Saturday, October 27, 2007

Have You Hugged Your Kid Today?

Experts in child development say that by the time we are two--certainly by the time we are three--we have developed our "world view". Is the world friendly? Welcoming? is comfort offered when there is pain? Enough to eat? Is the world topsy-turvy, sometimes with care and food and warmth and sometimes with slaps and being left alone, sometimes for hours? are basic needs met, but nothing extra? is the world dangerous, with a need always to to try to go unnoticed? Environment can change much of this, one way or the other,but at our core, these beliefs are solidly a part of us very, very early. If we are ignored early enough, long enough, we lose the ability to attach to other human beings at all. Some very specialized therapy in short supply is available, and a few of such ignored children can re-learn how to attach. But a lot don't.

In my work with dysfunctional families, I remember a visit to a foster home where the foster mom told me exuberantly she had taken the baby in for his second round of shots, and "he howled the walls down." I shared her delight, not at the baby's pain, but his response to it. His first round of shots had been shortly after he came into her care. Four shots, four painful shots, and he never reacted. He never whimpered. His expression never changed. His life experience had already taught him, "don't make a fuss." Now, a few months later, he had gotten used to a regular routine of food, bath, hugging, rocking and playing. He had learned if he cried, someone came and made it better. So the vaccine shots absolutely enraged him. And he bellowed.
And, of course, he was hugged, soothed and comforted. He was still under a year of age. Plenty of time for his expectations of the world to improve.

I remember a little boy about 3. His mother was a druggie who allowed her home to be used by a number of drug dealers in return for her free access to the drugs. And, of course, they would all indulge and party in the evenings, with this toddler just kind of wandering around. His first year of life wasn't so bad. His father was there, made sure he was cared for during the day, feeding, bathing and loving him in the evenings and weekends. (Mom was already disappearing for weeks at a time to do her drugs.) But when Joey, let's call him, was about a year old, his dad was killed in a traffic accident. And Mom moved in with her drug dealer friends. She paid almost no attention to him. He had no toys. She would bathe him and change his clothes occasionally, and she went through the fast food drive through for hamburgers and french fries. So he WAS fed. No one told him to go to bed or took him there. No one called him to eat. No one talked to him much other to tell him to move faster or get out of there. Toilet training? Forget it. Mom DID change diapers fairly regularly. Mom was arrested. There was no family, so he came into foster care.
Toward the end of the case, when it all began to hang out, I learned one of the drug dealers, high one night, had pulled a gun and aimed it at Joey, threatening to kill him for "making little boy noises." When I confronted Mom, she denied at first, then admitted it. Her lower lip stuck out. "He aimed the gun at me, too!" she said. But it never occurred to her to move the guy out. He was her supplier.

We knew she was probably going to go to prison for a number of years(which she did). Joey would be adopted. So I went by the foster home frequently to observe him and get a handle on his needs. He didn't know how to play, I learned. He would fiddle with a toy for a couple of minutes and move on. He didn't know how to play with other children. And he showed absolutely no separation anxiety. He fit into the household happily and never asked about his mom. He did have trouble eating at first. The foster mom made meals like meat loaf or baked chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans or broccoli, or some such thing. He had never seen food like this, and only began to eat after several days of refusing the food. This was also probably a test. Nobody yelled at him or grabbed him by the arm and threw him in his room when he didn't eat. Over time, I became convinced his attachment ability was pretty badly damaged. His permanent home was going to take parents with a whole lot of time to devote to him.

And we found the home. They had already adopted two children with fetal alcohol syndrom (which occurs when the mom drinks heavily throughout the pregnancy.) Such children take infinite patience and a 100 percent commitment to routine. Their girls were doing phenomenally well. And they wanted Joey to make them his "forever" home.
The adoptive mother was busy in church, school, and community. She dropped all her activities to be with Joey 24/7. While her girls were at school, she played with him, read to him, sang to him, rocked him. When they got home, they did family things involving all three children. She was just always there. And after three months, he finally slowly began to respond. He attached to her first, of course, then to the rest of the family, one by one. A year later, they were a bonded, happy family.

His birth mom relinquished her rights. She wasn't much more attached than Joey was to her, but she wished him well. She was pleased he was "happy in a good family." And he was.

