Not A “New” Life

This comment came up in a discussion about how adoptive parents change the name of their adoptee when the adoption is finalized. One woman commented – “Nothing wrong with that, we started using his new name too to get him used to it. New life, new name.” She was quickly corrected – “I need you to fucking not. Adoption isn’t a “new life”, it’s a continuation of the life they are already living. This comment is insensitive at best.” This one had started new childcare job. She is a domestic infant adoptee. One child in her class is in the process of being adopted and that X is their legal name and Y is the name the adoptive parents have chosen to change it to. This child isn’t an infant, so the childcare workers are basically having to train the child to respond to a new name.

I will admit, I did a little sleuthing into the one who made the insensitive comment but could find nothing definite except that she is relatively new in the all things adoption group. There are some interesting photos but nothing certain as to her status in adoptionland but her comment seems to indicate an adoption there.

Lacking that, I looked for some context and found this recent (Oct 2022) article in The Atlantic LINK>Adoption Is Not a Fairy-Tale Ending, with the subtitle – It’s a complicated beginning. While maybe not perfectly what I was looking for, I did see how it begins – In America, popular narratives about adoption tend to focus on happy endings. Poor mothers who were predestined to give their children away for a “better life”; unwanted kids turned into chosen ones; made-for-television reunions years later. Since childhood, these story lines about the industry of infant adoptions had gradually seeped into my subconscious from movies, books, and the news.

The author, Erika Hayasaki, notes – researching a book on identical twins raised in radically different circumstances, the reality of adoption is far more complicated than some might think—and, as many adoptees and scholars have argued, deserving of a more clear-eyed appraisal across American culture. Her book, Somewhere Sisters, chronicles identical twins Isabella and Hà were born in Vietnam in 1998, and their mother struggled to care for them. Isabella (born Loan) was adopted by a wealthy, white American family that gave her a new name and raised her in the suburbs of Chicago. Hà was adopted by a biological aunt and her partner, and grew up in a rural village in Vietnam with sporadic electricity and frequent monsoons.

Twins have always fascinated me. I was born a Gemini and have always wondered what happened to my twin. When I was a child, my 13 month younger sister and I were often dressed alike and sometimes people thought we were twins. When my daughter was preschool age, she used to claim we were twins. I suppose I’ve had at least two surrogate twins in my life. I digress.

The author discovered that when reunions with birth families do happen, they aren’t always happy; they can be painful, confusing, or traumatic. Adoptees who are parents, lawyers, educators, or activists are challenging the rosy image of adoption that stubbornly persists in our culture. Children are not offered up for adoption in a vacuum. Many of them “are available because of certain, very strategic political policies.” Often the reasons for removing children from their parents comes under the heading of “neglect.” Throughout adoption history, this broad category has encompassed homelessness, poor hygiene, absent parents, and drug abuse in some instances, or simply leaving a child with caregivers outside the nuclear family.

A happily ever story after adoption often comes at the cost of forsaking everything that came before. The process, known in the adoptee community as coming out of the fog, refers to when an adoptee starts to see beyond the narrative about fate and question their true feelings about the adoption system, and how it has impacted their relationships, personalities, and identity formation. As the child of two adoptees, I also had my moment of coming out of the fog because adoption had seemed like the most natural thing to me until I was over 50, both of my parents had died and I began to discover my families true origins.

For me, coming out of the fog was, and continues to be, a process that involves simultaneously holding my adoptive grandparent’s love and good intentions in my heart’s memories alongside all the ways that adoption robbed me of what, for most people, is almost an unconsidered common reality. There are all of these contradictory realities within one’s experience of belonging to a family created by adoptions. The duality of that space can be hard for those without such a background to reasonably understand.

When It Feels Like No One Cares

A birth mother story about what it is like when the entire deck is stacked against you.

I placed my daughter for adoption back in 2017 when I didn’t have custody of my 3 older kids. I was homeless, depressed and struggling. The adoption process was very traumatic for me. Although my daughter is very loved and happy, I wish I would have been encouraged or supported to keep her.

I got my life back together and fought my family for custody. I have my older two children back in my care but my third child is with a different family member. I had been doing much better in life, until …

I had just moved into a big house the couple weeks before I found out I was pregnant, was working, making great money. And then I found out I was pregnant. Everything has gone downhill from there. I have severe morning sickness – so severe that it’s classified as hyperemesis gravidarum. I was constantly in and out of the hospital, so I quickly fell behind on bills and the baby’s dad became obsessed with a stripper and left us at the time we moved into the house. I wound up losing my job due to missing so much work and was facing eviction.

