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.
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.
Dr. Karyn Purvis says that when we empower a child to find their voice, we are honor-bound to listen when they use it. Similarly, when children tell their stories, we are honor-bound to listen. To all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
I often hear adoptive parents say, “I just don’t talk about it with them because I don’t want to make them think about it.” The mistaken assumption is that if a child’s story before placement is not acknowledged, then it didn’t happen. Nothing can be farther from the truth. To honor a child’s unedited story is to honor all of who they are, for their story did not begin when they came home to their loving adoptive families.
Whether a child’s story comes in the form of reflective pleasant memories from their past or accounts of profound loss, pain, and even fear – these stories are a part of a child’s truth. And when a child chooses to share their truth, we owe it to them to be available to hold it.
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” – Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
This summer the Harmony Family Center at Montvale held our first Therapeutic Family Camp for adoptive children and families. The experience was overwhelmingly positive, and we were humbled by the amount of healing that took place in such a short amount of time. We have infused throughout these therapeutic camps a set of values, which we call the “Montvale Ways,” and they are: courage, creativity, kindness, respect, honesty, patience, and connection. Here is one small story of very great courage:
Like all of the children at camp, 9 year old Jeremiah had been adopted from the state foster care system after being removed from his birth family due to abuse and neglect. He suffered from severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive compulsive behaviors. Jeremiah had come to camp with his younger sister and his adoptive parents. Like his sister, Jeremiah was extremely quiet and shy, and by the second day he still had not said a word, except to whisper to his sister or to his parents. Both Jeremiah and his sister clutched little stuffed animals like security blankets, and brought them on nature hikes, to the campfire, to meals, and even down to the barn.
Jeremiah had been reserved, but attentive during our first Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session, which had consisted of “ground work,” where the children worked with the horses without getting on them. In the second session, we would be doing “mounted work,” where the children would actually ride the horses, and Jeremiah had told his parents that he had absolutely no intentions of getting on a horse.
When it was time for the children to ride, I was shocked to see that Jeremiah had agreed to give it a try. As he approached the horse, Jeremiah looked scared, but I could see in this little boy a deep and weathered resolve that went well beyond his 9 years. Jeremiah timidly mounted the horse, gave a very nervous half-smile to the camera, and we began to walk on. With each lap, Jeremiah’s eyes grew brighter and he looked more and more secure. As each of the previous children had ridden the horse, I had slowly prompted them to test their balance, “Can you put your right hand up in the air? Good, put it down. Now can you put your left hand up in the air?” I was amazed that Jeremiah had agreed to ride the horse at all, but as I saw his confidence growing, I figured that perhaps we could take it one step further. I started to ask him, “Can you put your right hand up in the air?” Suddenly, Jeremiah’s quivering half-smile turned into a full blown grin and as he threw his hands up into the air, he proclaimed with great assurance and pride, “I can do both!”
All around me I saw the mouths of the parents and of our staff drop open. In those moments, riding tall on the back of one of our trusty therapy horses, Jeremiah was transformed. We couldn’t believe that this was the same frightened little boy who we thought might not speak one word during camp, least of all ride a horse with such self-confidence and courage.
That night at the campfire we had our Bead Ceremony, where the children and families could award different colored beads to one another, based upon the “Montvale Way” that they thought the other person had exhibited at camp. Red beads were for courage, orange for creativity, yellow for kindness, green for respect, blue for honesty, purple for patience, and white for connection. The first beads to be bestowed were the red beads for courage. One after another, after another- every single red courage bead went to Jeremiah. When the call went out for the last courage bead of the night, Jeremiah’s adoptive father stood up, took a red bead from the jar, and proudly stated, “This red bead for courage goes to my one and only son, Jeremiah!” Jeremiah, a child claimed and loved, beamed at his father’s words.
Jeremiah arrived at camp full of fear, but his fears were not irrational or invented. In his life before adoption, the world had, in fact, been a very scary place. This strong, resilient child had survived the horrors of that world, and he was now able to begin his journey of healing in the safe and loving home of his forever family. We were all honored that night to bear witness to Jeremiah’s great show of courage. To ride a horse, to conquer this one particular fear, was simply a small example of the innate and unending courage that was dwelling inside this brave and precious little boy. To trust, when those who were supposed to care for you had neglected you; to love, when those who were supposed to protect you had hurt you; to have hope and faith, when your past is full of fear and darkness – these are the true marks of courage that Jeremiah, and so many of our adoptive children, show us each and every day.
Unconditional love, little acts of kindness, support and reassurance – aren’t these common things parents do? What happens when a child who has never experienced these small gestures of love isn’t sure what you mean by them? This is exactly what happened to Sarah when she stuck a small note, written out of love, into her niece Corey’s backpack before Corey headed back to her group home.
You see Corey has spent quite a few years in state custody with no family contact. As she got older Corey felt more and more alone, but was able to tell her FOCUS case worker about an aunt she had good memories of from her childhood. FOCUS was able to locate her great aunt Sarah and reconnect them. Corey started spending weekends with her aunt, and it was during one of these weekends together that this little lesson in love was learned. Sarah decided to do something she had always done for her own children as they were growing up, not realizing the effects it would have on Corey.
After a very nice weekend of hiking, picnicking, and riding bikes together their time was over, and it was time for Corey to return to her group home. Sarah wrote Corey a little note about how much she enjoyed their weekend together, how blessed she was to have her back in her life, and she wished her a good week at school. Sarah closed the note by telling her she loved her and snuck it in Corey’s backpack. “Aren’t these common things a parent or a loved one says to another loved one, Sarah asked her FOCUS worker?” You see that night, when Corey returned to her group home, she was surprised to find her aunt Sarah’s note. She read it several times, each time trying harder and harder to understand why her aunt would do this to her. You see Corey, not ever experiencing anything like this in her life, thought that her aunt was telling her goodbye. She immediately picked up the phone and called her aunt Sarah to ask what she had done wrong. Sarah was confused at first by this conversation. The note, written completely out of love and meant to bring joy to Corey, was instead having the opposite effect.
