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I HAD ORIGINALLY PROMISED SEVERAL KOSSACKS that I would write this diary on the ins and outs of foster care, and becoming a foster dad (or mom) weeks ago. I'm late in posting this because I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out the best way into this complex subject.

And then Friday, July 4th, as I made my weekly five-hours-there-five-hours-back trip to visit my (former foster) son in prison, I gave the matter more thought. And then during the visit, a life-changing event took place,  and I realized the real nitty gritty of the matter could only be conveyed from a personal perspective.

And though my tale will include the training, the licensing, the minutia of the process, it will be have to be ferreted out from within this true story, the story of a boy I'll call 'Jack', my former foster kid and the son of my heart.

This is a very long diary, and not for the feint of heart or those who want such things boiled down into feel-good four-color brochures and factoids (though it has factoids as well). So proceed if you want to learn a little something about the subject -- but like being a foster parent itself, it will take a personal commitment to seeing it all the way through...

MY KID WAS A 'SYSTEM' KID FROM THE AGE OF TEN, when he was placed into foster care after surviving five years of severe physical abuse (along with his sister) at the hands of his alcoholic, meth-addicted mother and step-father. The abuse included being beaten with closed fists, being strangled, being thrown against walls, being held under water near drowning, and being kept naked in a room nailed shut with boards (the event that finally sent him into foster care). Try to imagine being a five or seven or nine-year old going through that.

Or try to imagine watching three men attempting to rape your mom after her night at the bars, with your horrific stepfather passed out on the couch.

Between the ages of five and ten Jack would sometimes run away -- though the more accurate word of course is 'escape'. And sometimes he would find other family outside of town to stay with for a few days, or stay at the houses of friends in the dirt poor mill town he called home: Dorris (population 866), near the California border with Oregon, a half-hour away from Mount Shasta.

And more than once during these escapes, as he looked for a family member or friend to take him in, he sometimes would fall victim again -- only this time to being sexually molested by a stranger. But invariably he would be found, and sent back to his living hell again.

It may seem strange to think of a boy under the age of 10 capable of running away for weeks at a time. But he had learned some survival skills during times when the family had been homeless. Later he would tell me the finer points of dining out of garbage cans, proud of his self-sufficiency at such a young age.

At ten Jack and his sister were placed in the foster system, and sent to separate homes, never to live together again. This was the last he was ever to know of living with his biological family.

FACTOID: Foster kids are children who have legally been made wards of the child welfare services system for their safety (not to be confused with orphans). Sometimes the placement is temporary, sometimes it continues for years (national average: 3 years). Most states endorse the philosophy of returning the kids to their biological families as a top priority, if and when it becomes feasible to do so. Part of this process may include visits with the family (sometimes supervised, sometimes not) while still in foster care. But in some few extreme cases, the parental rights have been permanently terminated by court order.


At first the system tried Jack out in placements in people's homes.  

FACTOID: In California, there are 14 'levels' of foster care, at least as far as the rates paid by the state to care for the kid. In short, the more difficult the child's needs, the more money paid. This is one reason the system starts by throwing them into the lowest possible level of placement -- because it costs less. In practice, there are really three types of foster placement: shelter placement (for emergencies until suitable placement can be found), in-home placement (sometimes with strangers, sometimes with extended family), and 'group home' placement.


But Jack acted out in every private home to which he was sent. Soon after, he was placed in a foster 'group home'.

A `group home' is a lot like what people used to call `orphanages'. There is no one for the kid to relate to as family. The kids there are 'raised' by rotating staff, who change shifts every 8 hours. The staff are usually low paid, and most times see it as just another job. The kids are mostly left to learn about the world from each other's distorted/disturbed world view.

FACTOID: In California, group homes are residential programs operated by private, non-profit agencies that provide 24-hour care and supervision to children in a structured environment.. They are compensated according to the level of services they provide. In California, any foster 'home' having 7 or more kids is considered a 'group home', and faces the strictest licensing requirements. Which is why some bad actors make a specialty of being 'foster family' to 6 kids, as a profit-making business without the hassle of meeting group home requirements. Approximately 12% of California's foster kids are in group home placement.


