We’ve had the police at our house close to 20 times in the past 90 days. Our story of adoption, sonship, breaking of trust, and healing.
Since losing our two oldest sons, Ezra and Price, in 2010, Robyn and I both have a more visceral understanding of human tragedy. 13 months of cancer treatment, 2 weeks of hospitalized bed rest for Robyn, holding two sons in our arms as they died 8 months apart… you shed any focus on petty things.
We’ve become what I call negative celebrities — we’re the saddest story people around us personally know. This wrenching of our hearts from ourselves tugs on a part of a person, and more often than not when someone first hears our story, they share one of their saddest stories in reply.
I often tell about an oil change I got — a 16 year old kid came to pull my car around, and noticed the tattoos on my arms. He asked, and I told him I’ve lost two sons, and this is where I carry them on me. The kid blurted out “my girlfriend had an abortion last night.” I hugged him and talked a couple minutes, and that was that. It’s become common for us.
This led us to adopt from foster care.
We knew from our friend Jesse there are many kids in foster care needing families. We’d become intimate with tragedy. A hard past doesn’t scare us, and we believe we can be a part of a child’s healing as he completes our family. Our friend AJ made a video interview of a kid for the Heart Gallery, and in November of 2012 when Robyn saw it she knew he was our son. He moved in October of 2013, and legally became our son January of 2014. He was 14, and had been in foster care ten years.
Adopting a teenager has been difficult. Or rather, raising a teenager who’s lived what our son has. First, the good bits. He’s smart. His grades are great, and have been great through a decade of foster care. That’s rare. He’s funny, he’s witty, and he’s socially engaging. He loves his little brother, our 4 year old. He’s brought volume to our home, mostly in a good way, and is full of energy. He smiles a lot.
Foster care is a broken system, where kids can live in 12 homes in 10 years, from trailers to traditional homes to group homes to institutions.
Case workers and group home staff aren’t paid well, and the stressful positions have incredibly high turnover. Case managers are loaded up with so many children to look after, they spend little time with each, and become exhausted quickly. More turnover. Kids are brought to “adoption events” where they’re introduced to various families in what our son called kid auctions. All this teaches kids to perform and deflect rather than connect.
In our experience, we’ve found staff members at group homes are often inappropriate with the teens, treating them as buddies instead of kids who need mentoring. During our visitations, staff would try to get our son to have Robyn bend over in front of them. When he got a phone after moving in with us, staff would text him sexual innuendos as jokes.
Children need permanency.
They need safety to allow them to develop, to grow, to look inward and outward both, taking in the world and learning how it works. Kids need to have truths instilled in them of the value of a person, the perseverance of hope, and the beauty of learning. You can’t just tell a person this, it has to distill from your daily living. When we take away the feeling of safety by dismantling permanency, we’ve ripped away a child’s ability to focus on anything but survival and self.
Keep all this up for a person’s entire formative years, and it’s no wonder our son has a tough time trusting. Or finding much value in people. Or having any belief authority is looking out for him. Still, we wrap our arms around him, hoping if nothing else he can learn from us hope is alive, he has great worth, and will always fit with us.
We were as prepared as we could be for difficult. We connect deeply with what we interact with, Robyn and I, and so have made many friends who are adoptive parents, specifically of teens. Facebook groups, meetings, classes, books, and adoption coaches round out our “village,” along with professionals and incredible friends who’ve been through tough times with us before. My point — we didn’t jump in this thinking we’d save some kid and bask in his gratefulness as the sun rose and set on beauty every day. We’re used to messy, and it’s ok with us.
When our son turned 15, a few months ago, we noticed an increase in intense behavior. He’d sneak out at night all hours, and we couldn’t figure out what he was doing. He’s a teenager, with wild hormones and all, but porn was becoming excessive — devices in the house I didn’t even think could access it (that old flip phone from the storage closet?!) would go missing, and we’d find them days later with search histories to make a sailor blush. We wound up having to sell off our gaming systems.
Of course we were worried about the leaving the house, but aside from spending a ton on a full security system install, couldn’t figure out how to stop it. We’d had multiple conversations, and our son would simply say he couldn’t sleep, and was out walking around the golf course near our house. We explained to him this was not safe, nor allowed. His stories seemed off, and we weren’t sure what was really going on.
At the recommendation of our adoption coach and some professionals on our team, we started calling the police when he would leave. He’d broken out of doors, windows, balconies. He’d unlock various rarely used doors and windows during the day so he’d be able to get back in through them when he left in the evening — it was to a point he was leaving nearly every other day. Making the call to the police the first time was awkward:
– Hello, 911, what’s your emergency?
– My son has left the house and is missing.
– How long ago did he leave?
– An hour.
– Ok… has he done this before?
– And does he come back?
– Yes, he always comes back. But I think he is doing something illegal, and am trying to get some help.
