Troublemaker

Last week I was called in the headmaster’s office, again.

I got to the school to pick up my son Ben, and instead of finding him sitting on the carpet with all the other children, I was asked to go into the office as Mrs Smith wanted to talk to me. Ben was sitting there, in a corner of the office, on a chair that made him looks small and helpless despite being a big and tall boy.

Mrs Smith started talking, “Ben hit a child twice today while sitting on the carpet and waiting for the pick-up time”. I went down on my knees and look at my son. He looked uncomfortable and embarrassed.

Mrs Smith carried on, “He bossed everyone around, as if he was in charge of grown-ups and children”. I sweetly asked him if that was true, and he burst into tears. He hugged me and said he was sorry. He didn’t want to let go of my neck. I could feel his tears running down my cheek.

Mrs Smith didn’t quite finish yet, “When we told him off and explained he didn’t behave kindly, he didn’t show any remorse so we had to take him in timeout in my office”.

It felt wrong taking a child away and isolate him from everyone else. What does that teach him? He wasn’t a danger to anyone, and they could have just sat him next to one of the teachers. But their choice was to remove him from the room.

I‘ve been called to talk to the teachers more times that I can remember. Ben started preschool just after his second birthday and no long after that, my visits to the school office started. And with it my frustration.

I know my son. I know how strong-headed he can be at times. I know how he likes to be always first, how he thinks he knows better than anyone else, how he’s sure he can decide not only for himself, but for us as well. But I also know he has a big and generous heart, and his teachers seem to be blind to it.

He’s three and a half years old. He’s learning to control his emotions. At that age, everything is so intense, so permanent. Anger quickly becomes rage, and I’m proud of Ben when he punches the floor instead of a person! Love becomes obsession, and sometimes his hugs and kisses resemble more a headbutt or a strangling than a demonstration of affection. All the emotions at this age come powerfully like a crashing wave and staying afloat becomes almost impossible.

My son has been labelled as the troublemaker kid, the one who is tricky to handle, the one who will look at you straight in the eyes as to dare you. And I’m angry about the way the teacher handled the situation and upset to realise how the school is failing him at such a key stage of his emotional and social development.

It’s not a matter of adoption, or trauma, or previous experiences. It’s a matter of parenting styles. I don’t believe in seclusion, and I don’t believe in reproaching a child for not feeling remorseful. I wonder if they gave him the chance to tame his emotions, calm down and reflect on his actions before demanding a remorseful apology.

My son woke up in the middle of the night crying and saying, “I’m sorry I’ve been bad at school yesterday” and, when I picked him up from school the following day, the first thing he told me was, “I didn’t beat up anyone today”. It was hard to hear, he must have felt anxious about it! The previous day experience didn’t teach him resentment, but surely made him feel guilty and left him feeling like a bad child.

I never really wondered much about what a school should offer, it never really was any of my concern. In a way, I just gave for granted that schools would be exactly what I thought they should be.

The school should co-parenting our children, but as parents, we don’t have much saying on how they do it. And although I recognised the school as being run by professionals, I’m not sure I agree with their methods, when their ways differ so greatly from mine. When his teacher reports about Ben has had a good day, there is always a tinge of surprise in her voice, as if his good behaviour is the exception.

This week my son came home with a long red scratch on his cheek. When I asked him about it, he explained that a friend hurt him so that he could take away the train he was playing with. I asked the teachers the same question. They told me they didn’t know what had happened and when Ben gave his side of the story, they decided not to believe him.

I suppose that children labelled as troublemakers never get the benefit of being right, and never run the risk of being hurt by someone else.

A Year Of Adoption Number Ones

The Adoption and Fostering Weekly Roundup celebrates its first year. What an amazing year it has been for both adoption and fostering blogs!

In its first year, we saw #FTTWR steadily increasing in popularity week after week: the number of terrific posts that are added each week is constantly growing as is the number of people who come to read, share and vote for them.

