“Have you ever even told him you loved him?” The gears of my brain turned slowly as the reality of what the question implied sank in. I was talking to the head of our tri-county juvenile probation, Curt. I was imploring him for support for when my son moved back home. Before I can even begin to answer, another bomb, “He just needs your unconditional love.”
And there it was. Again. The pronouncement that I’d heard in one form or the other so many times before (though never, up to this point, so blatant). My 17 year old son, adopted at 6, was troubled because we obviously did not love and support him. Apparently spending his first crucial years of life in hell before he was adopted wasn’t the cause. It was still somehow my fault, he was not so subtly implying. I felt the familiar combination of shame and anger well up, but I needed him and could not say the things that were on the surface of my lips. As patiently as I could muster I assured him that I loved my son. And then I attempted to once again explain that he has reactive attachment disorder and that love alone cannot fix what is wrong. I pleaded that I was simply asking for the same tool for when he comes home that the group home had to try to manage his behavior.
And “try” is the operative word since this is the group home that could not manage him and so he was being abruptly discharged.The group home was a step down in structure from where he’d previously been living and he wasn’t adapting well to the openness. And compared to my home, the group home had 24/7 (mostly male) full-time staffing, security systems and cameras throughout the interior and exterior, standing pick-up orders from the police and no small children, girls or animals. At home we had no security systems and no staff, just two moms and 4 younger vulnerable kids and pets. We wanted a family relationship with him and this stirred up his trauma and attachment wounds just by virtue of our existence, which is a well documented aspect of attachment disorder if any of these “experts” had cared to look into it. I had no idea how I was going to pull off what was expected of me. I was panicking remembering how impossible it was the last time he’d lived at home. And now he was now almost an adult, bigger than me and remarkably similarly behaved as he was when he’d first moved in – which was overwhelming and frightening.
I reflexively wanted to defend myself to this insult. I feel like in some ways I wear a thick armor, but the accusations still hurt. I know I’m not perfect, not by a long stretch, and I have made enormous mistakes in raising my children. But I look back on the balance of the good and the bad of my kids’ lives with me, and I am satisfied within my soul that my kids are not troubled because I made them that way, but because the tragedy that was their early lives, the further trauma of being adopted and the almost total lack of effective resources for kids like mine. And more than that, I also know in my heart how much more troubled they would be if we had not been so committed to them and that they would not have healed as much as they very definitely have. Even J, my son, has grown in so many ways from who he was when he first came into our lives. He has values. He knows what was right. He allowed himself to be vulnerable at times. He has embraced his love of learning. His fourth grade teacher called him the Senator because he was so interested in current events. But not much had changed with his ability to regulate his emotions.
It seemed obvious to me that he would not be successful at home no matter how dark of rose colored glasses I put on, since even this group home could not handle him. I was powerless to contain J’s behaviors and was unable to effectively provide the supervision and support he needed. And yet, we were alone. For him to have had a real chance at success, a lot needed to be in place from day one. My two oldest kids are legally disabled because of their behavior problems so they theoretically qualify for additional support services. Unfortunately, the rules and systems in place do not easily translate from medically disabled to behaviorally disabled. My kids could do all the “normal” things in life, but they needed a great deal more supervision and structure than most kids their age and lacked almost all internal motivation to do better. For many there is an incredibly fine line between what they can do and what they will do to engage in their own wellness. Programs to support behavioral disabilities either do not exist or have long waiting lists and are sadly largely ineffective as currently designed.
That being said, a creative county services team could have helped a lot by just believing us about the challenges ahead, helping us think through issues and get whatever possible into place before he came home.
Instead a team of the Ayn Rand’s worst stereotype of social workers were who we had to deal with (For the record, I do not agree with Rand. But her description of a social worker in The Fountainhead has a ring of truth sometimes). Both systems-level and staff dysfunction permeated the agency. After he came home, sometimes there were meager efforts to help. There were a couple of workers doing as best they could to help within the limited scope of their power, but the majority of them, including the entire supervisory staff, had profoundly misjudged our family and our kids and would not engage with higher-level planning of what needed to be done. Trying to get help in place was an exhausting uphill climb of paperwork, meetings, phone calls, appeals, etc. that almost always led to nothing. I became exceedingly impatient with it all and could be downright rude as the unrelenting pressure mounted. And still, nothing. Either the program didn’t meet J’s needs or J would refuse to participate in anything that did finally come through. He needed out-of-the-box thinking, but I was stuck with people whose primary focus was on not spending money and then used blame of us to justify doing so.
