*Note- Some names have been changed to protect privacy. Immediate family members and close friends’ names have not been changed.
Ah, my little monkey-butt. It’s hard to know where to begin. So much of Carl’s story has been a whirlwind of emotion, drama, and ultimately, healing. Before we met Carl our social worker told us that he had “issues,” whatever that was supposed to mean. He was immature for his age, was prone to hitting his teachers, and was having massive tantrums in public. I asked the worker if Carl was a therapeutic case (therapeutic foster cases require extensive training with many more regulations and services) but she said he was not. I hesitate to admit it, but both Erin and I were reluctant to take on a foster child with extreme behavioral and/or emotional issues. We dedicated our lives to working with children. After spending all day working with kids, some of whom could wear you down to the last nerve, we didn’t know if we had the energy to bring that same type of drama into our home, the only place we knew we had a moment of peace and quiet. Ultimately, we decided to meet Phillip and Carl just to see what would happen.
We met the boys and their foster mother, Ms. Yu, at a McDonald’s in Fayetteville. Neither boy spoke to us. The first thing I noticed was that Ms. Yu ordered them both a hamburger and a cup of water. Seems a bit cheap, right? The boys wore clothes that were clearly too big for them and were begin to be threadbare. Phillip ate his sandwich and asked to go play. Carl sat in silence staring straight ahead, his eyes crossed the entire time. Ms. Yu began to feed Carl his sandwich. Despite being nearly five years old, he wasn’t allowed to feed himself because Ms. Yu said he would get it all over him. Erin and I looked at each other, puzzled that a trained foster parent would handle a child this way. When Carl finished he left the table and played in the indoor playground. The rest of the meeting we spoke with Ms. Yu who told us that earlier in the week Carl hit his speech therapist at school. She also told us about having to leave Walmart because Carl would throw fits in the middle of the store if he didn’t get his way. She refused to touch him and just let it play out. It bears noting at this point that Ms. Yu was a foster provider (I hate using the words parent or mother when referring to her, because she was neither!) who specialized in temporary care. DSS placed children in her home for short stints until more permanent placements could be found or the children could be reunited with their birth families. Ms. Yu had no desire to adopt. She saw her role as providing for the immediate physical needs of the children as well as providing transportation to appointments. We found out from the boys years later that Ms. Yu left the care of the younger children to the older kids, mostly teenagers. In the years that Phillip and Carl lived with Ms. Yu they were never hugged, kissed, cuddled, or told “I love you.” They were given three hots and a cot, as they say. All of their toys and belongings were donated from local charities. Before they came to live with us they had never received anything new that they would be allowed to keep. Anything new that came into Ms. Yu’s home became her property so that she could use it for the next foster children who came through her home.
When we left that afternoon Erin wanted to call the social worker to ask if the boys could come to us immediately. I told Erin I was in love with them as well, but we had to be patient. If the boys were destined to be our sons we had to sit back and let the process play out.
The next time we met the boys was at Phillip’s basketball game at Ms. Yu’s church. Carl, wearing a pair of much-too-big green pants held up by a old shoe string instead of a belt and an old yellow Nike t-shirt, was like a cat on a hot tin roof. Ms. Yu hadn’t given the boys their ADHD medication so that we could see what they were like without it. It was hard to tell if Carl was being overstimulated by the surroundings or by the teenager who was also one of Ms. Yu’s foster children. Carl never spoke to us until we went to the park after the game. Carl came up to me and said in a voice with a strange cadence, “Pick….me…………up.” I lifted him up and let him put the ball in the basket.
Our third and final visit with the boys occurred three weeks later when we took the boys to the movies to see The Croods. Carl started off sitting beside Erin on a booster seat. Fifteen minutes into the movie Carl crawled in Erin’s lap and cuddled with her. He just wanted to be held. Erin was born to be a mother. Her instincts kicked in and she loved on him as if he were born from her body. For the rest of the movie he was silent and still. I think that was the moment that Carl became a part of her heart.
