Grandparents rally in DC and everyday in the trenches…

Kudos to the grandparents raising grandchildren who gathered May 10th in front of the US Capitol to speak for the many families across the nation headed by grandparents. Thirty states were represented according to Jaia Petersen Lent, Deputy Executive Director of Generations United.

All parenting grandparents are teaching a generation of young people that family is made up of those who love and take care of you. If you know such a family offer to help them by babysitting, sharing a meal occasionally, mentoring…whatever you have to offer.  If you don’t know what to offer then ask, “What can I do to help?”

Also, say a prayer for the many birth parents who aren’t parenting because of illness, armed services assignments, drugs, alcohol or a variety of other reasons including death.


Grandparents’ feelings; grandparents’ footsteps…

You’ll feel the collective sadness, anger, hope, and “we can do this” attitudes that co-exist when grandparents raising grandkids get together.

May 10th an expected thousand plus parenting grandparents, from across the nation, will gather in Washington D.C. to spotlight their needs and find help in solving the underlying problems.

Every relative caregiver, whether forty or eighty, lives a Just Do It life.  ‘It’ being restoring childhoods and securing futures for grandchildren whose parents are addicted to opioids, other drugs, or alcohol.  ‘It’ being parenting temporarily, or permanently, infants, tweens and teens whose moms or dads are on military deployments, incarcerated, deceased or are just very young.

Sometimes these family warriors need help. By uniting in the capitol’s plaza, and meeting one-on-one with Senators and Representatives from their own states, or by sharing their stories the grandparents want to focus attention on foster care and other federal funding and policies.

They aren’t asking for more money, they are asking for system efficiencies and equal access for grandparents in or out of the system. Many need legal help to obtain custody, guardianship or adoption to help with school enrollment, access to medical care and/or counseling for traumatized or vulnerable youth.

They want a hand up, not hand out. Independence and dignity is important to them.

I understand. I am one of them. I adopted my oldest grandson, Chad, who was physically abused as a toddler and diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) when four. Chad is now twenty-five and successfully launched; we’re both out of the trenches paying forward.

Together, we wrote the book Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users to help others, whether they are dealing with visitations when grandkids cry before they go, or punch holes in walls when they return, have trouble saying “no” to their adult child, or are terrified of technology and drug dangers for youth.

These grandparents aren’t complainers or quitters. But often you hear desperation in their voices and see tears in their eyes. Mostly, I’m humbled by their determination to do what they have to do to give their grandkids happy, secure, and as normal as possible childhoods going forward.

So while I don’t hear, “Poor me”, I do hear, “I’m dying and need to find a home for my grandson.” “I have PTSD from Vietnam and having three little ones under seven makes it worse…sometimes I just have to leave and let my 70-year-old wife deal with the chaos.” “My daughter threatens to take the kids and tells me that I’ll never see them if I apply for food stamps and housing supplements and hers is taken away–so I try to make my social security stretch.” “I don’t want to ask for help…I’ll just work until I’m eighty because my grandson needs 24-hour group housing.” “Melissa and Chavez are doing really well but I feel bad because my other grandchildren don’t understand why grandma does so much for their cousins and not for them.”

Last year 29 percent of children in foster care were being raised by relatives and for every child in relative foster care another twenty were being brought up by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles outside of the system saving tax payers 4 billion dollars annually.[1]

Generations United, Casey Family Programs, and other child and senior focused groups are spearheading this up-coming May gathering to educate legislators. They need your help.

Go to for more information about the rally and ways you can help grandparents raising grandchildren by fund raising or contacting your congressional representatives.

[1] Generation United, State of Grandfamilies in America: 2016.


10 Tips for a successful school year.

School is about academics, but also the building of a child’s character, emotional growth, and expanding relationships outside of the family. Keeping expectations of your grandchild realistic and balanced will decrease your stress level while increasing their self-confidence.

