I sat in the dimly lit living room waiting for the child that had recently been assigned to foster care to come down from her room to speak with me. This case and child was unlike any other I had dealt with to this point.
Infants and toddlers are who I had worked with in the past. My monthly visits with them at their foster homes were comfortable. I would come in, play with the kids, and then talk to the foster parents about how the kids were doing. As a court appointed volunteer, my job, and privilege was to make sure the needs of the children were met, make sure the children were safe in their foster homes, investigate what had led to their foster care placement and then report back to the court as to what I felt was in the best interest of the children. Ultimately, I would be asked if I felt the children should go home to their biological parents or stay in the system to be adopted. It is a volunteer job I take very seriously and it is the most important, and difficult job I’ve ever had. I had just recently had to tell two sets of parents on two separate cases that I felt it was not in the best interest of the children for them to return home. When I was on the stand in court there is no avoiding the inevitable question. Both times while the mothers sat at their table with their attorney, as tears washed over their cheeks, the question was asked by the attorney representing the county.
“Mr. Hofmann, in your opinion from what you found in your investigation, what is in the best interest of the child? Should they be returned to their parents, or should the county get permanent custody of the children?”
In both cases, it was not safe for the children to go home. Regretfully, I had to recommend that the county be awarded permanent custody of the children. The judge agreed and although it was the right decision, the “what if” reel in my head constantly plays.
After these two cases that spanned over 3 years I told myself it was time for me to retire from volunteering. My plan was to work with the county to get these children adopted and in the meantime refuse to take on other cases.
….then I got an email.
The email described a case involving a 16 year old who had been adopted internationally and the adoption disrupted not once, but twice, and after the second disruption the child welfare system got involved. This young lady is a transracial adoptee, and I knew no one would understand some of the issues she was having like I would. Immediately, I sent an email back stating I would take the case.
So much for MY plan.
I sat on the comfortable couch in the spotless living room facing the carpeted steps that disappeared into the second floor. This would be the first time we met and the first time I worked with a teenager.
I sat nervously on the couch waiting for this child to come down the steps. My biggest fear was how this trauma would show itself in this 16 year old. Was I going to meet a defiant, bitter, angry child, who hated the world and me without giving me a chance? Yet the adoptee in me was excited because I felt I could connect with her through our like experiences. I hoped to show her that TRAs(transracial adoptees) are a powerful group, wonderfully made and able to withstand a lot. I prayed just the presence of another TRA who is an adult and has come through this unique life would give her hope.
Slowly she descended the steps not saying anything. The foster mom introduced us and I stood up to shake her hand. She extended her hand and shook my hand. It was a firm handshake giving evidence of a child who was present, not one that had given up. She smiled and the personality that would have evaporated from most who had experienced the trauma she had was also present. Relieved, I sat back down on the couch. She stood in the middle of the room pacing back and forth walking on an imaginary balance beam as we began our talk.
I told her what I did and then asked a very simple open ended question.
“So tell me how we got here?” I said very matter-of-factly.
“My parents didn’t want me any more so they went on the internet and found a couple to give me to.” She said back very matter-of-factly still balancing on the balance beam.
Experience told me not to react; give my best poker face, but inside I was heartbroken, and angry. The blunt force trauma that came from such a shocking statement made my head hurt. How could someone do this to a child? What kind of damage did this cause to the young imaginary gymnast that balanced in front of me?
“Did they tell you why they did this?” I said very calmly.
“They said they couldn’t handle me. My mom and I fought all the time.” She said as she spun on one foot and walked back the other way.
“Did they find a family?” I asked.
“Yep, and I went to live with the first family.” She said as if telling me about something simple like what happened at school that day.
“I lived with them for a while and then we began to fight so they returned me to my mom and dad.” At the end of this sentence she loses her balance and steps off the beam.
I’m horrified and try my hardest not to show it.
“So then what happened?” I tried to continue because I didn’t want the impact of what she said to sink in. I hoped that hurrying along with the conversation would prevent additional scars from forming by this game of human volleyball.
“I stayed with my parents for about a year and then they went on the internet again and found someone else to adopt me.” She said as she climbed back on the beam.
I couldn’t process the information and refused to try because the realization of what this poor young girl had gone through would leave me slumped over sobbing uncontrollably.
“Then what happened?” I was committed to forging forward.
“I stayed with that family for about a year and then me and the dad got in to a fight and they called the police. I was arrested for hitting him and they said they didn’t’t want me back, so I went in to foster care.” She moved from the balance beam and began stepping like a majorette in the middle of the room.
I was broken.
I couldn’t take any more and needed to switch gears for some relief. I began to share with her that I grew up in a house like hers. I explained I was also the only child of color in my house. I too was adopted by a white family and as I shared how we were similar the stepping, and balancing and the dancing stopped and she moved closer and sat down on the floor facing me. The hope that I had prior to our meeting was given life. It appeared she found comfort in knowing there was someone who could relate to some of what she has gone through. I continued to share about my life as a transracial adoptee because it was unfair for me to come and reopen wounds and not share of myself. I told her the struggles I had growing up sometimes as the only child of color and she could relate. She shared with me that she had very little contact with people that looked like her growing. Each family she was passed to was a white family that lived in a predominately white community. This foster placement was the first time she ever lived with someone whose skin resembled hers.
After about an hour of sharing back and forth, I agreed to come back in a few weeks to see how she was doing and I left. The weight of that conversation and the weight of the life she had lived sat balanced on my shoulder after I left and I couldn’t look at it: too much pain, too much damage.
