A letter from mom.

To my daughter.

It’s been nearly three years since we last talked.  A lifetime before that you got hooked on drugs…and then on alcohol. A lot’s happened in the past twenty seven years.

Yesterday was Father’s Day and I was, as happens occasionally, alone at church.  The tears leaked out when the music started.  You were there–but only as a whisper in my heart; a memory in my mind.

My life is better than I would ever have thought possible but sometimes the old dreams I had for you, for me, for us sneak back in and I mourn for what could have been. Sometimes, I shut these un-beckoned dreams of everyday things down, and sometimes, like yesterday, I let them stay awhile until I have to say goodbye, so I can survive.

Your oldest son, Chad, became my youngest son long before I adopted him. Maybe he and I started bonding as mother and son when I used to bring him home to babysit overnight and bathe away the smoke, and let him spend a day in dry diapers. Maybe it didn’t begin until I watched him tuck his little hand in the engulfing one of the transport volunteer who returned him to his foster home after the state stepped in. I’d like to think, even though he never looked back, that Chad knew I was there then and that I would always be there whenever he needed me.

Back then, I thought you’d make it.  Back then, I didn’t realize that drugs don’t give up.

At first, I was just another grandmother raising my grandson.

Abused by his birth dad.  Abused by you.  Chad deserved better…all kids do.  I spent my savings on attorneys.  I was strong during court hearings and sobbed my way through the nights.

He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress at age four.  He and I lived through years of his waking up nightly screaming from nightmares he couldn’t explain. We made it through years of his being afraid to let me out of his sight and his “I love you,” to me fifty times a day which was his way of saying, “I’m scared…”

Trauma and drama…drugs don’t give up.

Then I adopted Chad to keep him safe, and  because I loved him with my whole heart.

Cutting.  Suicidal.  Punching holes in walls. Swearing at me.

Remorse. Rewind. Replay once again.

We made it through. Now he is a man.

Yesterday, I wished him Happy Father’s Day.  His little girl is now 18-months-old and a charmer.  I see in her your self-determination and a bit of your curly hair as twice a week we (my husband (her beloved Papa)) and I take care of her so her mama and daddy can go to work.  

What you’ll never know is baby kisses beat drug highs, and even messy diapers are better than alcohol lows.

I miss Chad’s half sisters–your daughters, my granddaughters.  From you, them, and Facebook, I know the oldest lost her virginity at twelve, her slightly younger sister, who I always wanted to scoop up and cuddle because she seemed so sad, posted, “Why can’t anyone see me…I’m hurting too”), and their baby sister who you said told her fifth grade counselor that she had been raped.

We’ve all been raped, tattered and torn. Meth, opioids, alcohol—drugs abuse  families.

I won’t give up, but everyday I try letting go.

 

 

Summer Vacation Tips for Grandparents Raising Grandkids

Summer can be amazing.  Really.  

Set limited, and realistic, goals for changing or keeping hard-fought-progress in good behaviors and life skill acquisition this summer.  Don’t try to accomplish too much and allow lots of time for making  lazy, hazy, crazy summer memories.

Family fun lets you painlessly sneak in life skill lessons.  

Lessons like, “Wait your turn; share, men cook, or changing a , “I need $20,” to “what can I do to earn $20?”

Start transitioning before school ends.

Kids of trauma don’t do well with change (transitions) so start talking about summer plans and summer rules early.

Using behavioral contracts can be effective with pre-teens and teens, “If I get up and make my bed without being told five days in a row I get to (fill in blank).  It gets buy-in up front and there is no room for, “I forgot, I didn’t say that, etc.”

Make the last day of school/first day of summer special, whether going for ice cream or hosting a pool party–especially if your grandchild is sad about leaving their teacher or friends for the summer.

Kids of trauma need structure.

Establish summer bedtimes, screen time limits, as well as when, where and for how long they can hang with friends. Post daily, weekly and one time chore lists. Place a family activity white board in a central location. List dentist, doctor, and counseling appointments, along with camps and small adventures like trips to library, waterparks or helping a teen learn to drive.  Include the whole family, when possible, in volunteer projects whether placing flags on Veteran’s graves or making a meal to take to Ronald McDonald’s House.

