Breakthrough Moments

Leslie Jenkins

Leslie Jenkins, ASAP Therapist

I’ve been working with a young boy I’ll call John and his adoptive dad for the past several months. John and his dad always participate in therapeutic activities and do their best to apply our in-session training to real life, which is not always easy. John’s dad continued to express his skepticism, however, as we explored the residual effects of trauma, including the very real self-worth and esteem issues faced by many children who have experienced trauma.

One of the skills I’ve learned throughout my experience as a therapist is to pay close attention to the body language of others. This indicator keys me into Dad’s response to our work together surrounding these discussions. As John continued to strengthen his communication skills and improve his ability to share his feelings with Dad, I watched their relationship continue to strengthen.

Last week as we sat together at the table during our family session, John turned to his Dad, looked into his eyes, and revealed to him that sometimes, no matter what, he just doesn’t feel “good enough”. I watched Dad receive this message and finally connect all our learning together. These breakthrough moments are what I live for! They are so rewarding and usually come so unexpectedly. What a special privilege to have the opportunity to impact the lives of children and their families.

Published on October 05, 2015 by .
Posted in Adoption, Attachment, Family

Claiming

Kim Liberatore

Kim Liberatore, ASAP Family Therapist

As Family Preservation Counselors in the ASAP program, we work with children and teenagers adopted from the state foster care system. Almost every one of our clients experienced significant trauma before being removed from his or her birth family and placed into foster care. Their stories of horrific abuse and unthinkable neglect would likely shock most people.

Yet, as devastating as these events are, time after time, when conducting trauma assessments, I have noticed that a majority of children continue to cite their most traumatic experience as being in foster care, or changing homes so many times.

For children in foster care, everything in life is temporary, conditional, and unknown. Each placement could be the last, or it could be just another stop in a long and sad journey that no child should ever have to endure. The unspoken message is: You can live here, as long as you act a certain way. You are staying with these people for now, but you will probably have to move. You will be taken care of, but we don’t really know where you belong yet. In adoption, we say, every day a child is in custody is a day of childhood lost. Given these circumstances, it makes sense that the transient and unpredictable life of a foster child is what is often most traumatizing to that child. And that is why one of the most profound and important missions that adoptive families have is the idea of claiming a child. Claiming is the process by which adoptive families embrace a child as a full-fledged member of the family.

Adoptive parents have many different ways of outwardly making a child feel claimed. Finalizing an adoption and giving the child the adoptive family’s last name is the primary act of claiming in the adoption journey. Since parents who adopt from foster care weren’t able to name their child at birth, sometimes they give the child a new middle name, which is often a name that carries a special meaning to them. Adoptive families may take new family photos to ensure that their child is included in the pictures or they may decorate the child’s room in a more personal way. They might begin to celebrate the child’s adoption anniversary, or “gotcha day,” to emphasize the importance of the day the child joined the family. They will certainly begin calling the child my son or my daughter, and will eagerly anticipate the day that their child returns this sign of claiming by calling them mom or dad.

Most of all, though, the concept of claiming is achieved not through a series of actions, but from the way adoptive families surround their children with a sense of commitment, security, and belonging. Feeling claimed means that a child feels included, accepted, and loved in a permanent way. There is no caveat or clarifying adjective. They are not a foster child; they are simply, someone’s child.

When a child feels claimed, the unspoken message of adoption becomes this: “For better or worse, you are one of us. No matter what, you can never not be one of us ever again. Our lives are now inextricably interwoven, and thus, what affects you affects us, too. We are your people. With us, always, you belong.”

Published on September 10, 2015 by .
Posted in Adoption, Attachment, Family

Back to School

Evelyn Wilcox

Evelyn Wilcox, Communications and Grant Development Coordinator

It’s that time of year – children will be going back to school. Imagine you are changing to a new school – for the 12th time.

For many children and youth in foster care, a new school year becomes another traumatic experience: moving to a new foster care placement often means changing schools – again.
With every move, children are estimated to lose four to six months of academic progress, falling farther and farther behind. Only 50 percent of children and youth in foster care complete high school by age eighteen.

Jimmy could have shared that fate. His story, as reported in Atlantic magazine by Jessica Lahey, begins when twelve-year old Jimmy was abandoned by his parents and entered foster care. Over the next two years in the foster care system, he attended twelve different schools. Jimmy doesn’t remember learning anything in school after fifth grade – he was thinking about what he was going to eat that day or where he would live.