The baby’s dad stepped in to try and work things out. We were all staying in a motel. I don’t make nearly the money I did at my job doing side gigs and he makes minimum wage. The cheapest motels around here cost about $2,000/month. Realizing we didn’t really have many options, we decided to sign on with an adoption agency that would pay our motel expenses. He was there for me when I gave up my daughter for adoption, even though he is not her birth father. We viewed this decision as staying strong and doing it for the baby.

I am getting closer to my due date. I can’t help but to feel like I’m only choosing to do this as we are technically homeless. We have no plan or anywhere to go after this baby is born. Does this mean I’m not good enough to parent my other children, if I can’t take care of this one? I haven’t told them about the adoption because I don’t know how to explain “I want this baby to have a better life than the crappy one I can provide for you guys.”

I feel like not only does nobody care about this baby, nobody cares about what’s going to happen to my other kids either… it’s so depressing. I don’t know what to do/where to turn anymore. I started using hard substances a couple months after I placed my daughter for adoption to numb that hole in my heart. Deep down I fear if I go through this again, I’m going to want to go back to numbing that pain, except I probably won’t survive it this time around. I have no family, not many friends, no support. Baby’s father and I are on better terms now but it’s not the way I pictured any of this unfolding, especially when my life was going so well before this pregnancy.

What It’s Like To Age Out

Today’s story (not my story) –

I’m in Kansas. From age 2 to 18 I was in and out of the foster system. I aged out 4/27/2022, 11 days after my 18th birthday. The state aged me out and left me with nothing. I stayed living with my kinship placement for awhile. The night before graduation she kicked me out and the day of graduation texted me telling me she expected me to come home and get ready for graduation. She kicked me out again, after I told her I was taking a semester off before starting college. I spent the hottest part of summer homeless and couch surfing. I came back to her house 9/21/2022 and it’s been rocky. She continuously threatens to kick me out, which would be fine but I have nowhere to go. I have a Div of Child and Family Services worker at the moment, who is somewhat helping me out but she is hard to get ahold of. I am currently working as a server and about to become a manager as well as starting college this month. I don’t have many options right now and don’t really know what to do.

One adoptee offered this advice (which I agree with) – Don’t go back to that house. And honestly if u make more as a server don’t take the management position unless it’s more money. I’ve only taken lead server roles where I made more hourly and got to keep my tips also. Look on LINK>Roomster – it’s an app for roommates. That way you can at least get a room of your own. While you work on yourself. And it turns out that the management position is $2 more than what she is making now. And if she get tips while being a manager, she gets to keep them.

Since she indicated transportation issues, one person suggested that in some states, the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation will provide Driver’s Education classes for people who need to be able to drive themselves to and from job searches/work. She wrote back – I passed the driver’s education class, but had to be medically cleared. By the time I was finally medically cleared I had to retake to test and haven’t been able to.

Re: the housing issues, after someone suggested Catholic Charities (and talking to an advisor at the college about what might be available to share), she adds – “I did have rapid rehousing with Catholic Charities but when I worked at Amazon, I lost it because I made too much.”

And I didn’t realize Reddit could be helpful – there was this – Reddit is more anonymous and you can post on your local sub (probably r/”city name” as well as r/assistance, r/almost homeless, r/ex_foster and r/fosterit.) Your college might also have some resource suggestions, google “college name” + “counseling department.” Assuming you’re in the US, call 211 as well.

I rented rooms in apartments and houses from age 19-28 with roommates I found off of Craigslist, despite it’s bad rap. Many rooms do not require a credit score (I moved countries once, and credit scores don’t transfer.)

Also look up YMCA Host Homes to see if that’s a thing in your city, it’s a small program but could be an option.

All this, just to give you an idea of what these young people are up against. There is much more and I am hopeful that somehow my group which is so resourceful will be able to help this young woman somehow.

The Foster Care Problem

Today again, for the umpteenth time, I learned of 2 children being removed for neglect when that neglect was fixable! It’s criminal these kids are removed.

