A couple enters Overlake Christian Church on the first day of the 2017 Refresh conference.
Once again, it’s been awhile since I filed. This year (2017) marks the 10th anniversary of the time I flew to Kazakhstan to pick up a daughter. SO much water has flowed under the bridge since then! We have moved four times since then (to Maryland, Tennessee, Alaska, then Washington state) and I’ve switched jobs two or three times, after working at one newspaper for 14½ years. Veeka is now 12 and heading into sixth grade (I held her back a year in kindergarten, so she’s a year older than most kids).
One of the more interesting things I did on the adoption front this year was attend the annual Refresh conference at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, right down the road from Microsoft. There, half of the staff are adoptive families. I attended the same conference last year. It’s a huge gathering (1,600 people from all over North America); it’s been going six years and they’ve started a daughter conference in Chicago. This year’s conference was in early March. It’s clearly a place where people are there to minister to exhausted parents of adoptive and foster kids. In fact, children aren’t allowed anywhere near the conference all weekend, as it’s a place to “refresh” the parents (hence the name Refresh Conference). There’s even a room for people to take naps if so inclined.
One of many vendors at the Refresh conference.
So, you walk into the entrance hall of the church underneath an arch of blue and white balloons. Blue balloons are everywhere. So are large urns of Berry Tree coffee to the right; a café with a jazz band playing to the left; signs instructing you to nab a volunteer in a blue T-shirt if you need prayer – and a # to text for an appointment with an on-site therapist if you are facing a crisis. Also to the left are urns of water with cucumbers, lemons and raspberries floating in them.
The first day, one of the speakers was a couple known as Mike and Kristin Berry, who operate confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com, have 8 adopted kids and own a 12-passenger van.
“We are in the trenches with you,” Mike told us. “We know how much you love your kids and how exhausted you are. We understand how some of you are saying, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ ”
People at this event had kids with ADHD, PTSD, bi-polar, depression, sensory processing, anxiety, schizophrenia, FAS, autism, Aspergers, …. “That’s the beauty and brutality of it,” one of the speakers said. “We don’t know how to put a finger on some of these things.”
My first day there, I connected with a woman from the southern part of the state who’s adopted 13 kids. We joked about being reported to Child Protective Services, which has happened to us both more than once. When your kid has Issues and they act out in a public space, there are people out there who will literally take down your license plate and call the police on you (who then call CPS). They never bother to help you with said child or ask if they can be of service; no, they assume the worse. That’s a whole separate post, so I shouldn’t get started on what I think of the dirt bags who do this to parents like me and this woman. Refresh has a whole session on what to do when CPS is called on you, which is pretty common for foster and adoptive families.
As we left after the final session, a wonderful cast of blue-shirted volunteers threw confetti at us to cheer us on.
I ran into all sorts of people: Parents who’ve been threatened by their kids; parents who’ve called the police on their kids and lots of people who are beyond frustrated with how clueless their churches are on this topic. At the time I was attending this conference, I was seething over the thoughtless treatment my daughter had gotten from a leader at my church. When they reject your kid, they reject you.
But my concerns were minor compared with some of the parents I met in a session for people whose kids are so destructive, they must be sent away. Nearly 100 people were at that “Out of Home Care for Hurting Kids” session and this is where I became aware of a network of homes, camps and centers around the country that deal with kids who are at the end of the line. Most are frightfully expensive, ie $7,000 per month, and insurance doesn’t always pick up.
This when adoptions go really wrong.
“Every day,” said a woman who runs one of these homes, “I talk with broken-hearted families.” Forty percent of the cases referred to them are with adopted kids and the hardest condition they get is Reactive Attachment Disorder. One woman in that session stood up to say her son had been at seven such places. Another woman said she had a 6-year-old she wanted to send to one of these residential places. (The speaker told her she’d never recommend institutionalization for someone so young).
One of the speakers at this session (who has a kid in jail partly because of the fetal alcohol problem this child inherited, said, “Our house is chaotic because we’re in chaos. When you’re parenting children whose frontal cortex – which responsible for reason and logic – is damaged, you need to have structure and a routine. When we control our environment, our kids can regulate better. We often live out of chaos.”
One thing I find refreshing about the Refresh conference is that the religious bromides that so many folks lay on you are absent there. People have had it with nitwit comments such as “God must have a reason for this” or “He wants to use your experience to bless someone else.” Some of these kids don’t get better or get healed.
“Every child’s journey into foster care or being an orphan began with tragedy,” one speaker told us. “If we open our hearts and lives, they will bring some of that pain with them…often we Christians speak of adoption as mirroring the Gospel story – and they do. It mirrors the Gospel in its beauty and its costliness. …We have to decide: What do we really want in life?” This was a guy who, with his wife, selected a child to adopt from Ethiopia but she died of pneumonia before they could come get her. They did adopt another girl but they are always haunted by the one they missed.
“The pain and trauma do not invalidate your calling,” he said. “They probably confirm it.”