The Child I Didn’t Adopt


Twelve years ago, we traveled to a foreign country to adopt our son Silent One when he was six years old.  Sassy was three, and, as our biological child, was already a long-standing member of the family.  What my children don’t know is that for 24 hours, they had a sister.


We had just come back from our overseas trip to bring Silent One home as the newest member of the family.  We were sitting in the office of the American adoption agency we had used, discussing the benefits of applying for a U.S. birth certificate and how to change Silent One’s last name since a snafu had resulted in him receiving the wrong one (not ours!).

Excited to have met Silent One’s birth family, we shared that in addition to meeting his first mom, we were able to meet his brother and the family who was adopting him. The adoption worker reached out to touch my arm and said she was sorry that it didn’t work out for us to adopt both brothers.

And then the whammy!

She reached for a file on her desk and handed it to us.  I opened the folder.  Inside were pictures of the cutest baby girl, nestled in a pink blanket.  I looked up at the worker.

“I know that you wanted to adopt siblings, and that it was heart-wrenching when you were only able to adopt Silent One even though his first mother made adoption plans for her other sons, too.  This healthy baby girl was just referred to our agency.  If you’re interested, we are willing to place her with you.  There is no need for additional home studies or most other paperwork.  The adoption fee would be reduced to the sibling rate. She should be able to come home to you pretty quickly.”

My husband and I looked at each other.  I wanted to scream “yes! yes! yes!”  But we didn’t want to be rash, so we said we needed a little bit of time to discuss it.

We left the agency.  In the car,we quickly decided that we wanted to make this little baby girl ours. We called back and told the adoption worker that we were accepting the referral and arranged to go back the next day to sign papers.

The next day arrived and we were driving back to the adoption agency.

Inside me a storm was raging.  I so, so, so wanted to adopt that baby.  This child landed in our laps as if it was meant to be, and I really wanted a larger family.  But I was also imagining what it would be like to go from having one child to three.  We had just learned that Silent One had experienced major trauma, and knew that parenting him would be more challenging than average.  Sassy had been my only child for three years, and her life would be impacted by living with a new brother who was processing the bad things that had happened to him.

My husband and I talked some more.  Ultimately, we decided not to adopt her to make sure that we had plenty of time to devote to transitioning Silent One home, getting him the help that he needed, and still having energy left over for Sassy.  We knew that healthy baby girls were in high demand and she’d have no problem finding a different family to call her own.  We were young and had plenty of time to adopt other children in the future.

We never did adopt anyone else.

And I’ve never stopped missing the girl who was mine for a day.  Over the last decade, I’ve pulled her pictures out and said a prayer for her well-being many times.  I’ve never forgotten her name.  Delmy.


Hug Alternatives

The other day, a fellow foster mom was feeling blue because her foster son doesn’t give her hugs. What can she do? That mama needed affection… and so did the boy. But trauma was standing in the way.

First, that mama can throw away the traditional definition of an affectionate hug. There are lots of ways to have a comforting touch between an adult and child.


Affectionate Touch – Non-Hug

  • Tag – You know how to play tag, but do you know why it’s so great for traumatized kids? They can touch and run away, which matches their simultaneous wish to be close and keep their distance. The running also burns off excess stress. It’s a good beginner form of affection between foster parents and new kiddos.
  • “Touch and go” – A brief, light touch on a child’s hand or foot is an excellent way to get a child used to a foster parent’s touch. It’s practically over before it starts, and kids are usually ok with their hands and feet being touched.
  • Wrestling – Boys seem naturally wired for wrestling, and it can be good way of “mock fighting” against authority. The adult carefully monitors so that it stays pretend and doesn’t get into an actual fight. Lots of good contact.
  • Sardines – This variation on hide-and-go-seek can be played by all ages, and since the hiders all squeeze in together, there’s lots of contact and giggling. Focus can be directed on whether or not the seeker will find the hiders, rather than on the fact that physical contact is happening.
  • Swimming – Playing in the water together can provide great skin-on-skin contact, especially wonderful for little ones. Since the water is providing sensory input on the child’s skin, children seem less sensitive to adult touch.
  • Hair brushing – The rhythm of brushing hair can be soothing.
    Hand or foot massage – Putting some lotion on a child’s hand or foot and rubbing it in can be soothing.
  • Tickling – Tickling brings out lots of laughter, and if you allow the child to tickle you back, it’s a great, two-way physical touch.