But of course, the 'world view' of Jack had already been distorted and disturbed before reaching the group home, not only from the emotions of his experience (which would eventually be neatly categorized through psychiatric diagnoses) but distorted and disturbed as well through the biological effect the abuse had on his still-forming brain. But more on that later.


AND SO OVER THE COURSE of the next six years, Jack became a 'system kid'. These are the kids who have been in the system so long that they learn how to work it to whatever advantage they might find. They know 'the rules' of what staff can and can't do. They know how to push to the edge of non-compliance, without stepping over the line. And for many, this ability to push to the edge is the only sense of control they have over their own lives.

But Jack became a veteran of another system as well: the juvenile justice system. During his stay at one of several group homes he was placed in, his mother (who by then had divorced his step father) was sent to prison for negligent homicide, having allowed a teen to drink in her home who then died of alcohol poisoning.

FACTOID:  In 1998, the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents and The Casey Family Program conducted a study of children in long-term foster care. Findings from the first phase of the study included:

  1. Approximately 80% of the children studied had at least on parent who had been arrested or incarcerated during the child’s lifetime.

  1. Approximately 40% of the children studied had two birth parents who had been involved in the criminal justice system.

  1. Approximately 70% of the children studied had a parent incarcerated at some time during their tenure in foster care.

  1. About 85% of the children of criminal offenders studied had entered the foster care system for reasons that were not directly related to parental incarceration.


Jack carried a lot of guilt about his mother going to prison. He thought if only he had been there, he could have somehow prevented it all. Jack had always had fantasies of rescuing his mother -- from poverty, from alcohol, from his stepfather. Now he felt it even more personally -- as far as he was concerned, his mother was in prison because Jack was such a bad child that he had to be sent into foster care, and so he wasn't there when she needed him.

FACTOID: Many children in foster care feel they are being punished for something they did wrong. In abused children, it is a continuation of the belief that the abuse they suffered was their fault, as it was always portrayed by adults as a 'punishment'.


And then one day, one boy made the poor decision to taunt Jack about his mother being in prison. Jack hit him, and with one slug broke the boy's jaw. Jack was prosecuted, and placed on juvenile probation until the age of 18.

Jack was 13 years old at the time.

FACTOID: Approximately 6% of foster kids in California are on juvenile probation, and most foster kids on juvenile probation are placed in group homes.


So over the coming years Jack made his way through the foster care and juvenile justice systems, working his way up through the foster care levels until he reached the level where psychiatrists were finally called in, and arrived at his diagnoses: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,  Dysthymic Disorder (a form of depression),  Oppositional Defiant Disorder,  and Borderline Personality Traits.

And though not part of his official diagnoses, Jack was also identified as having issues with 'impulse control', the inability to resist an impulsive act or behavior that may be harmful to himself or to others, owing to the fact that he had taken to cutting himself with knives and razors.

FACTOID: Psychiatric disorders are identified through the use of strict criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). For instance, the criteria for Jack's Dysthymic Disorder was based on the following specific criteria which must be met before the diagnoses can be made: Depressed mood for most of the day, for more days than not, and ongoing for at least two years. During this time, there must be two or more of the following symptoms: under or over eating, sleep difficulties, fatigue, low self-esteem, difficulty with concentration or decision making, and feelings of hopelessness. There can also not be a diagnosis of Major Depression for the first two years of the disorder, and never have been a manic or hypo-manic episode.


And thus, after already having spent years in the system, and ended up on juvenile probation, Jack was finally deemed qualified to receive psychiatric help. But psychiatry in such matters is a system in itself, and the 'psychiatric help' consisted of a biweekly 20-minute session with a psychiatrist, mostly to gauge whether the prescribed psychiatric mediations needed adjusting, or replacing.

