Friday, April 1, 2016

Losing Isaiah: It's not about blood

Years ago, I watched the movie Losing Isaiah (1995).    The most succinct description of this movie that I have found follows

An African-American baby, abandoned by his crack addicted mother is adopted by a white social worker and her husband. Several years later, the baby's mother finds out her son is not dead, as she thought before and goes to court to get him back.”


And here is the crux of it for me. There is nothing about the courts decision that actually takes into account the well being of the child in the present moment. The court does not acknowledge that to Isaiah, Margaret Lewin(Adoptive mother) is his mother. She is the voice he heard in the night. She is the one who understands his sensory issues and his needs. She is the absolute center of this child's world. The court sends him back to his birth mother without so much as a transition plan. The adoption is reversed and there is no going back. It is very simple...he shares her blood. His life up until that day means nothing. It is all about her rights. Sadly I have seen this story played out many times in real life(minus the legal reversal). 

Foster care is set up on the premise of "helping families"...they give parents more than a YEAR to get it together(minimum). I'll tell ya what...if someone took my child, it would not take me a YEAR to get off my butt and work a case plan.  I would not need 6 months to show progress and demonstrate that I was willing to do ANYTHING to regain custody of my child. I would not settle for waiting for a case worker to call me back. I would call. I would push, and I would do all I could to move things along. However, *most* of the parents whose children end up in foster care are not wired like the typical parent. The evidence is in their focus and determination, or the lack thereof.

The entire time we were fostering, we were told over and over that we had to support Reunification...we had no rights. Every day we got up and cared for our little ones who certainly *felt* like our children. We cared for them as our children. We invested our love and time and tears in them...just as we had with children we had been gifted by birth.  But, we were reminded constantly that they were not, in fact, our children...UNTIL the mothers who birthed them failed to do what needed to be done to regain custody.  It was quite bizarre to watch the system turn about-face and start pointing to my husband and myself as the parents of this child. Nothing had changed in our home...nothing had changed in our relationship with our children or the care we provided them. The only thing that had changed was that they had reached a point in the timeline where policy NOW recognized our relationship to these kids.  We were very blessed. I cannot explain how we ended up with our babies. Truly, I can't. In reality, that same timeline could be the point at which the state removes that child and sends them far away to a family member(or even "fictive kin" whom they have never seen before) to "reunify" them with total strangers and call it family.  

There are countless other families who had the exact same story that we did, *right up to the point where the state looked to the birth parents and said "enough, your time is up"*.  In many cases, a year or more into a child's life...the life of a child who was essentially born into the foster family(given the woman who birthed the child walked away and was MIA for the first year) is very suddenly having visits with a total stranger. A stranger who is given incredible importance and weight because of their biological connection to the child. And, NOW this person has decided they want to do what they need to do(albeit only the minimum in most cases)...they will be given one extension after another and all of the help, money and resources that the state can throw at them...and two years in, someone whom the child *might* know as well as a Sunday school teacher they had seen once a week for two hours is given back full-time custody. And, the mother of this child...the one who has cared for and nurtured and adored this child from the first time she laid eyes on him..for every single one of 730 plus days...is asked to step aside, hand this child over, and told "gee, thanks. You took really good care of him! You really made a difference!".   In essence "nice babysitting!"  

And, in the same breath...if the tears start to flow...the loss mounting in their hearts...they are reminded that "this is what you signed up for".  No, no it's not. NO one signs up to have a child of their heart live and grow in their home well past the federal mandate of 15 our of 22 months and THEN have that child taken and returned to the parent who lost the privilege of caring for them to begin with(or worse some distant "relation" who has never seen the child before, nor made any effort to care for them since).  And, they are told that the bond does not matter...all that matters is blood. Even the blood of one who spilt their blood via physical abuse, or poisoned their blood with chemicals taken for a quick high during pregnancy...while the very foundations of their being were being laid. Even that person...because they share the same blood. 

