The Healing Effects of Alumni in the Lives of Children in Foster Care

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is sharing some guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

By Helen Ramaglia, former youth in foster care

I had just returned from a conference in Orlando where I trained and empowered approximately 150 Florida foster/adoptive youth. As I sat back and digested the events that unexpectedly unfolded, I realized, it is I who learned the greatest lesson of all.

I was asking the children to give me their pain and they did, but it came with a very high price tag . . . my pain.

I’ve always felt a very strong need to return to help my brothers and sisters in care. The need was so strong that it would occasionally drive slight waves of depression. The task seemed so overwhelming that it merely became a far-fetched dream, or so I thought. However, this past year, I’ve come to believe in miracles and the vast impact of “someone who’s been there” on the lives of children in foster care.

There I was, setting up for day one of the conference with a colorful PowerPoint and a copy of “My Foster Success Journal” at the seat of every participant. I had them start with a chant – “I – Will – Succeed” – and the kids seem engaged, but in a ‘keep your distance’ sort of way. Regardless, they were having fun so far.

We continued to dissect the journal and the steps to success, but the further I went, the more I lost them. There was one point when I had to hush chatter at one table, and I starting to feel a little anxious.

I knew I had lost that moment of first impression, and was feeling a little beaten down. I was thankful when we got to the part where I was going to talk about my personal story. As I talked, I noticed the kids got quieter and quieter. They were finally listening to me again.

The kids were completely engaged, and as I spoke I saw tears well up in one girl’s eyes. I softened the blow, and that’s when the kids started questioning me.

I shared the part where I married three weeks before I aged out. One of the older guys piped up and said, “Oh, so you used him?”

I quickly responded with, “No, I was facing homelessness. In my eyes, it was either marriage, or homelessness.”

He replied back: “That doesn’t matter, you were still using him.” Of course I denied it and tried to redirect the path we were on by getting the kids to share their goals instead.

Only, they weren’t biting.

I hadn’t earned their trust, I hadn’t proven myself worthy yet, and they weren’t opening up no matter what I tried. Instead, they spent 20 minutes drilling me about my past. It felt as if I had just wandered into the middle of a cactus bush.

A foster child was holding me accountable for my actions, and I found myself offended and feeling a little attacked. Even though I could tell I had let the kids down, they proceeded to applaud loudly after I finished my session.

Afterwards, in the hallways, the kids didn’t even notice I was there. I was invisible to most of them.

I started asking the kids what they thought I could have done better. They seemed surprised that I asked their opinion, and I was surprised by what they had to say. I heard the same message over and over in several different ways.

But, the overall consensus was: Why share their pain with me if I wasn’t willing to share my pain with them? They said I had to earn their trust, their respect. They used the word “raw” and I started to get a little scared.

They were demanding I deliver the goods. They needed to know that I was going to be able to ‘understand’ their pain before they shared. Then, I remembered how I felt as a child in care. I could tell them all day how I felt, but I knew even if I did, they could never truly understand and I would just feel let down, again, and even more depressed because they wouldn’t be able to relate.

Then I would become afraid that if I did share, would I be able to add yet another piece of pain to my already heavy heart, or would that be the “one more” that might render me angry and dark for the rest of my life?

They had to know that sharing would be a healing moment and not just one more piece of devastation in their already traumatic lives.

So, the next day, the large conference room was split into two rooms and the youth were able to decide which session they wanted to participate in.

Their choices: more with Ms. Holding Back Helen, or Ms. Perky Merky with a fun cutesy title. Needless to say, most of the youth chose to go into Ms. Perky Merky’s classroom. I only had a handful in my class, but I was determined to deliver the goods and earn their respect and trust.

They had called me on the carpet and I was determined to give them everything I had. I asked them to huddle up, because we were going to get up close and personal.

I can tell you that I bled all over that room. I gave them all I had. We laughed together and we cried together. I watched as their eyes widened with horror as they looked at each other with open mouths. I even heard a few gasps off and on. At one point I opened my heart and they reached inside and took whatever they needed to to keep going. We danced the dance of pain together that day.