Use stickers for little ones.

 

 

 

Trip to zoo.

 

 

Summer camps provide structures and social interaction.  They also teach skills (ball, science, crafts).  Win-win. There is no better job for young teens than getting to be junior counselor (helper) and working up to paid summer-long positions as they mature. Jobs take up spare time, they teach responsibility and there is supervision.

 Opportunities + Opposition = Growth

With each responsibility toddlers through teens accept they deserve more freedom. Sometimes this is a tough lesson for parents–letting go gradually and tightening back up if they misstep, but always letting them try again.  It’s how we all learn.

As parents:

  • Be open to learning new parenting techniques.
  • Talk about birth parents and not-so-happy, as well as happy, life experiences and memories.
  • Accept, rather than fight about, things that don’t matter.  The color or cut of hair shouldn’t be an issue if it’s clean, as long as not a culturally negative message such as gang identification.  Once youth reach the age of job interviews this may have to be re-evaluated.
  • Be a parent, not a buddy.  Set boundaries, consistently enforce consequences, praise out loud (only for honest effort or achievements though), and say “no” when safety or inappropriate behaviors need to be stopped.
  • Meet every friend and their parents. Ask about (ignore the eye rolls and “no one else’s parents” propaganda) parental supervision, guns in the home, drugs (medical and legal recreational), screen limits on content and/or time.
  • Listen before you pass judgement –things do happen that are out of your child’s control.  The problem is if there is a pattern of “not my fault”.  Make consequences fit behavior.  Remember grounding, or taking away a privilege grounds you too, or turns you into the warden.  Better to talk about, “What could you have done differently? Or, what can you do now (like maybe call and apologize or make a list of emergency numbers to call when they can’t reach you next time and curfew looms.)”

Don’t forget that miracles are all around us. Model thankfulness, kindness and having a sense of humor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Drawn by Lola, my great grandniece).

Stop feeling guilty for loving, or not loving, a family addict.

BreakersThe continual drama and trauma that surrounds addicts, takes its toll on the emotions and relationships of the users’ partners, parents, siblings, and their kids.

The ‘normal’ progression of parenting roles changes from caretaker to coach to cheerleader to mentor and friend. With drugs or alcohol the progression regresses, especially for grandparents raising grandkids, eventually forcing a decision between care-taking little ones or their parent.

For years I’ve couldn’t articulate how I felt about my daughter because I vacillated between, sadness, guilt, anger and wanting to believe she would change leaving me saying, “I’m done,” followed up hours, days or months later with, “one more time”.

When I discovered she was first using, first arrested, first pregnant, first on public assistance, first in prison, first embezzling from a friend who gave her a job, and so on it was difficult. I grasped for every excuse for her behavior, until the “firsts” turned into reruns and spinoffs. Eventually I admitted, when a counselor asked me, that I didn’t like my daughter’s behaviors, didn’t like the person she had become. I still couldn’t say I didn’t love her–it seemed inexcusable for a mom and “un-Christian like”.

Today, I think love can’t survive long-time when you are being lied to and emotionally abused. Love can withstand your heart being broken, but possibly not as you watch your grandkids’ hearts on the line. Watching them cry when mom or dad is arrested and their picture is on the news, or as a second-grader they are left sitting forgotten on the school steps, or as a high schooler they try to ignore their drunk dad in the stands at school at 9 AM when their playing basketball. It’s also really, really difficult when you see your other adult children and their kids being hurt by your choices regarding the addict’s choices.

My daughter is not in my life anymore physically but I still pray for her most days, and still hope that she turns her life around. I’m just done holding my breath or wanting to be part of the up and down process.

“I love him/her.  I hate him/her.”  

You don’t need anyone’s permission, or approval, to feel a certain way. And you don’t owe anyone–including the addict, or other children, an explanation.  Unless others have been in your shoes, they can’t imagine the pain, the tug-of-war of emotions, or the struggle to survive.