FACTOID: Psychiatric medication is at best an inexact science, but especially so when prescribed to children. Each medication is prescribed for a specific disorder -- for example Ritalin for ADHD, Prozac for depression, Risperdal as an anti-psychotic, Tegratol for a mood disorder, Xanax for anxiety. In cases of multiple diagnoses, multiple medications are often used. And the use of multiple medications carries the risk of one canceling another out, or having other unexpected results in combination. Psychiatrists, like doctors, can earn extra money for using the 'latest and greatest' pharmaceuticals through backdoor fees for other 'services'. The result is, for instance, that almost 500,000 children nation-wide are on psychiatric medications not approved for use on children nor for the disorders they are prescribed to treat. Almost all such medications carry health risks, sometimes dire.


And  with the psychiatric diagnoses, Jack was finally elevated to the highest level of foster care, placement in a group home for Severely Emotionally Disturbed Youth.

FACTOID: 'Severely Emotionally Disturbed' is a legal classification of children or adolescents. From California Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) Section 5600.3(a)(2):

For the purposes of this part, "seriously emotionally disturbed children or adolescents" means minors under the age of 18 years who have a mental disorder as identified in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders than a primary substance use disorder or developmental disorder, which results in behavior inappropriate to the child's age according to expected developmental norms... As a result of the mental disorder the child has substantial impairment in at least two of the following areas: self-care, school functioning, family relationships, or ability to function in the community.

In California, less than six-tenths of one percent of children are classified as SED.


And this is where Jack and I met.


I HAD GOT MY JOB as a mental health counselor at this Level 14 facility after a two year period of withdrawal from the world following the death of my life partner. In doing so, I was returning to the non-profit social service world that had been my passion for most of my twenties.

The setting I worked in was unique: a large ranch with five separate houses and a bunkhouse where the foster youth (in this case, male adolescents) lived. Both staff and youth were assigned to a specific house, with little mingling between the houses.

And so I first saw Jack before we met. He was living in a different house than one I worked in. And the first sight of him left an indelible impression...

He was carrying dishes in a heavy tray as he made his way to the `mess hall' from one of the residences. He was hunched and looking only at the ground before him. My impression, seared into me at that moment, was that he put me in mind of a mule - bone tired, dispirited and nearly broken.

Three months later he came to live in the residence I was working in. The first day he came, we sat outside together and talked for nearly two hours. I was amazed because this kid had always been described to me by other staff as real trouble. But what I found in talking with and listening to him was a kid of incredible emotional depth, trying to figure out his place in the world (and this through the haze of psychotropic medications).  

We were bonded from that moment on.

I worked with him for another six months, where I drew many suspicious glares from other staff, and some reprimands, for being too `involved' with this kid. But the situation was such that I was the only adult he had ever trusted, and my conscience would simply not allow me to walk away from that.

Eventually he was set to `graduate' from the facility, following which he would be sent to a lower-level group home, to live again in a world where the strangers known as `staff' would be in charge of his world experience. I searched within my soul, and decided that I could not let this happen to him again.

So I discretely went through the 3-month county certification and training process, and qualified as a foster parent. I really didn't need to ask Jack about it. Almost from the first time we met, he would tell me during private moments 'I wish you were my dad'. Professional ethics prevented me from saying what I ached to reply: 'I wish I were too.'

But as the training and certification ended, I did ask, and a few months later he came home with me.

He was sixteen years old.

FACTOID: In California prospective foster parents must go through a weekly training program to become certified. Then the prospective residence must be inspected before becoming licensed. Part of the licensing may include testing the water for bacteria if water is provided through a well. The residence must include a bedroom with closet for the foster child. Although the process takes place over several months, it is not time consuming or difficult.Prospective foster parents must also be cleared through an FBI check for child molestation and such, performed by filling out a form with fingerprints at the sheriff's station for a $25 fee.


The first days were idyllic. Jack was stunned at the room I had prepared for him: a standalone living space built under the deck of my house. The room included a couch and chairs, a double bed, a desk, a stereo, a T.V., a VCR, a small refrigerator, a microwave, and a computer. But though thrilled at having his own space, he wasn't comfortable yet in sleeping alone. And so I bunked out on the couch every night for the first few weeks. And we were both very happy with the decision to become 'foster family'.

