it has on the developing brain.

One of the Lucky Ones – Missy’s Story

This is the story of my dear friend, Missy and her mom, Marcia.  She’s a special person and I’m so thankful she shared her story with me, and with all of you. She considers herself “one of the lucky ones”.

Missy, Marcia, and Missy’s sweet little girls

“We are often told that we look alike.  Our eyes meet and we just smile knowing that we are the only ones in on our little secret”, explained Missy when telling her story about her experience as a child in the system.  It was about twenty-four years ago that her life took a drastic, yet remarkable turn.

From the beginning of her life, one would not consider Missy to be lucky. Her biological mother was just eighteen-years-old when she gave birth to Missy. Already having a lot on her plate as the mother of twins, parenthood was hard on her. Missy’s toddler and preschool years were spent with her mom having multiple boyfriends.  She actually remembers her mom changing the pictures on the wall depending on what boyfriend was visiting. Things were rough, but got much worse when she was five-years-old.  Her mother married a man who was not the kind of father she and her siblings needed in their lives.

Physical abuse was a part of her life as young girl.  Missy remembers being beaten for trivial things such as losing the pen to the Yahtzee game.  Sometimes, she and her siblings were beaten so severely that they had to miss days of school.  Her siblings experienced sexual abuse, but Missy did not.  She is incredibly thankful for this, but carried guilt as a child knowing that her siblings were exposed to this type of horrific abuse. 

One of the worst memories Missy recalled was when her step-father tried to force her to drown her puppy for peeing on the floor.  Missy always had a genuinely compassionate love for animals, so her step-father choosing this as a punishment for both her and the pup was incredibly cruel.  Although young, Missy stood up to her step-dad, refused to drown her pup, and instead took a beating that lasted for hours.

As time went on, things got worse.  Her mom, beaten beyond recognition, would tell the children that she was going to take them and leave, but never did.  Missy suspects she was scared and had such low self-esteem that she chose to stay.

After three years of living a nightmare with her step-dad, a knock on the door occurred and child protection services removed the children.  Although in desperate need to be taken out of that environment, Missy was scared, clung onto her teddy bear, and sobbed over being taken away from her mommy.  She and her siblings moved from home to home for various reasons, and she remembers the drive to each new home being very scary.  They would arrive at a new place full of strangers and a trash bag full of their belongings. 

Enter Marcia.  Marcia was a former neighbor of Missy and happened to be at the Children’s Division office when she overheard the social worker talking about needing to find another home for the kids. Realizing the children being talked about were the three children she fed when hungry, Marcia immediately stated she wanted to take them into her home.

Even though their home was filled with children, Missy remembers feeling loved as though she was the only child there.  Marcia and her husband, Jim, welcomed her and her siblings with an incredible amount of love.  Her birth mom was never able to reunify with her children.  Missy feels as though she chose the lifestyle she was living with her step-dad over her and her siblings.  Although never legally adopted, Missy chose to change her last name to Marcia’s and Jim’s last name when she was twelve-years-old.  They were already adopted in love.

Being taken in and loved on made an incredible difference in the lives of Missy and her siblings. Safety and nurturing became their constant. Opportunity became their normalcy. The rest of their childhoods were ones free of abuse and neglect.  Marcia and Jim are heroes who helped to changed the lives of children; ones that desperately needed a place to call home and the love of a family.

I’ll let her words speak for them-self:

“I have not seen my bio mom since I was taken away.  It would be easy to be mad and full of hatred for her.  I chose a long time ago to let this all go.  The pain and hate only brought me down.  Matter of fact, if I ever see her I may thank her.  My past has made me the person I am and brought my new parents and siblings into my life. “My mom” and I are very close and I know we were brought together for a reason.  As she says “we are like peas and carrots”!  I now have two beautiful girls myself and cannot imagine letting anyone hurt them.  I realize not all foster children are as lucky as me.  I was able to graduate from college, get married to a wonderful husband, get a great job, and have two beautiful babies.  I guess I consider myself one of the lucky ones.”

 

Missy – I think those of us who consider you a friend are the lucky ones.  Thank you for sharing your story of how one person can change the life of a child, and for your personal resilience to rise above.  You, my dear, are an amazing woman.

It Happened Again Today

It happened again today.  Three young children brought into protective services. Sadly, they may not have been the only ones brought in this week.  Honestly, I don’t believe they were.  It is far more prevalent than most would think.  Abuse, neglect, failure to protect, lack of supervision, unsanitary living conditions….the list goes on….

As I was preparing a room for training, I couldn’t help but notice the sounds coming from the offices near where I was.  Case workers were like bees buzzing around the children.  “Are you hungry?”  “Do you want a toy?”  These questions are nearly just about all you can ask three young ones whose lives just got turned upside down.

As I walked around, I heard case workers on the phone with this question, “Hello, I’m ……from……  We just got 3 children into care today and are wondering if you would consider taking them as a placement?”  When children come into protective services, case workers start frantically calling the “list”.  They move through the list looking for a family who will take kids on a moment’s notice.  There is no planning, no pre-placement visits like adoption, and no real way to predict when a home is needed.

