When I was 10 years old, my mentally ill mother walked out on me and my four siblings. As I got older, I discovered that I had a unique gift:identification. Because I had suffered abandonment and childhood unrest, I found that I was able to identify with the insecurities of emotionally wounded children.
My husband grew up in a stable, close-knit family. His family set the example of how things should be while I was living proof that you could get through tough times and still attain success. We both offered something motherless kids need and decided that together we’d make a great team as foster parents.
Two Beautiful Boys
In 1996, within two weeks of obtaining our foster care license, we were matched with two boys, ages 2 and 4. We anxiously waited at a McDonald’s to meet them. One was blonde and the other a redhead, both with big blue wondrous eyes, full of life and energy.
After we visited for a while, the social worker told them that we wanted to be their parents and asked how they felt about it. They nodded their heads excitedly and said, “Yes!” They asked if our other kids would be their sister and brother, too. We said yes, and they were happy to call us Mommy and Daddy right away.
We began preparing our home for two more boys and looked forward to visits and the day they’d come home for good. We were told that the boys had developmental delays, that they’d been drug and alcohol affected at birth, and that they were victims of severe abuse and neglect. We knew we’d have a lot to contend with. But the worker assured us that once the boys were in a stable, loving home, they’d be just fine. We were all sure that it was a good fit.
Rages and Tears
The challenges were obvious right away. Two-year-old Daniel had severe temper tantrums daily. He couldn’t sleep in his own bed and he wouldn’t be rocked to sleep. He’d lie on the floor kicking and screaming. Holding and cuddling couldn’t get him to stop. He had to cry it out.
The older boy, Chip, would go into three-hour manic rages. Afterwards, he would slump in my arms, crying and shaking uncontrollably, wondering what happened to him. It is a defining moment in your life when you can wipe spit off your face, wrap your arms around a child and love him unconditionally.
Because I was the one dealing with Chip’s rages, my relationship with him was difficult. At first, I felt disrespected. I felt emotionally and physically abused by my own child. I had to train myself to look at him in an empathetic way and respond accordingly. I told myself every day, “This is a disease, it’s not him.”
Despite their serious behavior issues, we adopted both boys after two years of fostering. We thought we would be able to help them heal.
My husband and I dealt with Chip’s rages monthly for six years before getting him stable. For years, we were told that nothing was wrong. Finally, when he was 11 years old, I took him in for another set of testing and told the doctors that we needed some answers. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed a mood stabilizer.
We held our breath as one month went by, then two, then three with no rages. Was the medicine working? Four months, no meltdown. Five months. Yes, it worked.
With medication, Chip became a different child. He was friendly, calm, funny and sweet. With his mental illness under control, we began to build a closer, more loving mother-son relationship.
Support and Encouragement
Daniel was more affected. At times, Daniel had no symptoms and was enjoyable. He was very insightful and a great conversationalist. At other times he had severe tantrums and just could not deal with everyday things. If he had to go with me to pick up a sibling from an activity, he got upset. If he had to brush his teeth, he got upset. If he had to put something in the garbage, he got upset. Some days, every time he was told to do something or stop doing something, he would get violent and aggressive.
My husband and I supported each other by tag teaming. One of us devoted every waking moment to dealing with Daniel while the other tried to provide some normalcy for the other kids, and then we’d switch.
My husband’s family and other foster/adoptive parents also gave us lots of support and encouragement. My best friend Randie, a mother and a lawyer, also gave me sound advice and encouragement.
Even so, it was so hard to watch our other children suffering. They lacked attention because Daniel needed so much. He stepped on their feelings, hit them and took their belongings without a thought. They suffered daily. We felt torn between trying to help him and trying to provide a positive home life for everyone. They were all our children.
Over time Daniel was diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety, OCD, ODD, conduct disorder, and ADHD. Eventually, the diagnosis was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Unfortunately, we could not find a medicine that worked for Daniel. Providing an environment with firm structure and a low activity level helped somewhat. Eight years of home schooling kept him marginally under control. However, when he began 5th grade in public school, he fell apart. Within six weeks he was in the pediatric psychiatric ward because he was a danger to himself and others.
Daniel was so emotionally unstable that we worried that he’d get up in the middle of the night and hurt us or the other kids. We were afraid to go to work. We were afraid he’d hurt the therapeutic nanny we’d hired to care for him after school. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
Out of Our League
Over the next three years, Daniel cycled in and out of the psych ward 11 times. A typical experience was the time he got mad because he was grounded for hurting another child. He began throwing things and put holes in the wall. It took the police and two therapists to get him under control.