Here is my experience of bonding...as I said, I have birthed four children...sons whom I adore...my fifth child was born in my heart via a phone call at 10 am on a Monday. I called my husband, we didn't even know whether or not to take the placement. But, we decided to go ahead...I drove three miles down the road to a hospital where I had taken my sons for several emergency room visits(as is common for mothers of boys). I found my way to the locked maternity ward and waited on the case worker to join me. They buzzed me in...no caseworker yet...and the nurse lead the way to a quiet room(my heart aches to remember this) where a tiny little baby boy was swaddled tight and lying quietly in his bassinet. He made no sound...I saw his body tremor and his quick and shallow breaths.  I was handed forms to sign and in total naiveté, I asked where I should sign, as, of course...the only line available said "mother". I was given an abrupt(and rather rude) lecture by the nurse on how I was NOT his mother(no kidding lady...not sure he really has one)!  And, then we discussed the timeline for taking him home.  I left feeling somewhat bewildered...and as if I were walking in a dream...carrying a car seat with the tiniest little scrap of human being.  I drove to the local DSHS office to pick up a coupon that should have been waiting for me at the hospital, so we could go get clothing and formula for the little man.   My heart ached every time I looked at him. We had been told, "they do not stay! Newborns do not stay! Family will come forward, etc." So, I held my heart closer than I held him...and tried to stay objective.  But, I can tell you...at 2am...when you are holding a tiny warm quivering scrap of human being who nuzzles your neck and coos and struggles to feed (and, oh, how he struggled to feed) ...there is NO objectivity. THIS is where bonding happens, people...right here. In the quiet at 2am. This is where a mother's heart is born again and again. THIS is why extended NICU stays are a barrier to bonding. THIS is why his mother by birth had no bond with him. She saw him for two hours a day, three times a week. And, I have no doubt she tried to connect. I was already a goner...by the time he was two months old, anytime it hit me that he could leave any day, I could not breathe...I looked at his sweet smiling face, knowing that HE BELIEVED I WAS HIS MOTHER...and my heart ached like it never has before. I *longed* to shield him from all pain. To protect him from any loss. I despaired of finding a way to make it so that he would not feel abandoned by me, the mother of his little heart if they decided to move him to another home for any reason(and let me tell you this, too...they can...any time they want...and they don't really have to give you a reason). I lay awake at night listening to him breathing...and it did not matter how many times they told me I was not his mother...my heart knew better. My heart knew the truth. I did not need the title to know my role in this little persons life. 

Blood is not all that matters. Yes, blood can bring fun comparisons...you can see cherished relatives in the eyes of a child by birth. But, ...the birth of a child into our hearts, into our world,  can do the same...you are simply reminded that we are ALL related...all human...we all have so much in common. I can see my sons by birth reflected in the eyes of the son of my heart...I can see my husbands sparkling, joyful smile in the eyes of our daughter who grew to BE our daughter every single day in our hearts. 

And, today...at age three(and going on four), if someone were to try to come in and say that simply because they had a blood connection to either child, they should be allowed to take that child and leave...NO ONE could question the insanity of that!   But, honestly...what is the difference? A legal ceremony and a celebration that WE got to have with each child. That is the only difference between us and the foster family who has loved a child since birth and will have to let that child go tomorrow, well past the legal mandated time frame for permanency.  The rest of the story happens in their hearts and lives one single moment at a time. The only difference is that those of us who got to stand before a judge and have a party are now breathing just a little bit easier. Because the world has legally recognized our role in the lives of our children. Those who were not given that moment stare at the closed-door of an empty room and try to remember how to breathe. 

I recently heard of a mother who has raised two girls...one was a newborn...the other 18 months old when they first joined the family. Today they are four and five years old...and in a few weeks...they will be returned to their "mother". Because she birthed them and because she FINALLY decided to do what she had to do to get them back.   Explain that to me, will you? HOW is she their mother at this point? She is not their mother in their hearts! She did not birth their hearts again and again over the last four years. She did nothing to shape their experiences of life in this world. HOW can anyone believe that is right, just because they never had a legal ceremony and a party, their role no longer counts?  

And, WHAT MOTHER waits that long to do what needs to be done? 

I think we need to revisit the definition of "mother"...and that brings me back to that movie "Losing Isaiah".  I confess, I was relieved the first time I watched that movie when we got to the ending...but, now, as a mother by heart...I also hate it. The mother by birth tells the mother of Isaiah's heart that "she will let him live with them until he understands what is going on."  She, who left him for dead in a garbage heap. When exactly does she think that will be? When will he just "understand" that blood is more important than relationship?  When exactly will his "understanding" unravel the bond between his heart and that of his parents built over the first three years of his life?  His entire frame of reference for love and family is due to life with these parents...Really...someone explain that to me. Because, I don't think I will ever be able to understand that on my own.  

When did we decide that the only people on the planet who should NOT have to live with the consequences of their own choices...are parents of abused or neglected children?   Why is it that a child should pay for those poor choices?  And, what...what exactly about their shared blood is going to change the profound loss of foundational relationships and the ensuing devastation that the child will experience(and be shaped by) every day for the rest of their lives? Where is the pay off for their total loss of security and stability? 

I will never understand. 

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Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts! I look forward to reading your perspective! Blessings, Jeanene