Saturday, April 7, 2018

the deepest well

I must begin this post by acknowledging the source of the title. The Deepest Well is a book published in 2018. It was written by Nadine Burke Harris, MD, and it has changed my life. For me, usually things that "change my life" are faith-oriented. This is not. However, I can certainly see the medical and social-emotional information in this book being used in a faith-based manner.

I bought this book for personal reasons. Several of my children (currently in and out of my home) and many of my students over the years have had experiences with childhood adversity. Plus, my own childhood was full of adversity. I thought I might learn something that would help me parent better or live better.

What I got was much bigger than that. When I started reading, I realized that this woman has made remarkable connections, well-backed by science, among many of the concerns of my entire life. My 30+ years as a teacher. My 30+ years as a parent. An adoptive parent. A foster parent. A step-parent. My 40+ years as a caring person trying to understand poverty, discrimination, trauma, and recovery. My 8+ years of friendship with a woman who has made it her life's work to interrupt the cycle of dysfunction among African and African American youth.  My 4+ years as a resident in the community of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, where the endemic struggles of Native Americans are apparent.

There are so many situations, both personal and professional, where I have wondered how someone got into the situation they're in or why they continue to respond in ways that are self-destructive. I've read broadly, listened even more broadly, and pondered for many hours trying to figure out how to help someone, especially a child, who is deeply traumatized by events in their life.

This book opens a new way of thinking about intractable problems. It suggests dealing with an underlying difficulty instead of the symptoms of that difficulty. In constructivist terms, it's a shift in paradigm.

The new paradigm builds our understanding of biological stress responses and how they can get hyper-triggered to the point that the stress response is dysfunctional. That dysfunction leads to illness in addition to dysfunctional behavior. By addressing the biological dysfunction, many of the consequences can be improved, or even reversed.

I know that our only hope is in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. He is the one who created human minds to inquire and search for ways to better our lives. I see in this book a way for Christians (and others) to to frame our understanding and to focus our desire to help our neighbors. I highly recommend that you read it.

Friday, March 9, 2018

YES, and

I have had the privilege of helping to raise nine children in my home. I have had the delight of teaching more than six hundred more! The story that follows is a truth taken from several experiences with several of those children. Please do not assign any part of this story to any particular child.

The silence was suspicious, as any parent would know. I found the toddler in the bathroom and asked, "Are you pooping your pants?" The "No!" came quickly, but the smell gave him away.

After I peeled his clothing off, he was standing there covered in poop. "Did you poop your pants?" I asked again, hoping to help him acknowledge the mistake so we could work on preventing it next time.

"No!" he wailed too loudly for the small space. It was a wail I had heard before... every time he did something wrong, actually.

click.

He was afraid. He was afraid that he wouldn't be loved anymore if he pooped his pants. He was afraid he wouldn't be safe anymore if he pooped his pants. His denial was self-preservation, in his mind.

So I said, "Yes, you pooped your pants...AND I love you!" I repeated this several times during the clean-up process. I even said it to his sister later that evening, "Yes, you skipped your chores...AND I love you!" I've said it to many children, many times, "Yes, you messed up... AND I love you!"

Can't you just imagine God looking at us lovingly while we are standing stark naked, covered in the poop of sin, denying that it's there? "Yes," He would say, "You are guilty of adultery...AND I love you!"  "Yes, you were selfish and unkind... AND I love you!" "Yes, you denied me... AND I love you!"

And we stand there, vulnerable and terrified, wailing, "NO! I didn't do it" when all God wants is to help us out of the mess we're in. We can't even SEE the sin, but God, seeing ALL of it, still says, "Yes, you sinned...AND I love you!"

God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to wash away all that poop. We are washed cleaner than the toddler after his shower/bath. What joy! No more stinky and filthy sin. BECAUSE God loved us when we were filthy (Romans 5:8). We can say, "Yes, I sinned. Praise God for washing me whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7)!"

