*NOTE: I have changed the names of people outside our family in order to protect their privacy. Also, Phillip has read this story and we have discussed it extensively. Our hope, including Phillip’s, is that families who hope to adopt and foster children in desperate need of adoption will find hope in this story.
If you have not yet read Parenting Blog: Struggling with Infertility: A Prelude to Adoption you may wish to do so before reading Phillip’s story. This narrative references events that were detailed in that entry.
In the two weeks following our loss of Amy, we vacillated between mourning and relief. We missed our little girl every day (it’s been over four years and we still miss her) but we also felt relief at being able to sleep in on the weekend and going out to eat without having to manage a toddler’s behavior for the benefit of other diners. We took a trip to Ocean Isle to clear our brains and cleanse our hearts.
Unfortunately, we made the mistake of going to the Disney Store Outlet in North Myrtle Beach. All the Jake and the Neverland Pirates toys made us think of Amy. I believe we picked up a few toys and a couple of blankets for when we accepted new foster placements. Despite that slight shopping faux pas, our trip was healing. We had fun and it was nice to walk along the shoreline hand in hand, just Josh and Erin with only the sounds of breaking waves and our hearts beating in unison.
A week after we returned our case worker came by for a visit. We loved seeing her and she always had our best interest at heart. The first thing she did when she came in was to embrace us both. She wanted to make sure we were healing and getting our lives back together. The next thing she did was to tell us about a pair of brothers in Fayetteville who were nearing the point of adoption. They lived with a foster mother, we’ll call her Ms. Yu. Normally Ms. Yu only accepted temporary placements until the agency could find permanent placements. For some reason, these two little boys had been with Ms. Yu for about a year and a half. The case worker asked if we would talk about it and get back to her because, if we were agreeable, she wanted to present us to the social workers as a possible adoptive family. Before she left, she shared with us a photo of the boys from the previous Christmas when they received bikes from the local fire department:
You know how some people can’t watch those ASPCA commercials that play Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of the Angel” and show abandoned and abused animals because they want to rush out and bring all those poor, defenseless creatures home? Yeah, that would be us. As soon as Erin saw the photo she wanted to bring the boys home. I told Erin we needed to hold on for a few days and talk about what this would mean. She reluctantly agreed.
Two days later, as February was upon us, our case worker called us again to give us more information. The boys’ names were Phillip and Carl, ages 6 and 4. Phillip was in first grade and Carl, who would turn 5 at the end of the month, would start kindergarten in the fall. In this phone call and in subsequent meetings we learned that no one person has a foster child’s full story. You pick up bits and pieces along the way. In this phone call we learned that both boys had behavior problems. Philip was diagnosed with ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), and OCD. He exhibited self-injurious and risky behaviors for which he had to be monitored constantly. He received therapy once a week and had an IEP because he was so far behind his peers that, according to one social worker, Philip may be “mildly retarded.” Please pardon my use of the word, but I feel it’s important to understand the way in which Philip was presented to us.
Erin was concerned at first because not only did Phillip have a long list of issues, but so did Carl. I told her we should at least meet them and then decide if we were a good fit for them. After all, what better home for two boys with behavior and academic troubles than two people whose academic and professional lives centered on helping children with exactly those needs?
We met the boys and their foster mother (I use that term with reluctance) at McDonalds on February 16, 2013. Both boys had their heads shaved and they were quite small for their age. Carl never spoke a word. He just sat there while is foster mother fed him. Phillip ate his food quickly and then went to play on the indoor playground. All we could get out of him was a quick “Hi” and then he was off. I watched him the whole time. The only concerning this I noticed was that his fingers were raw around the nails. He picked at them constantly until they nearly bled. I expected to see a kid who was aggressive with others and generally rude and disrespectful. What I saw was the opposite. He waited his turn and even asked a little girl if she were finished jumping on a pole with a foot brace. When she told him she was not finished, he stood back and waited for her to be done. Something wasn’t adding up. It would be another full year before I understood all of Phillip’s issues.
