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.
As the videographer for Harmony’s In My Own Words video project, I found these three attributes where I had least expected – in kids who had suffered more trauma in their young lives than most adults can even comprehend.
Harmony developed the video project to allow children in the state welfare system – who are longing for a “real” family – to tell their own stories themselves. The videos, which are posted on the Parent a Child website, are intended to serve as each child’s introduction to prospective families.
I was not sure what to expect. How would kids who had been powerless – with no control over the traumatic events of their lives- respond to the challenge of telling their own stories?
This is what I found: The heroic spirit of the child who shared his story with painful honesty – his mother had simply walked away from him – leaving the 3-year old child abandoned at a grocery store.
The child who is now classified as “special needs” because as a toddler he was severely beaten – who just wanted a hug from me before beginning his story.
All the children I have helped with their videos have one thing in common: trust and a willingness to share their stories, despite lives that have been filled with betrayal.
That’s what keeps me going – the courage and resilience shown by these kids and their willingness to share the harrowing events of their young lives.
And when children I have filmed find forever families thanks to their videos, I know it’s all worthwhile.
You can view In My Own Words videos here: PARENTACHILD.ORG.
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.
Networking is such an important part of the job we do at Harmony. On any given day we meet and connect with many different people, and every day we have the opportunity to open doors for the children we serve. This was never as apparent to me as on a beautiful fall day when I attended an event at Montvale for adoptive children and their families.
The families were invited to the Family Center at Montvale to enjoy the sunshine and beautiful surroundings, lunch, and fellowship. Since I work in a different area of the state, many of the faces were new to me. At lunchtime I walked outside thinking to myself, who will I eat with? As I looked around most of my colleagues were visiting with other people, so I chose to sit down with a family I hadn’t met and began a conversation with the mother. She and I discussed her family and how they all had been brought together. My interest was piqued when the mother described attachment issues their family was dealing with, because I had been trying to find an adoptive family for one of my FOCUS clients, a young girl who was facing very similar issues.
When I told her a little about this young girl she explained that her oldest daughter was really interested in adopting and suggested I give her a call. I replied that visits would be difficult, because this child was in the Middle Tennessee area. The mother looked at me and smiled as she explained that her daughter lives in Lebanon, which is in Middle Tennessee. We exchanged phone numbers, and she said she would give me a call. The next morning her daughter called me all excited asking about the child.
A whirlwind of things began to happen. The daughter and her husband started the required PATH training (Parents As Tender Healers); their home study was approved; the couple and child met – and ultimately the youngster was adopted. The new acquaintance I had met over a hotdog is now my client’s grandmother! Funny how it seems things are just supposed to happen. Had I chosen to sit at a different table, this child would have never found her forever family – it must have been destiny!
A Forestry Leaflet from Clemson University reports that up to 50% or more transplanted trees do not survive beyond two years. Lord knows many a young sapling have died at my unskilled hand. But why so long before the sapling takes off and sprawls upward? In the field of forestry, they call it transplant shock. Interestingly, the shock happens below the surface where the roots suffer tremendous loss when dug at the nursery. The shock lasts until a natural balance between the root system and the crown of the transplanted tree is restored. Good soil, consistent care, and time are critical elements to the repair and restoration of a tree’s root system and the balance required for a tree to sprawl.
There’s a nice lesson here, I think.
For those of us working in the public child-wellbeing system, we see a lot of children who are subject to their own form of transplant shock. They experience tremendous loss with each and every move. They, too, require a lot care, support, and time to restore and repair their own roots. Children receive this through placement in a safe, loving home: through therapeutic interventions and treatments that really get to the heart of addressing complex trauma, through resiliency building efforts that support the child holistically, and through a family’s steadfast commitment and unending patience. In a way, trees can teach us a lot about what is required for successful transitioning.
The lesson reaches far beyond children. Think of the hard, traumatic transitions you may have lived through: divorce, loss of job, debilitating illness, loss of home, unexpected death, and so on. How long did it take for you to feel strong enough to sprawl following a major transition that tore at your roots? I suspect you too required a lot of care, support, and time to restore and repair your own roots following such a significant loss.
