Dissolved: When Always Isn’t Forever. . . Part One
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9
We were completely regular people. Married for twelve years, my husband worked and I stayed home with our four boys. We lived in the suburbs, went to church, to the park, to the grocery store – we were as average as they come. We desired to have more children, but three miscarriages later, we believed God was calling us to perhaps pursue more children in another way.
Considering adoption was not an overnight decision. There was much prayer and much training involved. Would we adopt? Would we only be allowed to foster? How much would it cost? What were the ramifications, if any, to our biological children? We prayed through and answered each and every question as thoroughly and with as much information as we’d been given.
We knew we did not want to have children in our home older than our biological kids. We’d heard vague stories of troubled older children, who’d been exposed to far more than their developing minds or bodies were able to process, and we did not want anyone perpetrating on our boys. So we decided as long as we only accepted children younger than our bios, we would all be safe. And besides, the adopted children would be so young they would only ever know us as their family, as mom, and as dad. We would love them as our own, care for them, and nurture them. We would give them the best possible environment to thrive. Admittedly, we too had the notion we’d seen portrayed in movies. How grateful the child/children would be to have a family. How, with enough love and affection, they would integrate into our family as if they’d always been there. Our experience’s in life and parenting thus far was more than enough to prepare us to care for the least of these. We were almost guaranteed success. Almost.
We plunged in with both feet; eager to fulfill what we believed at the time was the call upon Christians to care for the orphans (James 1:27). We took every class, acquired every certification, had our home triple inspected, our entire family interviewed, two background checks, fingerprints, and met every state requirement, and beyond, for our home. We bought furniture to accommodate multiple children, had cribs donated for infants, double-locked the medications in the home, and much more.
We were licensed in April of that year and got a call for a placement of a sibling group of three children, two months later. Tragically, two weeks prior to this call, I lost another baby (our fourth miscarriage in eighteen months) in the second trimester, requiring surgery; so this call seemed like God’s perfect timing during our deep sadness. The children were younger than our biological children and the likelihood of adopting them, we were told, was very good.
Our first meeting with the children was two days prior to their official placement with us. They were in separate homes, having never lived together, and only sharing a biological mom. The oldest boy was nearly two and we visited him first. We were to take him with us to the foster home his twin three-month-old siblings were currently living in.
When we arrived, Jason (not his real name), was sitting in a high chair with a sea of food surrounding him on the floor. I had four boys, so I was used to messes, but this was like nothing I’d ever seen. The food (various cereals, breads, and snack crackers) covered a solid four-foot radius around the high chair he was confined to. I’d had our biological boys toss their food on the floor from time to time, just to watch it fall, this was not that. Still, I thought little of it at the time. Once out of the high chair he began jumping around, flailing his arms, and seemed to be a bit rambunctious.
What I wouldn’t realize until much later was that he was completely out of control and this chair was there only to contain him. I went to pick him up from the chair and he immediately clung to me as if he’d known me all his life. I was encouraged; I thought he saw something within me that he liked and was happy to be with me. This too was a red flag, that my excitement over the whole day, and my ignorance of attachment disorders, kept me from recognizing.
While visiting the twins, we allowed Jason to play with large plastic connecting blocks while we chatted with the foster-mother. Jason was full of energy and running around throwing things and having difficulty listening (at one point, throwing a block so hard at one of the twins head, it caused the baby to scream inconsolably). We chalked it up to him being excited too. Then, something strange happened.
My husband asked the foster-mother where her restroom was, and she showed him that it was just around the corner. As he got up to go, he closed the door behind him. Jason ran to the door immediately and began crying uncontrollably, banging on the door asking for my husband to come out. We felt compassion for him, we consoled him as best we could, and couldn’t believe how much he’d “attached” to us in such a short time. We never considered for a moment that this was the biggest red flag yet.
Two days after this visit, we picked each of the children up from their separate homes and brought them to ours. We had nearly doubled our family size overnight. It was exhausting. But we were happy. Our church family was initially willing to help lend a hand. Some came over and held babies, some let me take a nap. But a few weeks in, I was tired of entertaining the masses and wanted to try to get everyone on a schedule. So we dug in our heels and plowed ahead, on our own.
At this time, we were only foster parents to the children. Which meant, and what the state reminded us of on a weekly basis, we were not their parents. We had strict rules to follow with their care: we had to keep everything locked up – all medicines, pantries, bathrooms, everything. We had to keep a log of everything I ever gave the children, from a tsp of cough medicine, to each and every breathing treatment one of the twins required, at the time.