Being part of the Foster Care System in a non-kinship capacity makes you part of the problem:

If being a foster parent is such a good thing, if they are doing right by these kids, then why do we have these statistics?

Half of foster youth will never graduate high school

One in five will enter the homeless population

One in four will be involved with the criminal justice system

The False Belief: Neglected, abused children are pulled from their home and placed in welcoming environments that are stable and safe

The Reality: More than 1/3 of youth in foster care have documented abuse in foster homes. The act of removal adds additional layers of trauma

So you, who are wanting to become a foster parent, are thinking you are one of the good ones right ? You would not abuse a child – so fostering is the right thing to do because you’re a good guy.

Awesome, but to fight for these kids, you often have to really fight and you are at the mercy of the state. You really have no leverage. You are a glorified babysitter in many cases.

That means your fighting for these kids could be one mis-step away from crap with the caseworker that will cause you to lose that child to a home that WILL abuse them considering how high the likelihood of abuse in foster care is.

So before someone else says it – let’s talk about “what’s the alternative, just let children be abused by their parents ?”

The False Belief: Children removed from their homes are removed “for a good reason”; otherwise they would not be removed

The Reality: “Neglect” is cited in 76% of the cases but what is considered neglect runs the gamut: lack of proper supervision, food insecurity, housing/utility issues, medical challenges, safety issues, assumed neglect due to poverty level, assumed neglect due to the race of the family.

What would solve the “Neglect” issues cited above ? These are ALL solvable issues and addressing them would reduce the number of removals by 76% !!

Why do so many NOT see how the money, time and energy, that goes to Foster Parents and/or the Foster Care system, could be put to programs for family preservation. Doing so would vastly reduce the number of removals and keep children with their families.

What is it going to take for John Q Public to get this and advocate for change ? What is it going to take for foster caregivers to do better and put their time and efforts behind helping families keep their kids out of foster care.

Simply Thankful

So often in this space I am focused on all of the things that are not quite right in adoptionland or within the foster care system. I do care about how adoptees feel about their state of being which began involuntarily and those complex feelings extend to donor conceived persons, especially those who may not have known about their origins until much later in life. I believe we can ALL do better and many who are similarly educated by the realities of life are now speaking out – to help the rest of us understand that the truth is complex and diverse but usually not the fairy tale narratives that adoption agencies prefer for everyone to believe.

My education about all of these related aspects has been brief and intense since my adoptee parents (yes both of them were) died in late 2015 and early 2016 (just 4 mos apart after over 50 years of marriage) and I made my own roots discovery journey. I am certainly grateful for what I learned that made me feel finally “whole” and for the genetically related family I am now acquainted with. They are all precious to me and totally human with flaws and positive attributes like we all are – myself included. And I still have a love in my heart for my adoptive grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins because they were the family I knew and grew up with. They are who I often celebrated Thanksgiving with throughout my childhood and early adulthood.

The thing I am honestly most thankful for is that I was NOT given up for adoption. It is my own personal “miracle” because adoption was so common in my family as to feel natural to us (though I now understand that it never was “natural”). My mom was a high school junior, unwed. My dad had just started at the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces. Yet, I was preserved in the family in which I was conceived. This may explain one of the reasons that family preservation is so important to me personally. I had a good enough childhood. Sometimes we were a bit financially challenged. Sometimes my dad’s anger was a bit too short fused. My mom was unhappy enough at one time to contemplate suicide. My youngest sister ended up homeless. My other sister lost her first born to his paternal grandparents in a court of law and my own daughter ended up being raised by my ex-husband and his second wife. Even so, I am thankful for every CRAZY experience of my own life because it has made my understandings of human nature so much deeper and more reality based.

May you too be counting your own blessings this day.

Safe Families For Children

This organization was recommended to a woman going through a crisis as she is attempting to escape domestic violence by moving to another state. She is currently homeless with a 4 year old child. She worries they will become a target for Child Protective Services. A bit of her story –

A family friend had said that we would have a place to stay but when we got there, they said we couldn’t stay because my son was “too noisy.” He has autism spectrum disorder and is vocally pretty loud. We slept in our car the first couple of nights and then started camping. I tried to make it a fun summer adventure at first but recently we have started to get run out of campgrounds, even though we haven’t overstayed our allowed time. We are assumed to be homeless (which we are, but I don’t go around announcing it). I just found a job and someone willing to watch my son during work. It is all so overwhelming. I haven’t started yet but I can’t even figure out how to get work clothes, gas, even the fingerprints process done – all while living in my car with my little guy. I’m afraid I’ll end up losing the opportunity to work but actually my biggest fear is having my son taken away.