I noticed that the longer I talked, the bigger my class got. One left and I thought, oh great. But then he returned with another. This happened a few more times and my class got bigger and bigger. As the room filled, I felt stronger and stronger. I took their advice and I got real. I got raw and I shared everything I could in the time that we had.

When I finished there was no clap. What happened next will be forever ingrained in my heart. Every one of these wonderful, amazing kids came up and gave me a hug. I heard,

  • “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
  • “Thank you for sharing, now I know I can be someone special.”
  • “Thank you for getting real, I want to be you someday.”
  • “I needed that.”
  • “I promise you I will be that leader someday.”
  • “You give me hope.”

And the list goes on and on.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t walk down a hall without seeing the kids beaming and hearing “Hi Ms. Helen;” and they made sure I heard them.

They were full of pain, they knew it, and now they knew they need to get it out. They wanted to get it out. But they weren’t willing to share that pain with just anyone. How could they share their pain with me, if they didn’t think I could truly understand the depth of it?

Helen Ramaglia is a foster alumni who became a foster/adoptive parent. She is the founder and Director of Fostering Superstars, a Congressional Award Winner for her work with foster children and is the author of “From Foster to Fabulous,” She is a popular speaker, trainer, and advocate for foster children. www.fromfostertofabulous.com

 

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World Wide Wednesday – November 27, 2013

174337705It’s World Wide Wednesday! Here’s what’s happening the world of foster care and adoption around the web:

  • The number of adoptions from foster care has nearly doubled since the Adoptions and Safe Families Act was passed in 1997. Click here to read more.
  • In the November 2013 issue of NCFA’s Adoption Advocate, Lucas Daniel Boyce shares his story of being adopted out of foster care by his mother, Dorothy Boyce. Lucas, the author of Living Proof: From Foster Care to the White House and the NBA (2011) and the current Director of Business Development and Legislative Affairs for the Orlando Magic, relates his experiences as a transracial African-American adoptee and shares how adoption positively impacted and shaped his life.
  • Consider being a respite foster parent – Jean Northway tells you why.
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Violence Collaborative Group recently announced a new series of fact sheets created for parents whose children have been affected by domestic violence. The set of 10 fact sheets gets to the heart of the experiences and needs of these children and families, and offers education in support of their resilience and recovery.

Have news you’d like to share? Please post in our comments!

Home is a Place in Your Heart

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is sharing some guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

By Patricia P.

When my daughter, Amara, was seven, she helped me understand what home meant to a child. She said “home is the place you most want to be in the whole world. It’s a place in your heart.”

Wow! For a seven-year-old that statement might seem pretty impressive, but, you see, Amara’s mom makes her living talking to people around the country. And, for most of her life, Amara has traveled with me and is usually in the audience. I am also an advocate of emotional literacy; therefore, we often talk about feelings in our house. Amara also happens to be quite bright! I’m sure I’m biased, but her explanation was a blessing to me in so many ways.

As a professional who facilitates adult learning, it gave me language to share with other professionals who seek to heal and empower families. Children don’t often have a voice when a family is having problems. It is their behavior that draws all the attention. Professionals sometimes mistakenly believe that if the parents land on their feet after a family disruption, the children will be fine just because their acting-out behavior ceases. But, about six months later, the storm that was brewing inside their hearts comes forth! Children often lack the language to express their insecurities, their sense of loss and confusion. They just feel and act out or act in. Amara’s explanation helped share with my professional audience to care for a child’s heart when their family is having problems; there is pain that words can’t express.

As an adult who cares for and loves children, it gave me insight into the world of a child. They are so dependent on us adults for all the important things in life. Not just food, shelter and clothing, but peace. What we call peace of mind. A blessed assurance that someone who cares for me is looking out for me, is thinking about me, loving me. That is something you feel, not just do. We adults are so focused on meeting our responsibilities, doing what is expected, providing for our families. We might forget to feel them and feel for them. That really does make us vulnerable and dependent on someone else’s emotions. We don’t like that so much, we adults. But that is the world that children live in. They live on the edge of their adult’s emotions. Whether it’s their parents, a caregiver, teacher, coach, pastor, or relative, they grope for adult emotions to communicate their security, their sense of connection and identity. Children need to feel at home as well as be at home.

