Refresh Conference II: Where adoptions rise or fall

Refresh Conference II: Where adoptions rise or fall

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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.

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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.’ ”

No kidding.

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.

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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.”

Orphan Sunday and foster care

Orphan Sunday and foster care

November is Orphan Awareness month, it seems, and any one of several Sundays therein are known as Orphan Sunday. Today (Nov. 20) is one of them, so here’s to remind you all that orphans are still out there awaiting a home. International adoption is such a mixed bag these days, as evidenced by this article on adoption in Uganda and what the country is doing to try to keep their children with them.

I have seen a lot of pieces lately about the difficulties of adoption, such as this piece that ran earlier this year in Christianity Today. I’m glad that the flood of folks who adopted kids in the aughts are speaking out about how hard it really is! I’ve said this before and will repeat it: The horror stories about foster care that I hear in my support group have caused me to decide never to do it. Not as a single mom. More on that in a minute.

Some time ago, I ran across a fascinating blog essay titled “The Silence of Adoption.” It says everything I’d like to say about what goes on with kids from overseas. Because my daughter was adopted fairly early in her life, I thought I had escaped the issues described in this essay but as the years have progressed, it turns out that I have not. As the author says:

It happens to many many families after they come home. It is a disappointing reality for those who are watching and praying the child home.  The family is so great about sharing the adoption story and so many jump on board to support and encourage and then the family hits American soil and suddenly the family is silent.

 

A blog here or there with happy pictures or maybe hints that things are tough but few words and little information.

 

It’s the silence of adoption.

 

Read it all. I’ve found some other helpful links, including this Facebook page for people considering adopting special needs kids from China. These days, special needs kids are what (or who) is available overseas.

 

I spend a fair amount of time these days going to parent support groups for special needs kids and the situations I run into would tear your heart out. I was at one where one parent wearing a green Seahawks T-shirt confessed how he himself is high-end autistic, but he had dreams of his children not inheriting his problems. Imagine his reaction when his daughter was discovered to be not only Down Syndrome but non-verbal. She’s about 18 and cannot be left alone.

“I can’t even talk with her,” he told us. “Can you imagine what that feels like?” He shuffled out of there, his head drooping, his shoulders sunk forward. My heart went out to him, as he has no hope. Most parents of special needs kids don’t have a lot of money, as insurance doesn’t always cover the specialists and medications they need. I sent Veeka to several week-long camps this summer; two of them overnight camps. Except for one bad day, she got through them all. I’ve had parents tell me what a luxury that is and that they cannot imagine their kids making it through one night away from home, not to mention 5 or 6 nights. I guess that’s one luxury single parents have, as we’ve had to farm out our kids when we go on business trips starting at a young age. So our kids are used to staying with other folks. Still, people aren’t lining up to take care of kids with mental illnesses for several days so the parents can take a break.

Back to foster care: An investigative journalism group recently came out with a depressing series of stories about the mess that the Washington state foster care system is in and how even the good parents are getting out. Click on the above link as well as here and here to read about it.

 

 

My brother Steve has written a lot in the pages of the Oregonian about Oregon’s foster care system, which isn’t a whole lot better!

 

One of his projects was to try to find 884 more foster families among the evangelical Christian populace of greater Portland:

 

If you’ve ever gone through foster care training, believe me, they don’t make it easy for you to get certified! So far, in this 2014 update, 49 homes had been certified among evangelicals. That may not sound like a whole lot, but if you knew what was involved in foster care, you’d be crowning these folks as saints. The idea behind churches getting involved in this effort was the wish that no child in Oregon be without a home and that Oregon’s churches had a moral responsibility to do something about it.

 

 

My brother also wrote about one DHS nightmare in that the agency was taking foster kids out of their foster parents’ home and putting them back into really dangerous situations with their natural parents.

 

And then another piece – by another Oregonian writer – about a lawsuit against Oregon DHS. This is so disheartening because even when people get the courage up to try fostering kids, they get overwhelmed by the insanities of foster care systems in the Pacific Northwest.

I close with the thought that 10 years ago at this time, I had a picture of my little girl in my purse that I carried with me at all times. I had just told my employers that I was going on three months maternity leave, not because of their generous leave policies but because I had three months of sick leave saved up. Thank God for the Family Medical Leave Act.  Thus, I was able to draw full salary during the entire time I was overseas, then home for 6 weeks with my little girl.

WSJ: International adoptions have fallen off a cliff

WSJ: International adoptions have fallen off a cliff

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal saying that international adoptions are the lowest they’ve been in three decades. Here is an excerpt:

Foreign adoptions by Americans fell 12% last year to the lowest level in more than three decades, according to new figures from the State Department.