On the other hand, I soon learned what most every foster parent learns about the system: it is all bureaucracy and the conscientious foster parent has to fight for every little thing that the foster child is supposed to receive by right. It took three months of writing, calling and fighting to secure the therapist the state was supposed to provide from the beginning. In order to renew his meds, we had to travel five hours each way to see the psychiatrist in his home county. This took 4 months to arrange, as his home county had lost their psychiatrist and we had to wait until a new one was found.

FACTOID: In California, foster kids are supervised and provided services through the child's 'home county' -- the county in which they first entered foster care. Different counties provide different levels of services, so though the child's placement may be in a relatively services-rich area, he or she may not be eligible to take advantage of those services.


And there was now a new system in both our lives: the educational system, and it too was a fight. At his high school, I finally had to demand in writing that they perform the assessments they were supposed to do. But they fought me on this every step of the way, because these assessments would result in extra services they were legally supposed to provide, and as one school official told me "Even if we're supposed to, we just can't afford to."

FACTOID: Under Federal law, school districts are required to provide a "free appropriate public education" to eligible children with disabilities, including psychiatric disorders.  A 'free appropriate public education' means that special education and related services must be provided as described in an individualized education program (IEP), which is written after the child is assessed by specialists. Services to be provided may include therapy, tutoring, and even an aide to attend all classes with the child.


And having been dropped unprepared and unaided into a public school system that actively resisted meeting its legal responsibility, Jack began to flail, then act out. Calls started coming almost daily. Conferences were had with the school teachers and administrators, with his probation officer, with his therapist, with the county psychiatrist. Finally I had to choose between keeping Jack and going to work. I quit my job, and we enrolled together in a half-day occupational program that would meet the legal needs for Jack to remain in school until he was 18.


AT 18, JACK WAS FINALLY legally an adult. His juvenile probation ended. For the first time in his life, he had legal control. But even though he knew he at last had a home and a loving dad, there was no tidy happy ending to be found in this.

FACTOID:  About one-quarter of the 500,000 children in foster care in the U.S. stay in the system until they become adults. Approximately 30,000 foster care teens "age-out" of the foster care system each year. Studies show they average having spent 5 years in foster care. In the next two to four years after aging out:

  1. 25% of aged out foster youth experience homelessness.
  1. 40% are on public assistance.
  1. 60% of females have given birth.
  1. 27% of males have been swept up into in the criminal justice system.


What Jack couldn't understand, and what the world at large didn't care about, was that although Jack was a legal adult, his developmental growth period had been so stunted by the forces of the systems (foster, juvenile justice, psychiatric, educational) he had endured that developmentally, he was still in the early stages of adolescence.

FACTOID: Adolescence, otherwise known as 'the teen years' is biologically formulated to be a time of mental and emotional transition from childhood to adulthood. Cognitively, it brings with it the ability to think in abstracts (truth, justice, beauty). Emotionally, it brings with the first sense of self-identity -- defining yourself in your own terms (hence the rebellion so many teens have against authority). Behaviorally, it brings experiments in risk-taking, and eventually the capacity for realistic assessments of risk and consequences. It is the task of adolescence to create a stable identity capable of assessing risk, and then to transition that identity into independent adulthood.


And so though Jack was physically 18, he was developmentally at the state of a 14-year old. And the consequences were dire.

Jack had decided he would move back to Mount Shasta, to live with his sister. They would both await their mother's upcoming parole from prison. And then Jack would knit it all into the ideal bio-family he had never known.

On the day before he was to leave, he went back to the school to say goodbye to a few teachers who had been kind to him. But having recently seen Rambo, he had taken to wearing a fishing knife housed in a sheath attached to his belt. As he stood talking to his favorite teacher, a policeman rushed up, and with gun drawn ordered him to the ground. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to having a weapon on campus. He was back on misdemeanor probation again, but this time as an adult. And being developmentally 14, he didn't understand the difference.

All he knew was that his dream of rescuing his mom was being thwarted again. That, and that he was back under the domain of a system that would control his life once more. He had been a legal adult for only 60 days.

