My husband and I have three adopted children. We love each of them and have tried to do the best for them and for ourselves in this adoption adventure. But in 1986, one venture was less than successful. One of our sons was in pain and we felt an overwhelming loss of power - two factors which eventually led us to make our child a ward of the court.
Most children experience some distress in school, in their neighborhood, or in their family. As long as the child is willing to admit there is a problem and work for solutions, families that work together can create healthy self-concepts and strong bonds. Unfortunately, our situation was not so simple.
When he was 16, our son Matt added running away for days at a time to a long list of troublesome behaviors. He racked up a couple hundred dollars worth of the infamous "976" porno calls on our phone, and any other phone he had access to. He broke into relatives' homes for food, money, phone calls, sleep, or a shower. When entry to those homes was thwarted, he skipped eating and showering, and slept behind buildings or in cars. He lied so often, we were not sure ourselves of what was the truth. He refused to go to school. He stole money out of my purse and from his brother. He threatened to kill us, and we were warned to lock up the knives, scissors, and baseball bats.
Matt had seen a psychologist on a regular basis for four years and had been hospitalized twice, but now he was totally out of control - not even safe from himself. We and our other two children were not safe from him. We felt we had no choice but to get him some long-term help, but how?
We initially decided to get the police involved, but to our dismay learned that they had not kept records of our son's previous runaway episodes, even though he had been running away for years. We learned that parents have to insist that reports be made and recorded, because as long as a child has not broken the law, police are not required to make a report. Good records are extremely important, so if the police won't keep records, parents must.
We learned that running away is not a crime. Truancy is not a crime. Breaking into someone's home is a crime but, for charges to be pressed, the child has to be caught in the act; circumstantial evidence does not even warrant an investigation. Attacking people is a crime, but the victims have to press charges. No one was willing to do that. "The poor child!" they'd say, "He must really be disturbed!" True, true, but how do you get help?
When you report your runaway child to the police, do not expect them to go looking for him. You may look for him. Then, when you find a chronic runaway, the police can pick him up and take him to what is called a SOTA bed in California. These are county homes, administrated by the probation department. Three to five days later, you and the child must appear before a judge. In some cases, the judge will order that the child be returned to your home. In other cases, the child is assigned to a SOTA foster home and for period of time is under the court's jurisdiction. Parents and child participate in court-assigned therapy to resolve issues that led to the runaway episodes, and the child is assigned to a probation officer who monitors his or her behavior, school attendance, and so on.
We felt that our son's problem fell into the area of mental health and tried to work with that county department to get help. Unfortunately, Mental Health had recently seen so many funding cuts that no one there could promise any help prior to our son's release from a hospitalization. Mental Health officers and Department of Social Services workers gave us inaccurate information, and in some cases it appeared that they actually lied in order to not have to handle the case themselves.
Left with few viable options, we simply refused to bring our son home from the hospital. He was still threatening to kill us and all advice from psychologists indicated that we were still in danger. The boy was still dangerous to himself as well, and our insurance had run out. Ironically, our refusal to take him home from a hospitalization was the first step in getting some help.
The county hospital would not keep our son because he would not sign himself in for treatment, so he was taken from the hospital to MacClaren Children's Center. Three days later my husband and I appeared in court for what is called an "abandonment" procedure&emdash;such a horrible term for trying to protect your child and your family! We had to state to the court that we were unable to care for our child.
As part of that procedure, the court assigned a county lawyer to us. (County lawyers often have an advantage over lawyers in private practice because they keep closer track of frequent changes in children's law and are considerably less expensive.) We then came to the court hearing prepared with a letter from our son's psychologist stating his belief that our son was dangerous.
The judge received piles of reading mate-rial, from us and from Matt's psychologist. As a result, he determined that our son should remain at MacClaren Hall pending further investigation. Records from hospitalizations, school records, and interview statements obtained by a county social worker joined the mounting pile of documentation. Our years of personal documentation had paid off.
Two months later we appeared in court again for the disposition hearing, and our son was officially made a ward of the court.
After all this, we later learned that incorrigible or "300" children are not locked up in the state of California. A child can run away from a group home if he wants to, and our son has done that too. In order to be held behind locked doors, a child must commit a crime or be certified with mental problems. Neither had occurred with Matt.
What did our decision cost us? Financially, a significant amount. Emotionally and socially, almost more than we could bear at times. In the course of our adoption experience, we put on lots of weight, and I became bitter and cynical about adoption, children, getting up in the morning. I became super-teacher because it was much easier to put my heart and soul into something that brought me rewards. I still bask in the respect I gained from my faculty when I worked and worked just so I didn't have to go home.
Most family members supported our efforts to help Matt; others were not so kind. We had to work with a number of county social workers and psychologists, which was not always a pleasant experience. We were told that our son might be taken from us and that it might affect our teaching credentials. An emergency desk social worker told our daughter that someone was probably going to come and take her to MacClaren Hall too. None of it came to pass.
Our other children were initially relieved when Matt was placed outside our home, but they soon began to feel sorry for him. Nonetheless, they also noticed that we had more time for them and that my husband and I were increasingly easier to get along with. When Matt first said that he wanted to come home, we decided that we would make him welcome only if he would begin to work on solutions.
Years later, memories of the pain that drove us to make our son a ward of the court still brings tears to my eyes, but I firmly believe that there was absolutely nothing we could have done to make it any different. There are things that happened that we regret and would change if we could, but we can't. There are some things we would do differently if given the chance. None of us is the perfect parent though most of our kids survive and do well by us.
Now, I'm not going to tell you that a miracle has occurred in the last eight years and our once incorrigible son is a healed human being right up there with new religious converts, but yet, I cry to say that little of what some predicted would happen to Matt has come true. He has begun to face the demons of adoption, separation, and loss, and turn the tables on a once hopeless life. My son is going to make it!
I don't mean that he's going to law school next week. I don't mean that he's signed up to go help Rwandan refugees. I mean that my once-upon-a-time son who gave up hope in his family and we in him, has grown up to be a determined young man who is doing all he can to not repeat the past for his own children.
He is married and has three children of his own. After four years, he is still with the girl he chose to marry, and she is devoted to him. The GED is still down the road, but he has graduated from security guard school and received a permit from California to carry a weapon on the job. He even enjoys working.
My son is going to make it, because somewhere along the road he decided he was going to make it. We couldn't decide that for him; he had to do it himself.
Yes, we visited him in jail. Yes, he lived on the streets for a while. Yes, he has made use of the county welfare system again. Yes, he has some different values than we do. But he has turned the tide, defying all of the doctors who said he would end up in jail for the rest of his life.
In recent months our son even gave us some comfort for the more difficult years. "You didn't know I was listening to you, Dad, but I heard what you said. I just couldn't do it back then. I am trying to do some of it now."
Is there anything better in life?