NOTE – Walking away takes a tremendous amount of courage. Taking your child with you to safety shows integrity and good parenting.

Some advice – look for “Women’s Shelters,” “domestic abuse shelters” and organizations that provide shelters specifically for mothers with children. They can give you an address that would satisfy an employer. There is a LINK> National Domestic Violence Hotline. Another suggestion was the LINK> Bridge of Hope program, which serves families without discrimination, extending compassion and grace without judgement to families facing homelessness. Bridge of Hope has no faith or church attendance requirement or expectations.

LINK> Safe Families For Children is an organization that serve families in crisis. Basically prescreened families host kids for a short term in order to keep them out of the foster care system. Safe Families For Children serves families who lack social networks and live in isolation without support of family and friends who are dealing with crises such as homelessness, unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, medical emergencies and alcohol/drug rehabilitation.

Separations

An adoptee wrote – “I hate not belonging anywhere. I hate that I have multiple families, but also really zero. I hate needing to earn my place in people’s lives.” I could relate as I recently shared with my husband and he understood. We both come from small nuclear families and there is no extended family geographically close to us and honestly, few of those as well anywhere else.

Much of this feeling for me comes from the realization that those who were my extended family growing up aren’t really related to me. Those that are genetically biologically related to me don’t really know me, have no real history with me and though I am slowly without too much intrusion trying to build these new relationships . . . sigh. It isn’t easy.

My first family break-up was one I initiated. I divorced the man I had married just before I turned 18 and a month before I graduated from high school in April 1972. By November, more or less, I was pregnant with our first child. She remains the joy of my life and has gifted me with two grandchildren. However, finances separated me from my daughter when she was 3 years old and she was raised by her father and step-mother who gave her a yours-mine-and-ours family of siblings, sisters, just like I grew up with. It has left me with a weird sense of motherhood in regard to my daughter. One that I often struggle with but over the last decade or so, I have been able to bridge some of that gap- both with regard in my own sense of self-esteem and in a deepening relationship with my daughter, primarily since the passing of her step-mother (not that the woman was an impediment but understandably, my daughter’s heart remains seriously tied to that woman even today).

The trauma of mother/child separation lived by each of my adoptee parents (while skipping my relationship and my sisters’ relationship with our parents) passed over to my sisters and my own relationships with our biological genetic children. I seriously do believe it has proven to have been a factor. Both of my sisters gave up babies to adoptive parents and one lost her first born in court to his paternal grandparents. Sorrows all around but all us must go on the best we can.

Since learning the stories of my original grandparents, I have connected with several genetic relatives – cousins mostly and an aunt plus one who lives in Mexico with her daughter. Everyone is nice enough considering the absolutely un-natural situation our family histories have thrust us into. So really, now I find myself in this odd place of not really belonging to 4 discrete family lines (one set of grandparents were initially married and divorced after the surrender of their child to adoption and one set never married, in fact my paternal grandfather likely never knew he had a son). Happily, though a significant bit of geographical distance a factor foe me, my paternal grandfather was a Danish immigrant and I now have contact with one cousin in Denmark who has shared some information with me that I would not have but for him.

Regarding estrangement, I’ve had no direct contact with my youngest sister since 2016. In regard to looking out for her best interests, her own attorneys in the estate proceedings encouraged me to pursue a court appointed guardian/conservator for her – as both of our parents died 4 months apart and she was highly dependent upon them due to her mental illness of (likely) paranoid schizophrenia. The effects of that really destroyed my relationship with her (which had been close until our mother died and then, went seriously to hell, causing us to become estranged). I just learned the other day that the court has released her conservator. I guess she is on her own now. She survived 4 years of homelessness before reconciling uneasily with our parents. I guess the survivor in her will manage but she most likely also now believes the guardian/conservator proceedings were my own self being vindictive, for some unreasonable purpose. Sigh. I don’t miss contact with her – honestly – it was cruel and difficult being on the receiving end of her offensives after our mom died. I do wish her “well” in the sincerest meanings of that concept.