They truly gave me no choice but to bring him home. There was an implicit threat of removing my other children from our home on the grounds of “neglect” if we refused to bring J back. Though that may seem unbelievable, it is a common threat given to parents of seriously disturbed children whose parents push back on bringing them home. And this is true for children markedly more disturbed than my son. By this point, my relationship with the county had completely deteriorated and I did not trust them to not remove my children. My youngest son’s adoption from foster care had just been a few months prior. My other 4 kids were stable and that possibility was not something I was even going to tempt them with.
There was also an explicit threat of terminating our parental rights to J if he didn’t come home. I could not tolerate the thought of doing that to him, sending him back to foster care, giving him the message that we really did not love him and leaving him to an ever changing cast of strangers who obviously knew nothing of his condition. We had spent too many years standing by this kid through everything than to walk away one year before he became an adult. I felt incapable of doing anything other than what they were demanding, knowing that it would put everyone at risk. I convinced myself to go along because I somehow still wanted to believe that services and support would eventually materialize and we could power through that year.
A particularly painful ironic twist on this judgment was that I wanted all my kids home, together. I so much wanted to make it work. I had never fully gotten over the sadness and guilt that I first experienced when he left home, nor stopped wanting him to be able to safely transition back. He was my cherished boy whose big brown eyes and sweet smile belied his pain. None of us are the equivalent of our worst moments. I always saw a spark in J in him that wanted to kind and loving despite how he behaved. And I missed him terribly.
When we made the decision when he was nearly 13 that we could not manage him and that he had to go residential treatment, I felt so broken and ashamed that I couldn’t do more. I knew that RAD is ideally best treated through family life. I thought if I could somehow break through the layers of pain, he’d be on the right path. But no matter what we tried, how hard we worked, how much we put ourselves and our other kids on the back burner to address his needs, he was spiraling ever more dangerously out-of-control. We could not keep him or anyone else safe. He needed more than we could give, at least with the resources that were available to us.
After begging on the phone to the probation manager, he reluctantly agreed to give me 2 weeks of a standing-pick up order, meaning that if need be, police would arrest J and take him to detention with no questions asked. I was not sure how bad things would get, how quickly, so this at least took the edge off my panic. Of course, things would have to be really bad for me to take advantage of it within the first couple of weeks. I didn’t want him in trouble again.
Things were out-of-control by that first night, though not because of J. His sister had told me the morning he moved in that she would “lose herself” when he came home. And she did. So from day-one, we had a destructive and completely uncontrollable teenager in our home. The kids had an intensely traumatic bond that triggered both of their worst instincts. Within weeks I had two unmanageable teens as J began spiraling hard downward. None of the social workers, probation officers or anyone at the county attorney’s office working with kids had any real knowledge what any of this meant in terms of how to actually deal with trauma and attachment disorder. It was fundamentally unwise and unkind to place those kids in a situation that they could not emotionally handle. And I can’t help feeling some bitterness about it even still.
J had been in twenty-four institutions, hospitals, group homes and foster homes throughout 4 years of out-of-home placements. For anything except the highest levels of supervision (hospitals and jails) he was either removed by police for violent behavior or discharged suddenly because they could not meet his complex needs. He could not stabilize. Throughout it all, we continued to parent him from afar, advocate, visit, send gifts and letters and tried keep him as close as we could because he was and always will be our family.
And then, like a miracle, all his push back stopped. He started going to school, making progress on his drivers’ license, got a job he loved, and had good, positive friends. He entered into a program through the MN Department of Corrections in Wilmar that had the capacity to manage his outbursts without police. Slowly, over time, he realized that violence and running weren’t getting him moved. Once he realized that he was there to stay and that they could get him past these outbursts, he started to heal. Even though his residence was in a big building with other kids, he largely had achieved what had seemed impossible – a normal life. No one wants kids unnecessarily restricted, but some kids need very high levels of supervision and not recognizing this can actually hurt them in the end.