Each week I had to get the twins ready for a caseworker to come pick them up for their visit with their biological parents, who rarely showed (only three times in a year), for these scheduled visits. We had caseworkers in our home on a weekly basis, evaluating our biological children, the foster-children, and our parenting. We had to keep monthly activity reports of doctors appointments and social engagements the children were participating in. We were told each week how hard the case manager was working at finding the children a relative placement; our chance of adopting them was now uncertain at best. This, coupled with the clear behavior issues the new children brought, caused a wall to slowly be erected between us and the children, though we did not recognize it at the time.
Before the placement, we spoke briefly with the foster parents of both the twins (Michael and Michelle, not their real names), and Jason. Two things struck me at the time, but I did not recognize them for what they were – warning signs.
One, Jason’s foster mother was very concerned for the twins’ safety with Jason in the home. She said he was a danger to them and was afraid he would seriously harm them if left alone with them. Two, the twins’ foster mom said that the twins cried an inordinate amount of the time. All babies cry, some cry more than others, but her emphasis on this was certain; this was no ordinary baby cries. We were parents to four boys already (our boys were 9, 8, 5, and 2 at the time of placement). We knew how to handle screaming babies, and we knew how to manage an unruly child, so we snidely retorted to them both – “We’ve got this…”
As life began to settle in, I quickly realized how much work raising seven children would be. Especially with three that brought immense challenges. I went days without showering, and as a homeschool family, we were rarely able to open a book. The new children were a lot of work; work we expected, work we prepared for, but work nonetheless. I made some adjustments. Since our bio boys were still young, I did not yet trust them to hold the babies. I was too fearful something would happen and the state would take everyone away (not an unreasonable fear, given all the regulations and microscopes we were under). So I bought two baby swings and had the boys feed the babies a bottle while the babies lay in the swings. This allowed me to do a load of laundry, prepare a meal for the others, or occasionally take a much-needed shower.
Many friends offered their advice on how best to manage my new crew and we gladly followed most of it. We let anyone and everyone hold a baby because after all, that’s what babies needed. And we let them go with anyone in our church who was willing to sit and engage them because we considered our church our family. We used the village God had given us to raise this army!
For me, though, it wasn’t long before I began to notice things were different. I mean I KNEW they were different from us, but this was something even different from that different.
I noticed Jason was barely able to form words, and the words he did say were a complete parrot of our bio son his age. Yes, children mimic other children, that is how they learn, but this was different. He was not saying words because he understood them, he was repeating things he’d heard my bio son say, in order to create his desired response.
One day, I was looking at a family picture we’d had made of all of us together. I would point to each person and ask Jason to tell me who each person was. He named everyone correctly, but when he came to his own picture, he called himself Billy, my bio son’s name (not his real name). He would not be wavered. He believed he was my bio son (the actual person, not that he believed he was mine). He would tell people that his name was Billy and he would act eerily like he was my other son, down to the last inflection in his voice.
This was disturbing behavior. Downright creepy even. I tried discussing this with his counselors and therapists (each of the children met with them every week, per state requirements), but none of them had any answers, though they all acknowledged it was quite strange. More bizarre behavior began to emerge, but again, I was so caught up with the daily chaos that was our life, I did not take notice of it as I should.
Food began to disappear, things were mysteriously broken, children began crying for no reason, or so I thought. Jason was not able to recognize how to stop a task once it was finished; if asked to walk from the kitchen to the front door (a straight shot), he would keep walking straight into the door, and continue banging himself into the door (like a toy robot would do), until I physically went over and stopped him.
If he were to hold on to the grocery cart while we were in the store, he would not let go and come to the car, even after I returned it to the cart holder in the parking lot. He would stay attached to the cart, as it sat in the cart storage bin, until I physically came and brought him to the car. Another time, he had blood drawn at one of the required doctor visits, and as the nurse drew the blood from the vein in his arm, he just stared at it, watching the needle go in and come out, not even flinching, and certainly not shedding a tear. After Jason attended a regular check-up of the twins, who both raged when getting blood drawn, Jason began to cry at shots too. He was mimicking the emotions, not actually feeling them.