Amen!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Uncomfortable

Early this morning, I answered the doorbell. It was a man I recognized, but didn't know well. I know he drinks. A lot. He didn't seem intoxicated this morning, so I opened the door to him and asked him how I could help him. He inquired if "Pastor" was home. I answered that he was busy. The man asked if I could make a sandwich for him; he was hungry. We've fed him (and many others) before; this is part of the mission here.

So, I made him a couple of bagels and some fruit and drink. He took them, said thanks, and headed on his way. If I'm completely honest, I have to admit I was glad to see him go. It's uncomfortable to spend time with people so different from myself.

Uncomfortable. That actually describes a lot of the mission work here. (And probably elsewhere as well!) Not in our comfort zone. Out of our normal. There is nowhere in the Bible that it tells us that life with God will be comfortable and easy. And it's not.

We serve God when we pick up students from the Jicarilla Apache Student Residence and bring them to church, despite the noise and chaos in the pews. We serve God when we welcome the families of our foster and adopted children into our home and family, despite the different traditions and habits of those families. It's kind of like marriage, we add a whole new family with every new foster or adopted child.

We serve God when we answer the door at midnight and feed, clothe, or transport someone in need. My husband serves God when he preaches the Gospel in a funeral to a gathered group of people who would never otherwise enter a church.

God calls us to the uncomfortable and He makes it easy. Maybe not easy to actually do, but easy to enter into because He is beside us. He calls us to minister to our neighbors... even our drunk neighbors. He calls us to care for the widows and orphans, not just our own families. God calls us to do His work here on Earth and he equips us to do it.

We never have to handle it alone. He is beside us as we foster someone else's children while they deal with the difficulties of life. He holds us while we include those elders in our daily life who do not have family to include them. He never leaves our sides when we invite an unpleasant stranger to join us at the meal table.

We, Christians, are each charged with being Jesus' hands and feet here and now. What is your call? How has God prepared and equipped you for it? He will be with you the entire way, uncomfortable or not. Take the first step and begin the journey to the unknown... you will go marvelous places with spectacular people!!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Who's To Blame?


There has been a lot of grief about the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Rightfully so. This is a horrific event that permanently changed everyone present and their families. Like Sandy Hook. Like Columbine. Like so many other places and times that it's almost commonplace.

I'm not writing this to rage about gun control. No matter which side of that argument you're on; I'm writing to you. I'm not writing this to say that a single person or multiple people failed. I'm writing to each of you. There is an issue here that is underlying so much of the dysfunction of our society, but we aren't addressing it anywhere I look.


As always, there is a lot of finger-pointing going on. Why didn't his parents get him help? Why didn't the school officials notice something wrong? Why do we have guns like these on our streets? Why didn't his friends (classmates/co-workers/etc) notice something off? All of these are responses to our overriding question in events like this: Who's to blame? Whose fault is it? Who can we put this on? 

Our society is to blame for our repeated tragedies of violence, for our increasing domestic violence incidents, for the increasing dysfunction of our families. We have systematically dismantled the mental health system in our nation, pushing the mentally ill into nursing homes, prisons, and onto their families.

I speak of this with personal experience and with knowledge that comes from many foster families and birth families that I know. Please do not apply any of these words to our current foster or adopted children; my examples are from real families, but not necessarily my family, and certainly not of our current foster children.

A woman posted this today in a foster care forum, "Can we talk about the shooting yesterday? Because I need to and I don't feel like I can say these things to people close to me who would persuade me to make different decisions based on my fears.

That young man reminds me a lot of my foster son (7 years old) I hope to adopt after TPR (termination of parental rights) is finalized. His eyes. His anger. His intense loss.  My heart is broken in a trillion pieces for that young man who killed so many yesterday. Why? Because I worry about the same thing for my son. I worry about another loss. I worry about the pain he holds inside. I worry about how much he hurts. I worry about dying. What if I died? What would happen to him? Would anyone love him like I love him? Would someone stand up to help him process his deep grief? Would someone fight tooth and nail like I have? And even more, is my passion for him and love enough to heal him? How can I give him enough?

