Wednesday, October 30, 2013


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I didn’t post last week because I had a mild concussion after hitting my head with a bike rack. It was fairly undignified.

It’s been an up and down week. Two weeks, actually. Grace has been going through medication changes as well as religion changes. She had a rough patch at school and we had to go in for a parent teacher meeting today. It seems that she has dramatic acting out behaviors in her English classes. It doesn't take a psychologist to know that if she’s acting out in her English/Language Arts classes, there might be some kind of issue with the subject matter.

In fact, she is incredibly self-conscious about her reading and writing abilities. She’s actually a fantastic poet with a lot of raw talent, but she thinks she’s stupid. So she acts out in the hope of getting kicked out of class. So far, it’s working.

The real Topic this week is Jill. We’re dealing with an incredible downward spiral with her. For a while, she was receiving in-home intensive therapy, but that stopped after 3 months. At first she was just stable, neither better nor worse. Now she’s rapidly spiraling out of control and mimicking some of the behavior we saw from Joan over the summer.

The big issue is her parentification issues. Parentification happens when roles are reversed, and the child becomes the parent. Many, many people go through this, and it is especially common when parents have some sort of mental illness or addiction problems. The parent puts responsibility on the child for support: emotional, physical or even financial. In Jill’s case, their mom would leave for days or weeks at a time, leaving teen-aged Jill in charge of all the younger siblings. She is also expected to validate or uphold her mother’s emotional needs, sometimes to the exclusion of the other children (especially Grace). This turns into their mother being like a “best friend” person to Jill, pulling her in as a peer rather than a child. This is a very, very confusing role for a teenager.

We recognized the signs straight off, and have made some clear boundaries around what we expect as far as babysitting, caring for Gloria, her role as a child in the house, etc. On the flip side, we expect her to communicate with us, to answer our phone calls when she’s out and to tell us where she’s going and when she’ll be home. These may seem like minimal things, but this is a 17 year old who is used to acting like another adult in the family.

We’ve been informed that her mom has taken every opportunity to tell her that the only reason we want her to stay in foster care is so we can continue to get a check for her. This is, of course, ridiculous. Foster parenting is not a profitable gig. But anyway, that’s what she’s telling Jill, while Grace is saying that she thinks the only reason her mom wants her back is for the same reason- the checks that come with under 18 year old kids. We're doing our best to make non-committal noises whenever this comes up and generally trying to not get sucked into the drama. 

The other half of that is the long standing family dynamic between Jill and Grace is that Grace is the “dumb one” and the “crazy one” and it’s safe to blame all mishaps or broken dishes on her. Grace has actually been left behind when the family have gone on trips. She is laughed at, ridiculed, teased and told that she is a “bad kid” by her family. They have all learned that she is the one to make fun of.

But here that’s all changed. They are both getting support and love.  This is a role change that Jill is having difficulty with.

Jill, on the other hand, has mostly locked herself in her room. She has developed actual hypochondria and won’t take any of the medication for a significant health problem she has developed. In the last month she went from being sulky to being downright hostile towards us.

She has been offered a Board Extension  which would ostensibly extend her time in foster care to age 21. She would be eligible for an Independent Living Program, and would get support for school and job placement. She can stay with us or get signed up for another living arrangement. But to get it, she needs to write a letter stating that she wants it and why.

She is stating that she wants to hurry up and finish High School and then go back to live with her mom. So far the most compelling reason I’ve heard for that is she’ll get her own room. She also claims that we favor Grace and “give her whatever she wants and whatever she asks for.” Jill is too depressed and too wrapped in her own drama to see that we do not, in fact, give Grace whatever she wants.

What are the costs of this kind of neglect and abuse? Apparently, rather steep. I try not to project too much on what’s going to happen, but if Jill decides to leave us when she’s 18, there are very few positive outcomes. She is already showing the symptoms of a parentification problem such as a sudden temper and an inability to connect with people in a meaningful way and a total inability to discuss or share her emotions. She’s hoping to go back to the role that she is comfortable in as the sole caretaker for her family, including all her siblings and her mother. There she can be made to feel valued and important, above all others. At the same time, she will be frustrated knowing that she has the potential to do so much more.