Listed below there are the 52 posts that reached the top the week’s chart, as voted by you, and we hope you’ll enjoy rediscovering them and remembering the fantastic year we had together.

We would like to thank you all for supporting #FTTWR, and we hope the new year will be as good as the last one, if not even better.

Words of Hope

At the start of each year we send out our contact letters. One goes to our son’s older brother who was adopted by another family, and one other go to birth mum&dad.

It’s a bit awkward to write letters so personal to people that are as distant as strangers, and as close as relatives. It always takes a little while to get started, but then the words just come out as naturally as they always do when talking about my son. When we mail those letters which are full of details of our son’s life, we post them together with our expectation to receive letters back, and our hope that the letters we will get back will be meaningful and significant.

Then we forget about them, because for the way the contact letter agreement has been organised, we are due to receive a letter back only after the summer, about eight months after we wrote ours.

When we receive a reply letter, it’s always an unexpected surprise. I recognise the envelope it comes from, the name of the department that wrote our address on it, and the PO Box return address is a giveaway. My heart beat a little faster, my head fills up with anticipation, and I feel excitement and apprehension all at the same time.

I posted three rounds of letters so far. I wrote them with love and passion, and I look forward to the day in which our son Ben will be able to help writing the letters. That’s because after all, these letters are for his own benefit and he should be the one who decides what goes in and what doesn’t.

Last year we got a wonderful surprise when we opened the letter Ben’s brother sent: there was a picture of Harvey, and his adopted family agreed to meet us. Getting the boys together for the first time was truly amazing. I hoped these meetings could carry on in time, but unfortunately, so far it has been a one-off. I should feel some kind of happiness that there was at least one meeting, but I feel angry that the boys might not have the chance to meet and get to know each other.

This year, like every other year, we received a letter back from Ben’s brother. The letter was was just less than half a page, written with the same passion of a homework that needs to be completed by a specific deadline, or a chore to get out of the way as quickly as possible. There isn’t really anything in that letter I can use to explain my son about his big brother, there are no personal details, just a list of insignificant activities. It’s sad for my son, and for his brother. His adoptive family is wasting away this great opportunity for the boys to getting to understand where they are coming from, and I’m complete powerless and unable to change the situation.

But this year wasn’t all bad news, and contact letter brought a wonderful surprise: the birth parents replied to our letter for the first time.

I cried joy over that handwritten letter, and I cried of sadness imagining the sense of loss the birth parents must feel having lost their boys. I tried to guess from the handwriting what kind of woman Ben’s birth mum is. I started to the recent pictures of his birth dad and tried to find commonality with my son.

I avidly read the long letter, full of details and anecdotes we didn’t know before. There is now so much more that we can tell our son about where he comes from. We know why he’s carrying his names, her birth mum favourite colour, his birth dad taste in music. We have a sense of who they are, it’s invaluable for us, as surely it will be for our son when he grows up.

I cannot reassure my son that birth mum&dad will write again, or that he will get to meet his brother once more. What I can promise is that I will keep writing more words of hope.

James Poindexter III

A few weeks ago, I was on Facebook and I came across this positive, smiling, inspirational guy: James Poindexter III.

James now lives in California, but he was born in the Bronx. When he was 10, his birth parents abandoned him. Before the age of 15, he moved over twenty times from home to home and attended 11 different schools. As it often happens to older children in care, James eventually aged out of the system.

James didn’t let a hard start in life holding him back. His winning mindset saw him succeed in many different fields. James is a World martial arts champion, a successful motivational speaker, a published author, a mentor for teens who are about to age out of the system, a trainer for parents on how to build loving relationships with their teens, a foster carer, and a family man.