After we said our goodbyes and shook everyone’s hands, Erin sat in the car and cried. She wanted to go back in the restaurant and take the boys home with us. I told her I was as much in love with them as she was but we had to be patient. A few days later the social worker from the boys’ county came to see us. At first I was put off by this lady. She refused to sit in our living room and was immediately down to business. She was a former military gal who put on a hard exterior. We sat at the table in our dining room while she filled out paperwork. I had no clue that we would come to love and adore her as she helped our family to come together. Years later she said that the moment she came in our home she heard the sound of many children laughing. She knew we were meant to have a big family and she would guide us through the process to make that happen.
At this meeting we learned that the boys were actually a sibling group of four. The youngest child lived with a pre-adoptive family with whom he had lived since he was an infant. The third child, age 3, lived with a foster mother who expressed interest in adopting him. Only Phillip and Carl were not yet in a pre-adoptive home. The boys’ parents still had parental rights but no visitation. Their parents had many issues. Both suffered from mental illness as well as low IQs. Only the mother worked and those jobs tended to change frequently from one fast food restaurant to another. The father claimed his medications for bipolar disorder left him unable to work. Local social service agents as well as the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints went into the family’s home each week to clean and make it livable for the children. The interventions did not work. Among the problems that lead to the boys being taken were knives left in the children’s toy boxes, prescription pills lying around on the floor, bugs and other pests in the food and throughout the house, the boys being left in Philip’s care despite being him being only 5, the youngest eating cat feces off the floor. Charges of domestic violence were also a problem, although none of the charges directly involved the children. I later learned that the boys had an older brother who died as an infant. We never learned where the child was buried or the exact circumstances of his death. All of this happened before Philip was born. It was for that reason that social services became involved with the family in the first place.
The social worker arranged for us to attend one of Phillip’s basketball games the first weekend in March. The boys still largely ignored us, but I was able to play a little basketball with them.
At the end of the day I tried to hug them. Carl willingly gave us a hug, but Philip had no desire to be touched. He let me pat him on the shoulder but then he immediately went back to playing at the park.
The social worker asked that we begin making arrangements with Ms. Yu to meet with the boys every two weeks. We immediately ran into resistance. Ms. Yu wanted to meet every three to four weeks and we had to come to her because of her schedule. We agreed to come to her each time, but we insisted that we follow the social worker’s direction. Ms. Yu refused and we had to have the social worker call her to insist that we be allowed to visit with the boys the third weekend in March.
For that visit we took the boys to see The Croods and we created Easter baskets for them. I believe the baskets had one toy in the center and four candy items. We let the boys eat one of the candy items while we were at the movies. Carl sat in Erin’s lap and Phillip sat beside me. We laughed throughout the movie and we all had a really good time. We met Ms. Yu in the parking lot of a local shopping center and she immediately became angry that we had given the boys sugar. We explained that it was only one small bit of candy and that she could control the rest. She huffed and became aggressive when we told her we needed to make arrangements to see the boys in two weeks. She refused. Well, anybody who knows me well knows that I am an Alpha male. I don’t think of myself as violent or as disrespectful of people, but when it comes to threatening situations in which I know I’m right, I DO NOT BACK DOWN! For the first time in many years I felt the urge to grab hold of that woman and throw her like a rag doll. The louder she became and the more aggressive she became the more forceful I became. To be clear, no one touched each other and no vulgar language was used; however, I made it known that at the end of this encounter I WOULD have my way.
We called our case worker and the social worker about the issue. They assured us that Ms. Yu would comply. Two weeks went by and we heard nothing. We finally called the social worker back and had her call Ms. Yu. The social worker told Ms. Yu that she wanted to begin transitioning to boys to us by having us take them every other weekend in April, every weekend in May, and then have them move in with us as soon as school was out in June. Ms. Yu balked and said she didn’t want the boys to move until after Phillip’s birthday in July (The reason for this was because if she had the boys after July 1st, she could claim them as dependants on her taxes. Foster children were a source of income for her and nothing else). When the social worker refused and said that Ms. Yu had to comply, Ms. Yu insisted that the boys be out of her house by Friday of that week.