It’s easy to continue to ‘love’ the memory of the child we raised, the partner we married. What is harder to define, and accept, is how we feel today. Sometimes we are mad at the user, other times we try overly hard to protect them, and sometimes we even tip over to enabling bad behaviors. Sometimes. we are just plain done.

In the end, if you parent minors–yours or grandkids–then their needs must come first.  Don’t let emotions stop you from doing the right thing, and sometimes it takes an outsider like a counselor, pastor, social worker or trusted friend to help you prioritize, help you succeed in following through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Depression stalks grandparents raising grandkids…

Approximately 2.7 million grandparents are raising nearly 7.8 million children.   If you are one of them, take care of yourself.  Don’t minimize the stress of loving your adult child, your grandkids and having your dreams destroyed. Statistics show many grandparents are clinically depressed at least sometime in their journey. To avoid, or overcome, depression see a doctor and tell yourself often, “I count.”

Surround yourself with pictures, sayings and people who make you smile.

Do what makes you feel good.

Go motorcycle riding, camp, join a book club, or go shopping.  

My grandniece years ago said, “Sparkle is my favorite color”. Made sense so I started wearing jewelry to mow the lawn, pick up kids at practice, or grocery shop. I also try to buy a few new things each season, when I find a great bargain, that make me feel good about myself.

Get yourself & your problems off your mind.

A mom in an Oregonian news story caught my attention, “I’ve cried. I’ve been on meds. I’ve put him (her son) in treatments…and I couldn’t do any t100_2116hing else. And if I can’t help my own kids…” then added the reporter, “you help someone else’s child.” She did.

The story went on to talk about her buying gloves for a homeless young man on a cold winter’s night and doing other acts of love when she saw a need. She inspired me to start looking.  Took cosmetic samples from ‘gift with purchase’ to women’s shelter. Volunteered to speak at grandparent support groups, and washed toys in our church’s nursery after services.

Exercise.

“I Made It Through The Day With No Crazy Thoughts…I made it through the day without obsessing over my son.  I didn’t cry or fall apart.  I exercised during my lunch hour.  Thank you God for this gift today, ” said another mom, Tricia, on TAM Healthy Moms website.

My supplemental medicare insurance pays gym membership…so three or four days a week I wake up early and go to Curves and workout. Good company, smiles and sweat have made me thinner, stronger, and happier.

Try something different.

We are all students and all influencers. Brené Brown, interviewed in Costco Magazine said, “You can’t say, ‘Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these.” She explained that it’s important to, “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.” I’m adding, embrace parenting. Re-direct your dreams. Don’t let “raising grandkids” take over all the other pieces of your life.  Carve out time to read, or play hockey, or practice guitar–even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day before the sun comes up or once a month with the guys. “The magic is in the normal moments,” says Brown. 

Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

IMG_1947The bible says, “You have not, because you ask not.” So ask God and people for help. Everyday say, “Good things are going to happen to me today.” Smile when they do, and say thanks when you go to bed if you found a lost earring, got a coupon in the mail just when you have to buy a new mattress, chatted with a neighbor, or enjoyed a jelly-tasting good night kiss.

When grandparents raising grandkids die, or are dying…

IMG_2932How do you help grandparents who have recently lost their spouse, or life partner? 

You show up.  You listen.  You offer to talk to their grandkids who are struggling with their own fears and tears. Nothing will ever be the same, and suggesting otherwise is demeaning.

Affirm positive steps, and suggest counseling, grief classes and support groups for the family. Child/teen-focused grief release programs, such as the Dougy Center in Oregon or Comfort Zone Camp in Virginia do incredible work.

What do you do if the grandparent them self is dying?

This is 911 heart- stopping stuff but reality can’t be put off.  These grandparents need a new home for their grandkids now, or as their health deteriorates. They need to talk with an attorney, grief counselor, and hospice to determine what’s possible, timelines, and how to legally, financially, and emotionally make it all happen.

Their caseworker must be involved if children are wards of the court. Sadly, some children will be returned to the foster care system, some to a barely functioning birthparent, and others transitioned to the home of an older sibling, aunt, adult-friend, or parents of their best friend.