James wrote a fantastic book called “Your Amazing Itty Bitty® – Foster & Adoptive Parent Guide”. The book contains 15 key steps to successfully connect with fostered and adopted teens. It’s an easy to read and straightforward guide to help foster and adoptive parents in managing the challenging behaviors of their teens. Best thing, it’s written by James, who is a former foster child, and includes tips given by other former foster teens who have lived through the process and learned from it.

I’ll leave you with a little preview of “Your Amazing Itty Bitty®”:

Step 12

Don’t Judge Me Because Of My Behavior

You may see us act very differently from the way you might act in a situation. You must not judge us for this.

Remember that our past is far different from yours so we will react differently than you do. We may only know how to react to a situation in a certain way and if you show us a better way we can change. This is a better model than simply judging.

It is possible that you could learn a thing or two from our behavior. Use this as a learning experience instead of judging. We are a product of our environment. We are in your environment now so help us improve. It is always good to put yourself in our shoes. This way you might understand us better.

You can reach out to James on Twitter @FosterChampion or via his personal site http://jameshpoindexter.com/


Your Amazing Itty Bitty®

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Where from here?

My son Ben and I were upstairs. I was ironing one of the many piles of clothes I washed once back from our holidays. Ben was in his bedroom playing Lego. I could hear him chatting away happily. A few minutes later his face made an appearance at door “Mum, can I see the train puffing smoke?”. I pressed the steam button on my iron, and a big cloud of steam filled the space between us. Ben laughed happily as if a real steam train just turned up in the upstairs landing.

Ben returned to his bedroom. Few minutes passed and then he called “Mum, I cannot do it”. I gently told him to give me a couple of minutes, and I asked for more information about what he couldn’t do. He didn’t answer. Ten seconds, maybe twenty seconds went by, and I heard Ben banging his fists on the floor in frustration.

I left my iron and walked the couple of steps that divided us. Ben was still punching the floor. I asked him in a soft and calm voice how I could help. Mayhem. He took a large wooden car we bought on holiday and bashed it hard over the Lego, over and over again. Little Lego bricks went flying up in the air and scattered around his bedroom. Ben threw himself on the floor, crying and shouting. He grabbed a handful of Lego and shoved them in my face.

I froze. I felt like I was witnessing one of Holly’s meltdown. My head filled up with all those non-therapeutic words I couldn’t possibly tell to my son. My feet considered turning around and flee. Finally, I gulped and some random words came out of my mouth. I don’t even know what I told Ben exactly, but it was good enough for him to get hold of himself, sit down, and although still crying, lift up his face and look at me.

From there everything was back under control. Ben calmed down, and he managed to explain he got furious because he couldn’t build the Lego in the way he wanted to. When I reminded that his behaviour wasn’t an acceptable one, he candidly told me “but Holly always behaved that way”.

The rest of the day was a pleasant one, but the incident got me thinking. It’s like the ghost of Holly still lingers in our home. In our fears, in our extreme responses, in our dysregulated behaviours, in our urge to run away. I wonder if she feels the same about us.

No training can get you ready for the toll that trauma poses on a family. Books can tell you how it works, but no one can prepare you to live with it day in, day out. Adoptive and foster families come to know trauma through the eyes of their children. This trauma is intense and primal, and can easily break you.

Diego and I are the adoptive parents of a beautiful 3 year old boy who will have to heal from the scars left by our choice of becoming a foster family. As parents, one of our main responsibility is to protect our child from harm, but when Holly was living with us, we did a shockingly poor job of it. This past holiday gave us the chance to take a little distance from what, until a couple of weeks ago, used to be our reality. Being submerged in it, we couldn’t see–or didn’t want to see–what effect that choice was having on our child.

The “what to do after Holly” conversation was one that we tried to avoid for all our vacation. It was one of these conversations that allow only one logical conclusion, and it was the conclusion that both my husband Diego and I didn’t want to come to: retire from fostering.