During a mid-morning break one day, Jason was sitting at our dining table for a snack, and when I left the room, my bio son his age came in. They exchanged words, and my bio son guiltily fled the room as I walked back in. I looked at Jason, who was sitting there still eating his snack, while blood ran down his face from a cut on his head and into the snack. My bio son had hit him with a toy car and he did not even budge, did not say anything, did not scream… nothing. He just sat there, continuing to eat, while blood trickled down his face, over his hands, and into his food. This translated into me never knowing when he was hungry, tired, cold or sick. He said nothing, just looked at me blankly or with disdain.
The twins were a bit easier to handle early on, mainly because they were small babies at the time, but their crying was just as the foster mom had said. They were inconsolable. Nothing I did brought them comfort. They would cry randomly and for no reason at all. Cry is a very inadequate word, for what they did was scream and rage as if they were being tortured, with no cause whatsoever. This was exhausting.
These, too, should have been signs that something was amiss, but we were determined to have success, so they went unnoticed, though not entirely. I was beginning to grow weary that nothing was working. No amount of mothering them was helping them to settle into our family. Jason’s behavior quickly began to spiral out of control.
He would do small, passive-aggressive things, that those outside our family would never notice. But they were deliberate and pointed, mainly at me. I was his main nurturer and, unbeknownst to me, he was determined not to be nurtured. As he grew older, he became more passive-aggressive towards me. Due to many incidents with Jason (too many to count) he was not allowed to go to other rooms in the home by himself, because he could not be trusted alone at any time, he had to ask me to use the restroom when he needed to go. Seems simple and reasonable enough, but this enraged him.
He was so against my authority over him, and having to ask me for permission for anything, that he would wait an entire day, and then ask my husband if he could go to the restroom as soon as he walked in the door from work; or he would just use it wherever he was (in a chair, on the wall, on the floor), rather than having to submit to my authority and ask for permission. It was so hard to understand. I was trying desperately to love and parent him and he refused every instance of either. He did it willfully and frankly, he did it intentionally to hurt and attempt to control me.
I tried confiding in close friends. I needed someone to talk to. I needed answers as to why their behavior was becoming increasingly aggressive. I needed to know why they called me “Mom” but did not recognize that this was who I was in relationship to them, and not my name only. My “friends” (see Job’s friends) would offer advice, and I (unlike Job) would try to follow it, but it always ended the opposite of what was expected. I began to think once we were able to adopt them, and establish proper authority, they would begin to settle down. Perhaps they just needed more structure and accountability. I was grasping at straws but did not realize this at the time.
Up to this point, anytime one of them disobeyed, we could only separate them from the others. They never cared, and it never stopped their behavior. Time-out seemed as if they were just a bull in a stall waiting to be released, as soon as the gate was raised. A year after they were placed in our home, through many hoops, ups and an inordinate amount of downs, we finalized the adoption. I tried having the joy that was supposed to accompany this big day, but my heart was troubled. I truly wanted to believe this was the right thing, after all, we were doing it to honor God. But something was nagging me, something was wrong, and I could not identify it. I chalked it up to my utter exhaustion. But still, why wasn’t I feeling what I should? I would later discover that my husband felt the same way, but we were both so determined to make this family work that neither of us expressed these feeling to the other.
Life continued, each day bringing a new challenge, and many of the old ones began to pile up. We moved to the country, thinking all the children needed was some open land to run and play and enjoy. Perhaps being away from all the stimulation the city offers would help channel their excess energy and help manage their poor behavior. Unfortunately, this hope was quickly squelched.
Jason began to steal food almost daily, despite being fed three meals and a snack each and every day. Sometimes he stole little things like a cookie or a piece of candy, but often it would be a whole pan of brownies (9×13) while I stepped outside to check on our horses (yes, in five minutes a four-year-old child ate an entire pan of brownies and denied it with the straightest of expressions, and covered in crumbs). Lying became the norm for him and he did not respond in the least to any type of correction.
Michelle began to display much of the same character traits as Jason, though slightly less extreme. She would manipulate others, mainly using affection, to get what she wanted, even if she was told no. She did not have an understanding of boundaries; that it was not appropriate to ask complete strangers to hold her or get her something she wanted. She would lie, steal, and destroy things, too. Even as a two-year-old. She had a keen awareness of others and how to manipulate them. Far beyond what I would have ever thought a child of her age was capable of.
Michael did not have the same mental capacity as the other two. He did not manipulate, but he did not understand even the most basic instructions. He did not understand what a stranger was, as I found him many times being held by complete strangers at the grocery store, indoor playgrounds, or the park. It became necessary for me to confine him to a cart or stroller for his protection in these places because the danger to him was too great. He did not understand natural consequences. He pulled dressers on top of himself, climbed bookshelves, and once jumped from the top step of a school bus assuming someone would catch him (fortunately a teacher noticed out of the corner of his eye and caught him at the last second before he hit the pavement). His speech was unintelligible, he could not be understood on any level, and he had no idea.
