Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Five Pound Gift of Joy

"This is a tough business but his little face and the joy he has brought our household reminds me constantly that any heartbreak is worth it to give him love!! Our house is head over heels in love with him and we pray every day that God will do what is best for him!!" ~Kate, facebook friend from high school and foster mom to 'Peanut', age 2 weeks.

My friend Kate and her husband Steve became licensed foster parents recently. I was thrilled when I heard the news right before Thanksgiving. They are wonderful people and terrific parents with a lot of love and stability to give. There is a shortage of foster homes, particularly good ones. The good homes get full and stay full. I figured they’d have a placement within a week.

I over-estimated.

They had a placement the next day.

Peanut is a five-pound sack of innocence dropped into this world via biological parents who are completely unable to take care of him. He left the hospital as a ward of the state belonging to the government as opposed to a loving family.

Luckily, Peanut was delivered into the safe embrace of a family that was willing to open their hearts and home to a baby in need. He has been nurtured, protected, and fiercely loved since he crossed their threshold.

Kate and Steve said yes despite what this might cost them. They know they are opening their hearts to a baby who might be there a month, a year, or forever. They know it will hurt if and when he leaves their home and returns to parents who may or may not have gotten it together. They said yes anyway, trusting they can do their part and God will take care of the rest.

Working in the system for nearly two decades, I’ve been well-trained to separate church and state. I don’t talk about how I see God moving and working among the most vulnerable and those who care for them.

I don’t talk about the small group of juvenile court magistrates who pray each morning for wisdom, guidance, and protection for their charges before they start their dockets. I don’t talk about the priest who lights a candle and prays each day for the thousands of foster children who are at risk. I don’t write about how I sometimes open the book I wrote and barely recognize the words because the entire time I was writing I felt like Something Bigger was writing through me.

Maybe I should start.

Because God is very much present in the suffering and joy hidden in the lives of foster children and those who serve them. God will give Kate and Steve and their biological kids the grace they need in order to handle whatever this journey brings into their lives.

So if fear is holding you back, keeping you from taking a few steps into the wild and crazy world of foster care, do not be afraid. You will not be alone. You will be given the grace to do whatever it is you are called to do. I know that because I have seen it over and over again.

We are in the midst of a season where we remember and welcome a baby born into this world as a great gift from God. Jesus comes to us in many forms and in many ways.

When he shows up in the form a vulnerable, abused, five-pound sack of innocence, how will we receive him?

Friday, August 19, 2011


My teenage daughter called me a Kill-Joy today. And she wasn’t even mad at me. She just sort of said it matter-of-fact with a slight look of pity which made the whole thing even worse.

“Kill-Joy?” I asked. “As in joy-killer? You mean like a downer?” My eyes about popped out of my head.

“Uh, yeah,” she responded. Unbelievable.

“I am not a downer. I am funny. You know what? I’ll get you references. They’ll vouch for me,” I insisted as I made a mental note of which friends I could count on to set the record straight.

“How much will you have to pay them?” she quipped.

“You are very funny,” I told her as I broke into a smile. She giggled.

“Just remember where you got your sense of humor,” I added as we both laughed.

I understood what she was saying though. We had been talking about a YouTube video I had posted to my personal Facebook page. It was a video of former foster child Vyctorya Sandoval who died at the age of two after being returned to the care of her biological parents. Her foster parents had wanted to adopt her. And it was heartbreaking. Devastating.

But how do you raise awareness of the brokenness of the foster care and legal systems if you don’t tell the stories? If children like Vyctorya live and die with no voice then shouldn’t we use ours on their behalf? How do we create her legacy of hope and change if we don’t channel the horror of this tragedy into system improvements? If we wait for these systems to fix themselves it won’t happen.

I’d like to ask you what a friend recently asked me. If you had tons of money, a magic wand and a fair amount of power, what would you do to fix this mess? What is the first thing you would change? I’m interested to know your answers.

I once did a radio show with Bill Cunningham at 700 WLW. He was crabbing about how outraged he was over the failures of these systems. I shut him down on the spot. Outrage is good, I told him. We should be outraged. But these children, these lives torn apart by abuse and neglect…our outrage doesn’t help them so we can’t get stuck there. We have to take the next steps forward and commit to doing better by these kids who have no voice. We have to give them one. All of us. And we start by getting educated about these issues then getting involved.

So please spend some time on my website and learn about foster kids and how you can help them. Although you might think my book is sad, it has been hailed as ‘hopeful’ and ‘a road map for making things better.’ I promise. I even have a couple of lines in there that have been known to make people laugh out loud.