Sometimes it feels likes we just gave up, but the choice we made is for the sake our son. We had to choose between the well-being of our son and the one of all foster children out there, and we chose our son. Maybe one day, when Ben is older and stronger, when we won’t have to sacrifice the happiness of one child for the benefit of another, we will go back to be a foster family again.

I really hope so.

In Million Pieces

Holly left 2 weeks ago, one month after giving notice. Our Social Worker insisted for Holly to stay with us for another couple of months because they had a possible suitable placement with a foster to adopt family who will attend panel at the end of September.

This request came from our Social Worker, who I respect very much, and made me doubt my own judgment. It made me feel undervalued, unheard, used and disposable. I told Social Services daily how our son Ben was scared of Holly, that he had nightmares, that the stress was getting too much for him to bear. I explained how Ben felt the need to protect me from Holly, how he was getting constantly hit by her and how destructive their relationship was. I used the word trauma over and over again. Regardless, Social Workers asked for more time, another 60 days of Holly living with us. They told me they were thinking about what was best for the child, but I had to doubt that because, clearly, the proposed arrangement favoured neither Holly nor Ben.

I realised that giving notice wasn’t enough, and I had no other option other than serving social services with a deadline. I gave five days for Holly to be rehomed, but my Social Worker bargained on that as well and it took a whole week to find a new placement.

The weekend before Holly left was one of the worst weekends of my life. It felt like 48 hours of constant aggression, screams, violence, meltdowns, anger, refusal, hate… Holly took it on me, on Ben, on my husband Diego, on strangers and kids. No one was spared.

Then Monday arrived, and Ben and I went to another foster home to drop Holly off. This time we didn’t even say our goodbyes. Ben didn’t want to hug her, or even get close to her. He climbed on my lap and whispered to me “Mum I’m scared of getting close to her”. I couldn’t blame him, and wouldn’t force him, so I just nodded and told him not to worry.

I kneeled down on the floor to talk to Holly. One more time, I explained to her “Holly, soon Ben and I will leave and you’ll stay here with Hannah. She has prepared a wonderful bedroom for you, with yellow flowers on the wall. Hannah told me she will cook pizza for lunch, your favourite” but Holly didn’t say anything, she didn’t even lift her head to look at me. She just kept pushing a plastic car back and forth on the laminate floor. Then, after the longest silence, she looked at me and told me to go away.

I wish it was one of the phrases kids tell us when angry or afraid, one of these phrases that actually mean the opposite of what they say, but it wasn’t. Holly just didn’t want us there with her. We were just a bitter reminder of all that happened to her.

And so we left. While leaving the room, I glanced back, just to see Holly completely oblivious of Ben and I leaving the room, leaving the house, leaving her life. When we reached the front door, I heard her softly asking: “Can I see my bedroom please Hannah”. I closed the front door behind me and Ben looked at me and sweetly confessed, “I will miss Holly, but just a small little bit, not very much”.

I spoke with Hannah a couple of times since Holly moved with her. I was genuinely pleased to hear how good Holly had settled in. She is happy, calm, relaxed. There is no sign of anger. No violence, no meltdowns, no defiance. Just a hurt girl learning to live again, in a place where she feels finally safe and loved.

In the meantime, my family and I are still trying to pick up all the pieces and return to a normal life. We carry with us the wounds Holly inadvertently inflicted in our hearts, and starting again is proving difficult.

Ben is challenging all the boundaries, even the ones we settled long ago. He’s emotionally dependant on us, he tells us constantly how much he loves us, and he needs to hear it back. He craves attentions, and kisses, and playtime together. His sleep is steadily improving, and the nightmares are getting more sporadic. He talks about Holly at times, in a bitter-sweet way, almost unsure of how he’s supposed to feel about her.

Diego hasn’t said much after Holly left. I think he feels relieved of having his family back, in a relaxed environment where he can enjoy spending time with us. If I know him well enough, he also feels guilty, but he might not even know what for. I bet he’s going through the last 7 months spent with Holly, over and over again in his head, trying to understand where we went wrong, what we could have done differently, and find the moment in which everything went sour.