It could also be that without these great woundings I would be less vulnerable and available, less empathic and compassionate, with the people I encounter as I live my life each day. Maybe it is precisely my reaching out, in an effort to connect, that causes me to share my own personal circumstances. A sacrifice of the heart.

Krista Driver NPE

Today’s story comes from an essay in Right To Know. NPE stands for non-paternity event (also known as misattributed paternity, not parent expected, or NPE) is when someone who is presumed to be an individual’s father is not in fact the biological father. This presumption may be on the part of the individual, the parents, or the attending midwife, physician or nurse.

The story that was told to her was that her mother was 15 years old and homeless, living in a van, and making a lot of poor choices as many troubled teens do. She didn’t have adult supervision, and drugs and parties and a little bit of crime-ing seemed like good ideas to her at the time. One winter day, she was arrested for “breaking and entering.” The police found her in a pile of dirty clothes in the back of her mother’s van. Her mother went to juvenile hall and she went to the hospital. They say, she weighed only 2 lbs and diagnosed her as “Failure to Thrive”. The doctor told the social worker, “It will be a miracle if this baby lives through the night”. She acknowledges, “I guess I wasn’t ready to ‘give up’ because I lived to tell the tale.”

After some years in foster care, about the time she turned 4 years old, she was taken into court and her mother was there. When she entered the courtroom, her mother was telling the judge, “They can have her now and then give her back to me when she’s about 10”. He tapped the papers on his desk and said, “I’ve seen enough”. And with that, he ended her mother’s parental rights, and Krista was now eligible to be adopted by her foster family.

She shares, “Doctor visits were always weird because I had to remind them every visit that I was adopted and therefore did not know my family’s medical information. The worst was the school family tree assignments.” LOL, she admits, “I just made stuff up. One year, my family were missionaries in China and lived off bugs in the forest. Another year, my parents were in hiding from the Mexican mafia and we were in the witness protection program. Every year, the stories become more outlandish. And not one adult asked me what was going on with me—maybe because they all knew I was adopted and didn’t want to talk about that because people just didn’t talk about adoption back then.”

She continues her story –

When I was about 12, I saw an Oprah Winfrey show on “Adoptees and Happy Reunions” and I distinctly recall wishing I could have a “happy reunion” with my mother. I mean, I figured enough time had passed so surely she was more mature and sober. There were no computers or internet back then, so I walked down to the library and looked through phone books. I copied down ALL the people with her last name and then I snail-mailed letters to all five of them. One ended up with my birth mother’s grandparents and one with her sister. Naturally, I hadn’t told anyone I was even going to look, so imagine my parent’s surprise when one night my great-grandfather called.

My parents took me to meet my great-grandparents and they were nice enough. He showed me some of the genealogy he had done, and I was instantly fascinated. From that moment on, I’ve loved genealogy and researching ancestry. They told my parents not to allow me to meet my birth mother because “She had a lot of problems and it wouldn’t be good for me to meet her”. So, just like that, the adults in my world decided it wasn’t in my best interests to meet her without even bothering to ask what I wanted or thought.

And this part is sad – It wasn’t until many years later that I fully came face to face with a harsh truth about my great-grandparents. They knew about me when I was born. They knew I was in foster care. They knew Sharon was “trying” to get me back. And yet, they left me there. They didn’t help her. She was 15 and living on the streets. They let their great-grandchild spend the first four years of her life in foster care. Then they met me at age 12. Once. And never called or wrote or anything after that. I will never understand why they made those choices.

Krista chose the field of psychology as her career path. In grad school, she once again had that dang family tree assignment. This time she decided to do it with real people and real information. So, she dug out her biological aunt’s phone number and called her for help. She agreed and they arranged a day for Krista to drive down to San Diego to meet her. On that day, her aunt decided it would be a good day for Krista to meet her biological mom, their mother, and her brothers. She admits – The only problem was that she neglected to tell me. I walked into a family reunion of sorts and I was not prepared. It was very, VERY, overwhelming. I was 21 and I simply did not have the emotional maturity to withstand all the emotions that flew at me and in me and around me. I was stunned into silence.

She describes the moment she saw her mom, Sharon, and they locked eyes. The woman had no idea who Krista was. One of her uncles went over and told her mother. When recognition hit her eyes, so did something else. From where Krista was standing – it looked like shame and guilt and an intense desire to flee. Somehow they bridged the distance and hugged. Her mother kept saying, “you’re so beautiful”. Krista says, “And I felt nothing. And I felt everything. And time stood still. And the past rushed in. It was the most confusing moment of my entire life.”