Tip One.  Grades are important, but they don’t always reflect a student’s efforts, rather their test-taking ability–and in subjects such as English they incorporate intangibles such as cultural experiences and teacher/student interactions.image002 2  If your child is failing (or performing under potential) analyze why.  Do they need glasses? A tutor? Rewards or consequences? Help learning how to study, take test, communicate with teachers/peers, or time management guidance? Once you isolate the why, solutions become possible.   

Tip Two.  Designate a quiet place for homework, and a time for doing it. Praise effort and offer encouragement. Help, but don’t take over (says the mom who almost collapsed trying to follow 12 pages of instructions for building a trebuchet).

Tip Three.  Get professional help for cognitive, behavioral, or physical problems impacting learning. School counselors aren’t a substitute for private practice counseling–schools have limited resources and many students. The Oregon Health Plan, and most other state plans and private insurance, offer mental health benefits.

All students with learning disabilities by law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are entitled to free testing and the development and implementation of an individual education plan (IEP). Helpful website:

Tip Four.  Request teachers whose teaching styles match your grandchild’s needs whether it’s for structure, schedules and posted rules, or self-directed study and/or group projects. If the principal resists ask, “Who else can I speak to?” And do it.

Tip Five.  Keep personal information personal unless necessary for child’s safety or special program eligibility. Assume anything shared with administrators, teachers, volunteers, or support staff will be repeated and/or become part of their school record. This is not a negative reflection on our wonderful professionals–rather a by product of the system and all it’s imperfections…things just happen.  Inaccurate, or negative, labels can impact a student forever.

Tip Six.  Attend all planning and disciplinary meetings.  Listen, but don’t agree to anything until after you hear what your grandchild says when it’s just the two of you. Help them admit if they are wrong. Help them learn: life isn’t fair but that isn’t a reason to give up, everyone has to pick their battles including you, and when to go to the mat for them (or in their case what they believe in).

Tip Seven.  Get kids what they need to succeed including Internet access (which can be the library, a neighbor, or through low-cost student Internet Access plans from providers); required calculators, textbooks, clothes, etc.  

Tip Eight.  Encourage extracurricular activities they like. Introduce yourself to coaches, teachers or other mentors such as faith group leaders, scoutmasters, or big brothers/sisters.  Consistently show up to watch. From preschool through high school, I always met my daughter and grandson’s friends and their parents. A few times I vetoed inappropriate activities or sleepovers where parental supervision was questionable. I wasn’t their best friend..but then a parent isn’t supposed to be.

Tip Nine.  Ask for help. Call the Department of Aging, or DHS, to see if they have any money for a special activity, or supplies, you can’t afford, or for suggestions of others to contact.  Check out clothes closets and faith organizations. 211 is an excellent resource for general information.

Scan 112480000Tip Ten.  If your grandchild has a bad day, recognize that it won’t last forever. Talk about what went well, what did not, and what can be done differently next time. By unpacking the baggage your grandkids came with piece by piece every aspect of their life–including school–will improve.


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.


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.

Five Things Kids of Addicts, or Alcoholics, Absolutely Need to Hear.

1. You are not Your Dad and are not responsible for things He does.

Shared genes don’t dictate who you are, or will become…or make you responsible for what your birth dad does. 

You do not owe anyone answers about your parents, or their behavior, regardless if the person asking is a family member, friend, stranger or teacher. Always acknowledge questions respectfully by your words, voice tone, and body language, but only share what you want.    “I don’t know. ”  “Thank you for understanding that it hurts to talk about my dad,” or “If this is really important I’ll give you my mom/grandpa/foster dad’s cell number and you can talk to them,” are all appropriate responses to insensitive inquiries.

2. only your mom can choose to quit.

As much as you want your mom to stop drinking, or using drugs, you can’t make her quit. I tried, others tried.  Addictions are hard to break…but help is available.

Your mom drinks too much (or uses drugs).  It’s not because she doesn’t love you, or because of something you did, or didn’t do.  It’s because her body now is used to the chemical changes drugs or alcohol cause and she physically needs the temporary escape or ‘high’ feeling that she gets when using.  This craving overrules logical thinking and even terrible consequences like losing you or being in prison (whatever is applicable). Depending on child’s age, and circumstances, this can lead to a discussion of problems in her getting a job, dangers of seeing her existing friends, or a need for counseling to face problems.