Daniel kept saying he was fine, but then he went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I coaxed him to hand me the knife while a therapist coached me. Once I got it out of his hands, he started playing with the can opener. Finally we got that from him, too, and convinced him to sit at the table and accept that he’d have to go to the hospital again.
Daniel’s stays in the hospital were always brief, usually a few days. The idea was to give him some therapy and the tools to do better at home. We came to view these times as respite, a short period for us to catch our breath. It was so hard to keep hoping and to push him in the right direction, knowing that he was sure to explode eventually.
Still, our experience with Chip gave me hope for Daniel. Chip had had a serious mental health issue and we got him stabilized. He had a chance at a bright and wonderful future because we didn’t give up.
Looking for Help
But as Daniel got older, his dangerous behavior only escalated. He was hurting people and damaging property. On a family vacation in Ireland, he punched me in the face, leaving a bruise.
At that point, a social worker from the county mental health department advised us that Daniel needed to be admitted to a residential treatment center. Unfortunately, our health insurance did not cover long-term mental health care, and at a cost of $80,000 per year, we could not afford to pay for his care on our own.
We learned that the state of Illinois provides a grant through the Department of Human Services that can cover residential treatment. We applied three times and were denied. Daniel did not meet criteria for “impaired reality testing,” which means that you see things and hear voices. We were told that people apply repeatedly for years before they are approved.
During that year, we retained many services: a psychiatrist, family therapy, EMDR therapy, therapeutic schools, Tai Chi, a nurse who had experience with mental health issues to care for him for two hours after school, and respite so we could take a break.
Fearing for Our Safety
When we adopted Daniel 11 years earlier, the adoption agreement stated that the Illinois Department of Children and Families would provide for his medical needs, including mental health care.
But DCFS did not seem willing to uphold the agreement. I left many messages for our social worker, trying to figure out what options we might have for Daniel’s care. She never called me back. Finally, I faxed her a list documenting all of his violent incidents and hospitalization dates.
Then the caseworker told me I could request a “clinical staffing”—a meeting with a DCFS clinician and whoever I wanted to invite. That took nearly two months to set up.
In the meantime, Daniel’s behavior was extremely unpredictable. He made threats to kill all of us. When Daniel went into a rage, our safety plan was to duck, run and call 911.
No Other Options
One day Daniel threw another child down the stairs and punched him. My husband and I cried together when we realized that the only way to keep everyone safe was to split up our family. We could not subject our children to this terror anymore. We had to protect them. We decided that one of us would remain in the home with Daniel while the other would live somewhere else with our other children. We would switch off.
Soon Daniel was admitted to the hospital yet again. As usual, though, the hospital refused to keep Daniel long-term. We requested that DCFS hold the clinical staffing before Daniel was released, but the caseworker refused. She said other cases were scheduled before ours and they had waited a long time, too.
What were our options? We could bring Daniel home from the hospital with no better supports in place, but we feared that he’d harm our children. We could press criminal charges against Daniel for battery and assault, but we feared the harsh environment of juvenile detention could make him homicidal or suicidal.
A Painful Decision
One of Daniel’s therapists advised us to refuse to take him back home, though if we left Daniel at the hospital, we could be charged with neglect and Daniel would go into foster care. We feared what could happen to him in the care of the foster care system, which had already failed to provide appropriate services.
We worried that Daniel would feel like we were giving up. We were afraid that DCFS wouldn’t let us visit Daniel or make sure he knew that we cared about him. We feared how this decision might affect Daniel for the rest of his life, and ours.
But we kept coming back to the issue of safety. So we drove to the hospital and told Daniel that we loved him but were not bringing him home, because it was absolutely the only way to force the state to get him the help he needed.
He cried. We cried. The hospital therapist cried. She asked if we were sure. It wasn’t what we wanted. We didn’t feel we had a choice. We just knew if he came home things would be no different. It was the hardest thing you can imagine. We cried all the way home.
Charged With Neglect
The next day, a child welfare investigator came out to our house, interviewed only my husband, charged us with neglect, and gave us a court date.
Two days after that, we finally attended the DCFS clinical staffing. This was a year after Daniel had punched me in the face and we’d began looking for a residential placement.
My husband and I were frustrated to be having this meeting only after we’d been accused of abandoning Daniel. We couldn’t believe anyone could blame us for anything after all that we’d done to love and nurture the boys. But the meeting was such a relief. I finally had the chance to speak!
