Journey to Family part 8

So a few moments later I snatched an opportunity and asked her, “You know what that means?”  She looked up at me again and asked “what?” and then went back to playing Cats in the Cradle.  I said, “It means forever” with a big smile on my face.  She abruptly looked up at me and with a very surprised look on her face she said “No, Mom.  Remember you said my mom and dad can’t take care of me for now.”

I took her hands in mine, and said, “Sweety, your birth mom and birth dad can’t take care of you, now or ever.  They don’t know how.  They love you very much, but they just don’t know how to take care of a little girl.  They agreed that the best thing was for you to come and be our daughter, forever.”  Her big blue eyes started to fill with tears, just a little.  “Will I ever get to see them at least?”  I wanted so much in that moment for her to reject them, but at the same time, I knew that was an impossibility.  “Of course you will!  We have agreed that you will get to see them sometimes and even talk to them on the phone.”  She looked bravely at me and asked, “Can I have a sleepover with them?”  My stomach turned at the thought of it.  “No, that you can’t do.”  “How come?” she wanted to know.  I explained to her that they didn’t live in a place that would be appropriate for her to have a sleepover.  Those were words she understood.  I didn’t need to elaborate, it was as if she knew exactly what I meant.  How could she not?  She’d lived with them before, she knew the turmoil and the inability…now that she had had an experience of a normal home and family it was clear to her what was wrong with the past.

October 10, 2008 is a day I won’t ever forget.  I imagine it’s the same as when a mother gives birth; you just don’t forget the details of such an important day.  We rented a mini van so that 6 of us could travel together to the court house for the event.  We rode together with Mary’s maternal grandmother who had traveled from Florida, and my in-laws, (who had been surrogate grandparents all along.)  We were to meet our priest and his wife at the courthouse as well.

As we entered the court house, Mary started to show some signs of nervousness.  I’m sure she had no idea what to expect, and neither did we.  Court houses are scary places when you’re little.  There are lots of people milling around, and a few explatives here and there as well.  As you look around a courthouse, you can see all kinds of emotion from fear, to anger, sadness, and  joy.  We soon met up with our priest and his wife, made the necessary introductions and started the waiting process.  Eventually we were joined by our attorney and the adoption case worker. (Ironically, this would be her last case as she was set to retire in just 2 weeks time!)

Finally the time came to enter into the courtroom.  We were directed where to sit, while our friends and family were ushered to appropriate seats.  The court officer approached and sat across from Mary, leaned back in his chair and turned to one direction, and placed one arm on the table.

“Hi” he said in a comforting tone.  “What’s your name?”  Mary looked at me shyly and I nodded for her to answer.  “Mary” she said, quite sheepishly.  “Do you know what’s going to happen here today?” he asked.  “I’m going to be adopted?” she replied, unsure if this was the right response.  “That’s right!” he said.  “I have a few questions for you.  Are you ready?”  She shook her head in response.  He proceeded to ask her full name, what school she attended, who her teacher was, what town she lived in, what her favorite color is.  She answered each one confidently.  The he told her that in a few minutes the judge would be coming into the room and was going to ask her a few questions.  “Do you know what she will ask you?” he inquired.  “No” said Mary.  “What’s your name?”  Mary looked at me, grinned, and turned back to him, “Mary.”  He continued, “What school do you go to?”  She responded with a giggle.  “Who is your teacher?”  Mary continued to answer the questions with a huge smile on her face, indicating that she figured out what he was doing.  He ended by telling her she was going to do just fine, and that she had nothing to worry about.

Shortly after he left, he entered the room again and the formal court process was started.  The judge entered and came over to the table where we were sitting and assumed the chair that the officer had used.  The judge greeted Mary with a handshake, and proceeded with her few questions.  She asked Mary her name, her age and where she lived.  She asked if Mary liked her school.  Then she gently explained to Mary that today was the day that her adoption would be finalized.  She took out of her folder a very colorful document that read, “Certificate of Adoption   To:  Mary [her middle and our last name] of [our town and state] In accordance with G.L c 210 and s6A, I certify that [our names] of [our town and state] were adopted by you on October 10, 2008 by decree of this court, and the parents’ name following the adoption will be MOM and DAD.  Signed this 10th day of October, 2008 ”  There was a line for Mary to sign, and a line for the judge to sign. Mary got to use a special light up pen for the occasion that was later presented to her by the judge.