At age sixteen, Jimmy’s life was transformed. An older couple, who saw how desperate he was for a stable home and an education, became his foster family. He lived with them for the next six years, and they gave him the stability he needed. “It wasn’t until I had a stable home and was taken in by a loving family in tenth grade that I was able to hear anything, to learn anything” said Jimmy. “When I was finally in one place for a while, going to the same school, everything changed. Even my handwriting improved. I could focus. I was finally able to learn.”

Jimmy Wayne finished high school and college and launched a successful country music career. In 2010, Jimmy walked halfway across America to raise awareness for kids aging out of the system, and in 2012, he advocated for passage of the bill that extends the age of foster care in Tennessee to twenty-one.

Harmony is finding homes for young people like Jimmy who have given up hope of finding a safe, loving family. You can find out more at Harmony’s new Parent a Child Website (parentachild.org), which features stories and videos of Tennessee children/youth in foster care whose greatest wish is a forever family – the love and support that can transform their future.

Published on August 11, 2015 by .
Posted in Adoption, Family

Making a Difference

Kim Halbert

Kim Halbert, Harmony Parent Education & Training Specialist

I am sitting in the small eat-in kitchen with the mother/step-grandmother of three children in rural Campbell County. The children are in and out of the kitchen eating sandwiches and chips. The two little boys, ages 3 and 5, have been placed with their grandparents by the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) because their mother is a meth addict and unable to care for her children. The boys are precious. The three year old has now seen me 3 times and he is curious but more interested in his snacks, cartoons, and his new light up shoes. This is my first visit with the five year old. His birthday is the next day and he tells me about it. I ask him if he will have birthday cake and he informs me he already has a cake with a spider on it. The children rush me over to the fridge and open the door. There is a Halloween cake with a big spider and web. He grins and the little girl says they will also have ice cream. The children squeal with excitement. The grandmother then says his parents will be visiting him on his birthday. He smiles again. I go back to the table as the home study forms are being passed between me and the grandmother and then it happens. Such an unexpected and spontaneous gesture. A hug. The five year old walks over to my side, slips his arm around my neck with his head barely touching mine. I felt it was like he knew I was there to help him and his brother remain in this safe, loving home. A loving home where he is given permission to miss and love his parents. A home where turning 6 is the biggest deal in the world. A hug so sweet and gentle. He didn’t know how good he made me feel. He didn’t know how this simple hug gave me affirmation that we do make a difference in children’s lives.

Published on October 15, 2014 by .
Posted in Adoption, Advocacy and Support

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

Pam Frye

Pam Frye, Chief Program Officer

There must be hundreds of quotations about life being a journey that we should appreciate, because the journey is what’s really important after all. My favorite comes from my buddy Bart Simpson. Setting out on a road trip, Marge and Homer are barely out of the driveway when the kids begin asking: are we there yet?

Harmony’s decision to purchase and renovate Montvale has taught us a lot about patience and enjoying the journey. Has it happened as quickly as we have wanted? No. Are things unfolding differently than we originally thought? Absolutely! Yet I cannot help but be filled with hope and anticipation as I see the progress at Montvale. Are we there yet? No. But it’s an exciting journey.

Published on September 25, 2014 by .
Posted in Adoption, Advocacy and Support

The Holidays Are Right Around the Corner

Elizabeth Carroll

Elizabeth Carroll, Chief Administrative Officer

It happens this time every year. The kids are back in school, the morning air turns crisp, the store shelves begin to morph, and some are already having brief thoughts of everything pumpkin, apple cinnamon spice, turkey and tinsel. Some have those thoughts because of fond holiday memories made in years past and the anticipation of holiday joy to come.

For some children in Tennessee, however, brief thoughts of the holidays bring nothing but dread and anxiety. For these children, the holidays are but a reminder that they do not have a safe or healthy home. For some it’s a reminder that they have no place at all to call home.

In my career I have heard numerous stories of pain and sadness. Here are some related to the holidays specifically.