As public child-wellbeing professionals, we’d be wise to help a child’s support system understand that human development, much like a tree, may require deep root repair and restoration, before we see the outward manifestation of who the child is intended to be … wholly wonderful, capable, and loveable. So don’t be surprised when a child’s growth seems to sleep, creep, and crawl long before he or she is ready to sprawl.
Last night my husband and I went on our annual pilgrimage to the open house at our daughter’s school. I liked all of the teachers. The science classroom was my favorite; I have always liked science. One poster caught my eye: Newton’s Laws. One thing specifically stood out: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force,” Newton’s Law of Inertia. Reading the poster, I could not help thinking about something that happened to me recently.
Two weeks ago my husband and I were presented with a wonderful opportunity to stay at our friends’ vacation home for a long weekend. The home is a block away from the beach. Despite the fact that they rent out their home, our stay would be free. Most people when presented with an opportunity for a free weekend beach trip would jump at the chance. Not me. I came up with lots of problems and roadblocks: “I just took off from work a couple of weeks ago. There is a lot going on at work. What if we cannot get approval from the principal to take a discretionary day? School just started. What about the money?” I came up with several lame (in hind sight) reasons for why this spur-of-the moment beach trip was not a good idea.
I am thankful that my husband is smart and knows all about physics. He persisted and became that “unbalancing force” to push past my resistance. We went to the beach and had a great time despite all of my good reasons for not going.
I remember Lenna Allen, one of Harmony’s ASAP therapists, telling me that according to an article she had read, as parents we have 940 Saturdays to spend with our kids from the time that they are born until they leave the nest. I am so thankful that our family, resisting the Law of Inertia, spent one of those precious Saturdays together.
Watch D.O.G.S. is a Father Involvement Initiative of the National Center for Fathering (NCF). The program began in 1998 by Jim Moore in response to a tragic school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Noting the relative absence of fathers in his own son’s school, Moore began recruiting men and challenging them to become more involved in the school. Today, more than 1,500 schools and 65,000 men are reconnecting with their kids, keeping schools safe, and supporting the work of school teachers and administrators through Watch D.O.G.S.
After researching the program for some time as a way to be more involved with my own kids, I introduced the program to Principal Amy Vagnier at Foothills Elementary School in Maryville, Tennessee. She, along with school administrators Tammy Hooper and Kara Buckner, began putting in place plans to launch Watch D.O.G.S. at Foothills. On January 12, 2010 the school hosted its first annual Dads and Kids Pizza Night to kick off the program. More than 500 people, including 200 dads, were in attendance to hear about Watch D.O.G.S. Fathers and father figures were challenged to take an active role in the lives of their kids, specifically in their education. Dads were asked to commit to spending at least one full day in the school per school year, and almost four years later 150-200 dads did just that.
Fathers and father figures (grandfathers, adult brothers, uncles, etc.) show up for their “Dog Day” early in the morning wearing their Watch D.O.G.S. t-shirts. They receive a specific schedule and spend time in their own kids’ classrooms as well as other areas needing assistance, such as helping with playground duty, the lunchroom, “specials” (Music, Art, P.E., Library), and small reading groups. They also help with arrival and dismissal, patrolling the hallways and periodically walking the perimeter of the school. Dads are the kings of the playground, the heroes of the hallways, and completely exhausted when the dismissal bell rings. The dads have thoroughly enjoyed their experience, and the faculty and students have also responded positively to the new Watch D.O.G.S. presence. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a Watch D.O.G.S. dad at Foothills, and I am proud knowing we are leaving a legacy of involved fathers and father figures. My favorite moment during my time with the program was when I was sitting in the hallway, reading with a group of kids, when a 2nd grade girl said, “I’m glad you’re here. I don’t have a dad.” It wasn’t said sadly or pitifully, but it highlighted for me the importance of a male presence in a child’s life. I will always remember that moment.