The rest of the business was taken care of in short order, with a document for my husband and I to sign.  Mary was then presented with a teddy bear, and a lollipop to finish it off!  We took several pictures with the judge behind the bench, and headed out for a brunch.  We were now offically a family.  It was done.

Journey to Family part 7

On our flight to Florida, Mary looked at me and said, “Thank you for taking me to Disney World!” Her smile melted my heart yet again.

We had expected that by the end of June the adoption would be final, but it was the end of July and we had no more a clue as to when it would be final then when we left court following the TPR (termination of parental rights…not something I like to say, or write.)

Phone call after phone call, the answer was the same:  still waiting for the documentation to come from the court.  The final decree of the TPR had to go from the court to the DSS area office where the case workers sat.  I kept thinking, I could just call the court myself and make it move along faster than this!

Summer slowly turned to fall, and school started.  The adoption case worker had agreed to let Mary start school using our last name in the classroom, avoiding another transition for her.  We had told her that she would have our name by the time she started second grade, and we were determined to make that happen.  I felt there was nothing worse in the world then for her to have to explian over and over why she had a new name.  And so she did.  Her nametags arrived in the mail, (the teacher has the children wear nametags for the first 3 days of school) with the wrong last name.  Off to school I went, the day before classes started, to get new ones with our last name.  Mary’s name tag was hand written, all the other children’s were printed from the computer.  I wondered if they would notice.  I wanted so much for her to just be like all the other children in her class.  Driving home, I reconciled that.  She’s not like all the other children.  The more I try and erase the first 6 years of her life, the more noticible it becomes that there was something there that is now smeared over.  I allowed myslef to give it to God; to let Him be the one who erases…or not…the ugly times.  It wasn’t/isn’t my job to do that.  My job is to make sure that the following years of the rest of her life are better than the first 6.  So with a new sense of purpose I drove home with name tags that displayed exactly what God wanted the world, albeit 18 secnod graders, to see.

September was quickly winding to a close and we still had no word on finalization.  Then one after noon I got an e-mail from my husband.  It was disturbing, insighting, frustrating.  He told me that he had spoken with the adoption case worker who informed him that she would be retiring in mid October, and that as of yet she had not heard.  She said she had requested a date for finalization that was before her last day, but she hadn’t been given a date yet and she thought that it would most likely be after National Adoption Day in November, but possibly into December.  Part of me wanted to cry.  A bigger part of me wanted to call her.  So I did.  I pushed.  I pleaded.  I asked for a phone log of who she had called, when she called and the outcome.  I became a mom advocating for her child and for her family.  I didn’t yell, I didn’t threaten, I didn’t loose my temper.  But she knew all of those things were just under the surface.

I got another e-mail from my husband the next day.  I opened it and quickly my eyes fell to the words “We have a date.  October 10”  That was all I needed to see.  It was a mere 9 days away!  We decided to take Mary out to dinner to tell her.  She had been asking and asking and all I could do was tell her soon.  But this time I could tell her the date.

We went to Applebee’s.  It’s not far from us, and it works for a week night out.  As we sat waiting for our food to be delivered, we decided to tell her.  “Remember you asked me when you would be adopted?” I asked.  She answered without looking up.  “Yes.”  “Well,”  I said, “we have a date now.”  Her eyes darted up at me.  “When?” she asked, with a sparkle starting to form.  “In 9 days.  A week from this Friday!”  Her mouth dropped open and she froze for a split second.  “Cool.”  Cool…was that it?  Was that all I was going to get?  Cool????  My heart was bursting with joy and all she can say is cool?  So a few moments later I snatched an opportunity and asked her, “You know what that means?”  She looked up at me again and asked “what?” and then went back to playing Cats in the Cradle.  I said, “It means forever” with a big smile on my face.  She abruptly looked up at me and with a very surprised look on her face she said “No, Mom.  Remember you said my mom and dad can’t take care of me for now.”