  • A 15 year-old boy, from one of the roughest streets in Memphis, standing before a Juvenile Court Judge a few days before Christmas begging, pleading, and sobbing to be placed, yet again, in juvenile detention (jail for kids alongside the roughest of sorts) so that he would not have to return home. Anything was better than going home. He was a repeat violator of his probation simply to avoid going home.
  • A 4 year-old girl, staying at a homeless shelter with her mother, casually passed a small, well-lit Christmas tree, and her eyes widened with pure astonishment. She began asking basic questions about the tree and the few wrapped boxes underneath. It became clear that she had never been exposed to anything holiday related because of the hold drug abuse had on her family. The family had recently sold a hand-me-down bicycle, likely given to the family as a Christmas gift, for drug money.
  • A 16 year-old girl, who for most of her childhood chronically bounced between foster and group homes before aging out of foster care with no place to call home, shared with the saddest of faces that the holidays were nothing special in her group home. Maybe, she recalled, there had been a special dinner along with a couple of presents from strangers, but mainly she remembered the usual fist fights in the hallways and keeping to herself in her room.

While these and many similar stories are truly heartbreaking, there are also many stories of success and joy!

No matter our personal beliefs or holiday practices, the holiday season is truly “right around the corner”. The holidays always sneak up on us. With some forethought and planning this year, I challenge us to assess how we might engage more deeply with the hurting around us and be a part of a success story. We don’t have to look far to find someone who could use a smile, a kind word, or even long lasting friendship, leadership, guidance – even a forever home.

There are kids in TN who long to engage deeply. There are kids who long for their thoughts of the holidays to be joyful and filled with anticipation of memories to be made. What can you do? If you need a place to start, please call us at Harmony Family Center. We have numerous possible ways you can engage the world more deeply and bring joy to hurting kids this holiday season. My experience has been that engagement in one’s life is by far one of the best gifts to be given at the holidays.

Published on October 02, 2013 by .
Posted in Adoption, Advocacy and Support

It’s a Lot Like Falling In Love

Pam Frye

Pam Frye, Chief Program Officer

In the adoption world the word attachment is used frequently. With a quick Google search, I found this definition of attachment. “The formation by a child of significant and stable emotional connections with the significant people in its life. This process begins in early infancy as the child bonds with one or more primary caregivers. A failure by a child to establish these types of important connections before the age of about five years may result in the child experiencing difficulties with a wide variety of social relationships for significant periods of time in its life.” One of the things that has always bothered me is that in adoption literature “attachment” is most always what the child feels towards the parent, not what the parents feel toward the child. Common sense tells us that any relationship is a two way street. It’s that way in adoption too. Another thing that has bothered me is that we adoption professionals often discount or under-value the role that chemistry plays in attachment. It is a lot like romantic relationships. Sometimes two people just “dig” each other. Pardon the 70’s expression but I cannot think of a better term to describe it.

Today I picked my eleven year old daughter up at her school after a weeklong trip to the Tremont Institute in the Great Smokey Mountains. I have been a wreck this week missing her like she had been gone for a month. I was so excited to see her and hear about her trip. We have never gone five days without at least being able to talk to each other. I was giddy with excitement as I stood with the other 100 plus parents waiting for their kids to get off of the school bus. I thought to myself “Did they miss their kids as much as I did?” and “Do people who give birth to children love their kids this much?”

It reminded me of a conversation that I had ten years ago. A few months after I returned from China with my daughter one of my former co-workers asked me “What does it feel like to be a mother?” This is what I said “Leigh Ann have you ever been in love?” She said “Yes”. I said “Do you remember that feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re newly in love?” She said “Yes” and I told her “That’s what it feels like. It’s a lot like falling in love.”

Published on April 04, 2013 by .
Posted in Adoption, Attachment

Resiliency Required

Jessica Bailey

Jessica Bailey, Adoption Services Assistant/ASAP Intake Coordinator

As I work day in and day out not only with potential adoptive parents, but also with parents who have adopted children who need counseling, I have noticed there is one characteristic that is often shared among them: Resiliency. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines resilience as, “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” It takes more than just a casual thought to become an adoptive parent. One must become open to criticism from the authorities who place the children, as well as the state and federal governments here in this country, just to bring a child home from another country for an international adoption. In the case of domestic adoption, would-be parents have a different set of trials they must endure, such as waiting for a sometimes long and exasperating period of time just to match with a birth mother, and then meeting their potential newborn child at a hospital still unsure of whether that child will get to be theirs permanently or not. It isn’t always a smooth or seamless process for either party, because people are unpredictable. Many stories end happily with the formation of a forever family, but what most people don’t get to see is the process of bringing those two parties together and the work that it takes to make it happen.

