Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Love, Addiction and Biology

There are a lot of misconceptions about parents whose children are in foster care.

I've gotten some questions that are pretty incredibly misinformed, like "Doesn't Parent want him back?" and "Isn't Parent going to take him back again?", as if Parent is choosing to leave Baby S in care.

Before getting into different reasons children are in care, I want to set this straight: Parents choose their actions. Judges choose when children return home. Birth parents cannot decide they are ready to parent again and then just do it. They have to go through court. This process may take a while, even for a parent who is following the plan the county sets up for them. There are a lot of factors that make even a simple case become unpredictable and far from straight-forward. Sometimes, certain actions mean that parents must demonstrate the ability to stay on track for a period of time before they can try parenting again, no matter how well they are doing.

Babies come into care for a lot of reasons. In our case, Parent has never expressed the desire to leave Baby S. Parent has only wanted to have Baby S return as quickly as possible. This does not always translate into totally straight-forward progress, but Parent's desire for reunification is very real. Parent's love for Baby S is very real, too.

There are certainly cases where parents are willfully abandoning children. I'm not denying that reality. Even Baby S has only one involved birth parent. But it hurts me to hear the assumption that Parent isn't trying or must not want Baby S. I love Parent. Baby loves Parent and will continue to love and know Parent no matter what the future holds. I don't want Baby S growing up hearing whispers of Parent not loving him or not trying hard enough. He doesn't need that. He's going to have enough baggage already. His life is not simple, his routine is not normal, and his family will never all live under one roof.

Looking at things a little more generally, parents make all sorts of poor choices that result in their children entering into foster care. Some parents have mental or physical health issues that limit their ability to care properly for their children. Often there is a combination of poor choices and physical limitations playing together. A lack of supportive community, broken family background, and lack of resources and information also play a role in a parent's inability to properly care for a child.

There are a lot of little pieces stacking up to make one case. It's usually not as simple as wanting or not wanting a child.

Sometimes, a parent continues to make bad choices despite their love for their child. I have seen addiction lead to poor choices that a person never would have made when not in the heat of the addiction struggle. At the same time, I have seen continued love for family and a deep hurt that people can experience as they are torn between the need to satisfy the physical and psychological demands of addiction and the desire to please and love the people who are closest to them. I've seen that recovering from addiction can be a long road, a road that is seldom straight and often detours backwards and around in the long journey ahead to recovery. And I have seen people who love and long to be loved through all of this. The poor choices are not okay, and the children of addicted people experience the consequences of these choices. I am not suggesting that people become blameless; however, I also do not think we can assume that a parent does not desire to reunite or does not care about their children because they continue to struggle with addiction. Addiction is powerful. Sin is powerful. The desire to become clean is not always enough by itself. People may not be able to show God's selfless, sacrificial love to their children when they have not yet understood God's offer of selfless, sacrificial love themselves.

Long-term mental and physical health issues can look similar to addiction from our side of foster care. Sometimes people choose not to get treatment. Sometimes they choose not to take their medications, or they make poor diet decisions that decrease the effectiveness of their efforts. People don't always make straight-ahead full-speed progress toward recovery for mental or physical health. And again, although sin is still sin no matter where we see it, we should not be too quick to assume that poor choices mean a lack of parental love. Maybe you would be surprised to see the little ways some parents think they are making good choices for their children, even when all of the big things are going wrong. It doesn't always make sense to us, especially when things are getting skewed through a fog of mental health. Still, I've seen poor choices that, in a parent's mind, were viewed as positive. It's difficult for foster parents to balance pushing for what seems best for the child and understanding and/or supporting the motive behind the less-than-awesome choices. But it is so important to try to understand that poor choices do not have to mean a lack of love for the child.

In our case, Parent's love for Baby S is so obvious. I often can't share specifics to stick up for Parent when people ask questions that assume the worst. It's not information that belongs to just anyone who asks, and it really bothers me when people assume Parent doesn't want their child. Parent desperately wants Baby S back in their home. No matter how they progress through "the plan", there is a timeline pinned to this case that will not allow reunification just yet. Parent tries to be there for Baby S in any way they can. My role does not end at being Mommy for Baby S. It also involves being a support to Parent and trying to gently help grow their parenting skills and knowledge. It can be hard to stay positive sometimes in the day to day, but the specifics belong only to our family and those involved in the case, and I am going to do all I can to extend community and positive support to Parent.

Baby loves his Parent. Parent loves Baby. Parent has a long road ahead. I'm not sure at what point in that road Baby will rejoin Parent under the same roof. I don't know how many of their struggles will be difficulties to overcome and how many will be lifelong tensions. I can't speak to the long-term success of the reunification efforts. But oh, I wish I could convey in these moments, in these conversations, how much Parent is trying, and how much the little steps can be huge signs of love and effort, even if they look small or confusing from the outside. Despite the moments of frustration and the ups and downs, I will never. ever. for. a. single. moment. doubt Parent's love for Baby S. No matter what happens.

Proverbs 10:12 says "Hatred stirs up quarrels, but love covers all offenses." Love covers all offenses. A child might not see all of those things that we see when we look at a birth parent. A child's love can cover over a whole lot of offenses on the parent's part. Children are often the first to long for reconciliation and reunification with a birth parent, regardless of how much hurt is in their past. Children and their birth parents have a bond and a shared experience, and trying to downplay that will not help us to love either the child or the birth parent into a better place. I want to love like Jesus loves me. I want to look for the positives and encourage the growth and try to gently pray and nudge in the still-broken areas.

I want to tell Baby S story upon story of the good and generous and loving and kind moments and only remember the pain-filled moments of tension or frustration when absolutely necessary. Baby is going to need to hear ten positives for every negative, and I think the gift of love and respect for Birth Parent is one of the best and most important gifts I can give him while he is under my care. I hope the people around us will help us to do this, even starting now while he is still very little. I believe most of them will, and I appreciate (so, so, so much, guys) those people who have already reached out and invested, not just in Baby, but also in Parent. Nothing makes my family feel loved in quite the same way right now as feeling the love our friends and family extend to Baby S and his Parent, unconditionally and without reservation. You guys are awesome.

And when those hurtful questions resurface, we will do our best to protect Baby and Parent, respect confidentiality, and use the painful moment as a teaching time. Because I think Birth Parent's hard work and love for Baby S deserve more than a "Doesn't Parent even want him??"

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