Our Family’s Struggle

Our family’s struggle and journey with adoption all began with a telephone call early in the morning of January 2, 1992. My sister-in-law was calling asking for help. Her grandson had been detained by Child Protective Services. This was the second of her grandchildren taken into protective custody in a year. The mother, Lisa*, is my husband’s niece. There was a rumor that Lisa, who was addicted to drugs, was about to lose parental rights to her older child whose foster parents wanted to adopt him. My husband suggested that we could adopt her baby if he wasn’t able to return to his biological parents.

I was apprehensive, not sure that I wanted to get involved. It was, after all, the kind of situation I dealt with in my job as a caseworker with Contra Costa Social Services Department. I also reminded my husband that the family had sabotaged our efforts to intervene with Lisa’s first child. Nevertheless, I agreed to pursue the placement.

Details and court dates were difficult to confirm because of confidentiality. My professional knowledge of the child welfare system and previous association with the county agency didn’t help. The grandmother (Lisa’s mother) confirmed the date and time of the court dependency hearing, and my husband and I made plans to travel to Southern California where the hearing would take place. We also wrote a letter to the court and social worker expressing our desire and intent to care for the new baby.

Becoming a Relative Caregiver

January 22, 1992, was my husband’s birthday, the day of the court hearing, and the day my son came into my life. Unlike the birth of my daughters, where there was time to plan and physical labor to endure, the arrival of my son occurred in an office surrounded by social workers and distraught parents and grandparents. Still, the moment this tiny baby boy was placed in my arms, my life changed forever. He looked so helpless and so small.

We took baby Joey* home, committed to helping his parents reunify, and ready to give him all the love and care he needed. I watched as Joey suffered through unpredictable tremors, as he came to recognize my touch and my voice, as my daughters and husband interacted with him, and I fell in love with him. Through all of this, however, I kept reminding myself that he had parents to who he would return someday.

I developed a ritual to protect myself from loving him too much (or so I thought). I took special care to always have his baby clothes clean and neatly folded in case the social worker called to tell me he was leaving.

We were careful to follow the visitation plan—flying to Southern California and back in one day, or driving down for the weekend. We also welcomed Joey’s mother, Lisa, to our home for overnight visits. We talked to her about the baby’s needs and all the wonderful things he was doing. We watched in disappointment as she propped the baby’s bottle instead of holding him to feed him and as she smoked in his presence. There were many areas where I felt Lisa did not use good judgment, and I couldn’t resist the natural temptation to step into the social worker role. I wrote down my observations and assessments and made note of all telephone calls, visits, and failed visits.

As the months came and went, it became clear to me that Lisa was not going to reunify with her son. She was missing her visits, she was not in treatment, and there was talk in the family that she was pregnant again. She knew we had fallen in love with her son, and our relationship with her and her parents began to deteriorate. I had become Joey’s mother, and I felt compelled to protect him.

The Court System Interferes

In October 1992, the judge ordered that Joey, who I now considered my son, be moved out of our home. When I read my detailed notes from the witness stand, I was accused of interfering with reunification. Representation by a private attorney proved to be of no use. The court ordered that Joey be placed in the county of his mother’s residence and that our family be excluded as potential caregivers.

When it was all said and done the parents and grandparents cried with us outside the courtroom as if they understood the pain we were going through and the pain they were about to inflict on our son. What happened to justice and doing what is in the child’s best interest? I wondered if this was a case of attorneys making decisions for their clients. I was overcome with guilt. Perhaps if we had a better relationship with my niece, this could have been prevented.

We tried everything we could to prevent Joey from being taken from us. We offered to move to Southern California, we promised to bring him for weekly visits, we tried to bargain our way out of our loss. Our church community, friends, and family offered their prayers and support. However, it was difficult for some of our extended family because this had become a struggle within the entire family.

Saying Goodbye

Despite our best efforts, the court stuck to its decision and granted us a few weeks to prepare for Joey’s move. The social worker was given the task of finding a foster home that would allow Joey’s biological parents to visit him twice a week. The plan was to take Joey to his new foster home after Thanksgiving.

There wasn’t much to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day as we privately wept in the midst of family and friends. Then God dealt us another loss when He “called my father-in-law home” the day after Thanksgiving. How would we survive the loss of a son and a father? We tried to negotiate a longer stay with my son but his mother and grandmother threatened us with a court order. Lisa, her other five children, and her parents came to the funeral and acted as if nothing was about to change. We greeted each other with hugs and kisses. I was angry but fearful to express it.

On December 1, 1992, within hours of burying my father-in-law, we packed Joey’s belongings and drove him to his new foster home. The pain and grief were like none we had ever experienced. Joey was happy and talkative, unaware of what was about to transpire. One by one we tearfully said good-bye to “my son” and promised him that we would be back soon. The foster mother comforted us and invited us to call and visit anytime.

We came back to the house as we had left it with a few Cheerios on the high chair and the crib with Joey’s sleeper still hanging over the side. I wouldn’t let anyone move the Cheerios, the high chair, or the crib for a long time. I had to hold on to my son’s presence.