The parents of an adopted child will always have to fight for this child, whether from the beginning of the child’s life or from the point where the child is taken into their home, as is the case with many children who are adopted from the state foster care system. These children are defenseless and are worth fighting for; it goes without saying. But the adoptive parents must be resilient in order to finish the race – able to fight the fatigue and impatience of a long wait, able to endure the process of filling out forms and talking about their entire lives to virtual strangers, able to have peace and to know that their child will come, for those who are waiting to be matched, or that their child will improve, if they are in counseling because of the child’s abusive past. Adopted children gain so much more from parents who are adaptable, who see the children for who they are and are willing to help them become all they can be, as opposed to having rigid expectations of what children are “supposed” to be. Many of these children come home with a history that would make most adults cry. It isn’t easy for them, but the beautiful thing about children is that they are always willing to open back up to love. Some of them may not know how to go about it in a healthy fashion, but the motivation is still there nonetheless. It may need a little coaxing from a trained professional, but it is absolutely there. The human spirit is virtually impossible to break. I talk with parents every day about their children. The more adoptions I see take place, the more I am convinced that there will always be hope for future generations thanks to a select group of people in the world who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that a child who was once without a parent or a home will always have a loving, secure and nurturing home to grow up in. The world is not as ugly a place when you witness the power of resilient parents moving heaven and earth for their child. It is a beautiful thing, indeed.

Published on March 06, 2013 by .
Posted in Adoption, Advocacy and Support

Healing Through Bonding

Leslie Jenkins

Leslie Jenkins, ASAP Therapist

As I sat at our first family camp watching the teens and younger children bonding through play, I was struck by the camp’s healing powers. There were kids from various backgrounds, ages, and abilities, but through their shared experience of adoption they were all able to relate and connect. I was impressed by their ability to create a game with no direction from adults and few accessories. They seemed at ease with one another, interacted well with each other, and made sure no one was excluded. I watched an older brother who never cuts his younger brother any slack give up his ping pong paddle so his brother could have a turn. I was also told by an older teen how important it is to enjoy the simple things in life. What a humbling experience just to be present and observe the amazing insights and changes taking place in children who are usually reliant on TV and video games for entertainment. Family camp really did make history for all the campers and staff present, and it demonstrated how much progress can take place in a weekend. It also renewed my dedication to providing support and treatment to all our ASAP families so that they can reach their full potential.

Published on February 20, 2013 by .
Posted in Adoption, Healing

Life Through the Eyes of a Child

Tina Graves

Tina Graves, FOCUS Regional Case Consultant

It is difficult to see the world through the eyes of a child who have spent a large part of their childhood in ‘custody’. We wonder why they look at us and say “I don’t want to be adopted”. The lack of family, relationships and connections is so foreign to the majority of us.

“David” has spent the last two and a half years in custody. He is now 15 years old and was resigned to the fact that he would turn 18 in state custody. “David” acted out in many ways at home and school. Although he has resided in the same foster home for the last year, he has continued to push his foster parents away too. “David” was adopted as an infant and was surrendered by his adoptive parents to the state. Therefore, he has experienced a lot of loss. “David” definitely had the attitude of “I am not going to let anyone else reject me”.

The last couple of months “David’s” behavior has improved. He is doing much better in school and may even get to return to public school. He has also changed a lot of his behaviors in the home and has started to act more like a family member. His foster parents have not committed to adoption because “David” is not sure about adoption.

During a recent adoption event a young lady who aged out of custody spoke and told her story of not wanting to be adopted. She continued with saying she was asked about adoption once, told them no and it was never mentioned again. She stated she now wishes she had that family to spend holidays with and just a place to call home. “David” and his foster parents were at this event. As tears spilled into her eyes the foster mother looked at some of “David’s” team standing there with her and stated “Not my son”! This was the moment that “David” and his foster parents made that verbal commitment to adoption. Although looking at all of their faces, adoption had already taken place in their hearts. They were already a family and just needed that extra push to make things legal.

It is hard to understand why a lot of our children say no to adoption. Looking at life through their eyes reveals rejection, heartache and loss. Why would anyone want to go through that again? But our children do want family. Our children want to trust, love and be loved. We just need faith and to continue advocating and fighting for what is right and what they deserve. Don’t take no to adoption as the final answer. Things are forever changing.

Published on January 08, 2013 by .
Posted in Adoption