The decline is largely because of measures designed to prevent child-trafficking and promote adoption within developing countries, adoption advocates said.

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A picture of kids from the Dominican Republic that was posted on the Kids First Adoption page.

The State Department reported that 5,648 children were adopted abroad in the 2015 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, down from 6,438 in 2014 and from a peak of 22,884 in 2004.

The last year that fewer overall adoptions were recorded was 1981, at 4,868.

The article goes on to say the largest donor country continues to be China (here is an amazing piece in Foreign Policy that tells of an adopted child returning to China to find her birth parents) but that stalwarts like Russia (and Kazakhstan) have fallen off the map because the U.S. (rightly) criticized Russia’s barbaric human rights situation. So the Russian government, kind and gentle folks that they are, decided to take out their fury on adoptive American parents (who had nothing to do with what our State Department was doing) and on their tiniest citizens; children who were basically rotting away in orphanages.

South Korea, Ukraine (which has opened up to single women) and Uganda were second, third and fourth, the piece said. I also know that Poland, Dominican Republic, Latvia, Colombia and India are adopting out kids; in fact, India is said to have greatly improved their adoption processes.  I am curious why the article didn’t mention Bulgaria, which I know is adopting out its kids as fast as possible. Were I adopting internationally today, that’s where I’d head.

But I would not go near Haiti. I attend a parent support group for parents of special needs kids and the horrors I’ve heard about some kids from that country make me wonder what awful things were done to them to make them end up in institutions here. Of course there are exceptions, but…

The article emphasizes that people from the West very much want to adopt kids but several countries are only offering up special needs or older kids. I blame Russia also for loading tons of very damaged kids into their adoption system, many of them given to unsuspecting parents from U.S. or European countries who arrived home only to discover their child had a long list of problems.

Do try to read it, as its main point is there’s plenty of kids abroad who need adopting, but many countries have stopped adoptions altogether or made it next to impossible to do so. The article also says the U.S. government is also to blame for placing adoption standards way beyond the reach of the poorest countries that have the greatest numbers of adoptable children. For instance, there could be a lot more adoptions out of Africa but for the vagueries of U.S. demands.

International adoption is still better than some of the private hells would-be parents endure to adopt American-born children. I’ve been tracking a family in Hyattsville near my former home who just adopted a little girl just after her birth mom gave her up. Or didn’t give her up; turns out Maryland law gives the mother 30 days to reconsider and one week after the birth, the mom revoked the adoption. The heartbroken couple posted a note on the Hyattsville site, saying they were leaving all the baby clothes donated to them on the front porch and would their former owners pick them up?

It’s to avoid that kind of mess that people go overseas.

A Refresh conference for the adoptively exhausted

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One of the therapy dogs at the conference for parents to meet and see if their traumatized kids would warm up such a pooch.

Imagine a Christian conference simply for adoptive and foster parents where you get three days of workshops, free massages, haircuts and make-overs plus meets lots of people who are struggling just like you? And talk with folks who are finding that their “forever family” has turned into a nightmare? Someone had told me of a Refresh conference (http://www.occ.org/refresh/) at Overlake Church in Redmond, so I signed up and went this weekend. Veeka was in school most of the time and her grandparents looked after her on Saturday, the final day of the conference.

What I learned is that everyone is having a very difficult time. When I think things are difficult for me, I then consider what foster parents go through. Some of them had put up a large chalkboard about the things their children had endured. Examples:

  • being in a swing for two months with a bottle propped up to their mouth and the TV on 24/7
  • having a heart transplant
  • his mother trying to abort him
  • third-degree burns on 40% of their body
  • meth
  • sleeping in the middle of the street (must have been in India)
  • being raped by multiple men while the bio mom watched
  • not being wanted because his bio dad was Latino

All these kids are some variety of special needs, so I was attending sessions on fetal alcohol effect, strategic parenting for traumatized kids, single parenting, how to help kids who have no executive function and more.

The keynote speakers on Friday morning were Mary Beth Chapman and her daughter, Emily Richards, and they were a hoot. Mary Beth is married to a famous singer, Steven Curtis Chapman, and they adopted three girls from China and have established a nonprofit (http://showhope.org/) to encourage others to adopt. Sadly in 2008, one of the girls ran behind a family car that was being driven by one of the older boys. He didn’t see her and so he ran over her and killed her. Eight years later, the mother was telling us, they are still recovering from her death.

There were some 1,400 people at the conference and it heartened me to see joking about medical bills, counseling bills and CPS allegations (like when people see your child behaving badly and they call the police on YOU), which is something a lot of people there have undergone. These are all part of the adoption experience these days. I had lunch with a couple from Woodinville who had also adopted from Kazakhstan and we were pleased to learn we were both using the same attachment therapist. Small world.