As an adoptive parent, it gave me a goal to aim for in Amara’s life. I always wanted to share my life with my own child. Since I was a social worker and a minister, I felt prepared to share my life with a child who was in need of a home. So I decided to adopt. And I wanted a girl child so I could show her how to be a strong woman. Making a home for a child, I discovered, is more than providing a place in space. It is more than providing food and clothing, kisses and a cool hand for a little fever. It is being there – when she needs me to be and how she needs me to be. Parenting Amara has made me a better person. She has taught me that parenting means giving her a part of me, not just my life. I no longer want to provide a home for Amara; I want to be home for her.

As her parent, it gave me love. Amara has asked several times over the years we’ve been together to see and spend time with her biological parents. Although I adopted her as an infant, I agreed to have ongoing contact with her biological parents and siblings. I knew before I adopted her that knowing her biological roots would be very important to her one day so I facilitated an ongoing relationship with her biological mother. We have had some great times together. Especially significant was when we spent an afternoon with her biological father for the first time. The look of joy on Amara’s face was worth all the effort it took to find him. He was wonderful, too. He hugged and thanked me for taking such good care of her. Having this open arrangement has worked well so far for us. It has been worth working through all my feelings of insecurities and her biological parents’ feelings of guilt and regret. And at the end of every visit, Amara has wanted to come back home with me.

As Amara explained to me, that place she calls home is her place inside my heart.

World Wide Wednesday – November 20, 2013

174337705It’s World Wide Wednesday! Here’s what’s happening the world of foster care and adoption around the web:

  • New resource on single parent adoption: This factsheet discusses some of the main issues to consider when making the decision to adopt as a single person. Topics covered include considerations that might affect the decision to adopt, such as support, finances, employment; the different types of adoption, including adoption from foster care, through intercountry adoption, and through private domestic adoption; working with an adoption agency; completing the adoption and making the adjustment in your home life; and bonding with your new child.
  • The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) produced adoption fact sheets for SPARC to help inform adoption community members and adoption advocates. The fact sheets, derived mostly from 2011 AFCARS data, have information about the number of waiting children, the length of time children spend in care, the race of waiting and adopted children, types of exits from foster care, Title IV-E payments, and more.
  • The University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare’s journal – CW360 – published a special Winter 2013 issue, “Trauma-Informed Child Welfare Practice.” It contains 24 short articles covering a range of research, practice and policy-related issues on the impact of traumatic stress on children and adolescents, working with foster and adoptive parents to help children heal, and trauma screening within the child welfare system.
  • Families around the country celebrate adoption during the month of November and Adoption Today has dedicated its November issue to celebrating those families. In addition, the issue features an exclusive interview with the State Department’s Ambassador Susan Jacobs, who gives an update on the current status of intercountry adoption.

Have news you’d like to share? Please post in our comments!

All One Family

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is sharing some guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

Ingrid Lawrence’s family story begins like a fairy tale – once upon a time. You might honestly be compelled to gather around this mother, grandmother and great-grandmother as she talks about how foster care and adoption formed the family she has and loves so much today.

“Let me start at the beginning of our marriage,” begins Ingrid, taking us to the year she married her husband, Frank – 1967. “As soon as we were married, we had a 14-year-old sister and a 16-year-old brother on Frank’s side to raise to adulthood. After being married for four months, we found out that we were going to have a baby of our own to add to this family. And this is how our life together started.”

Frank and Ingrid had two girls together – Jodie, now 44, and Candi, now 42– but the family would continue to grow both in love and in number.

“Through the years, we took in our relative’s children. Sometimes for the long term, sometimes for a short term. It was,” Ingrid observes happily “our path in life.”