He began to act out again. Then, just after his mom was paroled and living with his sister, stole a car and drove to Mount Shasta. He was caught and arrested again, and placed on felony probation, then sent back to live with me.

During all this, I never walked away. My home was still his home (he had never moved out, except for the short sprint to Mount Shasta). I was there for the meetings with public defenders. I gathered the letters from the therapist. And I worked with his therapist to get the situation under control.

FACTOID: 20 out of 50 states cover 'aged out' foster kids health through Medicaid until the age of 21, including mental health services where needed.


And for a short while, it seemed to work. Jack got a job at Applebees, and was proud of it. But then he met Tyler (name changed).

Tyler was a local teen of the same age as Jack. They had met on the bus on Jack's way home from work. Like Jack, Tyler was developmentally stunted. For the next three weeks they became fast friends.

I was pleased that Jack had a friend. What I didn't know, is that his friend liked to break into houses. What I did know was that with each passing day, Jack was becoming more manic. It was a condition I recognized from my own experience with being bi-polar (aka manic-depressive).

FACTOID: From about.com:

When people are in the "manic stage" they may be energetic, talkative, and need little sleep. They may switch quickly from one topic to another, as if they cannot get their thoughts out fast enough. This stage often feels good to the person, and they often report feeling "on top of the world."... Judgment is often impaired, and they may go on shopping sprees, buying things that they can't afford. They may have grand schemes that are unrealistic, and a severe manic episode can include psychotic thinking similar to schizophrenia.


I placed calls and had long talks with his therapist about my perception of his emerging mania. But neither she nor I realized how drastic the situation was, until one night as I sat at my computer and Jack walked in soaking wet from the rain, and headed into the shower.

Suddenly both doors to my house flew open, and six county sheriffs came in with guns drawn. Long story short, Jack had broken into what he thought was an empty house. He had a rifle with him (which he and Tyler had stolen during one of their break ins). There was a woman and her little girl inside. They walked into the room where Jack was, and he ordered them out, and told them to take the cat with them. Then he ran away, and soaking wet came back home and went to shower.


I WON'T ATTEMPT to describe my confusion and despair about it all, or the many conversations we had while he was in jail, always begging me to bail him out. I went back and forth on this for weeks, and for reasons having to do with his treatment and defense, decided finally to bail him out.

My son needed me. But more than that, I was thinking back to a time, early into our relationship when he said 'You're just like every other adult. You say you'll be there for me but you'll end up leaving me alone.' And I had promised him that time would prove him wrong. This was that moment.

Jack was held on a $100,000 bond. I ponied up $10,000 to the bail bondsmen, and pledged my house as security. I ponied another $12,000 to the best defense lawyer in town.

And then I took Jack to have his brain scanned.


MY NEED TO DO THAT had been the ultimate factor in deciding to post bail. Because in those intervening weeks while Jack was in jail I had spent my time searching for understanding about why this had happened. And I discovered the ground-breaking work of one Dr. Teicher. And I learned that Jack's brain may have been hard-wired in ways far different than most people.

FACTOID: The essential neural pathways of the brain continue forming up through the age of puberty. The brain assesses the environment, and constructs itself according to the environment.

A child living in a safe environment will form 'normal' neural pathways. A child living in an abusive environment will form specialized neural pathways geared to that environment. For instance, Attention Deficit Disorder in abused children may sometimes be attributed to the child's need to maintain a constant awareness of physical threat, so that the brain hard-wires itself to never become so internally focused that it loses sight of the ever-present external threat.

From the Boston Globe...

Dr. Martin Teicher, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and director of the Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, has been at the forefront of this new line of research.

In one of the first major studies in the field published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences in 1993, Teicher linked abuse to brain wave abnormalities. Reviewing the records of 115 consecutive admissions to a child and adolescent psychiatric hospital, Teicher found brain wave abnormalities in 54 percent of patients with an abuse history, but in only 27 percent of nonabused patients. And 72 percent of the patients in the sample with a history of both physical and sexual abuse had these neurological abnormalities.