Our relationship with Ms. Yu deteriorated quickly. She did not want us to spend time with the boys as the social workers directed. She wanted to wait until the summer time. She kept talking about July. It was March and we didn’t want to waste days without the boys living with us. As it turned out Ms. Yu wanted to keep the boys in her home so that she could claim them as dependents on her taxes, both for the deductions and the credits. When it became clear that the boys wouldn’t be there in July (to claim a child he has to be in your home for six months out of the year) she wanted the boys immediately removed from her home. We brought them home on Friday, April 5, 2013. Their personal Hell with Ms. Yu finally came to an end.
The first weekend went by quickly. While Phillip was having a near breakdown, Carl seemed more like a deer caught in headlights. He was agreeable to anything and was always appreciative of the things we gave him. On Saturday we went clothes shopping for entirely new wardrobes. Carl picked out most of his own stuff. Phillip was too depressed to pick out anything. That night before we went to bed I sat on Carl’s bed and asked him if he knew why he had come to live with us. He said, “Be..cuz…..I.I.I…..love you….guy..ss..” I kissed him and hugged him. While Phillip would take longer to show genuine love and affection, Carl opened his heart immediately.
That first week both Erin and I took leave from work to acclimate the boys to our new family. On Monday morning, the fireworks started. Carl did something minor, I don’t recall what, and I had him sit in the corner for a few minutes. He took his shoe off and started to throw it. I scolded him and told him to lie down on his bed and I would be come to him in a moment. Thirty seconds later a shoe came flying out of the bedroom door. I dropped what I was doing and went straight in the bedroom. Carl threw the other shoe at me and then tried to rip the lamp from the wall to throw it as well. I sat down beside him, took both his hands and his feet and held them firmly against his body. I wasn’t trying to hurt him, but I wanted to make sure he couldn’t flail and hit me. I think my size and strength caught him off guard. He was locked down. I told him in my firmest Daddy voice that behavior like that was not tolerated in our home. I was his father and he would do what I told him to do without fuss. He began to cry so I scooped him in my arms and held him like a baby. When he calmed down I told him how much I loved him and how lucky I was to be his daddy. But throwing shoes and screaming were not going to work in our family. He never did that in my presence again.
A week after that incident we took the boys to a therapy appointment in Fayetteville. The therapist was a psychologist who had worked with the boys for over a year. The only thing was he was blind. I wondered how that was supposed to work because Carl only spoke on rare occasions and even then it was in a broken cadence that was difficult to understand. Phillip went first without incident. Carl started to scream and kick before he ever even made it into the therapist’s room. After entering the therapist’s office Carl hid under a chair and started to remove his clothes to throw them at whoever came near. Erin and I looked at each other wondering if we should intervene. I hesitated because he was the professional. But the commotion was just too much. I finally said to the doctor that I would take over. I picked the chair up but Carl kept screaming. I lifted Carl in my arms and rubbed his head and kissed his cheeks. After two minutes I could feel Carl’s arms wrap around my neck and his body lose its tenseness. He calmed and I was able to dress him again. We left the therapist’s office never to return.
In the months that followed Carl had his tantrums and we dealt with them as they came up. Over time they lessened in intensity. Our biggest worry was that when he started school and had to function in a structured environment he would fall apart. But we would deal with that when the time came. In the meantime, Carl just focused on being a little boy.
Unlike Phillip who would only bond with me, Carl seemed to love everybody. He snuggled with family members and even had to be reminded about personal space. But the person he most latched onto was my mother, his Nana. I’ve written before that my mother is the “Baby Whisperer” and that was certainly true in Carl’s case. She showed patience with Carl and gave him the special attention he desperately needed.
When it came time to start school our fears were proven true. Carl struggled with following directions and he often threw his shoes across the classroom. Luckily he had the perfect kindergarten teacher, a charming and precious lady with years of experience who knew the right balance between a firm hand and a caring embrace. Carl loved her with all his heart. He told us she was like the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. I have to admit there was more than just a passing resemblance there. However, that didn’t mean that Carl’s problems disappeared; they were simply managed.
