Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Kids With Black-Eyes

Pam came back to our middle school homeroom after Christmas break and I will never forget the swollen, black-eye that she donned. Pam was an athletic, sweet, honor student. She had a wonderful family, and slumber parties at her house for the cheer teem were always the best! Pam's mom developed a homemade hot cocoa concoction that I still use to wow my kids, to this day! Pam had been sledding with her family over break, and she lost control and hit a tree. I remember in my pre-teen angst, being so shocked by, and uncomfortable with, the physical trauma to her face. As the weeks went on, and the weather became warmer, her swelling faded and the eye returned to normal. Her exciting and harrowing story, and her temporary deformity have never left me. 

*Names are changed to protect the confidentiality of the youth.

I prepared my vehicle by concealing my purse and iPad under my car seat in the unsafe, and run down neighborhood, and walked extra quickly to dodge the rain. As I was let into the building, and led to the interview area in the dank shelter, (I thought) I knew what to expect. The young ladies that I came to see always skulked in wearing the prison-orange jumpsuit pants with an oversized and stained white, men's T-shirt. They also wear their anger like a shield, shun social warmth like it is the Ebola virus, and are unable to conceal their attempts at "figuring me out". Mostly though, their overall disappointment with LIFE fills the room, and is palpable. 

Annette walked into the interview room, and I focussed my attention, almost solely, on keeping my face in order. There is a special kind of "art" to maintaining the warm smile, and relaxed body language, when you are interacting with a child who is at the actual end of their emotional rope. Those feelings are compounded with the real-life abandonment the girl carries under the soul-crushing reality of living out her days in a shelter for minors.

As I rose to physically greet her, and introduce myself with as much disarming kindness as I could muster, I see it...her discolored and swollen eye. The sight of her black-eye stole my breath and it felt stuck in my throat. It was immediately obvious that she was completely ashamed of it. She was quick to introduce it, sheepishly excusing it away. "I am so sorry!", is all I could think to reply. The emotional trauma manifested in her physical body was almost too much. I sat with her for a very long time. She cried. She laughed. She sang for me and (beautifully assertively) told me that she has her sights set on college. She lamented how no one believes that she can do it, but she will! I know she will. I will help her!

Black-eyes are evidence of trauma. Perhaps, so much more trauma than we can really ever know. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

May - Foster Care Awareness Month

I sat in my oversized (and probably overpriced) leather chair with my bible in my lap. I was quiet and contemplative, seeking relief from the anxiety that comes from loving broken children without the tempting safety of aloofness. So much anger and so much sadness. So much trauma and so much need. So much childhood ravaged and gone forever. Eleven year-old women. Baby fat still adorning their cheeks, while they have been sexually exploited -  sometimes by their own mother's. So many empty places that just needed a REAL momma or a daddy to step in, and give their "yes". They do not need an adult who, in a terribly untrue sense of martyrdom, bursts on the scene in a self-adorned messianic cloak. These kids need adults who (as Ann Voskamp so beautifully puts it) can do the "hard and holy things". Adults who will, like Jesus, do what the Father asks even when it's not your most idyllic life-plan.  When a life in semi-obscurity, as a soccer mom/dad would be more like “something you have a peace about”. Let’s be honest, Jesus admitted in the scriptures that he did not want to go to the cross. He knew how hard it was going to be. But, he submitted  to His Father’s plan, and did it anyway...for us. This is the kind of commitment that Michigan’s foster youth need!

Did you know that foster girls are the most vulnerable population in our country when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation. Girls who have no belonging will accept scraps of family from a pimp with a readiness that makes American's believe that these kids are choosing this life. It is a much easier filing system for us that ensures they don't need intervention or rescue, when we can tell ourselves that this is the life they want. These are children without options. When we don't have options (either known or perceived), we make terrible choices from desperation. This is true for all of us.

Her braids and bright pink beads might cause an onlooker to assume that her childhood is in tact, and that her innocence is still securely hers. You wouldn't know when you look her beautiful, broad smile squarely on, that she was beat constantly for smuggling her chewed-up food to her siblings who were being punished. Siblings who, once evaluated at the hospital, were found to be in the advanced stages of starvation. This sweet girl sabotages any personal progress because she is raging against the idea of ever being happy without her siblings. She will not...cannot leave her five siblings behind. Could I? Could you?  At times, because safety and predictability are so uncomfortable for her, she thinks she would rather languish in a shelter for Michigan's foster children, eating "jail food" and wearing jail-issued jumpsuits, seeing her siblings once a month, than to ever be happy while they are not with her. Always a big sister. Always the last to present a need. Never showing a hint of vulnerability. Never getting sucked in to excitement or's too risky. Still the little-momma. She has always is so tough for her to see her sweet little sister cling to a foster parent at the sibling visits each month. This new mother that is now meeting her little sister's needs. Doesn't her little sister need her to be the 8 year-old momma, anymore? She can hardly bear it. Isolation and anger are her allies.