Which brings me to a news story I heard last night. A woman has received the death penalty after police performed a welfare check and found her passed out on the floor amidst numerous beer cans, and her six-week-old and 16-month old babies dead in their beds from starvation, apparently days before. She had formula, diapers and bread in the house. She simply didn't feed the kids. She also had a two-year-old who was still alive. Authorities said he survived by eating dry rice and noodles he foraged from the cabinets. These kids fell through the cracks. It's true they wouldn't have made much, if any, noise. Neglected children, as I said, have learned not to cry. And in any case, they were slowly weakening as they died. Thry weren't noticed for far, far too long. I get that helpless, "this didn't need to happen" feeling, but exactly what? We can dream up scenarios all day long, but that doesn't mean any of it would apply to this case.

I have worked with many, many families who were deemed risky, but not so severe that the kids needed to leave, and I have also dealt with the whole extended family in some homes where the kids did leave to live temporarily with a grandmother, aunt, or uncle while the parent or parents untangled themselves. When I began this work, sometimes I just had young, or incompetent parents. I would say in my last five years, way more than 90 percent involved alcohol or drug use. A lot of the addicts' children may have been exposed to drugs in utero (fetal alcohol is easier to recognize). Such children often have learning disabilities. Some lack much ability to control anger or other emotions because that part of their brain didn't finish developing.

It makes me wonder about the society my grandchildren will deal with. But surely there aren't as many drug-affected kids as it seems. Surely.


clairz said...

night lightning woman, I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your blog. You are a powerful writer with powerful stories. Thank you.

Clovis, NM

night lightning woman said...

Thank you so much, clairz. You realize you live in God's country, just across the mountains from my old stomping grounds in Alamogordo. How much I miss it at this time of year!

Matt G said...

Uh, Clovis is a bit of a shot from God's Country, Mom. It's about a hundred miles before you get to GC.

Clovis is FLAT.

Clovis aspires to the beauty of Tulia.

Clovis is a sister-city to Portales.

You drive through Muleshoe to get there.

Clovis is SSE of Tucumcari.

People with a strong will come from Clovis.

- - - -
Oh, and good blog.

New Girl said...

You know, one of my favorite TV shows ever was Judging Amy. I would love to hear your take on the similarities/differences in the portrayal and the reality of the job and of Tyne Daly's character sometime. Maybe on the porch with our diet Dr. Peppers?

Assrot said...

I was a foster parent for many, many years. I fostered teenagers because nobody else would take them. Those were some of the hardest years of my life and I will never forget them. By the time an abused child gets to their teen years they are nothing more than a human animal and there is little that can be done to repair the damage. You can treat the symptoms but the state of their mind is gone forever and will never come back. I don't care how much you love them or how well you treat them. They have become animals by then and will never be people again. No amount of love, medicine or psychiatry / psychology will ever help. The one's that don't wind up dead before they reach 18 usually wind up in prison for life. It's a sad state of affairs. I finally after so many years could not bear it any longer and had to get out. I think that all of these childrens' biological parents should receive capital punishment and I think the best thing for a child that has reached their teen years and been in the system since they were small children and not responded to treatment should be euthanised. I know that sounds cold and hard but you haven't been where I've been and you haven't seen what I've seen when it comes to teenage foster children. They are better off dead than living the tormented life they live.

night lightning woman said...

New Girl, yeah, we used to snicker about Tyne a lot. The show was in the realm of "wouldn't it be pretty". I don't know about the porch, though. I'm beginning to think we would have to dig the garden or build trellises or some such thing to keep you from fidgeting. I'm having trouble with blogger and access but it will work out.

Assrot, you're SO burned out. Checked your background, saw Florida, and thought "uh-oh". Florida's system continues to be poor to sometimes bizarre, although I've met a number of excellent workers from there Some of the teenagers have effectively become sociopaths, but I've also worked with a bunch who did turn things around and some have even gone to college with no problems with the law. We've all worked with those kids who we fear will be in the news one day for something really bad. My guess is that to save money, Florida saddled you with kids who should have been in therapeutic care but were dumped on you instead, until the placement disrupted, which of course it would. And the kid moved on, one more failure noted. I could not be a foster parent, and that you did it for so many years is admirable. You are right that if they've been in the system all their lives and never got adopted, yep, most are a right mess. Which is another plug for therapeutic, not basic, foster care for messed up teenagers. Thanks for writing.
FYI--I retired three years early. I think I did nothing but eat, read and sleep the first six months.

Strings said...

I have to say thank you: not only for what you did for the kids, but what that post just did for me.

I'm with BACA, and have been getting just a touch burned out. Thanks for rekindling the fire!

Strings said...

I have to say thank you: not only for what you did for the kids, but what that post just did for me.

I'm with BACA, and have been getting just a touch burned out. Thanks for rekindling the fire!