Life is hard, but you can do “hard”.

Everyone eventually has tough things to face.  You know Kevin’s mom commited suicide, Jax is  bullied because she is overweight, and others have terrible diseases like cancer.  Remember how we saw on TV that some dads are killed protecting our country.  You can choose to stay mad (or sad) or blame your dad/mom for how you act, but you can also choose to accept responsibility for what you do. You know how you’ve been hurt, so you can help others who are hurting.

Again for older children or teens more discussion can be helpful, e.g. “In NO HERO former Navy SEAL, Mark Owen, wrote, “Only focus on your three-foot world…focus on what you can affect.” Good advice.  Don’t dwell on what might happen if your dad returns. Get good grades so you can go on to be the game developer you want to be, and learn to control your temper.  It’s my job to keep working on the things that will make it so you always live with grandpa and I.  The attorney says he thinks it will only be a few more months until the judge lets that happen.”

4.  life isn’t fair.  get over it.

Listen.  Be honest.  Don’t preach.  Honor their feelings.

“I agree it sucks that you have to spend every other weekend visiting your mom and she won’t take you to your lacrosse games.  I have talked with your caseworker and am trying to see if we can change visiting times, but for now we have to do what the judge tells us.”

If your child, or the grandchild you are raising, is unfairly accused of something, and after presenting their side are still over-ruled, then maybe it’s time for one of the, “Pick your battles”, “I can go to bat for you but the consequences may be…” or “It’s a tough break but what can you do differently next time so when someone says something mean about your dad so you don’t get in a fight and end up suspended?” speeches.  Follow up with a hug and “I love you” or whatever physical contact they will accept.

If an unfair accusation that would impact the rest of their life (like a sexual aggression, troublemaker or slow learner) is made then go to the mat both for, and with, them.  

5.  You can trust me.


You can tell them that you are not their addicted parent and can be trusted, but they won’t believe you until you show up, and follow up, time after time after time.  

If you promise to be at a game–be there.  If you promise chocolate chip cookies–make them.  If you say they will lose video time for hitting their little brother and they hit their brother, then get the facts but give the consequence. Make the video time loss reasonable for their age and circumstances–but do it.  Be consistent and do it again, and again until the message comes through that you don’t hit others.  The more natural the consequence the more impactful.

If they get into trouble outside your home, always listen to their side of the story before commenting or making judgment.  Teachers are people, kids set others up…don’t assume an adult or other child is always right.  Ask questions, and expect factual–not purely emotional–answers. However, also remember that children of alcoholics and addicts have learned to lie as a means of survival.  Be their advocate, but don’t blindly defend them.

Praise effort, progress, and any little thing you honestly can until they start growing in self-confidence and life skills.  Let them hear that you notice what they say, and what they do. Compliment their achievements in front of others and reward good behavior.  A lot of champions are made because they don’t want to let their coach or family or teammates, who believe in them, down.  Talk them up, don’t tear their parent down.

Helping Grandparents Raising Grandkids set Boundaries

“I’m sorry. I understand.  I’m a good listener.  I don’t know what to say but I’m worried about you.  I know you’ve got a lot on your mind but it’s seriously jeopardizing your job performance. We need to talk dad.” All good phrases to let a struggling parenting grandparent know that you are there for them.

Your  words aren’t as important as letting a friend, family member, co-worker or employee know that you are listening and want to help. Some grandparents will cry, some will discuss their worries or vent, while others will continue to deny there is a problem, or shut down. Take their lead and respond accordingly unless you need to take action–then tell them what you are, or will be, doing and why.

“I will call Children Services next week if you continue to leave Jose and Sophia alone before school or all night. It is not safe for a first and second grader. Is there a neighbor or schoolmate’s parents who can help?”