At the beginning of Carl’s kindergarten year we brought our foster, now adopted, daughter Autumn home from the hospital. She was a premie and very delicate in those early days. Carl tended to her every need. When he got home from school each afternoon he sat in the floor and played with her. He rubbed her head and gave her his toys. To this day he calls her “My baby Autumn Rose.” Just uesterday when I told him that when he grew up he would have to leave home to have a house of his own. He said he could never leave because he had to stay to take care of Autumn. In his mind, she will always be a baby who needs care. I’m absolutely convinced that they will rely on each other long after Erin and I have passed on.
Academically Carl has always struggled. For some time I was worried that he would have to be served in a self-contained program where life skills form the foundation of the curriculum. Any thoughts of college would be long gone. Here, I have to give credit to all of his teachers. He has had three teachers in the last four years and all three have been ideal for him. Not only has he made exceptional growth, he continues to close his achievement gap. I give them full credit for his amazing transformation.
In Carl’s first time in first grade (he had to repeat the grade the following year) our family experienced the worst trauma of our lives. It all started just after Christmas. Carl’s behavior had been excellent from October through December of that year. Other than a couple of minor incidents, Carl seemed to be turning a corner. But after Christmas Carl couldn’t adjust to the change in routine after having been out of school for two weeks. He began to spiral out of control and we had no clue why. It seemed every day something would act as a triggering mechanism to set him off and then the whole day would be like a death spiral. We tried multiple consequences as well as positive reinforcement. Even Nana stepped in the picture to try to help him. In retrospect, we now understand that Carl experienced extreme physical and psychological trauma early in his life. His brain, like many other abused and neglected children, became hardwired to have a Fight or Flight mentality whenever something frustrating or upsetting came his way. As the rigor of first grade began to overwhelm Carl, he lost control and began to lash out.
In late March we had a particularly bad week. Every day was a new issue. I had just started a new job as an elementary librarian and I was worried that he would be suspended and that either Erin or I would have to stay home with him. On Thursday, March 26, 2015 I received a call from Carl’s teacher that he was having a complete meltdown. I spoke to him on the phone and told him he needed to get it together. The day only got worse. When Erin and the boys got home I took Carl by the arm to lead him upstairs to talk to him in his bedroom. Part way up the stairs Carl began to kick, hit, and flail at me. I slipped and fell, taking him down with me. He was on the steps just above me and his feet were kicking me in the head. I reached up and grabbed him by the head to bring him closer to me so he couldn’t keep kicking me. When I did, I grabbed him too hard because it left a mark across his face. The next day at school when his assistant principal asked him what happened Carl said, “Dad did it.” Carl wasn’t trying to get me into trouble. Carl was truthful to a fault, even telling on himself every time he does something he’s not supposed to do. The assistant principal and the principal met for a long time and decided they had no choice; they had to report signs of abuse to DSS. The next several hours were the worst in our entire lives.
I received multiple calls at work from various social workers and case workers as well as Erin. Carl was rushed to the hospital and examined for possible injuries. The other children were collected from their classes and from day care into the custody of Social Services. Our lives were totally shut down. In the ensuing hours the boys were interviewed and the medical information analyzed. Erin and I were both interviewed by a social worker from our home county who came into our home for an immediate inspection. At the end of the evening the investigating social worker concluded that the children were not in imminent danger. The medical examination showed no signs of abuse and concluded that Carl’s injury was consistent with my description of the incident. Others came to my defense as well. Even though I was told by the investigator that I could remain in the home with the children, the boys’ home county said I had to leave the home until at least the next day when they would have a meeting. I spent the night at the home of Erin’s best friend and her family. I never slept the entire night.
I was told the next day that I would have to attend a meeting the following week on Tuesday to discuss the matter with all stakeholders present. At that time a decision would be made whether the children would be left in our care. I was still not allowed to return to my own home. I stayed at a hotel and had no contact with the children whatsoever. Erin had support from her best friend Becky and her nephew David, both of whom had been there in our home immediately after the social workers left. My support was my parents and my assistant at work, Sunny. We kept it quiet and didn’t discuss the matter in public. Honestly, it was just too embarrassing and upsetting. We even turned off our social media accounts to keep people in the dark.