Different Kinds of Actual Hugs

  • Hug monster – The foster mom announces that she’s about to turn into a Hug Monster, so the kids better run. The kids run away and foster mom chases. If the kids get too scared, foster mom backs off. (I’ve pretended that the kids have slayed the terrible beast and fallen to the floor, or pretended that I am too old and out of breathe. Ok, maybe that wasn’t pretend.) If the foster mom catches the kids, she gives them hugs for a few seconds and then lets the kids run away.
  • Partial hug – A foster dad can hug just an arm or leg. A full on hug can make a child feel like they are being trapped, so hugging just a small part gives a greater sense of physical freedom.
  • Sneak hug – A foster mom bets the children that they can’t sneak up on her and give her a surprise hug. Foster mom sometimes catches the kids as they sneak up, so they can’t give her a hug.  Sometimes she “loses” and lets the kids give her a hug. Kids love this one as it’s a great way to “get one over on the foster mom.’ In time, the foster mom might be able turn the tables and “sneak hug” the children. The first attempts at this should be very obvious, so the children are not literally startled by an adult jumping out.
  • Knock me over hug – The kids attempt to knock over the foster dad onto the sofa with the strength of their hugs.


Negotiated Hugs
You can talk with your foster kiddos about their hug preferences. Older kids, especially teens, may feel better if they can help set the parameters of how hugs are given out.

  • Hug location – Your foster kid may want hugs, but only in certain “safe” locations. For example, only in public areas like the kitchen or only outdoors. Bedrooms and bathrooms are often places where abuse take place, so your child may be particularly sensitive to a good night hug in those rooms.
  • Scheduled hug – Your foster child may do better if a hug is made part of routine. It can be a hug before going out the door to school or a hug in the living room before the child starts getting ready for bed. Simply taking out the “scariness” of not knowing when that foster parent is going to hug you can help a child relax.
  • Hugger vs huggee – A hug doesn’t have to be mutual. One person can just stand there while the other one hugs them.

Over time, your foster children may overcome their anxiety and graduate to traditional hugs. But if they never do, you still can have a fabulous, affectionate relationship.

Trip to the Doctor’s

I took 9-year-old Watchful to the doctor’s office.  Ever since he arrived at our house, we’ve been saying that he frequently skips meals when he’s upset. We shared his dad’s concerns about this weight loss.  Now that more than half a year has gone by, the County calls up and demands we immediately take him to the doctor.
I’m on board with this and agree.  It’s been three months since he had his last check up, so it will be good to see how he’s doing.  The social worker had called Thursday night to make this request. The social worker calls me early Monday morning, demanding to know why I haven’t taken him to the doctor’s yet.  I explain that all day Friday was foster care hearings, the clinic was closed over the weekend, so this is my first chance to call.  I plan to take him in today.  The social worker says if I’m too busy to make the appointment, she can do it.  What????  Seriously?  They have ignored this issue for months and months, and suddenly they can’t wait one day??   But I take a deep breath.  I am glad that this new social worker really cares and doesn’t want issues to linger on the back burner.
 Any way, back to the doctor’s appointment.  Have you ever had to explain that you’ll need a doctor who is comfortable treating children who have been abused?  It’s awkward.  First, you tell the receptionist that you’ll need a longer appointment time.  Then, the receptionist transfers you to a nurse.  The nurse asks you tons of questions.  Then she says you need a special pediatrician who only works certain days.  Ok, so now you have an appointment.  You arrive at the doctor’s office.  The receptionist looks at you and looks at the child and realizes your skin tones don’t match.  This prompts her to ask you about your relationship.  You say foster mom. She asks if you have the right to seek medical care for your child.  Yes, it’s in your records.  She says no it’s not.  You say yes it is.  She says no it’s not.  You say yes it is.  She says, oh yeah, you’re right.
The nurse calls you back, but then makes your child sit in the waiting room so she can grill you about foster care.  You explain, hoping that your foster kiddo is not freaking about being in the waiting room by himself.  The nurse calls him in -he’s looking a bit anxious.  The doctor arrives.  He sends your foster kid out again and grills you about foster care.  The doctor spends some time freaking out about the complexities of your child’s case.  Then the doctor calls your child back in, who is now looking decidedly upset.  The visit wraps up in two hours.  Yes, two hours.  Because everyone is just so worked up about the abuse history.  Any way, you’re supposed to take the kiddo to get blood work done at the lab.  However, this doesn’t happen because the kiddo is now in melt down city.
Luckily, the nearest pediatrician’s office that takes the State’s insurance is twenty minutes from home.  This is lucky, because your kiddo needs this time to switch gears from melt down mode to moderate anxiety.  Even twenty minutes later, kiddo still is too worked up to go to school, so the two of you head to the grocery store.  It’s actually kind of fun to try food samples together.  He gets to choose lots of the food for the family – broccoli, salmon, and even a huge danish for breakfast tomorrow.  You are both now in a happy place.  You drop him at school and go back home.  Once at the house, you dash off a quick email to update the social worker on the medical items.
The social worker somehow miraculously immediately reads your email and calls you to discuss.  You repeat what was in the email.  She proposes her own medical solutions that are different from the doctor’s.  You give her the doctor’s number to directly talk about her crazy ideas unique thoughts on treatment options.
You call your hubby and strategize how to get the blood work done.  You talk about different ways to reduce the anxiety levels so the kiddo can sit still enough for the blood to be drawn.  You come up with a plan to take him the next day.
Whew!  Doctor’s visit accomplished after just six short hours!