The Lawrence home quickly became known as a safe and happy one by friends and relatives.

“When our own children were in their teens, we took in their friends,” Ingrid explains. “One girl in particular came over on a regular basis as she and her mother had violent fights. We were her safe house and we ended up getting our first foster care license so that we could keep her with us.”

That was in 1986 and the Lawrences haven’t looked back since.

“When our daughter and her friend turned 18, we continued in foster care and, a year later, we received into our home the most beautiful nine-month-old boy who no other foster parent would accept due to the extent of his illness. I had a bag full of medicine for him instead of a diaper bag whenever I went anywhere.”

Ingrid and Frank were immediately attached to Joseph, but, at the time, they were not encouraged to form such a meaningful bond.

“When he [Joseph] was three, we were told that, even with the TPR (termination of parental rights), we couldn’t adopt him because he is Native American and Frank and I were not. I knew that my husband had some Native American heritage, so I did a family tree. But we were still told that we wouldn’t be allowed to adopt Joseph. But, even though my worker told me I should, I never gave up believing that he would one day be ours.”

Ingrid was heartbroken when the time came for Joseph to leave her and Frank’s care. And understandably so – it was Ingrid who took Joseph to the doctor as often as three times a week. Even so, Ingrid and Frank prepared to be parted from Joseph.

“I bought him a bright purple outfit so that if he got separated from the worker on his flight back to the reservation where he was born, she could easily see him. The morning of the flight, our worker called to say that the tribe had given their consent for us to adopt. We were speechless – so excited and so happy!”

After they adopted Joseph, Frank and Ingrid continued to be foster parents. They were asked to adopt a few other of the children placed in their home, but the time was never right.

“We always felt that Joseph needed a lot of extra help, so we didn’t adopt,” Ingrid says. “But, when our son was seven, along came two little boys that weren’t to stay with us but a month. Needless to say, they are still here, almost eight years later, and we love all of them.”

Isaiah and Dion are now nine and eight, respectively. In addition, Frank and Ingrid are currently fostering two boys – one seven years old, the other five. They are Grandma and Grandpa to Skye, Jessica and Austin and are looking forward to taking part in the Wendy’s Wonderful Families program.

The Lawrence family is a diverse one, including many cultures and backgrounds; their children are Native American, African American, Caucasian and mixtures of those cultures and others. There are medical needs and emotional needs that demand to be considered and met. But to Ingrid, that just sweetens the pot.

“Special needs children seem to sneak their way into your heart and become so much a part of you,” she says. “Maybe that’s why they are called ‘special needs.’ One thing that I do know is that, to our children, ‘family’ is everything. It doesn’t matter if the household is mixed with four different nationalities or different needs. We are all one together – forever.”

World Wide Wednesday – November 13, 2013

174337705It’s World Wide Wednesday! Here’s what’s happening the world of foster care and adoption around the web:

  • Becoming Visible: This short video from the Stuart Foundation features the perspectives of teachers, social workers, and students to shine a light on the challenges foster youth face in school and the many opportunities for deeper collaboration between the education and child welfare systems to help students from foster care realize their potential.
  • Transition Planning for Youth With Disabilities From the Child Welfare System to Adulthood: A Guide for Youth
  • Transition Planning for Youth With Disabilities From the Child Welfare System to Adulthood: A Guide for Professionals
  • Transition Planning for Older Youth: A Guide for Local Teams (including, Appendix C: Questions about Transition Planning that Judges Should Ask at Review Hearings of Youth 16+)

Have news you’d like to share? Please post in our comments!

They Call Me Mama

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is sharing some guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

By Cindy H., foster and adoptive mom from Wisconsin

They call me “Mama.” I believe I was put on this earth to be their Mom. And though that statement may have become a cliché or conjure up images of a Hallmark card, I feel well qualified to redefine the sentiment. I find that I am more in touch with God, healthier, physically stronger (even at 3 a.m. walking colicky babies) and pure (even after changing diapers assembly-line-style), than any other time in my life because of my children.