Five therapists were present, including the county mental health worker, post-adopt therapist and his supervisor, another specialty therapist who’d worked with our son, and the therapist from the shelter where the child welfare authorities had moved our son from the hospital. My friend Randie came as our lawyer.
A Chance to Speak
One clinician asked us questions for hours. She took us back to the days when we first got the boys. She wanted to know how they’d acted, what stages they went through, how we’d parented them, what resources we’d used, what progress we’d made, how their development was different and much more.
I reminded the group that our foster parent application specified children without mental health disabilities. We received not one, but two children with severe disabilities. We had successfully stabilized one of our sons and had worked with the other for 11 years with no success.
I said, “The same people that accuse us of neglect claim that ‘DCFS exists for the protection of children.’ Does this apply to all four of my children? Can any of you tell us how to bring Daniel home and keep our other children safe?”
They all shook their heads. Every last one of them! They supported the decision we’d made.
Separated From Our Son
The group decision was for Daniel to stay in DCFS care and for the system to place him in a residential treatment center as quickly as possible. But we were told that Daniel could not be admitted to a program for several months.
Again we were frustrated. They would not take responsibility for helping Daniel.
Knowing that Daniel was in DCFS’s hands made us afraid and heartbroken. We feared that he felt abandoned and scared and that he’d doubt our commitment to him. We didn’t want him to forget that we did this to get him help.
At that point, I still didn’t even know if I was allowed to talk to Daniel. I went to the shelter where he was staying, hoping they’d let me see him but Daniel wasn’t there. The night before, DCFS had taken him to a group home an hour and a half away.
‘Are You in Trouble?’
A couple of days later, a therapist came to our home to help us deal with our emotions. Daniel called home that night. He was scared. Daniel was not a streetwise kid and he was afraid of the other kids. Daniel didn’t even know if he could call home. Finally, he just told the staff he was going to do it anyway.
Daniel asked me if we were in trouble for not picking him up. I told him, “Yes, a little, but we went to court today and the judge understood.” I told him, “You have to advocate for yourself as best as you can. We’ll be there to see you as soon as we’re allowed.” We assured him that we had not and would not abandon him, and that we loved him very, very much.
Treated Like Criminals
Even though the specialists at the clinical staffing had agreed that Daniel needed residential care and did not belong at home, when DCFS finalized its report, it found us guilty of neglect. The guilty finding meant our names went on the State Central Register as people who had neglected or abused a child.
We were stunned and furious. How could they do that? We had loved and cared for both boys. We had utilized every available resource. Yet we were charged with and found guilty of neglect?
I thought on back what we knew about Daniel’s early life. Daniel’s mother had not fed him and had left him at a party in a baby carrier. When the police found him, they thought he was too small to be six months old. He weighed less than he did at birth. I was being charged with the same crime?
We immediately appealed to clear our names, and the judge vacated the neglect finding. Even so, our nightmare with DCFS has not ended. DCFS told the court that we wanted our parental rights terminated, which was untrue. We were so confused and filled with distrust.
Randie had told us that some people would not understand why we’d had to go this route and would treat us as abusive parents. But it felt incredibly unjust.
Visiting Our Son
At least we were able to visit our son, and a month after Daniel entered foster care, he was finally admitted to the residential facility. The DCFS case management team has been far easier to work with and has supported our involvement in his care and treatment.
Daniel is finally getting the treatment he so badly needs. We visit twice weekly, talk on the phone almost every night and have weekly family therapy sessions.
Perhaps the biggest thing Daniel has learned is that he has to be invested in his own care. He cannot rely on us to help him make progress in therapy. He finally recognizes that he does not yet have the coping skills to manage himself in a family setting and can admit that without fear of permanently losing those he loves. Daniel is applying himself toward the goal of returning home.
Calm at Home
Our house is a different place now. It’s calmer, quieter, pleasant, normal. Chip’s personality has blossomed without the daily tension. He’s become far more mature and responsible. He is funny and enjoyable.
No longer do we have to tag-team parent. No longer do we have to walk on eggshells wondering if Daniel will explode or if we will have to call 911. We can rest easy at night knowing that everyone is safe.
Daniel had his first home visit recently. It was great. We enjoyed a meal, he played the piano, we laughed and joked and sang. For those two hours, it was just like family should be.
We’ve been able to maintain a connection with Daniel, despite everything that could have driven us apart, because I know how it feels to be abandoned, and I won’t do that to my son.
No one knows what Daniel’s future holds. We hope that Daniel will return home some day, but the therapists will not give us any guarantees. Some of his future is up to their expertise and some of it is up to Daniel. We will continue to support him emotionally, come what may, because that’s what families do.