Journey to Family part 6

After 1 or 2 more court appearances, and a foster care review board meeting, Mary’s birth parents signed away their rights in court in March. It was a bitter sweet day for all of us.

Enter the gray zone. No longer are we bound to the DSS agreement that provided weekly telephone calls and monthly visits (most of which were skipped anyway). Not ready to put the open adoption plan into work since the process is not complete yet. What to do?

Then it happened. Mary decided on her own that she no longer wanted to talk to them. It started when she resisted a call. We insisted. Then it dawned on us that we don’t have a legal obligation to insist anymore. So we talked to Mary’s counselor about it, and she agreed that Mary is old enough to decide for herself who she does and doesn’t want to talk to. From that point on, we would ask her the morning of the expected call if she wanted to talk to them. A few hours later we would ask again, just to make sure she hadn’t changed her mind. Week after week it was the same, no. I started to notice that the constant question was becoming uncomfortable. I decided that maybe just one blanket question would be enough, so we had a talk and I asked her if it bothered her. She reluctantly agreed that it did so we made an agreement that we wouldn’t ask, but that she could tell us when she was ready. (Of course, at her age I don’t really expect that she will tell us so every once in a while I’ll pose the question anyway!)

July 2008
We took our first family vacation together! We flew from New England to Florida for a week. We visited with Mary’s maternal grandmother for a few days, then rented a car and drove up to Orlando for a few days at Disney World. What an amazing time we had as a family!

Each night we returned to the hotel to participate in our     church’s international convocation events, specifically the evening Eucharist. On our flight to Florida, Mary looked at me and said, “Thank you for taking me to Disney World!” Her smile melted my heart yet again.

Journey to Family part 5

We paced about the house, watching anxiously out the window for the car. Finally, it arrived. We could tell it was them because the car was going slowly. As it pulled in the drive way, we cautiously walked down the front walkway to greet our new house member. She bolted out of the car and exclaimed “I can’t believe I get to live here forever!!”

A year’s worth of things have happened in the 7 months that Mary has been with us:

Thanksgiving (spent at our home this year with family coming to visit)
Rich’s Birthday
Christmas
New Years
Valentines Day
St. Patrick’s Day
Easter
Mary’s Birthday (a huge event celebrated with friends and family!)
Memorial Day
Mother’s Day
Father’s Day
End of school, start of summer camp
My Birthday (coming up soon)

And we have had some other milestones as well, such as loosing a couple teeth and a visit from the tooth fairy, acomplishments in school, report cards, school pictures, as well as a myriad of hand done pictures, drawings, paintings, books and notes! We have lived a lifetime in these short months and it has been wonderful!

In the mean time, there was still work to be done legally. We didn’t enter into this thinking that we would adopt Mary right away, rather that we would foster until her birth parents could get themselves together. But the state had different plans. It wasn’t long before they moved to change the foster care goal from reunification to adoption. We didn’t initiate it, the state did. We were surprised to learn that the state had been involved far longer than we thought. We learned a few more horrifying details of her past life, and knew what we had to do. There was no doubt that the occasional visit (which were scheduled monthly but didn’t happen that way) was difficult for Mary. Although she didn’t act out as some children do, her school work suffered. We noticed right away how her quality of work took a nose dive. The artistic child turned to scribbling and destroying pictures she had drawn. Her overall behavior became a little out of control, and it was months before we saw the happy child again. And the weekly phone calls were difficult too. She would usually talk for just 5 or 10 min. Once we had to end the call because her birth mother burst into tears on the phone and saying things that a 6 yr old just doesn’t need to hear.

During this time, we spent time praying about adoption. We had made it through the first battle of getting her placed with us and now the next battle loomed: how to go about adoption.  We met with a mediator on a couple of occasions, and even one round table with the birth parents to come to an agreement for open adoption.  We felt that this was the best route given that we have known the parents for so long, and didn’t want to gamble that a court could order more visits per year than we were prepared to deal with.  Naturally, they didn’t want to give up their rights, and I felt, in a way, criminal asking them to. It’s a difficult place to be; wanting to have this child, not wanting to hurt the parents, wanting to protect the child, not wanting to hurt her by taking her from them. Millions of emotions that go back and forth. Wondering on some level if it is the right thing, but knowing on every level that her needs are paramount.  Our agreement was achieved, and we successfully drafted a plan that we felt kept Mary’s interest at the front.