As a rule, Teicher said, the greater the severity of the abuse, the greater the impact on brain function...

Several studies now document that abuse damages key brain structures such as the cortex, which is associated with rational thinking, and the hippocampus, which helps process memories and emotions. Both brain regions are critical for learning.

In a study published in the same journal in 1998, Teicher and his colleagues used brain scans to compare 15 child victims of severe abuse with 15 healthy volunteers. The left cortex of the abused group was underdeveloped. Likewise, studies by Dr. Douglas Bremner of Yale and Dr. Murray Stein of the University of California at San Diego have found that the left hippocampus is smaller in abuse victims.

Abuse also damages the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei located in the brain's emotional control center that enables us to respond quickly to danger - say, to step out of the way of a swerving car. But repeated abuse causes the amygdala to signal danger even when there is no apparent threat...

This negative impact on developing brain structures is associated with changes in brain chemistry. Overwhelming stress early in life also alters the production of both the stress-regulating hormone cortisol and key neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, the chemical messengers in the brain that affect mood and behavior.

These biochemical imbalances can have profound implications. For example, abuse typically lowers serotonin levels, leading to depression and impulsive aggression...

Strong Oak, codirector of the Survivors Project, a drop-in center for adults in Greenfield, who runs psychoeducational groups on overcoming the biological effects of trauma, said: ''The brains of adult survivors are fragmented and resemble a hard drive on a computer that has crashed'.'


And in one respect I was lucky. One of the few clinics capable of performing the brain scan needed to see how Jack's brain was wired was just two hours away. And the scan plus psychiatric assessment cost only $3,000 -- a pittance compared to bail, attorneys and such.

So Jack underwent the brain scan and assessment. And it revealed that Jack's brain was significantly different in its hard-wiring, attributable to the abuse. With some small traumatic brain damage as well.

And it was another lucky stroke that the psychiatrist who assessed him was formerly head of the psychiatric system for the California Prison System. Part of his 5-page letter to the court following the assessment:

Mr. ___ had SPECT scans performed which revealed a number of pertinent findings which may throw more light upon his behavior. SPECT is an imaging technique which enables the activity of brain centers controlling important psychological functions to be visualized in the conscious individual. Special tests administered during SPECT scanning reveal deficits related to behavioral disturbances. Mr. ___ 's scan results are significantly abnormal, with shutdown in the prefrontal cortex particularly at rest, low temporal lobe activity worse at rest, increased cingulate gyrus on concentration and scaplloping. The low functioning in the prefrontal cortex improved on concentration, indicative of a depressive reaction. A significant measure of low function in the prefrontal cortex with concentration remains indicating an attention deficit disorder. This area of difficulty affects his ability to concentrate, plan, organize at an efficient level. His lowered temporal lobe activity is associated with any of the following: irritability often with little provocation, mood instability, memory problems, unusual perceptions, periods of confusion, unexplained headaches or abdominal pain, learning problems (reading and auditory processing), social skill struggles and withdrawal. Increased cingulatic gyrus activity is seen frequently with rigid thinking (cognitive inflexibility), compulsive worrying, addictive disorders, and oppositional defiant behavior. Also shown are indices of excessive anxiety and difficulties in performing complex tasks.

The above listing does not mean that the individual necessarily suffers from every one of the findings mentioned. They represent the range of possible problems and most of those tested in the clinic will have a few of each at the most. It is interesting that a review of Mr. ___ 's history shows him to have experienced a significantly greater number of the problems mentioned. He demonstrates poor judgment, difficulty in planning and having an age-appropriate appraisal of the likely consequences of his actions when a momentary urge strikes his fancy. His ego defenses are fragile and he is likely to demonstrate poor judgment under stress. His scans show evidence of past brain injury which can be explained by his history of falls and beatings. Individuals with head injury will frequently fit their actions into that suggested by the environment without critically evaluating the appropriateness. They may later regret their behavior. Cingulate gyrus overactivity makes for difficulty in spontaneous behavior change and we have seen Mr. ___  exhibit some these traits earlier as indicated by a previous diagnoses of Oppositional-Defiant behavior.