That young man, he's our kids. Lost. Lonely. Hurting. Rejected. Angry. He's our babies. Keep fighting, mamas and daddies. They need us."

This hit home for many of the foster and adoptive parents I know. Even some birth families see themselves in this. I know families that have waited in the ER for weeks (yes, weeks!) to locate a bed in a psychiatric facility appropriate for their child. I know families that have traveled for hundreds of miles to transport their mentally ill child to the only open psychiatric bed in their entire state. In 1955, there were 339 psychiatric beds for every 100,000 people in the USA. In 2000, there were just 22. (Source: PBS Online’s “Timeline: Treatments for Mental Illness”.)

I am certainly an advocate for the "least restrictive environment" for the treatment of our special needs population. I would never advocate for limiting a mentally ill person's rights or freedom more than necessary for the treatment of their disease. However, when a teenager has to wait for months in a temporary mental health (?) facility (an ER, a hospital, a children's ward, etc) to finally receive the help he needs (IF it's received even then), there is something deeply wrong with our mental health services delivery. When the county or state social services refuse to locate appropriate services because of cost, there is a deep dysfunction affecting our families and our communities.

I know several families who are caring/have cared for their mentally ill children/teens... through death threats to the family... through suicide attempts... through attempted murder on their other children... while begging for help from every source. They are told things like, "There are no facilities that treat youth with such violent tendencies," (Hello?! You want my FAMILY to do that, then?) and "He doesn't fit the criteria for any of the available treatment programs" (So MAKE a program that can treat him!) or "There isn't funding for that intensive a program... If you can fund the treatment, he can go." (Seriously?! $12,000+ a month?!!)

These families love their troubled child. They advocate for her. They beg for help. They contact every social services organization, every possible doctor or therapist. They try every medication available. They accept intense physical abuse from their child. They receive condemnation from their neighbors, their extended families, their fellow churchgoers. "If only you would..." begins to trigger an internal scream that fills their heads.

These families often fear for their lives. They watch tragedies like the one in Florida and see their son's face on the killer. They don't dread the day a shooter comes into their child's school; they dread the day their child is the shooter. And they have nowhere to go for help. Access to high quality mental health care is essential, and they have nowhere to go.

Foster and adoptive families are particularly at risk for these parenting situations. The children they are raising have, by definition, come from trauma. Being separated from your parents is trauma, in and of itself. Many times, these same children deal with impairments from prenatal drug and/or alcohol exposure, making it even more difficult to deal with their issues. Often, there is a history of physical, emotional, verbal abuse. Even for those children who have "only" been neglected, there are lifelong ramifications.

And in the worst cases, Reactive Attachment Disorder robs children/teens of their ability to empathize in the most rudimentary ways, giving rise to severely mentally ill people. One parent said today, "We [must] treat RAD as the dangerous and terrible disorder that it is. It's difficult because they (the children) didn't ask to be abused and neglected. It doesn't change the danger factor though. There is little help, if any, and even if parents had hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at it, there are few success stories."

Most parents raising RAD kids don't have significant training in dealing with the mental illness. Most birth parents of children with mental illness don't have any training, either. But all parents should have access to quality mental health services when they need them for their child(ren). This is not the circumstance at this time in history! There is a dearth of high quality mental health services, and the programs that exist are beyond the financial reach of most private citizens.

So, what can you do? Here are a few things:

1. Advocate for the mentally ill and for services for them.
2. Support parents when they approach parenting differently than you. Many times, they are struggling with issues you cannot see, especially if they are foster or adoptive parents. Children with attachment issues must be parented differently. Love doesn't "fix it."
3. Don't make these public tragedies solely about gun control! Bring mental health care into the conversation. And do it again. And again. And. Again.
4. Educate yourself about Reactive Attachment Disorder, especially if you know foster/adoptive parents. Be prepared to offer words of encouragement instead of words of condemnation.
5. Pray with and for parents of challenging kids. Step up in your church and community to support foster parents and adoptive families. Ask them what they need.
6. Look into volunteering for NAMI or another mental illness support organization. They do some wonderful work! One family speaks of a "Crisis Support Team" (from NAMI) that came immediately when their teenager had a mental crisis. They walked the family through the immediate crisis and aided them in planning for the longer term.

