You’ve heard the horror stories and seen the pictures of what bad residential treatment centers look like. For every happy adoption story, you hear four negative ones with not-so-happy endings.

The media does nothing but exacerbate that stereotype. Story after story of “poor, sweet, innocent children sent away due to no fault of their own” makes good headlines. Outrage is easy to come by, and self-righteousness is the easy payoff. Who doesn’t get outraged hearing kids are rejected because their so-called parents don’t want them anymore?

And lest you think I am casting stones in my glass house, let me reassure you, I was every part the righteous decrier of residential treatment. Children need homes and parents should do whatever they can to keep them in their homes. That was my line of thinking and I held tight to it throughout a frankly horrifying amount of time. 

We had a child living in our home that I could not help. We tried. We installed cameras, had family meetings, hired special counselors–you name it. We wanted this kid to be ours and we wanted him to be successful. I suppose we could have been if I had a live-in behavioral specialist, but I’m still not sure that would have helped.

He eventually exited our home after a truly horrifying event that put the entire family in danger. Between the violent behavior and threats toward other family members, I couldn’t, in good faith, imagine trying any longer to make things work. 

So, after three months of trying to make it work, if not for me, for my other daughters who were his biological sisters, we raised the white flag. I had exhausted every option at my disposal and I could not guarantee I could keep everyone in our home safe. He was 9 years old. 

He ended up at a residential treatment facility for a month while they waited for a step-down facility that could keep him long term. Ultimately, it ended up being the best thing for him. I had begun to resent his constant outbursts of violent behavior and found myself cringing when he raised his voice. I can’t count the number of times I needed to lock myself and my littles in a room with me as he verbally and physically tried to attack us through the door. 

I can still feel the dread that would settle into my chest as I woke up in the morning knowing It was time to prepare for another battle. The screaming, crying, and tantrums were out of control. I tried so hard to not fail him. I tried so hard to love him through his struggles. In the end, the fear I felt whenever he was near another one of my kids was unbearable. 

So we made the hard call and after almost a day and a half waiting for a bed in a facility, he went from being our pre-adoptive placement, foster son to a ward of the state. To say I felt guilty, ashamed, and so broken over the decision is an understatement. To this day, five years later, I still cry over that choice sometimes. 

I know we did the best we could given the circumstances. I am certain he is with a family that loves and adores him like I never got the chance to. It worked out. For that, I will be eternally thankful. I’m so glad he found a family to adopt him. But I also hate that I couldn’t handle it. I wanted to be the mom that stayed, not the foster mom that couldn’t handle him. 

So what was the deciding factor for us? When was it time to start thinking we weren’t equipped to handle the behavior of this particular child? It was one dangerous incident. We felt like we had to have a line somewhere of things we wouldn’t let our other kids be exposed to. To be honest, it wasn’t even something I would have considered before. But we made a bad decision.

I should have seen the signs that he wasn’t thriving and that he was affecting all of the other children in a very negative way. At the first caseworker meeting, I should have said I was so sorry, but they needed to find another placement for him. Even if it meant them taking the girls we desperately wanted to adopt so they could all three be adopted together. Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case. I’m glad the girls, at least, cloud stay. 

Because I am stubborn, this scenario happened again. This time, it was with another child in my home that had been there for years. We found out he had been hurting the youngest three who were too afraid to say anything. We tried to work with him. We wanted for him to be able to come home. It wasn’t meant to be. He is 18 in a few months and he will have been out of our home for more years than he was with us. 

I wish I had recognized my inability to be the best place for those two children. I wish for a second I could have put down my self-righteous opinions about asking for help or residential treatment centers and gotten help for them sooner. 

So, when is it time to think about residential treatment? Much sooner than I did for sure. Here are some questions to think about. 

  • Do you find yourself unable to keep everyone safe?
  • Is the child is experiencing hallucinations?
  • Is the child making violent threats? Does the child behave violently?

Residential treatment doesn’t mean they’ll never come home. For us, it did–but those were extenuating circumstances. For many families, residential treatment helps their child and family. It deepens the bond that had previously been fractured. 

Don’t be like me. There is no shame in saying you can’t handle an extremely traumatized child on your own. She may need help you are unable to provide yourself. That isn’t your fault nor is it a defect of your character.