In my latest book Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users there is a whole chapter devoted to the practical issues of estate planning, wills, guardianships, talking to extended family, and transitioning information for a new care-taker.

All children need to know where they are going to live.  Every grandparent in this situation needs help.  Offer to make appointments, talk to grandkids, or contact their faith community.

Helping grandkids deal with death: advice from professionals:

Tell kids immediately.  Don’t let them hear from anyone else–and certainly not from a thoughtless media tweet or post–if you, or another family member is dying…or if someone they love is dead. Helping a little one, or teen, say goodbye is hard–but not giving them a chance to say goodbye if there is the opportunity is worse.  Sixty plus years after my husband’s mother committed suicide, he is still dealing with the pain of no one talking about his mother, and not getting to go to her funeral.

Use the words died and death, not euphemisms.  If you say grandma is asleep, went away, is with the angels, or ‘we lost her’–children, especially preschoolers, get confused.  They expect sleeping people to wake up, and people who aren’t there to return eventually like when Papa comes home from work. They have no concept of forever.

Using words that describe everyday activities to explain death can lead to anxiety or fear.  If papa was “sick” and “died” then they will be terrified when they, or anyone, gets sick. Explain only serious illnesses, or very bad accidents, cause death. There are some excellent child grief books including Tear Soup and Freddie the Leaf. There are equally good ones for teens and adults.

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Let children attend a parent/or grandparent’s service.  However, consider taking pre-schoolers to ‘after service’ gatherings only.  Ask a trusted acquaintance to watch over them because you will be busy, grieving, and unable to deal with their short attention span, fidgeting, and questions about why people are crying or, “Where is grandpa?”

Ask children how they are feeling and ask often enough, and in enough different ways, to really “hear” what they are feeling. Reassure them by words and actions that whatever happens, they will be safe and with people who love them.

Help them put their feelings into words, or pictures, so they can process grief. Some will feel very sad for a long time, others not so much.  Some will be angry and feel abandoned (don’t forget that for adolescents life is all about them). Reassure them that they aren’t responsible for the death.

Seek counseling for kids if there are prolonged: 

-Changes in school performance and peer interactions.

-Difficulty in sleeping, nightmares, reverting to bed wetting, or needing you in the room while they fall asleep.

-Destructive behaviors such as temper tantrums, using drugs or alcohol, cutting, depression, stealing, bad language, isolating themselves in their bedroom,  or sexual aggression.

-Refusal to talk about the deceased, or talking exclusively about them.

Re-assure grandparent.

Grieving is not easy and there are no timetables, no pre-mapped steps. The activities of parenting often facilitates that a grandparents’ feelings and needs are set aside…but whether they are saying good-bye to their spouse, or saying a long good-bye to their grandkids, let them know you’ll be there.

Ask them if they are spiritually alright?  I’m Christian, but spirituality can include agnostics, atheists, or anyone.  Asking simply opens a conversation door that maybe no one else has been willing to walk through with them.

Regardless of your intent don’t tell them everything happens for a reason, heaven is a better place, or other similar comments. In the bible it says God never wastes a tear. Sometimes crying with another is one of the best comforts we can offer.

Letters and journaling.

Had the best conversation with a high school senior talking about family traditions.  In her family everyone puts a memento, or letter, in a keepsake box when a child is born and then when they turn eighteen the family gets together and each item is opened and shared.  It’s fun, personal…and priceless.

Writing letters is something I’d encourage you to do.  For years, people have told me they loved the letters to Chad (my adopted son/grandson) that I put at the end of each chapter in my first book, Second Time Around: Help for Grandparents Raising their Children’s Kids.  

It’s a legacy you can hand your child/grandchild/niece or nephew down the road and it really releases a lot of feelings for you.  Letters can also be an answer to a problem one grandmother recently asked, “How do I counteract lies my daughter says, like “Your grandmother took you?” when reality is she abandoned her.”  If she had written letters to her grandson or granddaughter, she might want to share a letter dated years ago that substantiates, not only her story but also reaffirms how very much you love her. The same goes for letters to sons and daughters.  Be sure to capture the happy, the positive, the sweet, as well as all the dreams you hold for them.   If you’re like me there will be a lot of letters that you’ll tear up too…because somethings are too heavy, too hurtful, or too personal to share with them–or to have someone find after you are no longer around.  