Carry the conversation beyond gun control and into the realm of mental illness treatment. Thank you for your advocacy!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

No Time

This is a busy season of life for us. I'm teaching our 11-year-old at home, along with five Jicarilla kids, every day. We still have our two foster boys, ages 3 and 4, who attend Head Start. A day typically looks something like this:

Get up at 5:45 AM to walk. Take a shower. Get the boys up and dressed. Feed everyone breakfast. Take the boys to school, which starts at 8:00. Come home and get ready for the "big kids," who start coming at 8:45. Teach till 1:45. Students get picked up by 2:00, and then I leave to pick up the boys from Head Start. Come home, supervise play and make dinner. Play a bit, then give baths and read and pray. Rock the boys and sing songs. Come down to finish whatever chores need to be done, perhaps read a bit or play a game with our daughter. Read and pray with her, then tuck her in for the night. Relax for 20 minutes or so, then head upstairs ourselves for evening Bible study, prayer, and bed.

It's busy. There's no time for many things. From the arrival of the boys four months ago until about a week ago, I had no time for my daily walks.... Or should I say, I made no time for my daily walks.

See, the thing about being busy is that the time isn't gone, it's prioritized. Some things don't get done, but the essential things do get done. I almost always have time to eat, for example. And I usually get at least one round done on my "Words with Friends" games.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized that I hadn't been reading my Bible anymore. I was still reading with the boys at bedtime, with our 11 year old at her bedtime, and with my husband, but I wasn't doing any reading and study on my own. I know this is vital, essential, even. But it wasn't happening, so I started a new reading plan on my Bible app (I use You Version.) and made a decision to keep up with reading a chapter or two each day. Immediately, I began to notice my fatigue and attitude improve. I know this happens, but I still let myself get lazy every once-in-a-while and fall into bad habits.

I challenge you to look at your life right now. Are you making time for reading God's Word? Or are you making excuses (like I was) about how busy you are? Some seasons of life are busier than others, but no amount of "busy" should overtake our desire to seek God's will and read God's Word.

Now, I have my students here (on break right now) and the boys are here because Head Start is closed today. I probably need to get back to the busy life God has given me!

Have a blessed day!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

This is the Day

One of the first Bible verses I ever learned was Psalm 118:24: This is the day which the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. It is something I see every day, as we have a decorative sign with Psalm 118:24 at the foot of our stairs. And I try to live it, good day or bad.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Again I say rejoice! An echo of Philippians 4:4 also sings through my head when I think of rejoicing. Our God says to rejoice. Rejoice. In this day. Whatever is going on today. Whatever pain or heartache is passing through. Whatever inconvenience or obstacle is in our way. Whatever diagnosis or tragedy we're facing.

Rejoice. No matter what.

How can we rejoice when we're washing sheets in the middle of the night with a puking child in the wings? How can we rejoice when the van won't start and no other adult is home? How can we rejoice when our adult children call with more issues in their lives? How can we rejoice when the unthinkable happens: When news of our granddaughter's death or our grandson's cancer reaches us? When we are told that without a miracle, we won't live to see our children's graduations?

We rejoice because of the Gospel. God's Good News. God Almighty's assurance that we are loved, despite our sin. That Jesus Christ died in our place, so that we can be adopted as sons and daughters, accepted by a holy God.

So, today, as I dig out from a week of sickness, disappointment, anger and frustration surrounding me, I rejoice. In this day, which the Lord has given me. It's easy to rejoice in the sunshine days, but I rejoice today, as well.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Harder Than I Ever Knew

Someone recently asked me what fostering was like. I immediately said, "Foster care is harder than I ever knew. And the blessings are bigger than I ever guessed!"

Even just writing those words, I am almost in tears.