Naturally I gravitated to the workshop on single parenting, which included some 25 of us who were adopting or fostering. The main speaker said that to get past the obstacles, it helps to know you’re called to this; as the barbs and thoughtless remarks one gets from fellow Christians can be overwhelming. Some of the people there said they were unwillingly forced into single parenting, as they had adopted while a couple and then their spouse had fled the coop, leaving them holding the bag/child. I had thought that I was unusual in the evangelical world for adopting a child, but the speaker, who works with Youth for Christ, said there were 15 single moms (adoptive or foster) in her organization.

There was a lot on how to do think-outside-the-box parenting because typical parenting strategies don’t work with kids whose moms destroyed their embryos’ brain cells by imbibing alcohol. So, everything takes longer for them to process. As one of the speakers said, “These are 10-second kids in a one-second world.”

Another speaker said that whether these kids ever meet their birth parents or not, they are always psychologically present. In all, it was an honest, vulnerable conference. As the leader of the last workshop I attended said, “If the story we tell ourselves is that the hard, hurtful and horrible have eternal meaning, we will be fruitful, multiply and plant seeds of victory into a story that echoes across eternity.” Let’s hope so.

On the agency front, RainbowKids.com has come up with a good video and essay about single women adopting from India. India is a country I would have liked to have adopted from, but 10 years ago, when I was selecting countries, India was tough to adopt from. T

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This is the board at the Refresh conference where parents wrote of some of the horrors their adopted/foster kids have undergone.

hey favored parents with Indian heritage and I didn’t know any agencies that serviced India. India also sets an age limit at 50, so that would have ruled me out. Anyone reading this who is thinking of adoption: Get started well before you turn 50! I got into it almost too late for my daughter and when I started thinking of doing so a second time, most countries were closed to me.

 

Nine years ago

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India is a more accessible country these days from which to adopt.

It’s been almost nine years (Feb. 17, to be exact) since I brought my little girl home from Kazakhstan. How things have changed since then! The Kaz program had been suspended for five years now. International adoptions, which numbered 22, 991 in 2014 fell by nearly three-quarters to 6,441 in 2014 and I’m sure they fell even further in 2015.

There are some bright spots, however. Children’s Home Society, which has a good reputation, reports that India has gotten its act together and has made it easier for foreigners to adopt, plus you don’t need to be of Indian heritage. The costs are $20K-$22K, which is cheaper than China! And you can adopt from there up to the age of 44, which is a definite improvement. India was one of the countries on my list back when I was thinking of going international but they used to throw so many roadblocks in front of people, most gave up. My old agency, Kids First, reports that Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Dominican Republic and Poland are still adopting out kids and I know a couple that’s departing for Poland this month to get child #2. Wish I’d known about Poland earlier but back when I was looking, they weren’t very viable.

Remember to check out Rainbow Kids for unusual countries, such as Georgia, which have open programs. They have 3,015 waiting children on their list. And KidSave is scouring the country now for hosts for this summer. They’re especially interested in people who will host an older child from Colombia. If I had more than our current two-bedroom apartment, I’d seriously consider it! That was one reason I got a four-bedroom home in Tennessee, as I was hoping to host some children. But then I lost my job, and made plans to leave the state. To adopt, it helps to be 1. employed and 2. stable. My life for the past three years has had non-stop change, so when the dust settles, we’ll see.

Adopting the special-needs child

A special needs child can be a real joy to your heart.

A special needs child can be a real joy to your heart.

A lot of kids waiting to be adopted are special needs kids and the Vancouver (BC) Sun has a great series of articles on adoption in Canada, adoption with special needs and just adoption in general. When you first consider being an adoptive parent, one of the first things presented to you is whether you’d consider a such a child.

As I’ve learned over the past few years, my daughter is officially special needs and I’ve learned the routine of IEPs and ISEPs and more. She’s in a very good school program  now where she’s the only girl among 10 boys, so I told her to take advantage of that! Lots of available boyfriends! Actually, she’s a bit young for that and she’d do anything for a female friend, which seem to be in short supply where we live. Friends are a huge issue for the SN kid, as sometimes their behavior can be a bit different, meaning that many kids will shy away from them. This is so sad, as it makes the kid – and this has happened to my daughter – feel more isolated than ever.