Following are  a few excerpts from my first book’s letters I wrote (copyrights apply):

First week:   “I cried so hard that I sank to the floor where I’m writing this, too heartsick to get up and too scared of what’s going to happen, to sleep…The biggest horror to me is that your mom doesn’t seem sorry or appalled by what she did…I pray to God you are safe tonight wherever you are and aren’t afraid.”

Maybe six months later:  “Today I took you for a blood test to see if you are HIV positive…”

Several years down the road:  “I went to court and told the judge why I didn’t think your mommy can keep you afe.  I didn’t want to tell him.  I didn’t want to hurt your mommy.  You see, in my heart she’s still my little girl.  But I had to.  I had to keep you safe, and your unborn sister safe.  When you are angry you are violent.  Remember when Bobby (now IMG_3322my husband and Chad’s adopted dad) was lying on his side on the floor and you kicked him so hard he collapsed or when you shook your rocking chair until the arm broke?…”

When Chad was six:  “Never think of yourself as a victim–you aren’t.  You have the advantage of knowing pain so you can help others.  I love your laugh.  It was silent for a long time so I stop and smile whenever I hear it.  When you are dating, always, always, always respect yourself, your date, and the little souls up in heaven who are waiting for you to someday be their daddy.”

Now Chad and his wife, Jessica, are waiting for the birth of their first born.  Can’t wait to write him/her a letter welcoming them.  I love them already.

Children of addicts & alcoholics struggle to define love, bestow trust, and expect good things.

Kids who have been abused, abandoned, or adopted have holes in their hearts.   You can love them a lot, and they love you, but bottom line is sometimes deep inside they are afraid, and sometimes they act out.

It takes years for humans to figure out that holes often are filled with different emotions.  The connectivity between love and trust and hope holes are often the most troublesome.  

Love.

Little children instinctively think that anyone who says, “I love you,” means it. They accept words, not actions, as the proof.

jim's gd sayingAs children grow up, they also think everyone they love, loves them back in equal amounts. If that person is mom or dad and they don’t demonstrate healthy love by parenting responsibly then the child thinks it’s because something is wrong with them.  The functionalities in their brain regulating logic and emotions grow at different rates so counseling and stable parenting are necessary to help them sort it all out.

Trust.

Living without trust is scary for them, but they don’t consciously know what is wrong, or why they feel so messed up and mad.  They may have the where-with-all to talk about “love” but trust is another issue.  Just by your being there for them, being consistent, and loving them their capacity to trust can be rebuilt. Again, counseling can help move the process along and gives them a safe place to vent.  It gives you a trained, professional outsider that can help you both move from where you are to where you want to be.

Hope.

Whatever is going on in your grandchild’s life right now, hang in there. Remember their anger, sadness or withdrawal often masks pain.  A child of an addict or alcoholic needs you to help them become unafraid. To help them learn to hope and to separate what happened to them with what can happen moving forward. It requires they slowly let go of survival defensive reactions and become vulnerable–trusting you not to hurt them again.

Knitting together again love, trust & hope.

The journey back to what most children and teens take for granted–being loved and cared for–is crazy long but, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” (Winnie the Pooh).

Your reward is seeing a troubled child morph into a healthy adult who knows what each person in their life (including them self and birthparent if they around) is capable of giving and receiving. They have dreams, they have boundaries, they can overcome bumps in life.  They become good parents to their children.

 

The power of saying “no” to an addict.

“No”.  A tiny word.  A huge statement.   A line in the sand.   A lifetime of dreams shattered.   Your future’s foundation.

Know when to say, “no”.

To the user:

No debates, lectures, or moral judgements.  You did it all before, probably many times…didn’t work then, won’t work now.  The user’s thoughts and life are now theirs to own.  If something impacts you, set a boundary–if not–let it go, “This isn’t your house anymore and you can’t come inside.  Your things will be on the porch from 3-5 Sunday and if they aren’t gone, then we’ll give them to a charity.”