Or, “I don’t want to lose you as an employee. I know you are raising two teenagers, but you’ve had two tickets and an accident in the company truck the last six months and if there is another incident I have to let you go. If you want I can make an appointment for you to talk to someone in Human Resources. Everything you say to HR is confidential, and they can help you with family counseling benefits, resources for community services, or transferring to a job with no travel and less overtime if that’s what’s best right now.”

I won’t let “sis” keep getting food stamps while you struggle to feed her kids and pay rent. I’m calling her caseworker today.”

No ‘one size’ solutions.

With families and addictions there is always a tug-of-war of emotions and a tangle of legal and day-to-day issues.  There are no quick fixes, but there is hope. I adopted my grandson, and twenty years later finally (tried before but always eventually relented) cut all ties with my daughter.  Life has a way of hurting and humbling and healing.  You may not have had personal experience in this area–but compassion and common sense tell you that it’s demeaning, to say, “just walk away,” or “just do it”.  Family love is strong and complicated. Drugs rip apart families and laws put parental rights over the kids–unless it’s proven that the parent is an immediate safety risk to them.

Don’t assume and don’t lecture.  Ask questions, offer experiences, suggest resources.  Try to get the grandparent to see what in their situation is fact, and what is emotion. Guide them in identifying what they can control; what they cannot.  The choices they face–seeking custody of their grandchildren, breaking off or limiting contact with their grown son/daughter, or sharing information with the police or child services are life-changing.  I always ask God to give me the words to help, not hurt, others.

Tough situations and choices.   

Below are a few paraphrased real-life examples of conversations I’ve had:

Grandmother:  “My social security check barely pays for food and rent but my daughter says she’ll take her kids back so she can continue to get food stamps and housing vouchers if I tell anyone.”

My response:  Your daughter isn’t going to change while you take care of her kids and she has money for drugs.  I won’t lie, there are risks with going to Family Services (FS) but I think the risks of not doing so are greater. Right now your daughter can walk into your home, or their school, and take them at anytime.  You aren’t legally able to stop her.  In an emergency you can’t even authorize medical treatment, and your grandkids probably feel the same insecurities you do about their future.

I would talk to an attorney first if I were you to find out about your rights, the grandkids’ rights and your daughter’s rights based on your individual case and state laws.  You do not want to be complicit in your daughter’s fraud, but more importantly your lawyer can guide you on the best way to proceed with obtaining legal custody and/or guardianship/adoption.  You can always ask if they have a “first visit free” program or if they could suggest where you could go for reduced-fee legal help.  You can also call FS anonymously to ask ‘hypothetical’ questions to gather information and learn your options.”

IMG_0379Grandpa:  “My teenage grandson is in a group home and it is tearing my wife apart, while draining our savings. We tried counseling after his mom, our daughter, died but he is out of control, refusing to go to school and causing all kinds of problems.  I don’t want the state involved in my personal finances, so I’ll just keep on working until I’m eighty to pay for his care.”

My response: “I’m sure it was a hard to put your grandson in a group home, but good for you for recognizing he needs help.  Have you checked into Social Security death benefits to help pay for his care? The only drawback is if something happens to you, his receiving social security might make him ineligible for other programs. Talk to your accountant and attorney. Estate and long-term planning is crucial. You and your wife need to protect your future while you can.”

Grandparent:  “Our three grandsons have two different fathers. Our son, and father of the two oldest, is in prison.  The younger grandson’s dad works but frequently doesn’t pay any support.  I’m afraid that if I take him to court he’ll stop altogether, or take the boy because we just have a power of attorney.”

My response: “Don’t let “what ifs” or fear stop you…and power of attorney can be rescinded at anytime just by dad tearing up the paper or changing his mind. Call your state support enforcement office for help getting court-ordered support for youngest grandson. Simultaneously, call an attorney to find out how to get legal custody/guardianship.

When your incarcerated son gets out of prison, ask him what he can contribute short, interim and long term to help you in raising his sons while making a future for himself. You didn’t mention your relationship but it’s critical to know what role you want him to play in the future before starting any dialog.”

Life changing conversations are never easy…and the thing is we don’t know they are life-changing until long after they are over.







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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.