Her mother told Krista “Michael” was her father. She found him and met with him. He told her he remembered Sharon and a baby, but that he wasn’t her father. Michael was with her the day she got arrested and Krista was taken away. Later he ran into Sharon and she told him the baby died, and he went on with his life. Then, Krista shows up 21 years later claiming to be his daughter. Leaving his house one day he said to her, “I’m not your father, but I will be one if you need one”. She says, he really was a sweet man who had made a lot of mistakes in his past, but he married an amazing woman and had two lovely children. For 26 years, she thought he was her biological father. And after the night she met her mother, Sharon, they did develop a pretty good relationship though their relationship was complicated. 

Eventually, she did an Ancestry DNA test. Michael was right. He isn’t her father. Thomas is. He was 35 and her mother was 15, when Krista was conceived. A lot like the parentage of both of my own adoptee parents. Each was young (though in their 20s, not teenagers) and the fathers were both much older men. Reminds me of the time my husband and I tried to do some match-making for his dad’s twin brother only to discover he was only interested in much younger women. LOL

When Krista asked her mother who Thomas was and she just started crying. She let her mother know she would be willing to speak with her when her mother was ready to tell her the truth. They never spoke again. Sharon died unexpectedly a few months later and took her secrets to her grave. Well, actually, Sharon’s ashes are in Krista’s closet sitting right next to her stuffed monkey George. Sharon was 62 years old. Yet, Krista knows her mother also lied about so many things.

She says there were little to no resources here in the US. The UK had quite a bit of data (clinical studies) to pull from. Krista began to formulate a really good sense of how to define what she was feeling and put some contours around her experience. From there, she was able to identify healthy, impactful ways to walk through this NPE landscape. Solo. She didn’t have a single person who could identify with what she was going through.

Krista has turned this into her practice as a therapist. She trains other clinicians who are interested in working with this population. She has opened up virtual support groups for NPE (adult and adolescents), NPE Dads (biological dads), and NPE Wives (those whose husbands discover a child). She also works with people one-on-one and has worked with people from all across the US and from other countries. She is honored to note there will be a major clinical study here in the US (starting in the very near future) that she will be involved in.

She ends her essay with this – With the advent of home DNA kits, it’s not a matter of IF your secrets are revealed, it’s a matter of WHEN. The “recovery” isn’t necessarily linear, but it is survivable. I promise you that.

Adding More Misery To The Suffering

Daisy Hohman’s 3 children spent 20 months in foster care.
When she was reunited with her children,
she received a bill of nearly $20,000 for her children’s foster care.

An NPR investigation found that it’s common in every state for parents to get a bill for the cost of foster care. Case in point –

Just before Christmas in 2017, Daisy Hohman, desperate for a place to live, moved into the trailer of a friend who had an extra room to rent. After Hohman separated from her husband, she and her three kids had moved from place to place, staying with family and friends.

Two weeks after living at this new address, police raided the trailer. They found drugs and drug paraphernalia, according to court records. Others were the target. Hohman was at work at the time. No drugs were found on her, and police did not charge her.

Even so, child protective services in Wright County MN placed her two daughters, then 15 and 10, and a son, 9 in foster care. County officials argued she had left the children in an unsafe place. After 20 months in foster care, her three children were able to come back home. Then, Hohman got a bill from Wright County to reimburse it for some of the cost of that foster care. She owed: $19,530.07

Two federal laws contradict each other: One recent law directs child-welfare agencies to prioritize reuniting families. The other law, almost 40 years old, tells states to charge parents for the cost of child care, which makes it harder for families to reunite.

The NPR investigation also found that: The fees are charged almost exclusively to the poorest families; when parents get billed, children spend added time in foster care and the extra debt follows families for years, making it hard for them to climb out of poverty and the government raises little money, or even loses money, when it tries to collect.

Foster care is meant to be a temporary arrangement for children, provided by state and county child welfare agencies when families are in crisis or when parents are thought to be unable to care for their children. It’s long been recognized that the best thing for most children in foster care is to be reunited with their family. While in foster care, children live with foster families, with relatives or in group settings. More than half will eventually return home. There were 407,493 children in foster care on the day the federal government counted in 2020 to get a snapshot of the population, according to a report from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families.