Grieving Our Loss & Moving On

We began five long months of loss and renewed hope. As a family, we committed to remaining visible in Joey’s life–for his sake and ourselves. I called his foster mother every day, sometimes two or three times a day and we visited as often as possible. My husband and I made the first visit alone.

On December 1, we left behind a child that sang, babbled, danced, and took a few steps. On our first visit, we saw a different child. He sat stone-faced and speechless, staring into space. I held him, rocked him, told him I was sorry and that I loved him.

Seeing Joey so depressed motivated us, even more, to stay involved. For five months, on every other weekend, we drove to Southern California. We would arrive at the foster home around midnight on Friday, go into hiding for 48 hours, and not tell my mother-in-law that we were just minutes away, fearful that my niece would compete with us for time with our son.

After a few visits, Joey seemed to know that we would return and would crawl to the door or window as if he was waiting for our arrival. Every moment with him was precious, and leaving him was always painful. The drive home after the visits were strained and unpleasant as my husband and I blamed each other for the turn of events and grieved the loss of our son. I remember writing Joey’s biological mother a letter during this time wishing her well in her efforts for recovery and telling her I loved her son. I wanted her to know that I loved “our son” unconditionally and that I grieved for him.

The loss was especially difficult for my seven-year-old daughter. I was too preoccupied with my own self to recognize that she was in turmoil. She had forgotten that Joey was not our birth child and cried out one day that she knew we were planning to get rid of her as we had her little brother. We had to reassure my daughter that we were her parents and that we would not abandon her.

Another Turn of Events

On May 5, 1993, the jurisdictional court hearing finally took place, five months and four days after Joey had been taken from us. Throughout this time, I had remained in contact with the social worker, extended family, and the foster mother. I knew Joey’s parents had visited on only two occasions.

The judge admonished the parents for failing to visit and cooperate, set a date for termination of parental rights, and reversed the order preventing us from being caregivers. The parents’ attorneys objected and the matter was set for trial. We were ordered to cooperate with visits and to be available for subsequent hearings. I recall my husband asking, “What does that mean?” My response was, “We can take him home.”

This time, there was no anger outside the courtroom as we met with Joey’s biological parents and grandparents. They appeared resigned to the inevitable. What we didn’t know at the time was that Lisa had given birth at home to another baby three months before and that she was hiding the baby from social services. I wanted to hold my son and never let him go. The foster mother cried when we took him but acknowledged that this was best for Joey. The wait at the airport seemed like an eternity.

The Road to Permanency

Joey came home confused and frightened. He was not verbal and did not know how to express his anxiety, other than to unexpectedly arch his back and cry. We had five sets of arms in our home–my husband, my three daughters, and me–to hold him, console him, and rock him for hours. He gradually relaxed and developed into a very happy, outgoing, and affectionate child.

I believe he still has a fear of abandonment. He does not do well with unexpected changes and needs to be reassured about our return whenever we leave him. However, he is now almost seven years old and an absolute joy. He is bright, does well in school, loves to sing, and most importantly loves people and life. Every day I tell him God gave me a son to love. We talk about adoption in general terms as we are preparing to tell him his adoption story.

Our road to adoption was not difficult or prolonged. Joey’s birth mother was able to let go and acknowledge that her son did not know her and that he had a family that loved him and would take care of him. The agreement to allow us to adopt him took place away from attorneys and the court. We were outside the courtroom when my son fell and came to my arms for comfort while both of us, his two mothers, held out our arms. We cried together as Lisa was finally able to let go.

Months later, the grandparents began to communicate with us and express their feelings of frustration over the realization that their daughter had a serious addiction and that they had believed Lisa’s attempts to cover up the situation. They want a relationship with their grandson. The maternal grandmother has made it her mission in life, as all of Lisa’s children have entered the child welfare system, to know where every child is. Someday the siblings will meet and hopefully develop a relationship.

There are now ten children living with different paternal and maternal relatives, in long-term foster care, and adoptive homes. The maternal grandmother called about a year after the court hearing to ask for our forgiveness and to ask that we allow her to stay involved in our son’s life. Now she calls about three times a year and we take him by to see her whenever we are in the area.

A couple of years ago, my husband was approached by a relative who commented on how angry we must be at Lisa for putting us through so much grief. My husband responded by saying that there was no hate or anger because were it not for Lisa, we would not have this wonderful child to love.

We love Lisa and pray for her recovery. We see so many wonderful traits in our son that his biological mother and father gave him–his beautiful eyes, his outgoing personality, his love of music. We have had the privilege of nurturing him but we cannot take all the credit for the wonderful person he has become.

Conclusion

Living the experience with my son, foster care, and the court has changed my life forever. I can never go back to being an uninvolved social worker. The reality of what happens to a child who is removed from his parent and placed in multiple homes and the struggles of a drug-addicted parent is real. I have a new appreciation for foster parents and relatives that care for and fall in love with the children. I know that everything we do as social workers and caregivers impact children for their lifetime. I know that drugs took away the sweet lovable child in my niece but that in her heart, she still loves her children.

*Names have been changed.

Credits: © 2003 National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center

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