The only joy-killer here is if we decide this problem is too big for us grown-ups to handle. It isn't too big. We can chip away at it together.

Send me your ideas. What would you do with tons of money and a magic wand? And a little bit of power...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Have A Little Faith

I stumbled across a book by Mitch Albom at the library last week and pulled it off the shelf. I'm a fan of his work (including bestsellers such as Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven) probably because he and I have some things in common. We both stare wide-eyed at this world, alternately bewildered by tremendous grace amid suffering and always, always trying to figure out what it means and what we are supposed to do about it.

Anyway, I checked out with Have A Little Faith sandwiched between books for the kids' summer reading projects. I got home and started it and didn't put it down until I was finished. One paragraph in particular caught my attention. It includes a conversation between the author and Cass, a parishioner at an inner-city church in Detroit, Michigan. They are talking about the pastor, Henry Covington. Cass is telling Mitch how he overcame his drug addiction after Pastor Henry believed in him when there was very little reason to do so.

"One night in the projects, I had just gotten high and I hear Pastor call my name. I'm embarrassed to come out. My eyes are as big as saucers. He asks if I can do some landscaping at his grass the next day. And I said, sure, yeah. And he gives me ten dollars and says meet me tomorrow. When he left, all I wanted to do was run upstairs and buy more dope and get high again. But I didn't want to spend that man's money that way. So I ran across the street and bought lunch meat, crackers-anything so I don't spend it on drugs."

I read that paragraph, then again and then one more time. This sums up beautifully the power of relationships in our lives. Cass wasn't going to spend Pastor's money on drugs. Suppose that money was a handout from the government or even from someone Cass didn't know. Would he have spent it differently?

I've worked in the child welfare system for almost twenty years. Success stories are few and far between. What separates the successes from the failures are always relationships. Mothers and fathers who have a support system and utilize the assistance given to them are the ones who make it, the ones who kick their substance abuse or other problems and successfully reunite with their children. They make connections with therapists, drug counselors or others. They have someone standing with them. When they are tempted to fail, to self-sabotage or slip back into dysfunctional ways of being, they hold it together for someone besides themselves or even their children. They hold it together because someone believes in them.

This is the piece that is missing all too often in people's lives and in the lives of foster children. The government has a role in helping vulnerable families and yes, government assistance with things like food stamps and housing is critical but it will never be the only answer. Likewise, the government must step into the lives of abused and neglected children but alone, it will never save them. It is merely a piece of a puzzle. The largest pieces, the biggest pieces of lives put back together and held in place will always be relationships.

And here is the good news in this dismal time of looming debt when government services are cut severely and we grapple with how to do more with less: relationships don't take anything out of our wallets.

Relationships are FREE!

Friday, June 24, 2011

First Breaths, Last Breaths and What Comes Next

Eight years ago today a blue-eyed baby boy took his first breaths in this great big world. His single mother subsequently took him home to a life of dysfunction, poverty, abuse and neglect. I often wonder what his first days, weeks, months were like as he grew into a toddler. Did his mother love him? I believe she did. She simply didn't have the skills necessary to take good care of him. Did he love his mother? I think he did. He used to bring her fistfuls of dandelions and weeds that he picked from their front yard.

This blue-eyed boy took his last breaths sweating to death in an inferno closet where summer heat soared and sweat soaked the blanket that bound his arms behind him and wrapped him tight like a mummy. I often wonder about those last moments when this little boy died alone, gasping for air. His foster mother allegedly said, "he's freaking out," as she closed the closet door behind her and drove away.

Did he scream and shriek and cry out for someone to save him? Did he fight and squirm and wiggle violently, desperate to be free? Did angels surround him with their love and tenderness in his agony?

I like to think they did. I must believe they did.

Since Marcus Fiesel's first and last breaths, I have pondered what they might mean and how they might be used in the face of our compromised foster care system, vulnerable families and fragmented communities.

What meaning do we take from Marcus' short life and death? Maybe he came to teach us something. Maybe his death can give new life, new hope to countless foster kids if we commit to taking better care of our modern-day orphans. Maybe goodness can grow from this devastation. Maybe he did not suffer and die in vain.

I like to think that. I must believe that.

The enormously complicated issue of foster care can discourage anyone trying to find ways to help. But like the largest group of children now entering foster care, maybe the answer is very small, so small that we accidentally look past it while we try to find great, big solutions. Maybe the answer is kindness: kindness to each other, to our communities and to families living on the edge. Kindness to foster parents, caseworkers, GALs, magistrates and others who are buried under so much pressure and heartbreak they want to give up. Maybe kindness will be the one simple thing that, offered and received over and over again, will slowly but surely transform the lives of children and ultimately our world.