After much reassurance Sarah was able to explain to Corey how much she enjoyed having her back in her life and how she was never going to leave her. It was after this phone call that Sarah called the FOCUS case worker to just cry. She cried for feeling as if she had done something wrong that caused worry and hurt to Corey. Then she cried when she realized how hurt and broken a child Corey is. And finally she cried thinking about how much she can’t wait to give and show Corey what unconditional love feels like.
“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” ― Mother Teresa
Harmony’s FOCUS program (Finding Our Children Unconditional Support) is dedicated to finding safe, loving families for children in the State welfare system.
I love the outdoors and have always considered myself a real “nature girl.” Nearly ten years ago my husband and I were fortunate enough to buy a home with some property that has a small creek that runs through it. My daughter was a toddler when we bought the place which lies less than a mile from where my German ancestors put down roots in the early 1800’s. It has been a blessing to see my Chinese daughter’s appreciation of nature being shaped and formed by the place that has nurtured generations of my family for nearly two hundred years. Some of my fondest family memories have been made at our little creek. At two years old, my daughter could spend hours squatting in the frigid spring fed creek, picking up rocks and throwing them. Rocks are one of nature’s greatest toys. Sticks are too. I am thrilled that at eleven years old, my daughter still loves our little creek. Whether she is with friends, cousins or even her mom, she can spend hours looking for crayfish, fossils or salamanders or building a dam. Nature is good for our souls!
When Harmony made the decision to purchase Montvale, I was overjoyed to know that other children would have that same opportunity to play in our creeks, to pick our flowers, explore the woods and experience the unbridled joy of nature.
“Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone; But there is half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on…” James W. Foley
I was reading about a plantation owner named Moses. His barn was burned down by outlaws, and they kidnapped some of his workers. After searching high and low, Moses found one of the young boys named George who had no parents. Moses and his wife adopted George and gave him their last name. George Washington Carver grew up to be a teacher and an inventor, and his discoveries of products made from peanuts and sweet potatoes are still in use today.
I recently participated at a Therapeutic Family Camp held at Montvale. Adoptive families gathered together with the children they had searched for and welcomed into their lives. These children still have emotional and physical scars, but they also have families who have given them their name, their heart, and their homes. I can only imagine how far the ripple effect of each adoption will travel.
I observed families walking together, sharing stories, playing games, and exploring what they each bring to their definition of family. I witnessed anxiety lessen, bravery emerge, kindness grow, and friendships blossom. As the families expressed gratitude that we had created a time and a place for them, I felt the ripple effect of Camp begin to pass into our community. I am excited about the future of our Camp and can only imagine how far the therapeutic benefits can and will reach.
Well, think about it. Poverty. Unemployment. Dependency. Just to name a few. Words of this kind convey images and do nothing to benefit the world of public child welfare – certainly not during these times when highly energized debates flourish over the use of tax dollars – debates that force greater polarization between people.
In contrast, Bryan Samuels, the Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, recently placed emphasis on wellbeing with respect to child safety, development, and care.
“Wellbeing.” Now there’s a word that elicits movement toward a healthy, positive regard for the human condition … it is, simply, being well. And that is what public servants for children and families should be supporting, a positive regard for children being well.
Language shapes our thoughts and feelings; it even shapes our beliefs. Our responsibility to serve children and families being well necessitates a heightened positive regard for our use of language and the influence it has on us and the focus of our efforts.
So, perhaps now is the time to loosen our hold of language suited for older paradigms shaped by welfare dependence and talk differently about our children through the advancement of their wellbeing? Perhaps now is a good time to speak differently, so we think differently, and ultimately, act differently. Together, we are part of the public child wellbeing system, and as such, we are promoting healthy growth, safe development, and a positive regard for the children we serve and for the system in which we function.
Recently, my work impacted my own family in a very positive way. My fifteen year old niece approached me and shared with me that she’s decided to be a therapist who works with children. She then shared with me that she’d been mentoring children at her school and shared with me several things she’d done including helping a peer who she discovered had been sexually abused. She had learned what to do when a child is sexually abused from listening to me. I was completely taken off guard. I had not realized that she had been watching me or the impact my work had on my own family! That was a very cool moment.
I still remember the first time an adoptive parent told me that she didn’t love her child. I remember almost feeling shocked that anyone could feel that way. That’s when I was new to working in adoption and before I really understood how families are impacted by trauma histories and attachment issues. I did realize, however, how much frustration it took for a parent to feel that way much less say those words out loud. This parent had definitely had her share of frustration parenting this child and I remember her telling me she wanted to end the adoption. That was during my first visit. I thought for sure there was no hope and that this child would be placed back in care. However, I learned a valuable lesson in working with that family. There is always hope.
As I continued working with the family I continued seeing progress. Not only did the child learn different ways to behave, but her parents learned more effective ways of parenting their child based on her individual needs. I was able to educate her parents about the origin of their daughter’s negative behaviors and teach them ways to facilitate attachment with her. I am happy to report that these parents were able to develop a strong bond and relationship with their daughter. I was able to speak with the child’s mother about a year after treatment ended. She reported that her daughter was doing well and that she loved her daughter very much. I’ll never forget her mother saying, “I even LIKE her now!” We both laughed and agreed that this said a lot considering her daughter is now a teenager.