Each of the children had issues with using the bathroom, though Jason was the biggest culprit. They would urinate anywhere- on walls, floors, in garbage cans. They would hide their feces in clothing bins, wipe it on the furniture, walls, clothing etc. They did not wet the bed, they peed in it – deliberately. When the three would play together, they would literally destroy a room, turning tables over, chairs over, throwing sofa cushions and breaking or damaging property.
They would never, not ever, even in the slightest, respond to any form of correction. They were unphased by it. Jason would never cry when we administered corporal punishment, but the twins would scream uncontrollably. We quickly learned that this form of discipline was making all matters even worse (though our bio boys had always responded appropriately to the same punishments), so we limited our correction of the adopted children to time-outs, taking away something they enjoyed (a toy or activity), or the occasional tap on the back of the hand. None of these forms of correction worked either, but as you will later read, we were hesitant to administer ANY discipline, for fear of what those outside our home would say or do.
During this time I was growing increasingly weary and frustrated. I spent hours on the phone, trying to find help. I knew something was wrong, but I did not know what it was. Why weren’t they responding to us as their family; why were they so defiant? Why couldn’t/wouldn’t they follow simple, age-appropriate instructions?
I did not know where to turn. I shared with our various friends frequently, but their answers lacked understanding. They were only able to see our situation through the eyes of their parenting experience – and this was NOTHING like that. And then, one of any parents worst fears were realized.
One Sunday morning we were all headed to church. My husband was left behind because he had been called into work the night before and was going to stay home and sleep. During church, we were a team. I would sit by Michelle, he would sit in between Jason and Michael and have our other children somewhere close by. It was necessary to keep the adopted children very close, as their behavior would spiral quickly out of control if we weren’t right next to them, and in fact looking at them and physically holding onto them. Turning your back was only an open opportunity for chaos.
Since my husband was not there, I knew it would be challenging. I could not step out into the hall if one of them acted up, because that would leave the others alone. As we sat there, the twins on either side of me and Jason sitting by my feet, I could tell they were beginning to get anxious. They were becoming super fidgety and began ignoring my quiet pleas for them to settle down. I realized that the crowd was perhaps over-stimulating them and they knew I was alone and unable to control them should they act out.
Realizing things were quickly beginning to escalate, I had to think fast. So I asked each of them to close their eyes and sit quietly. We always drew attention, because of our family size and various hues of skin tone. I did not want to be a distraction to others, so I thought asking them to close their eyes would remove the stimuli and cause their increasing adrenaline to subside. As we sat there, I gently whispered to each of them to calm down, everything was ok, and they just needed to sit there and be as still as they could. I stroked their little faces with my hand, trying to comfort them and remove their angst. But they weren’t having it.
Michelle started to cry, tears streaming down her face; she wanted to be up, she wanted the attention to be on her and this was keeping her from that. Michael also began to cry, too. I continued to give them words of comfort, holding their hands and wiping their tears…hoping that they would calm down enough to get us through the service without causing a scene. They did eventually calm to a manageable level. I told them they could open their eyes, though Michael had fallen asleep.
After the service, I was approached by a visiting family of the same race as our adopted children. The matriarch of the group began to give me all the “advice” she felt was necessary for me to parent the children because clearly, I was doing something wrong. I graciously received her rebukes and thought nothing about it again, as people often gave me unsolicited advice, not knowing anything about our situation.
The Friday following, my husband came home from work at noon, which he never did. I was cleaning the bathrooms and he took me aside and said we needed to talk. Someone had gone to our elders at church complaining about my “behavior” on Sunday. They said they observed me with the children and went and spoke with a person they knew in the field of psychology. From what was described to this third-party, these children were clearly being abused (in her opinion).
Yes, you heard me. This person, who has never laid eyes on me or my children, who heard an account of what transpired from a person visiting my church, who also did not know me or my children, made a definitive claim that I was abusing the children. I was absolutely devastated. This claim literally knocked the wind out of me. I had given everything I had to serve these children. I had endured every possible affront, every possible assault, short of physical violence, at the hands of these children. I had given all of my time, money, energy and resources. And this unknown, unseen person had the audacity to make this claim. And this was only the beginning…..