Maybe in honor of the anniversary of Marcus Fiesel's birthday you can give the gift of kindness to the next child you see. Maybe it will be your own. Maybe it will be the neighbor's kid or even the annoying kid at the pool who is always stirring up trouble. Maybe you can look upon that child with kindness and ponder the magnificence in that little body: the wonder and the hope and the potential that child brings to the world. Maybe you can nurture it fully knowing you are sending ripples out into the world far beyond what can be seen.

I like to think you will. I must believe you will.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Natural Instincts

My home borders a 730-acre park lush with giant trees, miles of walking trails and a picturesque lake that wanders under several stone bridges. The park is home to countless animals and feathered friends, many who make their way just beyond park borders.

Last week I rounded the bend into my neighborhood and lightly tapped my brakes in order to stop for a duck lounging in the middle of the road. Fifteen feet to her left, her six baby ducklings sat in a perfect circle as if they were preschoolers waiting for their afternoon snack.

My daughter, Grace, and I sat quietly and watched them for a few minutes while Mother Duck sized us up from afar. When Grace opened her door to get a closer look, Mother Duck quickly rose to her webbed feet and waddled toward her brood squawking loudly. All six dutifully stumbled to their tiny feet as well. Within seconds she whisked her babies off safely into the woods. I was impressed. Why don't my kids always move that fast when I try to get them going?

I thought back to a troubling story I had read earlier in the day. According to new reports out of Florida, a two-year-old was removed from the home of her mother, Swazikki Davis, earlier this month after a series of unexplained physical injuries. While the two-year-old was placed in foster care, her one-year-old brother, Ezekiel Mathis, remained with their mom while an investigation was initiated. Fifteen days later he was dead at the hands of her boyfriend after allegedly being thrown against a dresser and pounded on his back.

What is it that makes a mother unwilling or unable to protect her baby? Isn't there a natural instinct that roars to life when we sense our offspring are in danger? Mother Duck has it. Why didn't Swazikki Davis have it? Or somewhere along the line did she lose it during her own childhood experience of abuse, neglect and subsequent placement in foster care?

Even seven-year-old Lexi had a natural instinct to feed and care for her two younger brothers when she was just four years old herself. She had a hard time letting go of her adult responsibilities when the three of them were (thankfully) placed in a foster home together. Weeks later she cried and cried as her foster parents put her to bed. They cried too when she thanked them for taking care of 'her boys'.

I definitely have that protective instinct when it comes to my kids. You have it too when it comes to yours. And ultimately, children like Lexi and Ezekiel's sister are our children too, at least while they are under the jurisdiction of a court and wards of the state.

Your children need you.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Saving Grace of Community

I couldn't sleep last night. When I was working cases of abused and neglected infants and toddlers I almost never slept well. My wise, older mentors would tell me to imagine putting my case files in my cabinet for the day and closing them up, trusting that I had done the best I could. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes. Mostly I imagined the doors opening back up and the lips of the file folders moving like a mouth saying "help me, help me".

A sleepless night returned and it had nothing to do with an abused or neglected child. It had to do with three young children (ages 10, 7, and 4) and their mother, Abbie. It had to do with media images of the casket that held the man who was their rock and one of the most solid parts of the foundation of their family: a young husband and father killed in the line of duty. You can read more about Warren County Sheriff's Sgt. Brian Dulles here.

The sadness runs even deeper. His oldest daughter has battled cancer twice and won. Isn't that enough suffering for one family to endure? And now this? How could this have happened? Why? Those same questions that gnawed at me in the dark while I was representing the best interests of kids in court returned with a vengeance.

As usual, I have no answers. But the one thing I do know is that the saving grace in devastation is community. Abbie and her children are surrounded by family and friends who will step in and do whatever they can to ease this pain. Brian's brotherhood of public servants will stand by them and the larger community around them will support them with prayers and random acts of kindness. They will not go through this hell alone. They are forced to endure it, but they will face it with an army of companions who will hold them together while they are falling apart. And with a lot of prayers, support, love and a tremendous amount of grace, they will grow strong around the broken places.

In the end, community is what stands when all else seems blown to pieces. Our relationships with each other are what matter most when you strip away everything else. We need each other. We cannot go through this life alone. Moving through this life in tandem with others is just about all we can count on, even if we can't move through it with the ones we love the most.

We all belong to communities: our families, our schools, our churches, our workplaces and our little neck of the woods. Wherever your community is, take a moment today to be grateful for it, to express your appreciation for being rooted and consider how you might strengthen it by your words and actions. Then think about building stronger communities around vulnerable children and families who aren't quite so fortunate.