Increasingly, special needs kids are who’s available for lots of adoptive parents although the kind of special need varies widely. There’s everything from autism to ADHD. In our case, if ADHD was the only issue we struggled with, I’d be grateful. There are tons of ADHD kids everywhere and it’s quite the process to get meds for them. The reason why is that pills like Focalin are “uppers” meaning they are a controlled substance and so pharmacies are very careful – sometimes manic – about doling them out. The things you learn…

Which all goes to say that one must not be afraid of adopting a special needs kid, as a lot of us are doing it. One part of the Vancouver series profiles a set of parents who adopted two FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) girls. “FAS is not the death sentence it used to be,” one of the parents said on the film clip and there was video of the girls jumping on trampolines and playing in the yard. Your special needs kid may not make ita to Harvard, but lots of bio kids never get there either.

As one mom said:

“I want parents to know: Don’t get caught up in a diagnosis on FASD or autism, or whatever, because it looks different for every kid. We are just a family, and we have learned more from the kids than they have learned from us.”

The idea in it all is to have a family. The good news today is you can have one. If it’s foster kids, the costs are less than if you go international, like I did. Today I might choose differently in that the foster adoption system has improved – a bit. International adoption gave me a much younger child than I would have ever gotten had I adopted domestically.

This web site: www.afamilyforeverychild.org constantly sends me reminders and photos of available kids, most of whom are special needs. They’re based in Oregon but they have listings in lots of states. There are kids listed on there who’ve said they’d prefer a single parent, so don’t assume that being single lessens your chances. But having a SN kid has pressures and complications that come with it that other kids don’t have. Which is why I recently moved back to the Seattle area to be close to parents and other family for support. And for my daughter to know there’s a lot more to family than just me.

“The greening” of adoption opportunities and more on singleness

“The greening” of adoption opportunities and more on singleness

Alaska birches "greening" themselves during a sunny May day.

Alaska birches “greening” themselves during a sunny May day.

It’s been forever since I’ve posted on this site but I have been saving up links about singleness, adoption or both. Winter/spring in Alaska was busy but now everything is melted away and the trees are “greening” as they say it here. Which means: There is so much sunlight out now that a tree could be utterly barren one day and three days later be sprouting leaves.

First, two amazing posts about what singles go through. The first, by Heather Goodman, a woman I met back in 2011 at a Christian festival in Pennsylvania, is one of the best I’ve seen written in a long time. It talks about the two types of single person one finds in churches and how best to reach them. Heather gives a great description of the anguish and frustration singles feel when no one takes them seriously, when they’re expected to buy tons of gifts for all their friends and relatives with marriages, kids and the resulting baby and bridal showers and yet no one cares about the events in their lives, like new jobs, housewarmings, etc. Sadly, when I did get around to being a mom, no one had a baby shower for me. Fortunately my daughter was turning 2 a few months later, so I threw a party for her but it wasn’t quite the same.

The second, written by Ruth Gledhill, one of Britain’s best religion writers (before she got laid off), is about how Christian women face the Sophie’s choice of either not marrying or marrying a non-believer because of the paucity of men in church. Seems like the problem is even worse in the UK than it is in the States. It’s also well worth reading. Another is from WaPo by an adopted child who’s tired of being told how lucky she was to be adopted. Seems a bit pity party-ish to me, but I’m still posting it. And the fourth is about a group in Oregon trying to find homes for kids there.

A "waiting child" from the Rainbow kids site

A “waiting child” from the Rainbow kids site

And it’s the season for adoption fairs and summer visits from kids overseas. Here is a link that benefits KidSave, one of the better-known groups for bringing in kids from overseas for summer visits. KidSave is always looking for summer host families. Could that be you? Then there is this site afamilyforeverychild.org that has “online child matching events” where there are videos of available kids with adoption officials explaining each child’s situation. You might have to have a homestudy to participate in this but check it out. Then there is Cradle of Hope, a Maryland agency that is trying to find homes for special needs Chinese kids for summer visits. Deadline is May 15. Then Children’s Home Society is having a May 30 open house if you live in the DC area. I attended this at one point – it’s actually in Maryland. Their national organization, based in Minnesota, has a comprehensive web site describing adoption programs in Mexico, Brazil and a need for families for Korean boys. And of course Rainbow Kids always has zillions of good adoption stories and advice to read. And an interesting piece of news: JK Rowling (super-rich author of the Harry Potter books) has established a foundation to get children out of overseas orphanages (and into homes of families and/or willing parents). This just happened April 9, so I am glad she’s on board.

Got a plea from my old agency, KidsFirst Adoption Services in Indianapolis, that they have a ton of waiting children from Bulgaria. “Every day we see so many older kids who need families,” Inna writes. “They have an incredible potential, but because of a disability, they are older than 9 years or they are part of a sibling group, these children often get passed up by potential adoptive parents.”