I Killed the Dog

I killed the dog. Actually, I didn’t. Our dog is still alive. But Watchful still thinks that I did. Here’s what actually happened.

Our sixteen-year-old son Silent One’s hamster died of natural causes today. The little critter simply curled up in his tiny hut and never woke up. Hamsters don’t live forever and since we rescued the hamster from the animal shelter, he had already lived a long time.

This hamster meant a lot to Silent One. The hamster was his responsibility, his first pet. The hamster was “adopted” from a shelter and Silent One was adopted, too. The hamster slept right by his bed, the first thing Silent One saw when he awoke and the last thing he saw when he went to sleep (while except for maybe his iPhone – but I digress).

So Silent One was understandably very sad.

Eight-year-old Watchful shares a room with Silent One. Where Silent One sought me out for hugs and solace, Watchful accused me of assassinating the hamster. And since I am a pet killer, it just makes sense that I would kill our family dog, too. Then, he saw the knife on the kitchen counter since I was making lunch. This is undeniable proof that I have killed the dog, too. So, Watchful expressed his anger at my murderous tendencies for the next hour.

I called the dog over to Watchful to show him that she was very much alive, thinking this would put an end to the accusation of me being a dog killer. I realize now how foolish and faulty my logic was.

Trauma twists reality. If you have been beaten and threatened by your bio mom, leaving you to fear for your life on a daily basis for years, then surely your foster mom, who is a mom, must also be a cold hearted abuser. The presence of the living dog for this one moment cannot overcome the years of abuse and lack of safety.

So, while I do not like to be thought of as a dog killer, since I am not an animal murderer, I get where Watchful’s coming from.

But try explaining that to a heart-broken Silent One.

To make things worse, our 10-year-old foster daughter Joyful was making helpful suggestions like we should just go to the store and get a new pet, because everyone knows pets are replaceable. And probably she should get to choose which animal, because, you know, she wants to choose. At least, she thought it was a sad situation.

So I pulled aside both Joyful and Watchful. I explained the short life span of hamsters and the circle of life. And then talked about ways to be sensitive to Silent One’s loss. For example, Joyful can express her sadness, but she will not suggest Silent One get a new pet for at least one week. For Watchful, there’s no talking about the hamster’s death at all to Silent One for one week – but he can talk about it with other adults.

And so goes life in our bio-adoptive-foster family home.

Kids Have to Testify Against Parents

So we just learned that the kids will need to testify against their parents. We had been fighting against it, but we have lost that battle. Now, I need to figure out the least traumatizing path forward.

But let me back up for a moment and explain why we fought against 8 year old Watchful and 10 year old Joyful testifying and why we lost.

Testifying can wring you out emotionally. All eyes are on you as lawyers pepper you with questions, and complete strangers listen to you recount some of the most private, painful and embarrassing times in your life. All of these questions dredge up memories of the horrors you have lived through. It feels like you are reliving your worst nightmares. You want to answer correctly, but sometimes you doubt yourself, and you are not sure what the consequences will be because of your answers. The whole court process is strange, new, and scary to you.

Now imagine you are just an elementary school child, so young and vulnerable. Imagine that your testimony will help determine whether your parents go to jail. Whether you will ever get to live with them again. What a huge burden for an 8 and 10 year old to bear!!!