Ultimately the decision is hers. We are trying to balance compassion and understanding for her plight with doing what is necessary to keep our home emotionally safe. The art to foster parenting is finding the place where you can support, love, encourage but not get too burned out yourself. I think this is why so many people prefer to foster-to-adopt. It makes sense. It's definitely our next plan. 

We just hope that in a few years, someone will be writing an article like this NY Times article about Jill. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Other people's kids

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We’re looking at a pretty rocky next few days. A pattern of behavior has been unfolding, and I’ve been holding off on writing this post because I wanted to see how it played out.

Whenever you take in siblings, you’re also taking in all their baggage and embedded family dynamics. Agencies try to keep siblings together, because there is evidence that children do better when they can stay connected to their family on a daily basis. A bit of the familiar. If you watched the ABC Family show "The Fosters", you got to see how important the siblings of the two sibling groups in that family were to each other. That idea generally makes sense, and I understand the psychology behind that.

But as with many things we've seen with these girls, I’m not sure that conventional wisdom holds true in this specific case. Jill and Grace are about as similar as apples and oranges. They don’t like the same music beyond a few pop hits, they don’t wear the same clothes, they talk differently, one likes to read and the other has read maybe 3 books in her life, one is thoughtful and introspective and the other is purely a physical and emotionally reactive being.

However, Jill has always been the “parentified” one, as the oldest girl. Grace, who is only a year younger, has played the role of “the bad one” in their family. To say that they have been treated differently is an understatement. Please check out the embedded links of parentification- the effects can be pretty gruesome in the long term on the psyche of a child. 

Interestingly, the way that plays out between them is that Jill can’t stand seeing Grace get any kind of positive attention or any kind of praise. She goes nuts. She needs to have all of that positive attention on herself, like it's a zero-sum game. This goes for how they see the tension between whether they want to be with us or be with their mom. We try to tell them that it's not either/or, but rather both. 

Tonight in therapy we're going to address this need of Jill's to tear Grace down. Now, there's a secondary issue, which is that Grace is going through some medication management issues, and we had a melt-down with her last night. 

Interestingly, as soon as Grace was in trouble, Jill started being "nice". She really can't fathom that both girls can be in our good graces at the same time. 

It's worth noting that we don't see this kind of competition coming from Grace. She is used to being "the bad one" and the one who gets blamed for anything that goes wrong, so when she's in trouble, it's just normal. When she's not in trouble, she kind of has an emotional freak out, and often then either gloms on and texts us all day, every day, or she has the exact opposite reaction and needs to get us mad at her again. 

So when you take in siblings, you take in years and years of their family dynamics. You need to be ready for a roller coaster of an experience, and learn how to not take it personally. That's my challenge... how can I keep their emotional issues from affecting our core triad of me, Leonard and Ziggy? How can you care about someone a lot, but at the same time recognize what is and is not in your power to control?

Stay tuned...

It went surprisingly well. Grace stormed out at some point, but since coming home things have been fine. Jill stayed and listened as the therapist and us explained how they can have both us and their biological family in their lives. I think she heard it. I hope she did. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The emotional made physical

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I'm totally exhausted and cramming lovely, gingery carbs in my mouth like my life depends on it. It very well might. My ridiculous son will wake me up in about 6 hours, because he doesn't understand about sleeping in. I rode the GIANT cargo bike all over town today.

This is a cargo bike:
Ok, so I wasn't moving furniture, but the baby FEELS like he's as heavy as furniture.

Essentially, it's a bike that can haul a lot of cargo around. This is mainly practical, because we don't have a car. At this point, we don't have a car because of finances more than anything. Try grocery shopping for 5 people on a bus. The bike is better.

I rode all over town (including to one of Philadelphia's finest gems, Smith Memorial Playground) because today was the day that Leonard and our friend Dustin built our deck. This is one of the goals of our fundraiser, which we are running in an effort to make our lives a little more manageable. 

One of the things we didn't really think about before the girls came to live with us was the practical layout and space of our home. We had the bikes living inside, as is common for people in our sub-section of the West Philadelphia community. We have a woodstove that provides most of our heat and a nice, comfy couch that has seen a few too many dogs on it to be totally comfortable. 