To summarize, Mr. ___ demonstrates numerous problems in his mental control mechanisms. These problems predispose him to behavior that is poorly thought out; that satisfies momentary urges without consideration of consequences; that is marked by impulsivity and shifting priorities; that is poorly cognizant of societal norms; that demonstrates mixed, often conflicting emotional motivations. These are a few of the main underlying features that one can expect to see with the type of SPECT scan shown. An overall assessment of how these features -- largely biologically determined -- impacts with developmental influences require a clinical assessment.


So there I had it. Jack's brain had indeed been hard-wired differently than 'normal' due to the years of abuse. And as the good doctor told me later (and recommended in his letter), 'This boy needs intensive help, not prison.'


BUT A SYSTEM IS A SYSTEM is a system, meant to move events in one direction. And in the case of the criminal justice system, that event is prison. Jack had had his chance. Now the system insisted that he go to prison for 12 years, with two strikes to be counted against him. And the attorney I hired was part of that system as well, unmoved by Jack's biological circumstances. He insisted that the additional $20,000 it would take to go to trial would be wasted, and advised that Jack just 'take the deal', else risk 30 years or more.

And so Jack fled. Perhaps he had assistance, but if it came from me I would be a fool to admit guilt here. All I know is for the next years he lived life on the run -- first in Manhattan, and then in a beach town in Oregon.

And the most remarkable thing happened in that time. Jack grew out of the instability of his emotional adolescence. And by the time he was caught two years later, he had emotionally become, as I told him, the man I always hoped he would be.

For in the end, either his brain found new wiring, or a way to make use of the wiring he has.

The boy who had fled two years earlier would have ended up dead in prison, or worse. Of that I have no doubt. But the man who finally faced sentencing had changed so remarkably that he has not only made peace with his situation, but is determined to thrive in any way that he can.

In the end, he got 7 years, instead of the original 12 offered -- such is the serendipity of a different attorney and a different prosecutor. He will be 28 years old when he gets out.  And together we are making our way through this time with weekly visits and phone calls and letters.

Which brings me to the life-changing event of July 4th.


JACK'S ADD HAD ALWAYS been severe. And reading comprehension has always been a problem. But I have always worried that it takes a level of basic knowledge about the world (not talking street smarts here) in order to make sense of life. And he lacks so much of that knowledge, including the concept, for instance, of continents. He loves 'Shawn of the Dead' and wants to go to England. But he doesn't know where England is, and how it is different from France. Sometimes he has had trouble understanding there's an ocean between us and them.

But that's conceptual difficulty, and has nothing to do with his intelligence. Jack can watch a movie and then retell it scene by scene, including dialogue. But the movie is something he chose, without pressure, and has a constant visual stream to counter-act his ADD.

And this gave me an idea. I told Jack I was going to start sending classes on geography, which I would write. And being obsessive about these kinds of things, when I sat down to begin writing his classes I determined I would need to go back to the formation of the earth, so he could understand how the land masses called continents came to be, before there were any such things as countries.

So goal one was just to be able to get him to visualize those seven land masses.

I figured I would later start introducing the history of people, so that bit by bit he could understand how countries came to be, and where they are. It's an undertaking that will last years, but hey -- time in this situation is not a problem.

And to account for his ADD, I made each daily lesson short and simple, with a picture following to illustrate the point made every couple of sentences. All in all, each one was 3 or 4 pages, mostly taken up by pictures.

I had done six letters already when I visited Jack last week. But he had had a hard week, and didn't read them. I told him not to worry, to take his time, and to just start when he felt like that. During that visit, he asked me to send him some documentation on his ADD and learning disorders, so that he could show the teacher in his GED class who refused to make any adjustments unless he could document his learning disabilities.

I sent him the documents, along with this letter...

Son of my heart:

It was a real trip down memory lane to go through this paperwork again. It brought back to me how much we've been through together, and how far you've come since those days.