In our county, social services often does not agree to allow the defense lawyers to depose abused children as it is so traumatic, and the lawyers can use the transcript from the CPS worker’s interview of the children upon initial placement into foster care. Since lawyers do not like to put a witness on the stand when they don’t know what the witness will say, kids aren’t often called to court. However, in this case, the county prosecutor wants to interview the children, so social services will not contest it.

Back to the path forward. We need to first figure out how and when to break the news. Probably hubby and I will tell them one evening after summer camp. Do we have their GAL explain court or do we let the county prosecutor do that? On the one hand, the kids have met the GAL once before and she is experienced in working with kids. On the other hand, the county prosecutor would be one-stop shopping – get it all over with in one go.

Then, we need to talk with the therapist. Only Watchful has a therapist, so maybe I can use this as a prod to get Joyful into therapy, which has been slow to materialize. Hopefully, the therapist will have good insight into handling the emotional impact of helping to imprison one’s parents.

And we’ll need to begin lobbying the social worker and prosecutor to allow hubby and I to be present during the interview process. That probably means laying groundwork with the CASA and GAL to have allies for getting our request approved. If we’re there, we can provide emotional support to Joyful and Watchful, and pragmatically it would help keep us in the loop.

I also need to drop an FYI to our family’s social worker and to the kids’ brother’s foster family to keep folks up to speed. This helps our family’s worker be in a position to alert us to unforeseen issues. And we have an agreement with the other foster family to share info, which has proven invaluable in the past.

We’ll need to look for a date that works for the prosecutor, the kids’ social worker, the CASA, the kids and ourselves to do the interview. Ideally, this will be a different day than their visit with dad, therapy appointment and sibling visit. Too much on one day leads to massive melt downs.

We’ll be doing respite for their 4 year old brother Jumping Jack, so we’ll have to find county-approved child care or bring him along on the day of the interview.

All of this for what I think should be a straight forward case. Parents have already confessed. They have done this before. The injuries have been documented.

Guess I better get started on my to do list.

When Kid’s Good Coping Skills Spell Trouble

It’s pretty obvious that 8-year-old Watchful is struggling with his traumatic past: self harming, refusing to eat, panic attacks, a very negative perspective on the world, etc.  But sometimes it seems his 10-year-old sister Joyful is “punished” for coping well.

Joyful was the victim of trauma and neglect, too, and she’s what psychologists deem “resilient.”  She has good social skills, is generally happy, and does well academically.  Her behaviors are quite mild in comparison to Watchful.  She gets loud and laughs a lot when nervous.  She asks a lot of questions, pretending not to understand when you ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do.  She has a combative attitude towards her bio family.

And she lies.  A lot.  Crazy lying that is so obviously not true.  She’ll spin out three whoppers in one breath and that all contradict each other.  Like, “Watchful spilled the milk because he never wants to drink anything,” “the dog (who is just slightly larger than a Chihuahua) bumped the (very heavy wooden) table and spilled the milk,” and “there was no milk in the glass, someone must have missed the glass when they were pouring the milk and got it all over the table.”  Clearly, not all three statements could be true.  And really, we all know that she somehow spilled the milk and doesn’t want to own up to it, because in the past she would have gotten beaten for spilling milk.

From a social worker’s and therapist’s point of view, lying about spilled milk just doesn’t stack up to repeatedly injuring yourself until you bleed.  And I get that.

But does good coping skills mean a child doesn’t deserve therapy?

Some of my friends would say, “why try to fix what’s not broken?”

I’d say that Joyful needs help in understanding why a trusted adult repeatedly abused her.  That she deserves to be taught that it’s wrong and that she didn’t deserve to be hurt.  That there are better, more loving ways for adults to interact with children.  This is what therapy does.

Yet, every time one of the county workers checks in on our family, they zero in on Watchful’s scary behaviors and overlook Joyful’s needs.  Got any advice for me?  I’m all ears on how to make sure Joyful gets the help she needs, too.

Reuniting Children with their Sexually Abusive Parents

Is it ever safe to reunite children with the parents who sexually abused them?  I decided to do some research.  Here’s what I’ve found.