The other sights and sounds I heard are ones that are a little harder to swallow, even though I’ve been in this field for a while.  The little one was whimpering, crying, and throwing fits.  The next little one was playing with the same toy that sang the A, B, C’s over and over again.  The older one, well, she did not seem to say much at all.  Children are resilient and it is hard to know just what they are thinking, but behind their resiliency must be some wonderment about who we were and how they ended up in an office with strangers asking them questions and offering them snacks.

I could not help but think about the job those of us in child welfare have.  I wonder if we would be overwhelmed by it if we just stopped long enough to really think about what our work entails.  That same resiliency that is in children is also what gets most case workers through their jobs.  Yet, behind that layer of resiliency are people who just want to make differences in the lives of children.

Every time a child is in the office where I work, most everyone stops whatever he or she is working on and offers help.  Some “man” the phones looking for a foster home placement, others take turns playing with the children, some dig through the supply closet looking for clothing, diapers, blankets (the children rarely come with anything but the clothes on their backs), others start processing the paperwork, and the nurse checks the kids over with great gentleness and kindness.  Not to sound cliché, but it does take a village at work to help when kids into care.

It happened again today.  Three young lives wrought up by abuse and neglect.  A team of people working together to provide what they could for children in need.  A foster home that finally said “yes”.  And, my heart and mind wishing that none of this was needed.

Want to help, but don’t know how or have the time?  Please consider praying for case workers who are on the front lines of the war against child abuse and neglect.  Prayer changes things!

Their Greatest Joy

This blog has been mostly devoted to my own personal journey from the valley of unknowns and barrenness to the glorious mountain top that is adoption.  I know that my story is not the only one out there.  There are many families whose stories include answering the call to care for children in need.  This is one of them.

In 1999, when Tamra was just 23 years of age and finishing college, her heart was deeply touched by the foster children who attended her daycare.  She was moved so much that she decided to become a licensed foster care provider through the state.  Tamra asked to be put on the so-called openings list for placements.  This list is how workers know that families are available to take children into their homes.  A few days had passed before any calls were made to her.  That all changed though on July 24, 1999.

Imagine, if you will, running into your home to change clothes after a wedding so that you can head out for the reception, picking up the ringing phone, and being asked “Would you be available to take in a two month old baby boy?”  That is exactly what happened.  Tamra excitedly got off the phone, grabbed her friend, and made their way to the hospital – so much for going to the wedding reception!  

This 8 week old baby boy had been intentionally thrown out and onto some lawn furniture and needed to be checked for injuries.  As Tamra was waiting to meet him, her mind was racing with thoughts of “What have I done? I don’t know how to take care of a baby!”  She also wondered if the nursing staff thought of her as being too young to be a foster parent. Tamra was not prepared, but felt the calling to say “yes”.  She did not have a crib, car seat, or anything really for a newborn, so after they left the hospital, they made their way to Wal-Mart to pick up all of the necessities for taking care of babies.  Foster families very rarely get a lot of time to prepare for placements, so they must think and act quickly.

It was very natural for her to fall in love with the little prince that came to live with her on that fateful night in both of their lives.  Tamra’s fiance, Shane (now her husband), also fell in love with him.  Their extended family worried that they would get their hearts broken, but they were also supportive and realistic about the primary goal of the foster care system in working towards reunification with birth parents and their children.  Although adoption was not their first intention, Tamra and Shane were very happy when it appeared that adoption would be the goal for him.

Things were moving along and then…new case worker….new ideas…a relative stepped in.  This little boy had been placed with her since age of 2 months, had been visiting his birth parents the entire duration of the case, and now was potentially going to be moving in to a relative’s home.  After 2 weeks of nail-biting anxiety, a decision was made to keep their boy where he was.

After 4 years and one month of loving and fostering him, their dream of becoming his forever parents came true.  Their adoption was finalized by the courts.  Their son is an amazing child, is in a gifted program and in advanced math classes.  They are very proud of him!

Despite the long haul through the system with their son, Tamra and Shane decided to pursue another placement of a foster child.  They really hoped for a girl and were blessed by the placement of a 12 week old baby girl. This precious girl only weighed 9 pounds and the 3-6 month clothing Tamra picked out for her swallowed her up!

Tamra and Shane fell in love with this little girl immediately; yet, they were realistic about foster care as they had just experienced a long journey with their son.  At their very first team meeting, they were asked if they would consider adoption of her!  They were so surprised and felt incredibly blessed!  Their adoption was finalized in 2004.

Their daughter has had some challenges.  She is autistic and has a seizure disorder, but she is an amazing joy in their lives.  They feel so blessed to call her their daughter.  Life would not be the same without her “sassyness” and her personality.  She has made great strides and they have great hope for her continued progress and well-being.

Tamra and Shane want those who are considering foster care and adoption to know that you have to give the children your all.  Foster parents have the opportunities to help set the foundations for these children that can last a life-time.  It is a risk and you can get hurt, but the impact you can make on the lives of children is worth it.  Perseverance, consistency, stability, advocacy, and trusting your knowledge about the kids you are caring for are attributes that Tamra and Shane feel are necessary when fostering children.