Now we suddenly have two extra people who have their own needs, their own space demands, and the kinds of houses that they are accustomed to. This is another reason to consider being a respite parent for a while. You need to suss out what the kids in the age range you're interested in need, and what your home can provide. If you're used to living with your own kids, or maybe you're empty nesters, you'll want to go through a few respite placements just to figure out where the toy box goes or where the couch can expand to to accommodate teenagers and their friends. We knew we were in trouble when we had to figure out where to put their bikes. 

So today was the second step in that process: the deck. 

Before! What the back looked like when we left

After! The amazing transformation when we came home

The big foster parenting thing this weekend was about the battle between the girls. 

In total, there are 9 siblings that share the same mother and father in Jill and Graces' sibling group. There are also 4 additional siblings that share one parent or the other. All of the kids are either in foster care or are now grown and creating children of their own. One of the younger siblings comes to stay with us from time to time for respite because she and her foster mom don't get along. She is trying to stay there because she wants to stay with the even younger twins. So we give everyone a break, and it's usually good. Tara is a generally polite kid, at least in small doses. We've seen things that lead us to believe she can hold her own in the Holy Terror category. 

Because all three of the girls were here, their mom wanted to see them. This is generally something that the girls set up and coordinate on their own, and we know little to nothing about it. This time, however, we got to hear all about it because Grace was furious last night because of some hurtful things her mom said. This is the second time in a row, and about the 20th time altogether that we've heard this from her. 

This leads me to the thing that's been weighing heavily on me. What is the split/balance between foster parent and therapist? While our agency is taking it's sweet time getting her a therapist, I'm walking around with her at night for 2 hours while she dumps on me all of her issues. On the one hand I want to say "I'm happy to do it. I'd love to help her out" while on the other hand, my heart is screaming "noooooo! i need more bleeping time to myself!"

Either way, I ended up walking her around and we got incredibly expensive popsicles. They were delicious. All day she's been really on the ball, really helpful and thoughtful. 

Then we had this conversation:
G: Kitty, I talked to my mom tonight. See, Jill had talked to her and asked her to tell me to call. 
K: Really? Ah. I see. 
G: So I talked to her. I didn't want to at first, and first when she started talking I didn't say nothin. 
K. Mmmmhmmm. 
G. So she said "why you tellin them that I been mean to you. i ain't been mean to you, and i been sad all day". But Kitty, I don't believe her. I don't think she tellin the truth. 

THere was more. She told me the whole conversation, but it goes around in circles. Basically, Grace was looking to me to show her a reaction. How to respond, behave in this situation. I think she handled it very well, actually, by not saying anything and giving the phone back to her sister. 

She was looking at me with her big, brown, innocent eyes. It's remarkable to me sometimes how childlike she can really be. So I told her the truth. 

The truth was that right then, I didn't know what I could or could not say. As a foster parent, I have to keep my own emotions, biases and feelings out of the game there. Clearly, I am upset when I see the girls upset. I obviously have biases that lead me to judge their mom. I try not to, and I try to offset my judging by finding the positive things the girls learned from her and repeating them, almost like a rosary. 

So I told Grace that. I said "I am not saying anything right now because I don't know what to say. I have to be careful, because I don't want what I say to be played into a war between you and your mom. I am going to trust you to do what your instincts tell you is the right thing to do. Last night you had a lot of examples of behaviors that made you feel one way about your mom, but maybe tomorrow you will have a different list. Ultimately the decision is up to you. I trust you to make a good one." 

She stared at her toes for a bit, but I think it made sense to her. And it's all true. I also stated to her that I trust her to make the right decision, and hopefully implied that I'm here to help her if needed. 

I wish I could pass along a similar message to Jill, but I'm afraid she's in a place where she can be the adult to her mom. I think it makes her feel good to provide worldliness to their mom. This almost automatically makes me the bad guy. But i'm honestly fine with that... She'll figure it out soon. 

I'm now so tired I can barely see to spell check. I will try to do a mid-week post this week!