When it was announced that he would be transferring to a much-less structured group home in Rochester, I felt powerless. Years of feeling helpless in the face of a system that just did what they wanted with us and with him had left me drained. I did float the idea of him staying and no one took it seriously at all. My son had cost them a lot of money and the county was tired of paying those bills. We even heard this directly at a meeting from one of the county social service supervisors. This resigned acquiescence of mine remains as one of my greatest parenting failures. As the wheels were set in motion for him to move I tried to be happy and held onto hope. I could not deny that having him in town would make having more of a normal family life possible. Moving J once he’d finally found his spot I believe dramatically changed his life trajectory for the worse.
At first, it was amazing. The drive home from Willmar with him is such a fond memory because he showed all those special qualities that made me fall in love with him, despite everything else. There was a little shop in one of the towns we were passing through and he insisted on buying me this beautiful carved owl for my gardens. “Mom, you deserve it.” How could I say no? He was bubbly and kind the whole 7 hour car ride. The first 2 weeks in Rochester he wanted to spend nearly every day with me. I allowed myself to believe that it would all work out. But not long after, it all came crashing down under a wall of behavior problems that grew increasingly worse.
His treatment of us again became incredibly painful and he refused to see us most of the time. His behavior in the group home became unstable, erratic and unsafe like it had been before Willmar. The group home was set up to transition kids to adulthood. They were not in the business of applying the level of structure and control that he needed when he couldn’t handle himself. Within a few months, they wanted him out. And that’s when our county social services agency devised that brilliant plan that he would then return home.
How troubled he was lost on nearly every-single-one of the “professionals” who were charged with helping us during his last crucial year before adulthood. If love could overcome the developmental trauma of prenatal exposure to alcohol, drugs, violence, not to mention the epigenetics of trauma, and the formative years spent profoundly neglected and abused, then all my kids would have been just fine. I loved those kids from the moment I knew I was chosen to be their mom. I was never naive enough to believe that love alone could fix what was wrong. Any parent not educated enough to believe that love is all that it takes is quickly disabused of this notion. Love, ironically, existentially scares kids with RAD and can significantly escalate their acting out. They were rejected and mistreated by those closest to them, and without always being consciously aware, the kids have a very hard time allowing someone to get close again. They will reject you before you can reject them.
The next few months after J returned home our lives dissolved into chaos and pain. My efforts to engage either the county or my kids in finding solutions grew desperate. I was a mess. Everything was falling apart and there was no way to manage it without serious intervention in terms of staffing, on-site systems such as alarms and cameras and/or assistance with his self-destructive behavior, all of which could have been covered by their disability program. But every county interprets statute of covered services differently and ours approved of almost nothing I requested. Maybe if I’d had more time to just be there for him and not handling every facet of his complex case myself, maybe, just maybe we would have avoided the worst that happened. Maybe his sister wouldn’t have gone so far downhill. We’ll never know. But I like to envision a reality where we could have managed. But nothing I did helped. Eventually, keeping the younger 3 kids as safe-as-possible was all the energy that I had.
Everything came to a head with a singularly cruel and violent act that changed our family forever. Our county then doubled-down on their shame, blame and deflect approach with us. They formally blamed us for the everything going south by opening a child protection case against us, shifting around their reasoning wildly from that we weren’t adequately supervising to that we were emotionally unstable parents and various other explanations along the way. An exceedingly disturbing and too long conversation with a county supervisor took place the day after the incident and she told me that they were concerned about our parenting. I asked her if she saw any irony in opening a child protection case against me for failure to supervise (the initial explanation) when for the last 9 months I had been adamantly saying that there was no way that I could appropriately supervise without more resources. She flatly replied, “No. No irony.” She also admitted what had been my worst fear – had we not brought J home, they would have removed all my kids. She later denied she’d said this. But that phone call was another nail in the coffin of my willingness to see them as anything other than adversaries. In the end she reassured me that they were opening a child protection case so that they could finally provide me with more resources, since that division has more funding.