After 1 or 2 more court appearances, and a foster care review board meeting, Mary’s birth parents signed away their rights in court in March.  It was a bitter sweet day for all of us.

Journey to Family part 4

The next thing I heard put all my fears to rest. One of the two women turned and said, “It’s ok, Mary, we love you no matter what!” We had found Mary!

From the moment we were introduced, I knew it would work. Mary was charming, absolutely charming! And my husband showed all the earmarks of a great dad from the get go. He knelt down to her level, and carefully explained that he was her godfather. Then, she dropped the bomb. She asked, plainly “Why do you want to see me?” He explained, simply, we hadn’t seen her in a long time. That was it. It was the truth, but it wasn’t more than she could deal with. It was perfect.

As we left, the case worker suggest what we were thinking and that was that we start having regular visits. We were elated! Our first visit, on a Sunday, consisted of a trip to play mini-golf and dinner at Friendly’s. I’ll never forget seeing her in her aqua blue dress and white sandals! Soon, we were making the weekly trip almost an hour away for a few hours of Mary’s Sunday. In the mean time, we had to attend training, have a home study completed, a fire inspection completed and have in hand our foster care license so that Mary could begin to stay over night. The bedroom we set up in May was finally going to be used!

The licensing process wasn’t without it’s bumps. It’s difficult to explain the ups and downs of the whole process. There were phone calls, questions upon questions, (that goes both ways), and stress. But the day we got the license in the mail, the air of peace settled on us.

Soon, we were able to have overnight visits. We would pick her up on Saturday morning, and bring her back after church on Sunday. Mary blended right into our church family too, waiving the praise flags and dancing during worship! What a joy she is and what joy and blessing she brought to those in the congregation as well! Soon, our one night over night turned into two. We would pick her up after work on Friday and return her on Sunday after church.

As we made the drive to and from during the late summer, I remember wondering if we would still be making that trip in the fall. As the leaves turned color, I wondered how much longer it would be. I had prayed that we would get custody before school started, but it didn’t happen. Then the call came. Mary would be placed with us full time!

November 1, 2007

It was supposed to happen later in the day, but the call came about 2 hours early. Rich was rushing home from work, and I was too, because the social worker was on his way with Mary! We paced about the house, watching anxiously out the window for the car. Finally, it arrived. We could tell it was them because the care was going slowly. As it pulled in the drive way, we cautiously walked down the front walkway to greet our new house member. She bolted out of the car and exclaimed “I can’t believe I get to live here forever!!”

Journey to Family part 3

We were making progress on our end, but we still didn’t know when, or if Mary would be placed with us.

Ironically, after Mary was removed from her birth father’s care, he reconciled with Mary’s birth mother.  They didn’t appear in court the first time.  From then on, we never knew what to expect.  Our court appearances were stressful, since we were not sure how they would react to seeing us.  Some hostility had started to brew, and  we were not interested in a bloody battle.  Each time, however, everyone remained calm and we were able to get through it.

Spring turned into summer, and even though we knew through all of the state agency’s representatives that we were in fact going to be the next placement for Mary, we had no idea when that would happen.  Further, we hadn’t even seen her.  We knew from sources that her birth parents had visited once, but beyond that we didn’t know.  We worried about what kind of family she was with.  We wondered if she was dealing with things.  We prayed for an army of angels to surround her and protect her every single day–it was all we could do.

July, 2007
Finally, someone decided that if Mary was going to be placed with us, then it would be a good idea to meet her.  The meeting was scheduled on the day of a Foster Kids Day at a state park on the first of August.  It was the perfect set up; Mary would arrive with her foster family, and we would be introduced within their presence.  I loved the fact that it was a fairly secure (emotionally) way to be introduced, and since it was at this wonderful outdoor event, it would be a fun memory for her.