Since implementing Watch D.O.G.S., 89% of participating schools have found the program to be a valuable component of their efforts to promote a safe and positive learning environment, and 79% have noted an increase of father involvement in other aspects of their school, such as parent/teacher conferences, volunteerism, and PTA/PTO involvement. You can visit the NCF website, www.fathers.com, to learn more about the Watch D.O.G.S. program, the effect an involved father can have on his kids, and to find ideas about how to become more involved in your kids’ lives.
In its relatively short history, WATCH D.O.G.S.® has proven to be influential and effective in a number of venues:
- Involved in the U.S. Department of Education Father Involvement In Education Project beginning in 2005.
- Invited by the National PTA to be a founding member of the MORE Alliance (Men Organized to Raise Engagement).
- Recognized on the floor of Congress as a program that “can be a great tool in our efforts to prevent school violence and to improve student performance because it can increase parental initiative and involvement in their children’s education.” Congressional Record, Feb. 7, 2000, page S-392.
- Involved in the U.S. Department of Education’s P.F.I.E. (Partnership For Family Involvement In Education).
- In 1999, invited by the United States Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to participate in a nationwide teleconference called “Fathers Matter.”
- Recognized as a “best practice” by Joyce L. Epstein, Ph.D., Director of Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, Johns Hopkins University.
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.
What a cool place to begin, I thought.
The audience was a collection of therapists, supervisors, program, and agency administrators from varying disciplines. The subject matter facing the audience was the very hard work of treating complex trauma in children and families – the type of trauma that stems from abuse and neglect and can have an insidious impact upon families and other care-giving supports. Margaret Blaustein, the creator of the ARC Framework (Attachment, Self-Regulation, & Competency), was describing her preferred starting point when beginning the difficult work of untangling the complexity of the trauma nestled within a child’s story.
This is the kind of hard work that drips with pain and sorrow. It is further complicated by a child’s behavioral response to a world sending messages that he or she is damaged goods, unworthy, incapable, and perhaps worst of all, unlovable. It’s hard work, in a hard place. Child, family, and therapist alike are not immune to getting stuck in this hardest of places. How do you begin getting traction to move forward when healing, recovery, and resiliency seem, at best, idealistic, and at worst, foolhardy and naive?
Positive curiosity, just maybe, is the place to begin.
Think about it. By definition, “curiosity” means a strong desire to know or learn something. “Positive” has many meanings but, in this case, positive is emphasizing what is laudable, hopeful, or to the good – constructive. So, positive curiosity seems to be a strong desire to know & learn emphasizing what is hopeful, good, & constructive. It sets a posture of openness to understand, first, before solving or fixing anything. It invites questions and wonder without having the answer or solution for children and families coming from hard places. It even encourages attunement about where your own thoughts and feelings are coming from in response to the world around you … or the family you’re serving … or the system in which you’re functioning.
For the hard work in the hard place of complex trauma, positive curiosity may be the right beginning, indeed.
I can’t help but think we’d all benefit from a little more positive curiosity in all walks and in all places of life, not just through the therapeutic lens of treatment. What would positive curiosity look like for you at home? When you look in the mirror? Riding in the car with your kids? At the dinner table? At church? How about on a walk with your spouse? Or parenting when your child is fighting you at every turn? What would positive curiosity look like in a board meeting? Or in supervision? Or how would it look in a business meeting? Or during an agency’s strategic planning?
Clearly, positive curiosity may be a healthy place to begin with in many walks of life, not just for those providing treatment to the wounded who have come from hard places. Try it out and see if it fits for you. Positive curiosity may be the perfect beginning for helping you get forward traction wherever you are.
There must be hundreds of eloquent quotes about life being a journey and how we should appreciate the journey because the journey is what is really important after all. Personally my favorite quote comes from my buddy Bart Simpson. I am not sure if you have ever seen the episode of the Simpsons but it involves a long road trip with Lisa and Bart constantly peppering their parents with the dreaded “Are we there yet?” What makes it even more funny is that Marge and Homer are barely out of the driveway when the Lisa and Bart start in ― “Are we there yet?” There are probably as many eloquent quotes out there about patience. “Patience is a virtue” they say.
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 excitement as I see the renovations slowly occur at Montvale.
Are we there yet? No. But it sure has been an interesting ride.