Everybody went into damage control. Any foster parent worth her weight in salt knows that transitions are difficult for foster children. Abrupt moves like this one have long term lasting consequences for the kids who have already experienced much trauma in their lives. The boys’ Guardians ad litem came to see us to fill us in on their involvement. They had been involved with the family since the beginning and would continue to be there for the boys through their adoption.
We picked up the boys in the same parking lot where we had the conflict a few weeks prior and I loaded up all the boys belongings. There were four boxes of dirty, dingy toys, over half of which where broken. And one box for each boy of donated clothes of various sizes, few of which were in serviceable condition. We took the boys home and tried to make the most of a bad situation. Several items were missing, according to Phillip. One item of note was Phillip’s new Nintendo 3DS that he has received that week from his school counselor as a going-away present. Ms. Yu took it from Phillip and said he was too young to own something like that. He never even got to play it.
Our first night together seemed more like a sleepover than the beginning of a forever family. The boys were excited to have their own room with lots of new toys and new pajamas. I sat in the floor and read them a story while Erin snuggled with Carl in his bed. Phillip still didn’t care to be touched, but he did let me touch his cheek and kiss the top of his head goodnight. The second day was a whirlwind and Phillip crashed under the pressure. We drove to the outlets in Smithfield to buy all new clothes for the boys. For the entirety of their lives they had only had hand-me-down clothes. This would be the first time, other than an occasional donated Christmas gift, they would have new clothes. Phillip slipped into a state of depression. Years later I asked him what happened that day. He said he realized that he wasn’t going back to his birth family and he was scared to death. He didn’t know us and had no clue what was going to happen to him or to Carl. He just shut down that day and refused to eat, to play, to do much of anything. That night he started crying in his room. When Phillip cried, he screamed and yelled. All that pent up pain and suffering came out in rushes. I scooped him up in my arms and let him scream to the top of his lungs. I stroked his head and his face and rocked him back and forth as I sat in the floor with him in my arms. After fifteen minutes, I felt his muscles lose their tension and he simply collapsed in my arms with his face in my chest. He had nothing left to give that night.
The next morning Phillip ate breakfast and played. We knew we had to get them enrolled in school the following week and we needed to get school supplies. We headed out to Durham to Pottery Barn Kids to buy them new backpacks. Once the boys tried them on, they refused to take them off. Even when we got home they wouldn’t relinquish them. I think for the first time in their lives they felt they finally had something that was truly their own.
In the weeks that followed we learned more about Phillip’s problems. He suffered from Oppositional Defiance Disorder which made trust a major issue for him. He had been left in charge of his life at an early age and he had not yet found a reason to trust any adult. He had no reason to trust us either. On several occasions he spoke over us and interacted with us in a disrespectful manner. My Alpha-ness kicked in and I established myself as the leader in our family. In our family Erin and I treat each other with kindness and respect at all times. When we disagree, we do not scream and curse. We are equal partners in all things. But we also see that someone has to take the lead in dealing with crisis and in organizing the family. That’s my role. It took over a year and many nights of Phillip screaming in my arms until he learned to trust that I was not there to hurt him. I was there to love and protect him. I had to give up my need to control everything and he had to trust that when it really mattered I was in control. I can’t say when the exact moment occurred that he learned to trust me, but we both paid a high mental and emotional toll in the process.
Once Philip let his guard down, he could finally be a kid. He played more and his personality started to bloom. He wanted to play soccer that summer and we let him. He wasn’t very good, but he sure had a good time playing with the other kids.
Academically he struggled. Getting him to write often erupted into tearful screaming fits. He had no desire to read at all. Math was OK for him, but he really did not like school. This bothered me to no end because Erin and I teach for a living. How can two teachers have children who did not like school? We struggled at first but I told Erin I thought we should make sure he behaved in school and then model the kinds of behaviors we wanted to see from him. If that meant we had to sit with him to do his homework, so be it.