The following week at the meeting, Erin and I were lambasted that the incident even happened. We were questioned extensively why we had not asked for help with Carl. In fact, I had asked for help many times. Our agency had been through many caseworkers over the years and there was little consistency. With Social Services, they are remiss to do anything that may cost extra money. In the end, everyone who had ever been in our home or who knew our family agreed that the children should stay with us. Their impassioned pleas helped the supervisors decide to allow the children to remain in our care. The one caveat was that I would not be allowed to return home until the official investigation was complete. That, I was told, could take up to forty-five days. I protested as strongly as I could. Even the guardians ad litem offered to provide extra supervision and report to the court (the judge has also agreed that the children would remain in our care) after each visit. Unfortunately, I was caught up in a political move that resulted from two high profile cases in which foster children were killed while under the care of DSS. In order to keep up the appearance of serving the best interest of the children, I was told to have no contact with the children, to stay away from home until the investigation was complete, and to keep all matters regarding the investigation confidential. If the investigation revealed signs of abuse or neglect, I would be arrested and charged with child abuse.
I was ready to give up. I had worked too hard to have my entire life thrown away like that. It was Erin who helped me see through the fog to look at the big picture. Our family survived that episode because of her faith, determination, and hard work.
For forty-four days I stayed away from my home. I stayed with my parents on the weekends and then stayed in hotels during the week so that I could continue working. At the end of the experience, I spent over $3000 on hotel bills. When it was all over, the investigator concluded that the children were not abused and that I could return home immediately. I still have a video of that day on my phone. During that entire time frame I never broke DSS’ requests. I did not step foot in my home nor did I have any contact with my children until it was over. I was able to see Erin four times during that stretch. I guess that’s how you can tell if your love for each other is true and faithful. She was my strength and my rock. For that and for countless other reasons, she earned my unwavering love and loyalty.
The boys entered trauma-focused therapy and Carl received extensive in-home therapy. For Phillip and Jon, the therapy simply filled time. For Carl, however, the therapy sessions revealed a lot of what was going on with him. Carl was stuck at the emotional level of a toddler. The behaviors we saw at home and at school looked just like the kinds of tantrums parents saw in toddlers all the time. Carl did not have the language skills or coping mechanisms to deal with stress and frustration. The therapy sessions helped him to understand his feelings and seek better, more appropriate ways to express himself.
Because of that incident our adoption of the boys was delayed until the end of the year. In the grand scheme of things the incident lead to Carl getting the help that he needed. Erin and I fully understood the depths of our love for each other, and our children learned how a family can overcome adversity with dignity. It took a long time for me to learn forgiveness for those who falsely accused me. Yet I understand that in that particular circumstance each person was legally obligated to do what they did. I can not hold a grudge against someone who believed sincerely that they were doing what was in the best interest of a child. But I will always bear the scars from those days.
What I love most about Carl is his innocent view of life, how excited he is when someone does something for him or gives him something, and how sweet and compassionate he is. As angry as he can get, he has a soft side that others sometimes don’t get to see. I firmly believe he will one day make a great father. His heart is open and he loves freely.
I learned valuable lessons in becoming Carl’s father. I learned that love is not enough to heal the wounds of abuse and neglect. Sometimes we have to be strong enough to seek help from professionals who have expertise that we do not. I also learned not to judge a person based on a snapshot of an event. Carl’s future seemed so bleak for so long, yet the child I see now has a bright and bold future ahead of him. He’s a hard worker and a kind, caring human being. As he continues to grow and learn more ways to self-monitor his behavior I am convinced that his options later in life will only multiply.
I am proud to be Carl’s father. He still has much to learn and each day is an opportunity to become better than you were yesterday. Every day Carl climbs in my lap and puts both of his hands on my cheeks. He grins sheepishly and then gives me lots of kisses and hugs. I tell him how proud I am of him and how much joy he brings me each and every day. I have given him my love unconditionally. Not only has he accepted it, he has given his love in return. Every heart can heal. Even Carl’s.
Little Boy Lost: Jonathan’s Adoption Story
Though She be but Little, She is Fierce: Autumn’s Adoption Story