What About the Child?
By Cathy Schweitzer MS,LIMHP
Identifying details have been changed, but the basic story is this…
Kiddo was removed from her birth parents at about age five, exposed to significant domestic violence; birth parents were both addicts. I was sitting at a meeting with the Guardian ad Litem, the foster parent (who was simply wonderful), and the child, who was now a teenager. The last time this child had ever seen her mother, she was on a supervised visit and the mother had assaulted her. The police had come, and the little girl had never seen her mother again. Rights were terminated when she was about 5 ½.
Fast forward time… she has had 27 different placements, was sexually abused, hospitalized multiple times for highly aggressive, explosive anger, was placed in a psychiatric residential treatment facility, and had now lived in a successful placement for over a year.
My client had an adoption worker that has pursued several different kinship placements, all of which have fallen through. My client also had a milieu of other workers to help ensure that she was getting what she needed.
My client, who was now old enough to be very aware that she was still in foster care, had never really been told why she had not been moved to a kinship placement. She started asking questions. My dilemma... should I fudge the truth a little (lie), or should I come out and tell her the truth about what was happening? I called a meeting of all the professionals to remind them that the child in question was an adolescent now, and that she was a real person with real questions. I asked the professionals to consider changing the permanency plan to independent living... no more searching for family, no more trial visits with various family members. I asked them to allow her to stay where she was and live her life instead of disrupting her life and stringing her along with false hopes. This is what we would want for any child.
The GAL, the foster mom, my client, and I had a meeting to “tell the truth” about the situation. The judge had ordered “no more looking for family members,” so we told her this. She handled it well. She wasn’t surprised. We talked about living with her current foster mom with whom she was attaching... calling her mama. She asked about visits to see her family…. Here, I asked the GAL to tell her the truth. The GAL told her that we have to convince the judge to let her go to see her family. My client became extremely distressed and confused. Why was she going to be denied contact with her relatives after she had already spent many holidays visiting them? I looked at the GAL with my eyes which said… “finish telling her the truth.” He told her, “You won’t be allowed to go anymore unless someone convinces the judge that these relatives have your ‘best interest’ at heart.” My client got up and left the room…that was the end for her.
I looked at the GAL thinking… “This whole system has forgotten that there is a child involved in all these decisions.” I turned to him and asked, “Who is really paying attention to the emotional welfare of this child? How can all the professionals in her life, including you, make decisions based on statistics and perceptions of family members, without talking to her directly? Why does she now have to wait to get in front of the judge in order to ask to go see her family? How do I as her therapist explain that once again the system that is designed to look out for her is now keeping her family from her?”
Here is my point. As clinicians, we sit in our offices helping children who have been wounded in relationships. We use protocols, strategies, to help, we call schools and caseworkers and go to court. It is our job to continue to remind other professionals involved in the child’s life that they must look beyond all the box-checking and statistics that supposedly say what is “best” for kids…that the child is a “real person” with thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams who doesn’t really care about protocols and statistics.
At the end of the meeting, the foster mom took my client home with fingers crossed that there would be no major meltdown that night. The GAL was ready to go back to the other professionals on the case and remind them that the adolescent was a real person with thoughts and feelings and needs. The GAL and I worked together to get her in front of the judge so that she could personally tell the judge what she wanted and needed.
As therapists, we usually don’t need reminders that our clients are real people. However, it often becomes our job to remind others of that fact! Thank you for working so hard with these children and their families.