The day arrived, and we sat nervously in the car at the entrance to the park.  We were to meet the state case worker there, and go with her to meet Mary.  Of course we had no idea what Mary looked like.  We hadn’t seen her in quite some time.  As we walked with the case worker into the picnic area, I mentioned to her that we didn’t know what Mary looked like.  The case worker said she didn’t know either, but that she was confident we would find her.  We were walking just behind two women with about 6 children.  One of children, who was wearing blue shorts and tank as well as blue shoes, commented to one of the other children in the group, “I’m not a boy, I’m really a girl, my dad just cut my hair off”.   The case worker and I looked at each other, and smiled.  The next thing I heard put all my fears to rest.  One of the two women turned and said, “It’s ok, Mary, we love you no matter what!”  We had found Mary!

Journey to Family part 2

Spring, 2006
…While away, things worsened for Mary so much so that she was taken from her mother and placed in state foster care.  We were mortified.  A child we knew was in the black hole of foster care!

We sat at the dinner table shaking our heads.  How could this have happened?  What can we do to help?  We both work, we are stable.  We just didn’t know what to think.  Who should we call?  Who knows what’s going on?

A week later we got the news that Mary’s birth mother had in fact been arrested on charges of neglect and child endnagerment.  We also learned that her birth father had collected her out of the foster system in that state and brought her back to New England, or Texas, or somewhere.  We heard the horrible details of Mary’s time with her mother.  We continued to hear details of Mary’s birth mother’s one woman crusade to find her now seemingly ‘lost’ daughter, and her unconventional methods of doing that; harassing phone calls, threats, more harassing phone calls.  We continued to shake our heads in disgust and disbelief.  We still didn’t know where Mary was either, but we presumed that if she was with her birth father it had to be better than with her birth mother.  We soon learned how wrong we were.

As time went on, the storm calmed, and things started to go somewhat normal.  Mary’s birth mother had been granted visits, then unsupervised visits.  She got an apartment, she was getting help, she was trying to fix what had gone so horribly wrong.

Side note:  In March 2007, after almost 10 yrs of marriage, we decided that adoption was what we wanted to do.  We thought about Mary but not knowing anything made it difficult to see that as a possibility.  We knew we were both ready for adoption so we started asking questions of people we thought might help us.

April 2007
The news came to us like a shot ringing out in the night.  Mary had been placed in foster care, again.  This time, she was removed from her birth father.  There was no question what we had to do.  You don’t become the Godparent to a child and not act when you know that child is in peril.  All we knew, finally, is what state she was in.  We learned that Mary’s birth mother had hired an attorney to work out divorce and custody issues.  We actually got to speak to Mary’s birth mother over the phone.  We asked her if we could speak to her attorney.

I made the initial phone calls.  I called the attorney, who was willing to help me by providing the name and phone number of the case worker assigned to Mary.  I immediately called the case worker, identified my husband as Mary’s Godfather, and asked what we needed to do to have Mary placed with us.  She said simply, you have already done it.

We learned that since we live in a different state, the process would involve what is known as an interstate compact.  It turns out that this is a federal law, that if a child is in state’s custody in one state and there is a suitable family or kin home in another state, then the states involved MUST work together to expedite that placement.  The catch for us:  we are neither family or kin.  My husband’s status as Godfather wasn’t enough for placement, although it was enough for the states to consider us.  But no promises.

Months went by.  We started to hear some of the awful details of why she was removed from her birth father’s care:  she lived in a bug infested home, she was always hungry, she had missed more days of kindergarten than she attended, her head was shaved because she got head lice.  There is more, much more, but it serves no purpose to write about it, not now anyway.   We heard that Mary had been reprimanded by her foster mother for trying to call her birth mother.  I thought “If I get her here with me, I won’t do that.  She can call whenever she wants!”  (Oh how I’ve grown since then!).  We hired an attorney.  He advised us that we should do what we can to put our best foot forward.  Here is part of the list, as I remember it, of what we thought we needed to do to get ready:

Purchase and set up a bedroom
Line up references
Line up people who would attest to the training and suitability of our dogs with children
Do something to mend, or hide, the structural defects in our house
‘Deep clean’ the house in preparation of a home study (this would be nesting if we were having our own!)
Find out what we could do to expedite becoming licensed foster parents

We were making progress on our end, but we still didn’t know when, or if Mary would be placed with us.