They believe that the Lord had His hand in forming their family through foster care and adoption.  Tamra and Shane do not regret a single thing and feel extremely blessed to call their children their own.  Their greatest joy is raising the children, witnessing their triumphs, and experiencing life that is free from abuse and neglect.  

In Tamra’s words “Adoption is a beautiful thing!”

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose. – Romans 8:28

Sunny Days and Ice Cream Cones

Working in child welfare for any amount of time forces the rude awakening of the troubles we have in our society and the daily struggles that too many children have in the United States.  There are children who are fatherless, motherless, or both.  Many are taking care of their baby siblings even though they are babies themselves.  Some can tell you how to prepare a crack pipe because they have witnessed it in their home.  Others do not understand boundaries or safety because they have never been kept safe.  Infants are born with the addictions of their mothers; or at least, the exposure of poor choices made while in the womb.  If you do not believe or understand this, then I encourage you to spend a day with a child abuse and neglect investigator.

It is deeply troubling when I hear people dismiss children as if they carry no purpose.  I have written about this before in my post Where is Your Treasure?

ALL children are vital to this world.  ALL children are precious in the eyes of the Lord.  He loves each one as if he or she is His only child.

They teach us to forgive quickly, to slow down, to laugh, and to dream.  They see things through the lens of innocence.  They have great purpose in this world.  Not to sound cliché, but they are the future and the potential fulfillment of all things good in this world.

When I took this picture of my daughter above at a family get together, I could not help but think about what the life of a child should be made of.  Their lives should be filled with love, silliness, warmth, and parents.  Their lives should be enveloped in family, memories, shelter, encouragement, and safety.  They deserve days filled with the warmth of sunshine, the laughter of playmates, and the sweetness of ice cream cones.

Where is your treasure?

(photograph by Sarah Carter – http://www.sarahcarterphoto.com)

A friend recently told me that when she and her husband started telling people they are taking foster parent classes, they were met with responses that were both surprising and disheartening.  People have said things like “why don’t you just have your own baby?”, or “why would you do that?”  Unfortunately, the majority of these statements have come from fellow believers in Christ.

It seems this appears to be quite common even in the Christian community, or at least perhaps in our area of the country.  Thankfully, my husband and I did not deal with this as much because people knew we were infertile and that we wanted the opportunity to be parents and hopefully adopt.  But, my friend and her husband have biological children, and could have more if they chose to.  They have felt called for a while now by the Lord to minister to little ones through foster care.

After our conversation, my heart was a little unsettled.  The Lord kept saying to me “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”-Luke 12:34.  After pondering on this, the thought entered my mind that while we are truly blessed in America, where is our heart?  In my opinion, it seems that it is in worldly things.  We treasure our actors and celebrities. We lift them up on pedestals and award them.  Yet, do they reflect our hearts?

We fight so hard with each other over our political opinions and opponents.  Our different views in policies and our abilities to express them are an integral part of our freedoms, but do they really reflect where our hearts should be?  We strive for big cars, bigger houses, and small waistlines, but still, are these the things that we treasure?

It would be a lie to say that I don’t enjoy going to movies, voting, or admiring nice cars or homes.  It would also be not truthful if I never worried about what the scale said.  But, I hope these things never reflect where my treasures really are.

It breaks my heart that in this country of opportunity where fellow Christians can walk freely without persecution, we overlook what is truly important.  The Lord has called us to minister to ALL people.  This includes the politicians we don’t agree with.  This includes the actors or actresses that we may find “weird”.  This especially includes children who have fallen into the foster care system.

I have worked in child welfare for eleven years now and have seen so many horrible and vile acts against children.  I have witnessed foster families get their hearts broken time and time again.  I have watched birth parents lose their battles with addictions, and ultimately lose their children.  Sadly, I have seen social workers become hardened to their hopes that they can change the world.

I still believe that one person can make a huge difference in the lives of children.  I choose to believe that people can change, but they need willing participants to walk along them in their battles.  Sometimes, it seems that we want children to grow up in safe homes, or want adults to change, but fail to recognize our responsibilities in these things.

We might say “I believe in Christ and love Him mightily”; yet, we turn our backs on the things that take us out of our comfortable “God bubble”.  Christ surely was taken out of His comfort zone.  He could have decided not to follow His Father’s calling.  He could have walked away, but He chose not to.

If we want the staggering statistics of abuse and neglect of children to end, we too must not walk away.  Foster care and being involved in child welfare issues will certainly take us out of our comfort zones.  It will definitely break our hearts at times.  However, our involvement in children’s lives and doing what God has called us to do is a reflection of where our treasure should be.

I saw a poster one time that said this “You have never looked into the eyes of anyone who does not matter to God”.  I have decided to recite this to myself daily as a reminder of the incredible responsibility and calling as a Christian to love people, especially those that can be overlooked by society.  My hope is that my treasure and my heart will always be focused on the One who is worth treasuring, and on the children He desperately loves.