In 2018, Congress reformed funding for child welfare when it passed the Family First Preservation Services Act. That law tells state child welfare agencies to make it their focus to preserve families and help struggling parents get their lives back on track so that they can be safely reunited with their children. But a 1984 federal law still stands, as do additional state laws, that call for making many parents pay for some of the cost of foster care. Among the costs the federal funding pays for: shelter, food and clothing; case planning; and the training of foster parents.

Of parents who get billed for foster care: A disproportionate number are people of color. Many are homeless. Many have mental health or substance abuse problems. And almost all are poor — really poor. 80% of the families in a data analysis had incomes less than $10,000 annually. Try living off $10,000 a year. You’re in deep poverty, if you’re living off that kind of money.

Hohman followed the case plan set out by county caseworkers in 2018 and completed the steps required to get her children back. She went to family therapy sessions and submitted to random drug testing. She saved up enough money to rent an apartment in order to provide the children with safe and suitable housing. The $19,530 bill was just a few thousand dollars less than Hohman’s entire paycheck in 2019, for her seasonal work at a landscaping company. The debt went on her credit report, which made it hard to find an apartment big enough for her family or to buy a dependable car to get to work. When Hohman filed her income tax, instead of getting the large refund she expected it was garnished.

To charge poor families for the cost of foster care sets them up for failure. Mothers, often single, work overtime or take on a second job to pay off the debt forcing them to leave the kids alone and unattended. While it might not seem like that much to have to pay fifty or a hundred or two hundred dollars a month in foster care child support, if you are a very low-income, low-earnings mom, that can be the difference in being able to save money for first and last month’s rent on a decent apartment or not. The mom is at risk of losing her child again because of poverty. That doesn’t make sense from a child well-being, family well-being standpoint, or from a taxpayer standpoint.

Even a small bill delayed reunification by almost seven months. That extra time in foster care matters. It increases the cost to taxpayers since daily foster care is expensive. And it inflates the bill to parents. It matters because the clock ticking for the parents. They are given a set amount of time to prove they should be allowed to get their child(ren) back. Once a child spends 15 out of 22 months in foster care, it is federal law that the child-welfare agency must begin procedures to terminate a parent’s rights to the child with a goal of placing the child for adoption in order to find them a permanent home.

Today’s child welfare system also struggles with conflicting incentives. Laws meant to hold parents accountable can end up keeping families apart. When parents don’t pay, states garnish wages, take tax refunds and stimulus checks and report parents to credit bureaus. In the overwhelming majority of the people in the child welfare program, a significant contributor to the reason they’re in that situation is poverty. Abuse is an issue in only 16% of cases when kids go to foster care. Mostly, the issue is the parent’s neglect. Maybe there’s no food in the refrigerator or the parent is homeless or addicted. These are issues of poverty.

States don’t actually have to go after this money. There’s some leeway in the 1984 federal law. It says parents should be charged to reimburse some of the cost of foster care – when it’s appropriate but it does not define the term appropriate.

Parallel Universes

I only just learned about this book by David Bohl. I have not read it. He is an adoptee. I found an story he tells about being an adoptee and I share from that story today. He talks about the moment he learned shame in connection to his adoption, as well as the confusion and hurt that followed. A hurt that could not and should not be ignored, because ignoring it just fuels the fire of shame…and for him, alcoholism, until he found the origin story that helped him become whole. 

He says, I’ve been two people my entire life. I don’t have a dissociative personality disorder—I’m just a regular guy whose reality is that I am a relinquishee and adoptee, and a person in long-term recovery from alcoholism. In the past my perception was so warped I had to occupy a few Parallel Universes: worlds that collided with each other, but that were also able to contain a person made out of two people. Until I made those worlds connect and interlock, living a split existence almost killed me: I was terrified of confronting my reality; its darkness. 

He shares an old Cherokee fable called “Tale of Two Wolves.” A battle between two ‘wolves’ inside us. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace love, hope serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?“ The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.” 