Community is also what will ultimately save a generation of foster children drifting through a compromised government system.

Community is what will save all of us.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Parent's Rights Versus Child's Rights

Chloe* was born drug-addicted and immediately placed in the home of her father's mother (paternal grandmother) after her discharge from the hospital. Chloe's mom, Lydia, was addicted to heroin and cocaine and received no prenatal care. Lydia's three older children were all adopted after she failed to successfully reunify with them when they were in foster care.

Lydia incurred criminal charges of theft and prostitution immediately prior to Chloe's birth. As result, she was court ordered to attend drug treatment and referred to a facility that could accommodate children as well. Chloe had been living with her grandmother for one month when Lydia petitioned the court to have Chloe placed with her in treatment.

If the judge asked for your opinion on whether Chloe should be moved to the center in order to live with her mother, what would you recommend? Should Chloe move or stay with her grandmother? What factors would you consider in making your decision.

*Chloe's name has been changed to protect her identity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Extreme Recruitment: Foster Care Edition

My good friend Shelly is a CPA and stay-at-home mom. She is also a really cool person, which is why I roped her into becoming the volunteer treasurer for the Southwest Chapter of the Ohio Association for Infant Mental Health. She slid into a chair next to me during a monthly meeting recently and placed an article about foster care on the table.

"Check this out. This is awesome," she said enthusiastically. I had to laugh.

The Time Magazine Article and the concept behind it were awesome. In March 2008, Melanie Scheetz sat down to watch an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and wondered how massive teams of professionals and volunteers could build a luxury home in a week yet foster kids wait in limbo on average for one to five years before achieving permanency.

Under Scheetz' direction, Extreme Recruitment was born. Under the Extreme Recruitment Model, long-lost relatives are zealously sought for hard to place foster kids in need of permanent homes. The Extreme Recruitment Team includes two full-time private investigators who track down a minimum of 40 family members per child languishing in the system. The outcomes are promising. Seventy percent of Extreme Recruitment's children were matched with families. This is an outstanding accomplishment. I can't help but wonder if the fates of severely abused Victor Barahona and his murdered twin sister, Nubia would be different if they had an Extreme Recruitment Team looking for family members prior to their adoptions.

When Shelly put the article in front of me, I had to laugh because this is exactly what I think will ultimately help children. They will be helped when people who aren't normally involved in the system become engaged. We can all make contributions, no matter what our skill sets, to further the mission of helping vulnerable kids in our own unique way. The government alone cannot save these children. But together, we can.

At our monthly meetings, Shelly is a lone CPA in the midst of therapists, social workers, and childcare professionals. While we talk kids and families and trends, she talks business and dollars and bottom lines. She will likely never be a foster or adoptive parent or on the frontlines of infant mental health work, but that's OK. She's doing the part she can do and passing on good information in the process.

What might you have to offer?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Swapping Stories

I had lunch yesterday with a colleague who is a child therapist and works with young children who have been abused or neglected. A dozen years ago we started working cases side-by-side. She taught me almost everything I know about young children and largely shaped the ideas portrayed in my book, Invisible Kids, regarding the importance of relationships as vulnerable children grow and develop.

We sat across from each other in booth at a crowded Panera swapping horror stories we'd read in the local paper or heard on the news in recent weeks.

Did you hear about the nine-month-old baby who died of burns from a heater? Did you hear about the two-year-old beaten to death by his teen father? What about the mom who over-dosed on heroin in a restaurant restroom and left her three young kids sitting at a table in the dining area? What do you think of the three-year-old little girl who was found dead in her bed? Did you catch the story about the two-year-old who was severely scalded with hot water?

Not your typical lunchtime conversation, to say the least. Maybe it should be.

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what has been happening in the past MONTH alone in our neck of the woods. Horror stories like these dot the landscape of our daily paper, sandwiched between news on the economy and the silliness of city council meetings. Do we even notice these stories? Do we think about the surviving siblings of battered babies and what their lives look like?

We need to, hard as it is to come face-to-face with children's pain.

I'm sorry. I wish I could spread happy sunshine about how we live in a wonderful world and stop there. But I can't. The reality is that we do live in a wonderful world. And because we do, we must step into this hell and help these kids and families find a way out.

Today, please visit my Invisible Kids Facebook Group and click on a link from Zero to Three that gives you information about using your political voice to help young children. Read up on your ability to inform public policy. It won't take you long.

I have faith that our most vulnerable children can live in wonderful worlds. We just need to help make that happen.