Peter A. Kenny's Adoption and Foster Care Law Blog

The Non-responsive Child

August 14, 2018

“We have had our five-year-old foster daughter for six months and are hoping to adopt her. She causes no trouble but is like a shy little mouse with few words and big eyes.  How can we break through and communicate with her?”

A wonderful question about the attitude of many foster children. As parents, we are baffled by the quiet ones.  What are they thinking?  Are they scared?  Sullen?  Overcompliant? Being careful? They won’t tell us.

Here are a few hints to reach past that wall. Most important, you need to start where she is, not with what you would like her to be and do.  Try using her less-verbal method of communication. 

Listen with your third ear.  Observe what appears to interest her. Sit with her while she watches TV or listens to music. Invite her to sing you a favorite song. Ask her to show you how to play her digital games. Play games with her that she selects.

Do things with her. Common tasks are a good way to communicate without the need for many words.  Eat and do chores together. Perhaps she can set the table for dinner.  Pick up and clean a room with her.  Share an exercise routine with her. Welcome any innovations she suggests to the routines. 

Take advantage of moments with emotional overtones. Pets provide many opportunities for loving physical contact. Don’t be afraid to show your own positive and upset feelings.  It’s okay for adults to laugh and jump for joy at a happy surprise. And to cry when sad or hurt. 

Even shy passive children misbehave, most often by delaying or failing to perform a task.  Avoid lecturing and discipline that punishes or isolates her. Instead, get the task done with minimum fuss.  If after being told several times, she fails to bathe or dress herself, do it for her. If she does not come when called, go and collect her. Nagging takes time and provides too much attention for the behavior you are trying to correct.

And finally, bedtime offers a rare private moment to be together.  Read your daughter a story.  Let her pick.  Or tell her one from your own childhood.

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The Exception Proves the Rule

July 31, 2018

Frequently at foster parent gatherings the organizers will trot out a young man or woman who grew up in foster care and is now educated and successful in a career as a teacher, writer, or in another productive field.

Like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, this poster child has beaten the odds.  The fact that we introduce him at all indicated that this is an unusual person.  And to become this unusual person, like Jackie Robinson, the foster child needed extraordinary talent, tremendous drive, and a good bit of luck.  Rarely do all those elements come together in one person.  For most in similar situations, whether a young black baseball player in the 1940s or foster children at any time, the cards are so thoroughly stacked against them that their best effort will not bring them success in their field of choice, but only setbacks and discouragement.  The exception proves the rule.

Much more common is the difficult child, a work in process.  He or she needs constant encouragement, monitoring, second chances, protection from life-changing mistakes, the freedom to make small ones. 

Foster children are family temps
Shuffled and shunted from home to home
Often passed along by time to graduation into independent living
Their feelings flatlined and neutered by society’s unconcern
No surprise that they strike back in dispassionate anger
Offending a society that has not befriended them

Foster parents need patience and consistency.  Go slow. Accept small gains. Don’t expect miracles. Like nursing a stunted plant or a bedraggled flower to health, look forward to the joy of restoring harmony to a life adrift without a base.  

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Family Helpers

July 27, 2018

Five-year-olds and up are capable of learning and performing several household chores. 

Enlisting your foster or newly-adopted child as a family helper has two significant advantages.  First, their self-image may be improved by being encouraged to contribute a simple but important effort. And second, chores are a good way to integrate him or her into the everyday life of your family.  The clear but quiet message: You are truly one of us. You belong.

What tasks may be assigned depend upon the needs of the family and the age of the child. The overall principle is to keep the tasks simple and short. At the same time, chores need not be mere busy work.  Use them to teach basic abilities. Learning to organize and clean and prepare for meals and cook can provide lifetime skills.  

You might ask your child to clean up his or her room once or twice a week. Set a specific day and time with a deadline. Make a brief performance chart with three or four sub-tasks.  For example; 1. Make bed.  2. Pick up floor.  3. Dirty clothes in basket. 4. Clean clothes put away.

Take time to monitor and set a deadline. Try not to nag. Provide a token reward if the room is cleaned on time.  If not, clean the room together with your child but without a reward. Rewards should be real, immediate, and appreciated.  They might include a sweet or food treat or a small but special privilege. 

Helping out at suppertime provides another good opportunity. Setting the table with plates and silverware nightly or on certain nights is an easy but important job. Again, don’t keep reminding your child.  Tell him or her once or twice. Then do it yourself without comment, but also without any small reward. 

Another suppertime task might be to work together as you and your child prepare one food item.  Dessert is a popular place to start. If your child is enthusiastic, this might lead to teaching him or her other cooking skills. It can be a good feeling to help prepare meals for one’s new family.

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The Termination of Parental Rights

July 17, 2018

“We have had our foster child for almost two years and nothing seems to be happening.  Mother makes a little progress and then relapses.  How long will this go on?  When does the state give up on reunification and look for another permanent home?”

A good question, one that concerns many of us.  While there are strong understandable reasons to maintain the birth family if it all possible, at some point, the child’s right to grow up in a permanent home becomes primary.  The federal Adoption and Safe families Act (ASFA, 1997) has set some wise deadlines based on child development studies. In order to receive federal funding, state laws must generally follow suit.

Reunification is the first choice but another permanency plan can be substituted as early as three months in unusually negative circumstances. At the other end, in the words of a former Indiana Child Welfare Director, “One year is a long time in the life of a child. In third grade, it’s a long time till lunch.” The state is required to file for a termination of parental rights (TPR) after the child has been in temporary care for 12 months, or 15 of the past 22 months.  

Foster children in Indiana spend an average of 20 months in foster care. Our average is well above the maximum time that research suggests is safe for any child to spend in temporary care.  Why so long? 

I could give many reasons for the delay, beginning with a shortage of caseworkers to enforce the law.  Add to that, a tendency to give birth mother time initially to work out problems on her own. Underlying this is a strong bias that a genetic parent always has a prior right, that the child “belongs” to the parent. The legal timelines are there to protect the right of a developing child to placement in a safe and permanent home within “child time.”

The best strategy to shorten time in foster care is for the Department of Child Services (DCS) to start immediately. They can have a reunification plan within 24 hours of removing the child. It’s not complicated. The plan should state clearly the reasons for removal and counter them with practical remedies.  Then monitor compliance weekly. Everyone benefits. Mother knows immediately what she has to do to get her child back. And DCS knows sooner rather than later whether the plan is working. Childhood is too short to delay.

How can foster parents help?  By being aware of the timelines and working together with the caseworkers, CASAs, and court system to move things along.

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