No enabling emotionally or functionally, “Sorry, but you chose to have the first drink, then you choose to drink more, and then you drove drunk.  I’ll always love you, but I won’t bail you out, or ever try to soften the consequences of choices you make, or things you do.”

No sharing confidences or information–not about their kids’ activities or their well-being, or your own feelings if you have custody.  Addicts try to manipulate and control.  You may know when you are being conned–but their little ones don’t.

No playing together.   Play time has passed; reality means responsibility. Sustained sobriety lasting until after their kids are grown has to come first.

To yourself:

No begging.  Stay calm on the outside, even when your heart is breaking on the inside.  Logic or referring to past history doesn’t work in the battlefield of an alcoholic’s mind.

No bribing.  Negotiating keeps the addict in the game and once a user gets what they want, they revert or renege.

No whining.  Nothing makes you weaker in the eyes of an alcoholic–or their children for that matter.  Don’t be pathetic–be self empowered.   Fake it until you can make it…real.

No more.   Sometimes you have to walk away but…

No giving up hope for their changing.  Never stop believing.  God is an equal opportunity, and free choice, supporter.   He won’t make them change, but He’ll give them every opportunity–and all the love and support they need–to change. Sometimes, there’s more gain with pain.

 

How Kids of Addicts & Alcoholics Define Normal

Normal is learned.

I remember after my grandson came to live with me when he was very young and diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after living with his dad that he didn’t laugh for the longest time.  In fact, a couple of years passed and one day while making dinner I heard a noise that I couldn’t place.  It took a minute for it to register that Chad was laughing out loud at something on the TV.  Normal is so darn nice when it’s been missing but suddenly appears in your life.

The thing about ‘normal’ is that it is whatever is customary and usual to each individual. When kids, or teens, live in a household where normal is substance abuse crazy, it’s like they are trying to see through a pair of glasses that have been severely shattered.  They think everyone, and everything, has cracks.  They may suspect their family life is different, but they don’t know for sure until they have something to compare it to.  You can explain abnormal until there is a baseline for normal.

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To children of an addict normal means:

Parents aren’t predictable.  They leave you sitting on the steps at school, forget your birthday, and then out-of-the-blue one day surprise you by being sober and telling you they are sorry, promising they’ll do better.

Parents aren’t trustworthy.  The tennis shoes they promised to buy when they got paid so you could participate in PE end up being put off one more month because they stopped at a bar on the way home.  So you cop an attitude at school–not telling anyone the real reason you skip class.

You’ve probably live in a lot of different “homes” and by high school have been in ten or twelve schools.  If you’re lucky you get sympathy and passed on even if you leave before the end of the term–and even if you really don’t know the subject.  If you are unlucky the same thing happens and pretty soon you are so far behind in every subject that you give up.

You live with the blinds or drapes always closed…keeping the world out and what happens inside private.  No one sees the dirty needles, dirty dishes and dirty money made by your parents from stealing or dealing.  You talk only to the neighbors who look and act like your family.  Cool kids avoid you, and for awhile that hurts until you put up barriers that others can’t pierce.

Life is a series of handouts, not hand-ups…but you don’t see life in those dimensions.   Why eat a homemade sandwich when you can get free breakfast and lunches at school?   Even if you want to change as you get older, why apply for a part time job when your parents won’t be there to pick you up after the stores close and the buses quit running?

You learn to hate drugs and alcohol and what they do to people…or you learn that they blur the edges of pain, of anger, of hunger, of failure and you get someone pregnant–or are pregnant–and do the ‘normal thing’ and get an entry-job, get food stamps, or start dealing.

You can’t explain normal.

You can’t explain normal because someone who hasn’t seen it, won’t buy it.  You can only demo it by hanging out together and just living it.   If you are parenting say what you’re going to do, and then do what you said.  ALWAYS.  If you are just a friend, mentor, teacher or other concerned adult–LIVE YOUR VALUES more than you talk your values.

