Tony's Story--Thanks, Giselle, for the beautiful ribbon!
Adoption is not for the Faint of Heart
You have probably heard about couples who try and try to have a child, and then once they finally adopt and begin the "happily ever after" part, the wife stares in disbelief at a positive pregnancy test. That is my story, only without the pregnancy thing. After years of waiting for God to bless us with a child, Kellye came into our lives and made our family complete. Being quite content with our little family, I had no problem agreeing to help the Department of Children's Services when they asked me to be a "respite" foster mom for infants. What harm could there be in keeping precious little babies on a short-term basis until more permanent arrangements could be made? The upside was that I got to hold and care for those tiny wonders of creation--something I missed out on with Kellye, since she was a toddler when she danced her way into our hearts. The downside was. . . well, I didn't see a downside.
It worked out marvelously for a while. Little did I know that God was just softening me up for what came next. Late one day in July of the year 2000, a supervisor from Children's Services asked me to consider keeping a two-year-old boy until they found a more permanent placement. (My agreement was to keep children up to the age of two.) His current foster mother reported that she was no longer able to keep him due to a change in her schedule. Hmmmm.... shouldn't that have raised the tiniest little red flag? Nope--I'm such an easy target. I reluctantly agreed to keep him for no more than a month. School would be starting soon, and Kellye always required my attention with her studies.
My husband called me at work to announce Tony's arrival. "He's not quite what you pictured, Sweetheart. He's three years old and quite tall for his age. The sleeping arrangements we had in mind won't do at all." The supervisor forgot that he turned three shortly after he was placed in foster care. No red flag even then, though I did resolve to break off all communications with Children's Services after this was over.
I arrived home, eager to see the latest of God's blessings. I stood, with Grandmother and Aunt Rita, and marveled at his adorable smile and his big brown eyes. Sunbathers work for months to achieve his beautiful skin tone; it was obvious he had more than a touch of Latino in his blood. I fell in love with him immediately, though I stuck with the no-more-than-a-month plan.
I saw right away that Tony had a lot of problems. He was three years old and had the vocabulary of a toddler. Most people assumed he was retarded, but they were wrong. He simply had not been exposed to conversation. Once he interacted with others in daycare and received speech therapy, more properly labeled "language" therapy, his communication skills soared. How does a three-year-old have the language of a toddler if he's not retarded? I could only surmise that he was left alone most of the time, with no television and no human with whom to converse. Children's Services confirmed my assumption.
Tony also exhibited other signs of severe neglect and abuse. He screamed, and his whole body trembled, if we forgot to let him walk out of the house ahead of us. He had no words to explain his intense fear that we would leave him alone to fend for himself. His birth mother called him several times. I could not, for the life of me, find a word for her that he recognized. I tried all the forms of mother I could think of, and even called her by her first name. He still showed no signs of recognition but was willing to talk to her. The calls stopped very soon, and he never even mentioned her until years later--after several years of therapy.
It bothered us that he wanted to eat all the time. He never seemed to get full. Naturally, I pictured him walking around his mother's apartment or whatever she lived in, looking for food and for someone to feed him. As the weeks passed, we learned more about his background, none of which was encouraging. His mother used drugs during her pregnancy and, when Tony was born, he had both amphetamines and barbiturates in his system. He was even on a respirator for some period of time. His mother was so high that three years later, in a routine medical history interview at a pediatrician's office, she could not even tell the nurse whether Tony's birth was vaginal or by C-section. The nurse called Children's Services, fearing that she had abducted him. That's where Tony's life finally took a sharp turn in the right direction.
By the time we found out about all of this, my husband and I were both attached to Tony, and we were brokenhearted that his three short years of life held more trauma than most adults. Having previous experience with foster care from both sides of the fence, I felt in my heart of hearts that the likelihood of adoption for a child with his medical history and current problem behavior was slim. His age alone reduced his chances significantly. People want infants and toddlers, not three-year-olds with very questionable background. ((We don't even know who his father is.)) Even foster care was not very promising for a child with severe phobias and anger management issues. As if gazing through a crystal ball, I could see him moving from one foster home to another, then to a group home, and inevitably a juvenile detention facility. If he had any chance at all for a normal life I could see only one choice. My husband and I both agreed that God had sent him to us for a reason. This may sound silly, but I kept thinking, "Where will he go for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Everyone needs a place to call home."
We made a somewhat informed decision. We expected that he would need a lot of therapy and a commitment on our part to work with him diligently at home. However, no one could have prepared us for what was about to change our lives forever. From the moment he stepped foot into our home he brought chaos. I had never seen the kind of behavior he exhibited in such a small child. My poor daughter, who was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was further traumatized by his presence in our home. Of course, I was so busy trying to be Supermom and giving all my effort to saving Tony, that I never noticed the signs in Kellye. She was re-living all the loud arguments and frightening encounters that she had been exposed to as a very young child.
We immediately got him into counseling, where we first heard about the disorder called "Reactive Attachment Disorder." I didn't question the doctor about the disorder. I just assumed it had something to do with "reacting" to being forced to "attach" to a strange, new family. That may reflect the words of its title, but it is a far cry from the actual description of the disorder. I merely tried to follow his instructions on how to help Tony overcome the many hurdles he had before him. I wish now that I had delved into that diagnostic term and learned more about it sooner.