Bohl disagrees. He says, It is possible to free yourself from the bad wolf—such as the evil of trauma—but starving it won’t work. Your darkness is part of you. Even if you manage to starve the wolf, there will still be a skeleton left behind. A skeleton is not closure—there’s no such thing as closure: we only have context and from context comes wisdom. For me, starving the bad wolf would mean I’d ignore my past, my authentic self, which means I’d ignore reality and the fact that I am a human being who had been relinquished and traumatized by it. I would ignore the fact that I was also drinking myself to death.

He shares, When I was six years old, I told two friends that I was adopted. It was never a secret in my family, and it felt normal, although I understood that it made me unique. I’d look at my family members—most of them olive-skinned, dark-haired – and I’d look at myself in the mirror with my freckled face and red hair. But our difference didn’t bother me. It didn’t bother me until the day I confessed my adoption to two friends. Their shock was so palatable that I urged them to my house so that my mother would confirm the secret I just shared with them. At first, I thought their shock came from being impressed—as if I told them I could fly—but as my adoptive mother cheerfully explained that it was indeed true, I saw shadows of pity, even revulsion, cross my friends’ faces. In that moment I learned about shame. I needed to hide and never reveal my true self. Revealing true self was dangerous. 

The revelation of my adoption introduced capital-S Shame into my life—a thing so huge it overshadowed everything. The world became a giant microscope and I felt observed, scrutinized because I was different. I felt like a freak. As an adult, he became an alcoholic. He had ignored the fact that he had been relinquished. He didn’t want to know about his origins. For Bohl, once he confronted that reality, he could no longer drink in peace. It was the beginning of his recovery.

His story gives me pause. After my dad (an adoptee) died, my sister and I discovered a “confession” of sorts that he wrote for a religious retreat that he and my mom attended. It was about the time he was arrested for drunk driving and bargained with God to let him escape the worst impacts (loss of family and employment). Then, he admits that he broke his bargain, for the most part though he returned to church with my mom after their children had flown the nest to keep her company and I know from personal experience that he continued to go to church during the 4 months he lived after her death until he joined her there in whatever place the soul goes.

This story touches me not only because I discovered his DWI arrest but also because he never seemed interested in his origins. His adoptive parents were his parents and he wished to know no more than that. More’s the pity. He had a half-sister living only 90 miles from him when he died who could have told him about his mother. His father never knew he had a son. His father died in 1968 but they were so much alike – both loved fishing and the ocean – that they would have been great buddies had they known of one another. Was my father ashamed of having been given up and adopted ? I don’t know, he never expressed any feelings about it with me. When my mom, also an adoptee, wanted to search for her mother, he cautioned her against it, saying she might be opening up a can of worms. So, she confided in me but that is the only indication of my dad’s feelings about his adoption that I ever received.

Back to the interview with Bohl, which takes a heartbreaking turn – he says, I got sober at the age of 45 after a seizure that forced me to dig up the records of my birth—I had to know my medical history. And then there she was: Miss Karen Bender, who died at the age of 56. She was a red-headed coed, a flight attendant, a mother to three daughters and two sons—one, me, relinquished—and, eventually, a half-ghost drinking herself to death in a heap of old blankets in a rented storage. Her lonely heart gave out in a homeless shelter. She died alone, isolated like a sick animal, hiding from the world. Not wanting to bother anyone. No one around to see her final departure. Her shame. 

He ends his story with this – she was a tragic wolf. But instead of starving the memory of her, I dug deeper and it helped me to become a survivor whose heart started to heal once I got context and clarity about where I came from and who I was. And even then, I sometimes still felt like an outsider. Yet I wanted to live the kind of life that didn’t depend on adapting. I understood reality and the two wolves that informed it. I had my own family, I was learning my origins. There was darkness in my past but there was also healing that stemmed from it. There was joy, too, and freedom— I was connecting with people in genuine way; no longer through the haze of shame and unhealthy coping mechanisms.  The Reality that I found triumphs over Shame, its capital S getting smaller and smaller as I now live as a man who is whole. 

David Bohl was adopted at birth by a prosperous family. Throughout his earlier years, he tried to keep up a good front and surpass the expectations of his adoptive parents, as he tried desperately to fit in. Bohl was raised with no religious teachings. David later struggled with traditional recovery fellowships; and so, instead sought out secular supports, where he finally fit in. This support allowed him to learn the stark facts about mental health and addiction, as well as the monumental issues many “reliquishees” need to overcome to find peace and the quality of life they deserve. Today, David is an independent addiction consultant