That year he flourished thanks to our efforts at home and the love and care he received from his first grade teacher. She was phenomenal. For that matter, I can honestly say that every teacher my boys have ever had have been outstanding professionals who cared about my boys as students and as people.
That August our family grew to include a new born, Autumn Rose, although at the time we believed Autumn would only be with us for a short period of time. I explained to the boys that Autumn would probably return to her birth family but we should not deny her the love and attention she deserved. Carl doted on Autumn every day. Phillip, not so much. It was during this time that Phillip began to latch onto me. He had called me “Dad” and Erin “Mom” since the second week he lived with us. He told me “I love you” multiple times a day. He reached a point where he would crawl in my lap and let me hold him, kissing the top of the his head and his cheeks. We wrestled and played all the time. I bit his toes and twisted his ankles into submission while he smacked my fat rolls and tried to crush my fingers. That’s the way daddies and sons are. We play fight, we compete, we love each other. To this day Phillip showers me with love and attention unlike others. He needed a daddy and I was lucky enough to have him as my son.
As Philip grew older he began to mimic my speech style and then the way I handled things around the house. I have had to remind him that he is not the father in this house even though he feels the need to be in charge when I am not home. Erin has pulled the Mommy Card on him several times to keep him in line. Even though I know he has a special bond with me, he loves his entire family unconditionally.
Phillip had the most healing to do of all our children. He maintained memories of his life before foster care until recent months when even those memories have started to fade. He had compassion for his birth family, yet he maintained that he had no desire to return to them. He simply wanted to make sure they were OK. His biological mother loved him and I am sure she still loves him to this day. I can’t say that about his birth father. One night a few years ago was particularly challenging. Phillip had been emotional all day, so I lay on the sofa upstairs and had him lie down beside me so we could talk. He said he remembered his father yelling at his mother and that his dad said mean things to him, although he couldn’t remember exactly what he said. He recalled his mother trying to comfort him. I asked him if his dad ever hit his mother. He said, “Yes, he did.” The tears rolled down his cheeks and he huffed in short breaths at the release of the pain. That would be the last time he ever mentioned his father to me.
I am an avid reader and I hoped that one day my boys would be as well. At first, it appeared that none of my boys would pick up a book. All three struggled with school work. I had no idea if college would even remotely be possible for them in the future. But something fascinating happened over time. As Phillip copied me, he began to pick up my comic books and graphic novels. He read them so we could discuss them together. Carl then picked them up to look at the pictures and eventually the words. Even Jon and Autumn grew to love the characters. Phillip eventually moved on to chapter books and more challenging works. I can’t say I did anything other than model the behaviors I wanted to see. Now, like me, Phillip is an avid reader. His academic achievement is consistency at or above grade level. He no longer has an IEP. Not too bad for a child who was described to me five years ago as “borderline mentally retarded.”
Phillip has a charming personality and loving demeanor that never had the chance to come to the surface. In those early days he was in a fight for survival. His foster mother provided only “three hots and a cot.” The love, attention, and emotional support that children need to develop normally were denied to Phillip. Once he allowed himself to be a kid, he flourished. He is a happy and healthy boy with a variety of interests that change from week to week.
Life dealt Phillip a difficult hand. Not only did his birth family fail him, the foster care system failed him by placing him with a provider who viewed foster children as a source of income. He was failed by a previous school system that couldn’t see past his outward behavior to recognize his potential. Luckily, Phillip’s story had a happy ending. He found the trust and peace he needed to be a kid and grow up the way life is supposed to be.
He is loved and adored each day of his life and he returns that same love and adoration to all of us. He is my son and I am blessed to be his father.
Part 3: The Price of Trust: Phillip’s Adoption Story
Part 4: Child of Anger: Carl’s Adoption Story
Part 5: Little Boy Lost: Jon’s Adoption Story
Part 6: Though She be but Little, She is Fierce: Autumn’s Adoption Story