As for myself, I’m defeated, broken, hurt. I failed to protect either kid and I cannot forgive myself for that. Sometimes I hold my son, in a hug that is almost too tight to be comfortable. I tell him how much I love him, how much joy he brings to my life, and how wonderful he is. Each squeeze it’s a silent request for forgiveness, that I hope it’s loud enough for him to hear.

When Caring Becomes Hurting

Since the day our foster daughter Holly has returned back to our home, we have been living under siege.

I feel for her. She left us to return to mum, and what was supposed to be the start of her new life was instead a nightmare that lasted 8 long days. She came back traumatised, hurt, scared, and angry. And I understand why.

I know why she so openly hates me, why she is so insanely jealous of my son Ben, why she lashes out constantly, why she cannot return to a good routine. I understand all the whys and I can justify all of them. I cannot really blame her. She is one of the victims of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, a casualty of a foster care system that doesn’t run as smoothly as it should.

As much as I understand why Holly is behaving as she does, I cannot ignore that, as a result of it, my son is afraid. Scared of Holly hurting him, scared she will get to him while he’s sleeping, scared that he won’t be able to protect me next time she hits me, scared she will stay here with us for good.

My son is my first priority. It’s my job to protect him and take good care of him. My role as a parent is to make him feel safe and secure. And with Holly staying here with us, I can’t.

So, we decided to give notice, we asked social services to find a new family for Holly. It was a hard choice to make, I felt I failed her, but I cannot have my son living in fear. So, two weeks ago I called and emailed both Holly’s social workers and mine and told them that, as sorry as I was, they needed to find her a new home, somewhere where she doesn’t have to constantly compete with other children for the attentions she so desperately craves.

First I was told they would move Holly in one week, then they say at the beginning of the following week, later that it would have taken two weeks, then again up to 28 days, and finally they mentioned a meeting in few days to discuss the next steps.

I’m so angry and disappointed. Social services are taking their time to decide what to do. Their first meeting together to discuss Holly is over two weeks after I gave notice. No one in this time ever offered support, came out to see us, or gave any tips to better cope with the situation. What I got so far is two phone calls from two different social workers asking my point of view so that they can bring it to the meeting. No one even explained how to give notice works, they just told me I have to be patient, up to 28 days patient, apparently.

No one from the fostering team told me I could also ask to place Holly in emergency care if the situation gets unmanageable, I had to find out about that by myself. Most day I think I should. Social services, in specific my social worker, failed to protect me and my family and left me alone to deal with all this.

But above all, I feel guilty. I put my son in a stressful and frightening situation. I can explain million times to him that no harm will come to me or him, but I would tell him a lie. Holly regularly bites him, scratches him, barges in his bedroom in the middle of the night, screams on the top of her lungs, and mock him by calling him names or just saying the opposite of what he’s saying.

My son has nightmares, he cries in his sleep. I can hear him most nights sobbing in his sleep “please Holly don’t hit me”. When he wakes up in the morning he crawls in our bed and he always asks: Is Holly still here?

I feel powerless. I put my son in this situation and now I cannot help him get out of it. I wanted to care for Holly and I ended up hurting my son instead.

Holly attacks are getting more violent, and more unpredictable. To keep my son safe, I finally decided to install a gate at Holly’s bedroom door. I keep the kids separate as much as I can. I’m becoming someone I don’t like, and someone I’m not proud of. But what choice do I have?

The reality is that I cannot cope with this placement anymore. I never thought fostering could have made me feel so lonely and isolated. Never thought that the so called professional could fail so miserably in protecting all of us, both my family and Holly.

There are no winners in this situation. My husband goes to work every day knowing that he won’t be able to offer any practical support, my son lives in terror, I’m exhausted, and Holly is just alone in her suffering.