The next day I relayed her story to my supervisor. It was the first time my ears heard from my mouth a portion of the story. No longer could I balance the story on my shoulder. The weight of the story moved from my shoulder into my ears and in to my heart. My heart felt the pain of a life given away once, twice, three times and at 46 years old I couldn’t make sense of it. The tears began to pool in my eyes and I cut the story short. This is a story that can only be digested in small portions never all at once: too much pain, too much damage.
As I continued my investigation, I contacted the adoptive parents to hear their version. I prayed that the story I got from the teenager was more teenage drama than truth. We arranged to meet and I arrived at their home and sat in their well-lit living room on their not-as-comfortable couch and asked the same open ended question I asked their daughter a few days before.
“So tell me how we got here?” I said, trying to sound unbiased and non-judgmental.
The mother spoke first and took control of the conversation. She was angry, and frustrated. Her dealings with the child welfare system to this point had not gone well; a lot of questions, a lot of prying, and a lot of unnecessary dealings in her mind.
“She was always a difficult child. We adopted her when she was 5 years old from Africa and she never bonded with us. She was never one to hug or cuddle. She would even sleep in a rigid posture; as stiff as a board. Her behavior became so disruptive that we would have to take separate vacations. Her brothers and sisters hated going on vacations with her because she would ruin it. At home She would steal and lie and sneak out of the house at all times of the day and night. After 6 years of trying we decided maybe someone else could handle her better. The person we used for respite care offered to take her and adopt her. We eventually made the tough decision to give her up. We signed over a power of attorney and she went to live with the new family.”
“Did you ever try therapy?” I asked; telling myself over and over to keep moving forward.
“Oh…okay…” I responded
The rest of the meeting was a blur and we covered the ping ponging of this child back and forth over a 5 year period and I went numb. The idea of assigning a child to another family by simply signing a single sheet of paper was mind blowing to me.*
The school year of 2012-2013 was a struggle for my fellow TRA. She often said she couldn’t concentrate on her school work. Adjusting to the change from potential adoptive home to foster care was a tough one. Normally an A and B student, she struggled to pass any of her classes. She played basketball sharing time on both the varsity and junior varsity teams coming close several times to being ineligible because of her grades. She did just enough to stay on the teams but performed several atmospheres below her potential. In the spring she walked too close to the edge and was ruled ineligible for track, the sport she really excelled in and loved. Her grades become part of the collateral damage that comes with too much change, too much pain, and too much damage.
The summer was a continued struggle to stay involved in something productive while resisting the temptation to return to her old ways. We continued to meet and talk and I tried to get her to see the potential that I saw in her. I called her out when she was wrong and praised her when she made the right choices. She often made the wrong choices and was caught just about every time she attempted to steal or spin what seemed like a web of unnecessary lies. Her foster mom would punish her every time she was caught and I would get the phone call from her telling me how unbearable and unjust it was to live under such rules. She often requested to be moved to a different foster home because her foster mom would hold her accountable and press her to do the right thing. I told her it was important that she stay in one place and work through the uncomfortable. She would buck my siding with the foster mom and tell me she was sick of everyone, including me. Then I let her know regardless of what foster home she wens to I remained a constant. I let her know she was stuck with me and no matter how many wrong choices she made I wasn’t be going anywhere. My visits with her would continue whether they were at the foster home or jail. She hated to hear that but she needed to hear it. She needed to know for once she was not disposable. Slowly over the past year and a half she has changed and the potential that was seen early on is beginning to show up.
Two weeks ago, I called the school to get her grades. She told me what they were but I have learned to verify things to be sure. Her counselor told me she received a 3.29 for the first quarter. Her grades have jumped dramatically and had gone from flat lining to having a pulse. She still struggles with just being a normal teenager but the system can make that difficult some times. Teens in foster care concede a lot of control and are often at the mercy of the system and when there are gaps in the system the kids suffer. We are now trying to find a way to take care of the expenses that no one will cover. To be a part of the basketball team she has to purchase shoes that match the rest of her teammates but this is not a covered expense, but all agree her being on the team is what she needs. As she moves in to track this spring she will be required to get running shoes, racing spikes, a team sweat suit, and Under Armor gear to wear under her uniform to match her relay team. Next year as she moves into her senior year there will be senior pictures, her cap and gown etc. Again these are expenses that all the services involved point to another service to cover. I have spent hours calling to see if someone would step up and support this young lady so she can just move through life like a normal teenager. I tried contacting AT&T to see if they would be willing to donate cell phone minutes so she can activate a cell phone that we got for her. She recently was contacted by her biological father in Africa through Facebook and he would like to call on a regular basis but she has no cell phone. They have talked briefly and the life that he and her brother have spoken in to her has helped soothe some of her wounds. These needs are recognized by all who come in contact with her, but no one yet will step up. I’ve contacted United Way and they said unfortunately these expenses fall in to a gray area, and in the gray area there is no money.
Yesterday while brainstorming with a friend, he suggested I write a blog and just ask for folks to give money so this young lady could just be normal. After the tough journey she has been through she deserves stability and normalcy. I have never used my blog for anything like this before but I’m willing to do what I can to help change the course of her life. So I thought this would be a great way to reach out to those that truly understand the struggles she is facing and the cross roads that we are standing at. So I am asking, if you can, please donate something and invest in a life that has amazing potential. If you have corporate connections and can put me in touch with a corporation that may be interested in sponsoring her I would welcome the opportunity to speak to them. She has been told over and over she doesn’t matter and I’m trying to let her know in a special way what she has been told just isn’t true.
Thanks so much for helping to change a life.
*The practice is called “private re-homing,” a term typically used by owners seeking new homes for their pets…Children can be sent to new families quickly through a basic ”power of attorney” document – a notarized statement declaring the child to be in the care of another adult.
To learn more about the practice of Rehoming go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-m-simmons/rehoming-is-a-monstrous-act_b_3943583.html