“I would like to buy you a pair of tennis shoes because I see you need them and it would make me happy to do so, but I want them to fit.  Would it be alright with your mother if I took you after school to the mall?”  Or, “I have a lawn that needs cutting, I’ll pay you to do it every week, but I need to know I can count on you to be here or let me know in advance if something special comes up and you want to reschedule.”  Or,  “Nice job on mowing the lawn, but you didn’t pick up the grass clippings along the edges, it’ll take you ten minutes and then you get paid.” Or, “The tennis shoes, aren’t charity–I’m paying forward a kindness someone did for me years ago.  Someday, I’ll tell you about it.  Someday you can help someone else.”

Commitment.  Honesty.  Opportunities.  Feedback.   Repeat–repeat–repeat. Nicely normal, this messy thing called life.

Foster Kids & the White House

Good things are happening on the hill regarding foster children and those taking care of them. 

IMG_2818Last month, I was invited to participate on a White House panel exploring ways to prevent children from entering, or re-entering, foster care.  I have great empathy and respect for the many, many grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members who step up–whether they do so in, or out, of ‘the system’. 

My thoughts are simple.  Give families the help they need, when they need it. Don’t ask them to sit in trainings that don’t apply, or be bogged down with regulations that are helpful in keeping kids in “traditional” foster care safe, but are an unnecessary expense–and barrier–for keeping siblings together. At the same time give kids, and caregivers (hate that term, but there you go) the life-skills needed sothey can get back to being self sufficient, independent, and happy families.

The deal is, most families need a little more help when things first go wrong and then just a boost if something pops up later.   For some grandparents who take over parenting (often due to their adult child being an alcoholic or drug user) it may be financial, for others it’s counseling for kids, and for some access to a lawyer who can help them become guardians or adoptive parents.  At the DC event child care agency leaders, family court judges, and multiple members of the Navajo Nation among others, emphasized that the needs, and timing, are different for every family.  Sometimes, it’s something as simple as a babysitter for two hours, and other times, as complex as providing medical, academic and life skills for a medically fragile infant who grows into a medically fragile adult–while their caregivers grow old…and then elderly.

I adopted my grandson, Chad, who is now rock solid and a typical 23-year-old, but he could easily have become another suicide, or prison, statistic if not for counseling at four critical junctions in his life:

-At age two, when he first came into foster care after a four-hour beating because he wouldn’t eat, by my daughter who was involved with drugs.

-Age four, when returned to my care after eight months with his birth father who, pre-placement, had been identified with anger and alcohol issues.  Post-return Chad was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress when the term was hardly known.

-In fifth grade when he hated his dad, and was constantly angry.  One session, with his old counselor, who knew Chad and who he liked and trusted, turned him around when she told him life is a puzzle and the pieces we each pick, or reject, form us.  She helped him identify what was good, and bad, in his birth parents, and what he wanted for himself.

-As a freshman Chad became suicidal and started cutting. I learned, that unknown to me, Chad had had frequent phone conversations with his birth mom. When she relapsed, after years of sobriety, he became obsessed with death. Counseling taught both Chad and I that depression often masks fear, anger, and other emotions. It allowed us to share things we might not have otherwise said, and gave us the skills to communicate more effectively going forward.

The first counseling sessions were paid for by foster and title four services, the last two by myself.  When Chad became suicidal, I called Oregon Post Adoption Resources, looking only for the name of a counselor who successfully helped other families like ours.  They couldn’t legally tell me because Chad hadn’t been adopted directly out of state care, but subsequently, after I watched my daughter spiral out-of-control.  As an author and speaker, working with grandparents parenting grandkids, I was blessed to have alternative connections and the financial resources (although my IRA was seriously tapped into) that many others do not.

Every family does have different problems, timelines, and breaking points. While some families continue to need the longer support that comes with being a licensed kinship or foster provider, many want, and need, only targeted information, or help.  Kudos to the dedicated people at organizations like Generations United, on whose Grandfamily Advisory Board I participate, and Casey Family Programs who work endlessly, without a lot of public recognition, to bring the issues and solutions to the attention of lawmakers, who in turn, make life better for families when they are most vulnerable.