– Ok, but he’s your son?
– And he comes back the same night?
– So what do you want us to do then?
And we didn’t really know, honestly. At this point it’d been weeks of him leaving every other night (that we caught — I’m sure many other nights he just got away with it), and we were exhausted. We’d hear him on our balcony climbing back up (it is easier to get on from the ground, and connects directly to his second story bedroom door). We’d find him on the roof. Or crawling in the dog door. I’d take a flashlight onto the golf course at 2 in the morning when I’d find his bed empty. So the cops… I don’t know. We knew something was going on, and we were looking for help.
It wasn’t unjustified, our thought he was doing something not quite right. At home our son had been more and more disrespectful, cussing us out, sullen behavior, and some minor physical skirmishes with me (two of which did get the police involved). He’d been increasingly inappropriate at home. I’m sure the lack of sleep he was getting wasn’t helping him or us.
So eventually, a neighbor called. Then another. And again. We discovered our son had been on people’s properties, being inappropriate, at all times of the night. And morning. He’d turn on the shower in his second story bathroom, point the shower head up so it sounds like the water would sound with someone in there (not an even fall — great trick actually), turn up his music, and climb out the window. We thought he was just taking long showers (it’d be 20–30 min).
Unless someone pressed charges, the police couldn’t do much. And no one wanted to; I don’t think they wanted the headache, and hoped it was simply a one time thing. They probably thought they were doing us a favor, and if it’d been a one-time thing they would have been. As more occurrences came to light, we realized there were deeper issues to address than the behavior itself. We’d already been in family therapy for a while, and being in foster care calls for regular therapy as well — our son was not new to talking, and is in fact great at it. But it was having no effect on these behaviors.
And the police were getting called for sure. We started learning names. I have a dozen cards on my nightstand. We’d see them out at a restaurant and say hello. Police would come to the house and already be aware of our situation from their co-workers talking about it, wherever police hang out.
In a meeting with our adoption coach, she recommended our son needed a safe outlet to address whatever was causing these actions, and therapy 2–3 times a week wasn’t touching it. We looked for help finding a place like this, and it was extremely difficult. Crisis centers weren’t comfortable they could address our son’s specific needs. Responses would take days to get, in a situation which needed solutions quickly. We weren’t sleeping much.
Someone recommended a process Florida has set in place which allows for in-patient behavioral help in a more intensive setting. Our home was very tense at the time, and we were told the process could be rushed and be done in 2–3 weeks. It wound up taking nearly 2 tough months, with more police and difficult situations happening the entire time.
This past Monday, we brought our son to a place he’ll be able to receive the care he needs. He is still our son. We’ll see him a minimum of 2–4 times per month, and talk to him often. We’ll have family therapy all together a couple times a month as well. The program can last 5–8 months. It was a hard decision, but it is what he needs if he’s going to start the healing from years of being moved around the system. We are hopeful.
So why share this?
I purposefully didn’t share any of this these past few months on our family blog, which has a fair amount of subscribers. Even in this article I chose not to use our son’s name (though if you’re someone who knows us personally obviously it’s different), and I’ve left out many details. Our son has a level of privacy which I question if I’ve pushed too far even with what I’ve written.
But we are not alone in adoption struggles, or struggles with a teen at home in general. And for months we searched, trying to get advice, trying to find somewhere to help. We found very little of people sharing their stories. It felt we were all alone in this experience. We needed to know what to do, and we were torn constantly. I write this to you who is battling this.
And it was difficult. I write to share how little we know about mental health, how little is in place for people trying to care for our kids, how tough it is to get real help when it’s needed. We were literally told from one crisis center “wait until he hurts someone, then we can get police involved and do something.” How horrible. Our son doesn’t need to be detained or jailed — he needs to heal.
Robyn and I need to heal as well. We’ve lost two children, and it hurts. I get it. I am not mad at him. It’s no different than if he was my biological son — there is no giving up. Our son has had it rough, and has become strong where he needed to in order to arrive at today in one piece. In that process he’s had other areas of himself he didn’t get to build on. I hate that he had to go through that — I hate it every day — but he did. So now he needs some healing. We are his stability, his safety. And we are not going to sit idly by and let him blame his past either — he’s got so much future ahead. Good future. He is a walking mass of potential.
Foster care is a broken system. Kids need permanency. Familiar faces. Great role models. When they do get adopted, there needs to be better post-adoption support to help healing begin and continue. We had to claw our way up the ladder to get what was necessary — as a striking contrast, if we’d just called and said “this is too much, we give up,” as many adoptive parents do in these situations, someone will come within a few hours and bring the kid out of the home. That’s horrible — getting help is the right method, and should be an easy one to understand and complete.
We’re looking forward to when our son comes home and we can continue our healing together under the same roof. Home.