I am friends with many foster care parents around the nation, and in order to protect the privacy of my personal fostering situation, I am going to share my thoughts and feelings while using illustrations from many families' circumstances. Please do not take any illustration from this post and apply it to my personal situation or the personal situation of my foster sons' family! However, each of these illustrations is genuine and recent, from a fostering family whom I personally know.

Fostering children is an emotionally excruciating experience.

On the one hand, in order to care well for the children, a person must care about them. Love them, even. Especially with young children, they can't wait for love. They can't wait for someone to treasure them. They've already been through trauma, or they wouldn't be in foster care. Healing from trauma begins when they start to trust someone again. It takes time. It's not an easy, straight, or simple path.

On the other hand, you can't get "too attached." I'm not sure how a foster parent would avoid getting attached to their foster children, but the reality is (and the hope is) that the child(ren) will be leaving the foster home to return to their parents. I know of many foster parents who walk the tightrope of loving their foster children with the hope of adopting them and praying that the child(ren)'s family is successful in reuniting their family. What a difficult situation!

Sometimes a foster parent will sit, rocking a baby to sleep, and wonder at the love that flows through him/her for this child. And sometimes that same foster parent will leave a courtroom, crying at the knowledge that the same child will never again sleep under his/her roof. It's a roller coaster that is controlled by everyone except you!

I have found that foster parents almost always love their foster children's parents. Foster parents root for birth parents! They cheer them on. They talk about them positively with their foster children. They want the biological parents to succeed in their case plan, in their sobriety, in their quest to reunite their family. Obviously, there are cases of abuse so heinous that the foster family cannot be positive about birth family, but even in those cases, I know foster families find positives to say to their child about their birth families. I know one adoptive family who speaks of an unknown birth father, saying that "If he hadn't stepped up to claim you, you wouldn't have been enrolled in the tribe. And if you hadn't been enrolled in the tribe, we never would've met you!"

And because foster parents cheer on birth parents, it is extremely painful for the foster parents when the birth parents fail to show up for visits, get arrested for their fourth or fifth DUI, say hurtful things to the child(ren) during a visit, or disappear for weeks (or months) on end. It's painful because they care about the parents, and it's painful because the foster families deal with the fallout from the parents' failures. The questions from small children, "Where is my mom?" (The answer: "I don't know. I wish I did, but I don't. I do know that I am here, and I will stay here, and I will take care of you."). The tougher questions from older children, "Why doesn't my dad care enough to call me?" (The answer: "I don't know. I wish I could control his choices, but I can't. I do know that we love you and will take care of you for as long as you are here.") And the toughest questions, "Why does my dad drink so much?" or "Why is meth more important than we are?" (The tougher answer: "Addiction stinks, Sweetheart. It's very hard to make good choices when a person is addicted. I'm sorry addiction has taken your mom/dad.")

Foster parents deal with the aftermath of a visit where the child is told that the foster parents "are not your real family! You don't have to do what they say!" Foster parents deal with the aftermath of a planned visit where a parent does not show up. Sometimes, this is the fault of the parent. Sometimes, this is the fault of the system, which should be protecting children from these situations. Foster children come home confused, angry, and scared. They throw temper tantrums, steal, smear feces on walls, run away, and refuse to comply.

Being a foster parent is emotionally excruciating.

But the blessings! Oh, the blessings!

The foster family sometimes gets to see the child(ren)'s family remake itself into a healthy whole. And even if that doesn't happen, the foster family sometimes gets to transition into an adoptive family. And sometimes the adoptive family gets to maintain relationships with the birth family... in fact, sometimes the adoptive family and the birth family become one big family, which is such a blessing to the child!

Not to mention the day-to-day blessings of rocking a baby to sleep, of soothing an aching toddler, of watching foster children experience their first real Christmas, their first trip to the ocean, their first entirely new outfit...

Foster parenting is one of the toughest things I've ever done.

Foster parenting is one of the best things I've ever done.

It is a wild ride, with wide swings of emotion and expectation. I thank God for the opportunity to do this task, to fill this role, to be this foster mom. And I ask Him for the strength to hang on through the wild swings!