Holly will move out of here one day. I don’t know what there will be left to save by then. I want to think that the summer holidays, lots of love and plenty of laughs will be enough for my son to feel safe in his own home again. But for now, he will have to rely on the temporary sense of security that a baby gate can provide, knowing that the person he’s afraid of cannot do him any harm, and waiting for the day there’ll be no need for it anymore.

About Fostering

It was only 8 days ago when we had to say goodbye to Holly, our foster daughter. It was heartbreaking and bitter. We waved goodbye and we prayed for a happy ever after for her.

Then yesterday the phone rang. The fostering placing team told us there was a chance Holly would have come back into care, and one hour later Holly was already running in our living room. When she arrived she looked tired, a bit absent, perhaps confused, but soon after that she got back into her old habits, and she returned to all her challenging behaviours.

She came in with nothing, just a shopping bag of dirty and mismatched clothes. She didn’t even have shoes on her feet! I just couldn’t understand how in a short week she could have lost all her belonging, and how no one seemed to care that she had no shoes on. When the social worker left, I panicked. I went hiding in the bathroom and cried. For a short while, I let it all out. I cried in sorrow and anger. I felt like I couldn’t breath, trapped. When I calmed down, all I knew was that I couldn’t run away from this, as much as I wanted to, and I had to be there for this little girl.

After Holly left us to be reunited with her mum, I tried to make sense to the prior six months spent with her. I felt like we went through hell, I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. The endless defiance, aggression, meltdowns, and rejection took everything out of me and left me like an empty shell.

I wrote a letter to my husband Diego explaining to him how I felt during what has been the hardest period in my life, and to try to plan what to do next, and how to keep our son Ben safe.

Here it is, at least a part of it.

I knew that the experience we had with Holly was a stressful one, but only when she left I fully realised how bad it really was.

I felt a guilty sense of relief when she left, together with the sadness of seeing her go away. It was like being able to breathe again, relax after months of tensions, empty my mind. I knew how stressed and exhausted I was, but I didn’t understand the extent of it until she left and I (we) returned to normality.

I worry sick that the next placement will be as bad, or even harder, and I really don’t want to find myself in that position again. I didn’t like what I became while Holly was here, it was against all I think it’s good and right for a child (any child) but I couldn’t help myself. The exasperation and secondary trauma took over me, and I lost control of myself. I was left empty and hurt. What if this happens again? Not only I’ll end up being profoundly unhappy, but I can seriously impact on the child’s emotional wellbeing, and not in a good way! And I wouldn’t want to live with that.

During the entire permanency, I thought I protected Ben, I thought I stayed close to him, nurtured him and always put him first. Not surprising, that wasn’t the case. Now that I’m spending time alone with Ben, now that I’m calm and mentally/emotionally available, I realised how much I missed. He can do so many things I didn’t know he could, he got much more articulate in his speech, in the way he processes information and situations, and in his general knowledge. I didn’t see that happening, even if I was here with him every day.

Ben keeps telling us how much he loves us. My personal view is that he’s happy to have found us again, to have regained not only our full attention, but a loving relaxed family life. He told me few times “mum I love you, I don’t want to miss you again”. That broke my heart. It’s not different than any other emotional neglect. Now I can see him smiling again, be happy again, be nice, funny, silly, loving… I don’t want to lose that ever again.

Also, we as a couple have seen some hard times lately. At some point, I really thought we lost each other and I seriously thought we were breaking up. But now, I think we are happy again. I know you feel the same way!

Now Holly is back in our lives. Tension is already taking over our home. The kicking, spitting and screaming already made an appearance. Ben had nightmares last night and by 5am he was crawling silently in our bed. Everything seems to be falling apart again, and I’m not sure I can keep it all together.

A little voice inside me keeps saying “let her go”, but I don’t know if I’ll be able live with myself if I decide to do just that.

Full Time Tire supports MadLug, a charity that helps children in care carrying their life with diginity. Read about them.