I have been a business owner/President of a market research company, a preschool teacher, a ballet dancer and a college student (twice). I’ve known other careers and lifestyles. But the “job” I feel most at peace with has been the “job” of being a parent for the past 18 years. I am more comfortable being on the floor with my children playing, teaching and nurturing them than I am running deadlines for a business. And lately, because of the job title of “Mama,” I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve creatively pondered this notion of Nature vs. Nurture.

I am both a biological parent and an adoptive parent. And even as I write that last statement I cringe. Those are not titles that I normally use. I never let them pass through my mind, and I certainly never talk about them publicly. I have two biological children, three children who I have adopted and one I am fostering. After all this time, I find that I am blind to the diversity that lives in our family and my heart is definitely blind to the way my children entered my soul.

Recently, as I visited Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin for what seemed like the hundredth time in one week for my special needs (adopted) daughter, my mind was catapulted into dealing with those two titles: Adopted vs. Biological. While I was there, I was asked a million “family history” questions that I simply didn’t have the answers to.  My mind was forced to deal with the differences between my children as I tried to talk a doctor into seeing medically what I was feeling inside, while my daughter had entered into yet another health crisis.

My daughter entered my world, our family, and our hearts at four weeks old. I became her foster Mama, eventually her pre-adoptive Mama, and finally her “Mama.” I know that she was abandoned at birth and, at three, has undergone more surgical procedures to “make her better,” than most people will in a lifetime. She was initially released to us from the hospital after a surgery we were told would make her “all better.”  What started out as a sketchy medical history, three years later, has had many blanks filled in. But there are puzzle pieces still missing.

My daughter has had numerous, lengthy hospital stays during which I never left her side. She has gone through many inpatient/outpatient procedures and experienced various crises that have caused me to learn and employ nursing skills far beyond my comfort zone. All of this has given us a lot of time to get to know each other and to become completely trusting of one another. It has also given us a bond that is so strong that, at times, I forget that she didn’t grow inside me.

I feel her every pain, as if it comes from my own belly. I anticipate every health crisis before it presents itself to the doctors clinically. I advocate fiercely for her throughout each diagnosis, each prognosis, each treatment plan. And even though she is only three, she has become such a part of my life that it seems as if she has always been here with me.

In addition to my (adopted) 3-year-old daughter, I also have a 16-year-old (biological) daughter. She did grow inside me. I gave birth to her, nursed her and have watched her swiftly, without warning, grow to be a young woman. Unlike my (adopted) daughter, she has been blessed with excellent health. But as the years have flown by, I look back and remember how protective I’ve been of her. I see how intertwined our souls have always been, and how often, intuitively, she knows when I need her, and vise versa. The teen years have approached. I am proud of the quality moments I have stolen away from academics, sports and her peers that will allow me to keep our bond cemented.

I have birthed a daughter from my womb, and I have birthed a daughter from my heart. I have been blessed by Nature providing me with my 16-year-old angel, and I have been equally blessed by Nurture providing me with my near 3-year-old angel. I’m here to tell you that the emotions I feel for my two baby girls mirror each other significantly. I ask that you search inside your heart, and ponder the same.

Each of my six children has a place in my heart and holds a special place in my soul that makes them unique to my existence as “Mama.” Although each daughter has needed me in different ways, the power of our bond is similar. It’s unbreakable, it’s intuitive, it’s natural. So when the anesthesiologist comes out of surgery and comments, that my husband and I “made a beautiful daughter,” (he’s unaware she’s adopted), I have to stop for a moment and remember that God made her for us, in someone else’s body. And when a stranger stops me at the mall and tells me how much my baby girl “looks like my teenager,” I have to pause a second and remember that they are much alike, if not in looks, then in how much they are loved.

Nature vs. Nurture. Biological vs. Adopted. African American vs. Caucasian. I’m mute to the political correctness of the terms. I’m deaf to the sounds of the titles. I’m blind to the blatant differences of our appearances. My hope is for you to join me – release the clichés and just be Mama.