I mention this because the second report has a lot of scores of 'below average', but let me tell you something: you are one of the smartest people I know. And what the tests really measure is how well you fit into the way they teach kids in schools (which you know I don't have much respect for).

Yes, you have certain learning 'disabilities'. But they used to call people who stutter, or who are dyslexic (read letters backwards), or who are deaf -- they used to call them stupid. But they weren't, any more than you are. It's just that they, and you, have some obstacles to overcome. Obstacles which have nothing to do with how smart someone is.

But sometimes those obstacles prevent people from learning because of the awful way they teach things in school, and so those people are called dumb. Worse, sometimes those people with obstacles believe they're dumb.

Which is why it's so important to me that you really give the class letters I send you a chance. Because I know how smart you really are. And I want you to know it too.

And because there's a beauty to knowing how things work, why waves roll up onto a shore, how it is that a bird glides through the sky, and just what you're really seeing when a rainbow appears after a Spring rain. There's a beauty to knowing about someone who walked the Earth three thousand years ago, and what he thought, and how he said things that are important to us even today. So much beauty to be had, as wonderful as any sunset, but that can only be seen in the mind.

And being a good dad, I want my son to have all the beauty this world has to offer.

Yes, it will be difficult sometimes. And it's real easy to just give up and say 'I can't. I'm dumb. I have ADD.' But that's just looking for reasons to give up. And when you do feel like that, maybe you can remind yourself:

I never once gave up on you. So is it too much to ask that you never give up on yourself?

I love you with all my heart, son.


That letter wasn't on my mind as I drove the five hours for my July 4th visit. I hadn't written any more classes that week. And as I drove I began to think about Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, who never gave up, but just strode on in determination to find a way. And I thought about Helen Keller's 'wa-wa' moment, and repledged to myself that I would never give up until I find a way to break through like that with Jack.

And then a little into the visit, as we played our weekly game of Sorry as we talked, Jack casually said, 'Oh, I've read all your classes'.

I asked if he had any questions about them. In order to cover the subject, I had had veered into the topic of gravity, states of matter, and atoms and such. I thought after that maybe I had overdone it in this.

Jack replied, 'No, I understood. But I hate the homework'.

I thought perhaps he was sluffing me off on this, so I said, 'Well like gravity. Do you really understand it'?

And he said yes, and proceeded to tell me all about it, and its effect. The rest of the conversation went like this:

'Okay, but the part about atoms might be a little confusing...'

'Nope. Atoms make up everything. They have those two things in the center, and that third thing circles around them, like a solar system.'

'But the important thing to understand is that it's the number of those things that makes up what we call elements...'

'Yeah, I know. There are 97 of those, plus 23 that scientists made up.'

'Yes! And sometimes two or more of those elements...'

'Yeah, make up compounds, and then they're minerals, and that's what makes rocks.'

And then, looking at me, he said, 'Oh jeez, don't start crying in front of everybody'.


SO THAT'S IT. This is my diary on becoming a foster parent. Mine was an extreme case. But the traits it took: perseverance, understanding, research, fighting the bureaucracy, and taking your kid on his or her terms, seeing life through their eyes and working it out together from there -- those are present in every foster family situation.

You don't have to know the child beforehand. They'll arrange interviews with the kids, who'll have equal say in choosing you.

And if you want to do it right, you will have to educate yourself not only on the child, but on children's developmental stages, and you will have to undertake the research to understand the nature and complexity of your child's issues. No one is going to hand you that, except you. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to do, for the willing.

And in the end, you may be just a stop along the way, or the ultimate realization of true family to a kid who never had one. But either way it will change your life, and your kid's life, and is not to be undertaken lightly or as some feel-good project.

Bio-families stay together through natural forces. But foster families take work to make happen, and the same commitment to the child that he or she would deserve from a parent. Plus the burden of overcomming the parental influence already in place.

But if you have what it takes... there's a child out there waiting, whose -- though neither of you know it yet -- very life may depend on your decision.

Originally posted to two roads on Sun Jul 06, 2008 at 06:53 PM PDT.

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