The the next day, with no explanation I got a call from a child protection worker who informed me that they actually needed to meet with me in order to conduct a child protection investigation. I asked for clarity for what the supervisor had told me 12 hours before. Eventually they said that they’d changed their minds and had to follow statute. But as said before, every county interprets statute differently and we saw statute after statute violated when we were asking for services. They chose to go after us and it was an insane bookend to the hell they’d already put us through. Sadly, I had seen it coming. Even before he moved home I asked about how they would handle the inevitable child protection questions that would arise, since families with disturbed kids know one way or the other they’ll eventually have to deal with that. They had ignored that question.
No tangible, actual help ever arrived. And now I was living in gripping fear of them and their unlimited power to destroy our lives. My older two kids understood this and would lie and threaten even worse lies to the social workers about us, thus even further limiting our ability to have even the slightest bit of control over them. This, too, is an extremely common aspect of reactive attachment disorder.
The incident that occurred was horrifying and his response to being confronted was equally horrifying. I could no longer live with the worry that one of us would end up dead. He could not stay any longer, and yet he did for another month because our social services agency believed his lies about why he did what he did and they deemed him safe to live at home. Eventually we got approval to provide him with an apartment in town, not to keep my other kids safe, but because they still thought we were so awful. Things for him kept getting worse until he finally turned 18 a few months later.
I am not quite sure how I survived that year. I honestly think it was only because I knew I had no choice but to keep putting one shaky foot in front of the other in order to take care of my youngest kids who had suffered so much through it all. Caring friends also came out of the woodwork and wrote amazing letters of support, babysat, sent us meals and cards and showed us that we did have people who cared and had our backs. I wish I’d focused my energy on my interpersonal supports rather than looking for help from the county who was legally obligated to do so. Perhaps this all would have turned out better.
Eventually, we did get through it. A formal CP case never was opened. The new social worker assigned to us was not at all naive and quickly and accurately sized-up the situation – my oldest 2 kids were troubled and it wasn’t our faults. She actually did provide suggestions and attempt to give support within her own limited capacity to do so. She went to bat for us with her supervisors and insisted that we were in fact good parents. I will be forever grateful to her for being a light in the midst of that very dark, horrifically painful time. But the stress of these meetings still added more stress than help.
Eventually my daughter mostly settled down again and is now close to graduating high school and with a certification in medical office management. My other 3 kids continue to thrive, somehow still loving their older siblings and wanting a relationship with them. I no longer panic each time the phone rings. Hardly ever is it bad news anymore.
Sadly, the one in our family who is dealing with the most lasting, long-term damage is my son. He was the one who social workers were so convinced that they were serving, when in fact they assisted him ruining his life. A few months after he became an adult he committed a serious violent crime that has landed him in prison. I got a call from the oldest kids’ probation officer that J had been arrested. What followed was a swirling nightmare. It was on the news and in the paper. His violent behavior leading up to his birthday was used in determining his sentence, even though he was a minor. Most of these were all charges that he may never have gotten had he stayed in Willmar. I feel so much grief for his victim and in the end, he’s the one who will suffer the most because of the profound incompetence of our county. J is still responsible for his own behavior, but he should never have been in so many unstructured situations without appropriate services. He needed so much more than they gave.
I have zero satisfaction in the fact that we were right about how much support he needed. It’s something that is maddening to contemplate deeply, all those “what if’s…” The only thing that I can do now is continue to speak out for support for families and children with serious mental illness. I continue to advocate for understanding and better services. I’ve become a neurofeedback practitioner as a way to help people who struggle to cope, since I am feeling so disillusioned by conventional treatments. I advocate for expanding the pharmacopia to people who struggle with mental illness. I will not go quietly away, but continue to be a voice for those who are stuck like we were in the abyss of pain that no one seems to care about.
And for my son, he has a long, hard road ahead. But there is hope. He finally seems to understand the magnitude of his challenges and that we are his greatest champions and not his enemy. He has reached out to us in a way that he never really has and is working on his own growth. He now knows that he has to be in control of himself or his emotions will dominate and destroy him. We are rebuilding our relationship, one call, one letter and one visit at a time. He will still be young when he gets out and we will help him rebuild his life. When we adopted him we did not do so imagining that it would be easy. But we are tough and we are committed. And in response to the head of probation, “Yes, Curt, we have told him we love him. We tell him every single time we talk with him.” Because we do.