I launched an investigation into the trend of Christian adoptions, which seems strange to call a trend, since it involves children and parents. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be periodically sharing perspectives from parents and children from adopted families. You can find the entire series here.
Last week, I shared Part 1 of a conversation I had with Joanna, a foster mother, about her family’s struggles with the foster care system in the US. Joanna and her husband, Carl, are trying to adopt their foster daughter, Dana. (Because the family is in the midst of a court case with Dana’s biological family, their names and identifying details have been changed.) Joanna’s family attends an evangelical church in the Midwest.
This week, I’m sharing Part 2 of our conversation–more about the family’s court case, how they approach therapeutic parenting, and how prayer helps their family.
Alicia: Why isn’t the state allowing you to adopt Dana?
Joanna: Parenting your own child is considered a constitutional right. Most states are very hesitant to sever the bond between a parent and child. There are only a handful of reasons why a state would terminate parental rights. A year ago, we filed for termination of parental rights and had a four day trial to prove that Dana’s biological mother (“Bio-Mom”) and biological father’s (“BF”) rights should be terminated.
We successfully proved that Bio-Mom and BF had failed Dana in several ways and that there were grounds to terminate their rights; however, BF had told many lies to the therapist and social worker assigned to the case. He made it seem that he had been this awesome dad to Dana and that they had a great bond. He told them that he had actually been in her life until she was 6 1/2 and that we were the cause of them no longer being bonded.
During the trial, we proved that BF had been in jail for seven of Dana’s first nine years. We proved that he had extremely limited contact with her in the first four years of her life, virtually no contact from ages four to five, completely no contact until she was nine and extremely limited after age nine. We successfully proved that there had been neglect and failure to support her. However, the therapist and social worker were not in the court room as we were bringing the evidence, so when they took the stand, they testified based on what BF had told them.
The judge ruled that while there were grounds for termination, she would not terminate parental rights. There was no reason given, but we assume that the judge believed there to be some bond between BF and Dana. The judge said that Dana would not be removed from our home at this time. The judge went on to say that the court understood that Dana deeply desired to be adopted and that this news would “devastate her”–however, they believed that rights should not be terminated.
The sad thing is that there is no bond between BF and Dana and never has been. The judge would have known this had she spoken directly to Dana; however, that is not the way our state works.
Alicia: Does Dana visit her father, or does he visit her at all? Does he have a job and a place to live?
Joanna: Two years ago, the court ordered therapy (with the above-mentioned therapist) for Dana and BF, which was conducted only once a month. Six months later, even though Dana did not want it, the court ordered a once a month unsupervised three-hour visit. Dana would throw up on the way to the visits and would show signs of depression and regression after each visit for weeks. The visits and subsequently Dana’s behavior worsened. BF was bullying her on the phone as well as at visits. He was lying to her and not abiding by Dana’s therapist’s suggestions. Finally Dana had had enough and last November, Dana caught him in a huge lie that made her feel unsafe; she refused to go on the visit and refused the following visits.
Meanwhile, BF filed to terminate our guardianship and have Dana removed from our home. We filed to have his visits suspended until further review/therapy for Dana. So we all again headed to court. The outcome of that court hearing was that visits were suspended until Dana had additional therapy; however, we were ordered to tell Dana that the judge was not going to allow us to adopt her. The judge actually wrote in the court order that she knew that this would shatter Dana’s dreams and that Dana would need time to process this. (Dana had repeatedly said to her therapist that she would never see or talk to BF again until she could be adopted and had testified regarding this.)
Since Dana found out the court ruling, she has refused to talk to BF when he calls and has said that she will never see him again. She is a strong-willed kid and I believe that this has ended any hope of Dana ever agreeing to even work on having a relationship with BF. She is more adamant than ever that she does not want any contact with her bio-family. We will go back to court in a few months for the judge to review the case; however, at this point, even if visits were court ordered, I think that there is nothing that will make Dana be willing to ever go on a visit again.
BF does have a job and a place to live. He, his wife, and their child live in his wife’s parents’ house. He lives several hours from us, in a different state. Dana has never been to his home or even to the town where he lives.
Alicia: What would be the best possible outcome for Dana, to you and Carl?
Joanna: The best possible outcome would be for the judge to allow us to adopt Dana and for her to be given a chance to heal. Our hope is that someday she will be healed enough and feel safe enough to explore a relationship with her biological family on her own terms, not theirs and not the state’s. I don’t believe that her relationship with them is salvageable otherwise because she just doesn’t trust them enough to be willing to get to know them on any level. Dana’s therapist is also unsure if Dana will ever feel safe enough to even heal, let alone allow them into her life until she has the security and permanency of adoption.
Chances are that the judge will never change her mind and that this we will be in and out of court for the next several years. In that case, the best possible outcome would be for the judge to listen to and respect Dana feelings and not force her to have contact with her bio-family. If Dana no longer has the threat of contact with bio-family, she may feel safe enough to begin the healing process. And perhaps when she is healed enough, she will seek out contact with them.
Alicia: You mentioned that you “look” like a normal family, but things are really different from you guys. Can you give an example of something that you and Carl have done or changed to help Dana deal with her past experiences/current conditions? I am so interested to hear about this, because another adoptive parent I spoke to, Benjamin Corey, talked a bit about how he and his wife deal with the issues their daughters had through something called “therapeutic parenting.” I’d like to hear what sort of things you guys do (counseling, talking, reading? Or maybe some spiritual practices or habits?) to help Dana.
Joanna: We definitely engage in therapeutic parenting. We tend to be more structured than most parents of an 11-year-old and seek ways to actively encourage a healthy bond with us. For example, when she first came to us at age four, she was used to fending for herself and doing everything for herself. She was used to coming and going as she wanted. Even at age four, if she wanted to wander the streets at midnight, she could because no one was there to watch her. So when she came to us, we needed to teach her that it was safe and important for her to depend on us, that meant that we did just about everything for her. For example, she didn’t know how to tie shoelaces and was accustomed to Velcro ones that she could put on and off herself. We bought her lace up shoes so that she would need to rely on us to help her with her shoes. Parents of adjusted four-year-olds are trying to teach their children independence; however, we were having to do the exact opposite. A child needs to know that they can rely on adults; however, children who have early years like Dana’s have been shown that adults are not reliable. By putting her in situations where she had to rely on us, we were able to very slowly teach her that we were trustworthy.
She would frequently erupt into fits of rage. We quickly learned to watch for the early signs of a meltdown and before it could get too far, I would gently hold her on my lap, rock her and sing to her. At first, she was very confused by this and wasn’t too fond of it, but soon, she actually began asking to be rocked. As time passed, she needed to be rocked less and less. When BF came back into the picture, many of her early behaviors came back. When she gets upset, she still asks us to hold her, rock her and sing to her.
Dana has a great therapist (that we chose, not the one that the court ordered) who meets with her regularly. She is trained in attachment issues and trauma.
We pray a lot! Carl and I pray together for wisdom and strength for us and for peace for Dana. Dana finds a lot of comfort in Bible verses like Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will lie down and sleep for you alone, oh God, will keep me safe.” (She even made up her own song to sing it to.) She also likes Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Many thanks to Joanna for sharing her and her family’s experience here. If you’re interested in reading more about the adoption movement, check out the other posts in this series.