Pedophiles and Sexual Offenders are Not the Same
Weirdly enough, being a pedophile does not mean you sexually abuse children, according to Harvard Health Publications.  Pedophilia means that you are sexually attracted to children age 11 and under.  You could be attracted to children and never abuse them (think of how you have been attracted to your cute co-worker but you never acted on it).  The reverse is true, too.  You could sexually abuse children and not be sexually attracted to them.  Think of the influence of drugs, mental illness, sadism, etc. that may lead you to inflict harm without feeling sexually attracted to the victim.  Harvard says researchers cannot agree what percent of child molesters are pedophiles.

 Pedophilia is Not Curable
Just like you can’t “cure” someone who is heterosexual or someone who is homosexual, you cannot cure someone who is sexually attracted to children.  Treatment for pedophiles consists of keeping them away from kids and sometimes giving them medication to lower their sex drive, that same Harvard report says.

MAYBE a Child Molester Can be Rehabilitated
Sexual attraction can’t be cured, but can the child molesting behavior be cured?  The jury is out.   The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse by David Finkelhor systematically looks at a variety of ways to treat perpetrators.  Mental health services, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, may help reduce a child molester’s likelihood of committing another sexual offense.  Some meta-studies say a child molester may be one third less likely to sexually abuse a child again.  But no experimental studies have been conducted to prove this, mainly because psychologists are reluctant to set up an experiment where only some sex offenders receive treatment while others serve as the control group and don’t receive treatment.

 So What is the Risk of a Child Molester Abusing a Kid Again?  7%-50%
(Figuring out How Likely a Child Molester is to Abuse Again is Complicated)

So, let’s say that cognitive behavioral therapy reduces a person’s likelihood of sexually abusing a child again by one third.  What is the risk now?

First, let’s look at the risk of a child molester re-offending overall.  Recently, The Atlantic wrote that all child molesters have a 10-15% chance of committing another sexual offense against a child.  But that figure may be TOO LOW.

When someone commits another sexual offense, that’s called recidivism.  A study on how recidivism is calculated reveals that the 10-15% figure grossly underestimates how likely a child molester is to hurt a child again.  Most studies only follow child molesters for 2-5 years after they have been released from jail.  A study that only follows the child molesters for 3 years misses 75% of the sexual offenses the child molesters commit.  But if you look at a study of 25 years, there is a greater than 50% chance that the child molester will commit another sex crime.

Studies on recidivism further underestimate sexual re-offending depending on they whether they count “re-offending” as when the child molester is charged with another sex crime, is arrested, convicted or sentenced.  An easy way to understand this is a person may be caught committing a sexual offense, but plead down to a different charge.   Furthermore, child molesters commit multiple sexual offenses before being caught.  So I am not entirely clear if any statistics can be relied upon, because if a person was able to molest a child without detection for a period of time prior to be arrested, what’s to say they aren’t molesting again without anyone knowing?

Ok.  Back to our question.  If a parent molests their child, goes through therapy and is reunited with their child, how likely are they to sexually abuse again?  If we believe the general rate for child molesters committing abuse again is 10-15% and we choose to believe the non-empirical data on the effectiveness of therapy, that abusive parent has a 7-10% chance of sexually assaulting their child again.  However, if we believe the general rate is 50% and believe in the effectiveness of treatment,  that parent’s likelihood of molesting again is 35%.   If we don’t believe in the effectiveness of treatment, then there’s  a 10-50% chance of that parent abusing again.

Educating Children About Sexual Abuse Helps
In foster care, the sexually abusive parent wouldn’t be the only one receiving therapy.  Kids would be educated that adults should not be molesting them.  There is no conclusive data that teaching kids about good touch and bad touch will PREVENT child sexual abuse.  Maybe education does prevent child sexual abuse, but no one is studying this topic.  However, there is evidence that children are learning the concepts of refusing to cooperate with a molester, seeking help, and telling a trusted adult if abuse does occur.  And there is evidence that educated children who are victimized will feel that it is not their fault.  So, maybe the education will help kids protect themselves.  Sadly, though, once a child has been sexually abused, they are 6.9 times more likely to be sexually abused in the future.

Sigh.  Sending a foster child back to a parent who was sexually abusive will be absolutely gut wrenching.  For me, a reasonable assumption of risk of re-abusing seems to be about 20% or a 1 in 5 chance.  And that sucks.

I was super hoping that my research would reveal something that would make me feel better about reuniting families in a situation like this.  And a 20% risk is a lot lower probability than I originally thought (I was thinking that the odds were more like 100%).  But I am not feeling better.