Tony's progress was very slow, and his outrageous behavior drained us emotionally and physically. After a long day at work, my husband and I came home to certain conflict every evening. EVERYTHING was a battle. If someone accidentally touched the top of his glass at the dinner table he refused to drink from it. His food couldn't touch. He fought getting a bath. Bedtime was a nightmare. He was terrified that someone would break into the house and murder him during the night. Every sound sent him bolting to the window to see what deadly encounter awaited him. Getting him out of bed and to daycare was just as hard. I often describe waking him up like trying to wake up a rock. He still has a very difficult time waking up. We even bought a special "Sonic Boom" alarm clock that was unbelievably loud. All it accomplished was to get the rest of us up so we could shut the thing off!
When we came to the conclusion that our psychologist had given us all he had to offer, we started looking for a new therapist. I began studying Reactive Attachment Disorder, and the more serious version, Attachment Disorder. I was speechless as I read the list of symptoms which fit Tony to a tee. The more I learned about AD, the more I realized all the mistakes we had made in the past. We needed a therapist who understood this disorder, and God blessed us with a wonderful therapist who was only 50 miles away. At the time we started seeing her she was the only therapist in Alabama who was recognized by the Attach Organization as certified to work with Attachment Disorder children.
She is wonderful and has been a lifesaver to us. It's taken a lot of time and a lot of hard work, but Tony has come along way. In the early years I was the number one enemy, and he hated me. I can tell you that hurt me deeply. I felt that I was the one who insisted on trying to save him. I was the one who did all the research to find him the right therapist. I was the one reading all the books so that I would understand his disorder. Yet, he gave me no love, no affection in return. He referred to me as "she" or "her". Only through therapy did he begin to respect me as his mother and begin to call me "Mom."
Now he loves me. At age thirteen, he hugs and kisses me good night. He even kisses me on the cheek before getting out of the car at school. He still requires a lot of monitoring and guidance. We still have to help him with anger management, but he hasn't thrown anything at us in over a year. He hasn't pulled out a butcher knife and threatened to hurt anyone, including himself. It's been a couple of years since he gave me a black eye. He hasn't wrestled his dad to the floor and kicked him over and over since about a year ago.
Amidst all the therapy and intense work with him at home, there were four occasions that forced us to call 911. He stayed in a psychiatric unit twice; the first time was at the tender age of eight. Tears streamed down my face as I watched my little boy walk to his room. He had NEVER spent the night away from home. He spent a couple of weeks in Juvenile Detention at age eleven, after a violent outburst. His last, and hopefully final, stay was for three months at a Boy's Home when he was twelve years old. We once questioned, almost daily, our decision to adopt him . Now we can see that it was the right thing to do.
Unless you have a child with attachment disorder you can not imagine what we have been through in order to save him from becoming the next Ted Bundy. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not much. One of the things I learned about Attachment Disorder is that many of the famous serial killers suffered from Attachment Disorder. Thankfully, my son was never cruel to animals, which always gave me hope that he was capable of living a normal life if given the right therapy.
We are still trudging through this mire called parenthood. We make decisions, some right, some not so good. I still lie in bed some nights and weep for the pain my children have suffered, as well as for our obligation, as parents, to do the right thing for our children. Does the self-imposed guilt ever go away? Will we ever be able to look back on these years and say it was all worth it?
Adoptive Parents, please take this warning seriously. Attachment Disorder is very common in adopted children—especially those who experienced severe trauma during their first three years of life. It is much more prevalent than most people realize.
If you are considering adopting, please learn all you can about adopted children before you make a decision. I am all for adoption. I just believe that adoptive parents need to be more informed, so they can make an educated decision. Once they have learned about the problems that are very likely to arise down the road, they can determine if they truly have the strength, the determination, and the financial means to adopt a child.
For more information about Attachment Disorder please visit:
August, 2012 Update on Tony: I recently stumbled upon this story and felt compelled to provide an update on Tony's progress. In my story, I asked if we would ever be able to look back on those nightmare years and see that it was worth all the heartache and exhausting work to give Tony a chance at a normal life. That time has come. He is fifteen years old, and a few Sundays ago my heart swelled with pride as he stood on the podium before our congregation and read the scriptures designated by the preacher to precede the sermon. He stood tall and handsome; he read with confidence as if he had done this a hundred times.
He still has anger management issues, but he has not shown violence toward anyone in over three years. He kisses me on the cheek before he gets out of the car at school and tells me he loves me several times a day. He can't go to sleep at night until he's certain that I'm not "mad" at him, and plants another big kiss on my cheek before going to bed. Wow! If someone had told me three years ago that he would kiss me twice a day (and really mean it) I don't think I would have believed them.
As a wise friend once reminded me, "The happily ever after doesn't come until the end of the story." We continue to persevere and tackle issues as they arise. He now in tenth grade My heart flutters a bit in anticipation, though his teachers had glowing reports at the year-end meeting in May. I can't give you a happily ever after ending just yet, but stay tuned.