We’d like to thank this mama (anonymously known as J.W.M.) for bravely sharing her story as a member of our greater RAD community. The more we join together, the stronger we become. Thanks J.W.M.
Things are not always as they appear. This letter is intended to educate our community regarding what may seem like external situations—a defiant child, a parent who has lost control or refuses to intervene, and a kid with “no discipline” or who “causes trouble”. Behind those appearances, there’s always a story. This is ours.
This month we will “celebrate” having our now adopted son with us for two years. I put the word celebrate in quotes because it has been two very long and very difficult years. I can only think of a few celebratory moments where the sun graced us with its presence by peeking out from behind dark and stormy clouds.
Countless friends and family members have told us how lucky he is to have us but I don’t feel obligated to give the standard foster/adopt parent response of, “No, we are lucky to have him.” I’ve felt a number of other emotions, but lucky is not one of them. In addition, I think it is really unfair to say that a child who has lost so much could ever consider himself lucky.
“…being an adoptee is like getting into a horrible car accident and surviving with devastating injuries. But instead of anybody acknowledging the trauma of the accident, they tell you that you should feel lucky.” Shaaren Pine
During the application process to become foster parents, we waded through piles of paperwork, background checks, and endless classes. We were asked to define our preferences for the type of child we wanted and opted to exclude children over seven-years-old and with severe developmental disorders and nut allergies. Hey, we both really love peanut butter!
Shortly after we received our foster license, we received a placement call for an eight-year-boy with a peanut allergy. Let’s call him “Boy” for the sake of this story. He did not meet our desired criteria. However, he had been in multiple placements and if we didn’t take him then he would be sent to a group home. No pressure right? We decided to throw caution to the wind and jumped into the deep-end to provide a home for this child who had been through so much in his short eight years.
We picked Boy up less than 24 hours later and the social worker could not have been more obvious about the fact that she was happy to be washing her hands of him. She didn’t even bother to explain his medications. Truth be told, if we knew at the time that we were being misled by his social workers then we probably wouldn’t have made that leap. I hate to think of where he’d be now had that happened.
Boy is RAD and I don’t mean that in the cool way. He has what is known as reactive attachment disorder, a condition found in children who may have received grossly negligent care and do not form a healthy emotional attachment with their primary caregivers before age five. A child with RAD is often cuddly and loving one minute and triggered and fighting anything and everything the next minute.
After 14-months of foster care with us, we finalized our adoption last September. We naively thought this would bring Boy stability. Instead, it brought us further chaos. Boy had to test what permanency really meant. Thank goodness we took so many extra credit attachment and trauma-informed parenting classes. Without them we would have failed miserably—just like every one of our kiddos’ previous foster parents.
Fast forward six months from the adoption—we were rejoicing in a period of relative calm and stability as we celebrated Boy turning 10-years-old. Sadly, just as the sun had come out, the dark and stormy clouds appeared in the sky along with a subpoena for Boy to testify against his biological father. To make a very long story short this sent him spiraling and has dragged us all down with him to what feels like the depths of hell. Even with facing that impending trauma, the court date was moved twice with apparently no thought to how it impacts the children involved and elongates their personal trauma and by association, ours. Welcome to the system.
When I first heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child”, I was too young to understand what that could possibly mean because my childhood was so easy and straightforward. I wanted for nothing and had no inkling of how fortunate I was. We have a village now. In fact, we have a team of 20+ people working with us, mainly because we are fierce advocates for our kiddo’s needs. There’s no guarantee he’ll make it with us. Yet, I know we are his best, and maybe only, chance.
To further help Boy, we decided to review his medications with a physician and therapy consult and see if changes there could help relieve some of his anxiety. We had previously tried a few meds that made things worse, and decided it would be better to pay out of pocket with a highly respected psychiatrist. His recommendation was to try another medication—but first he’d have to come off a previous one—which didn’t appear to be doing much anyway. During the two-week withdrawal, Boy seemed to drill deeper into his never-ending spiral and we saw an even higher level of dysregulation.
Is he a bad kid? No. Are we bad parents because we cannot control him? No. We are just poking around in the dark hoping to find the light switch.
Coming back around to the point of this post brings me to a recent incident. The clouds once again parted and Boy received a 3rd place ribbon in a recreational activity that is an important part of his therapy. I was thrilled for him. He’s used to feeling failure at every turn. Upon returning home, it was time to take care of some tasks. However, he was clearly distracted by a podcast. I let him know that he could have the device back as soon as he was done with his tasks. The situation began to escalate so I decided to remove myself by going outside and sitting on the porch.
When I heard the front door close behind me and then the lock click in place, I sat there for a few moments pondering my next steps. Behind me, I heard the window open but when I turned back around he closed it. When I walked away from the porch, he came out the door. When I walked back, he ran back in and locked it. Classic RAD behaviors. Being locked out just wasn’t an option so I dialed 911 per instruction of his therapist and asked for the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT).
Unfortunately, the PERT team was not available so they sent the cavalry in with two patrol cars and a fire truck wailing down our quiet street. I reiterated the situation at hand and a brief summary of Boy’s background/trauma history—a narrative I’m used to relaying succinctly and quickly. The firemen got the door open in a wink of an eye and emerged with the kiddo, limbs flailing in every direction.
When the police officer asked me if I had ever disciplined my child, I quickly responded that we work with him every day to understand consequences but not with physical punishment. Physical punishment teaches fear and we are working on establishing trust—particularly critical for children with a history of abuse. The officer went on to tell me about his upbringing with a drill sergeant type mother and how it kept him on the straight and narrow. I took a deep breath and further explained that whether or not he thought this was a waste of his time, and a failure in parenting on our part, their job was to “Protect and Serve”. It was important that he be here as part of our village. Our son is not just our child, he is product of our society. We all have to do our part to help someone who has led most of his life with unsafe adults to learn to become a safe and trusting person. I could see he still didn’t get it when he asked what I wanted the result of their visit to be. I said I needed a way to keep him safe and now that he is here with me, I can do that. It was then that my son crawled into my lap and wrapped his arms around me.
He may not always know which direction the surface is, but he knows that we will do whatever we can to keep him afloat.