There is another young lady who presents calmly and with a demure personality. She is put together and sensible. She is quiet and self-controlled...or is that a learned, calculation? Is that truly calmness, or a lethargy brought on by years of sexual abuse that would prove to be her own "boot camp" for prostitution? Maybe it's a depression and weariness from the sheer exaustion of the two year court battle where her mother showed up as a character witness AGAINST her, and FOR her own daughter's rapist. You wouldn't know if you interacted with her, in the luxury of shallow acquaintance, that she has a self-loathing that remains in absolute control of her mind. You wouldn't know that she wants desperately to be dead. You wouldn't know that she has a sense of worthlessness that bullies her relentlessly. The verbal beatings, and sexual abuse she endured has imprinted her with labels in the most indelible of inks. She can breeze through just about any room undetected and flies through her schooling in the same way. It’s like her superpower! "Don't stand out." "Don't be an outlier." "Be average, and stay off everyone's radar." But, we see her. She is known. She is healing. She is NOT invisible.

These are the girls who are the most "at-risk" for a life under the control of a pimp and forced commercial sexual exploitation, in America. So many erroneously wonder why "these girls" don't just leave. Why do they stay? The idea of victimization is not as easy for us to accept when society demonizes these children as willing participants who choose that life, or even like it. The age of consent is the same for Elizabeth Smart as it is for one of these sweet girls who end up in a commercially sexually exploitive situation. But, there are no middle or upper class parents to go on Nancy Grace and beg for help. These girls are widely minorities who come from extreme poverty and, in large part, remain invisible...last I checked, a child was a child - even if their childhood was violently stolen!

We can and must do more! We do not have the luxury of looking away! Join us in this fight for commercially sexually exploited foster youth. The pimps are rightly counting on the fact that Americans don't care! Often, for these kids, the only real kindness that they are looking for is the absence of violence. They need a frame of reference for being treated with love and value. We can do that. You can help do that for even one girl!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

She Took My Breath Away

I’ve had my breath taken away a time or two in this privileged life I’ve been given!

As a child, I remember being outside on very frigid Michigan winter days, and the whipping wind would actually take my breath away. Standing on the sledding hill that we called "Bald Mountain", I  struggled to inhale. As I trudged through the snow, hauling a sled (that was usually bogged down with a sibling or two), I remember feeling breathlessness, and pulling up my scarf so that my inhales would be filtered through the warmth of the damp wool.

As an adult, so overcome with love, I held my very breath as I held my sweet babies. Caressing them. Some snuggled fetal with porcelain skin, some a bit older with a milky caramel tone and others (the smallest human I’d ever held) with ebony skin as flawless as the night sky. I could stare at them for hours... and if they caught my breath just right, it would take their very own breath away for just a moment. If we went outside on a windy day, I was so careful to keep them covered with something gauzey that would not allow the wind on their sweet faces. Their breathing was airy, and fragile, and any draft could cause them to gasp as their breaths were stolen right out of their chests.

Throughout life there are moments that take your breath away. Moments that mark you, and you are never the same.

                                    *                            *                          *
Anxiously, I walked into the agency in Pontiac. I shifted into another mental gear and braced myself a bit. I knew that I was going to meet the youngest child that I had ever considered for placement at HOP. In her vapor-of-a-life, here on this planet, she had only known torment, trauma, starvation, abandonment and neglect. I was braced. I was a professional. I was ready.

As soon as my eyes met the eyes of this wispy child, she ran to me. I was struck by how very tiny she was. Even for seven, she was slight. She clumsily bounded onto me for a hug. I was so honored to oblige. She was trembling. She matter-of-factly asked if I was the one that was going to "try to be her momma, this time".  I suddenly found myself in another breathtaking, life-altering moment. I choked back my shock, and I changed the subject. I stammered and trembled right back. I was NOT ready

We hugged, and I’m certain that we both felt the weight of it.

She has autism. She is naive and trusting. She has a very disorganized attachment style from her trauma and extreme neglect. She feels communal and doesn't know where, or to whom she belongs. She talks to everyone about every fleeting thought. She doesn’t understand our adult pretentiousness. She doesn't take (or even notice) social cues. She has never met a stranger and she wants everyone to feel like sunshine and puppy dogs when they are in her presence. She doesn’t know that there are things that are too off-putting to say out loud, in America...and I am glad. Her authentic conversations are convicting, and I need them! We all do!

Standing in the sterile and professional conference room, I awkwardly regained my breath and composure. Still choking back my racing emotions, I fixed my face. There is nothing that can brace you (if you are half human with a pulse) to meet an orphan face-to-face, who asks for anyone to step up and be her mother. How do you answer a child when she asks if you want to be her momma? If you have never faced this, you can't begin to know the way it punches you in the gut! I have been asked this question by so many of our girls, and it never gets easier.

We walked to the table, and she sat right down on my lap. We looked through the new backpack and began to chat about all of the new school supplies that she had just received. She chattered on and on and was enamored with her new ruler. I could have listened to her for hours. She has a sweet tone and a memory that rivals any savant. Together, we measured everything in sight. Her joy was contagious and her aloneness was overwhelming. The dichotomy of feelings in that single meeting was a  nightmare for my (quite robust) mental filing system!

Seven years old. Alone. No momma. No daddy. No one to care about her school concert (not to mention the kakhi skirt that was "required"). Never a daddy daughter dance. Never a birthday cake. Never a gentle lullaby with her name in it. Only a fight to stay alive and away from the predators that lurked. A survival mode so primal and prolonged that her adrenals are worn plain out! How could we say no? We were technically “ full” at HoP. Weren’t we already doing "our part"? But, how could we ever sleep at night knowing that our “no” would send this vulnerable seven-year-old to a Detroit shelter where 17 and 18 year olds fear for their very safety?

Still sitting in that conference room (multitasking, as any good momma can) we were measuring every pencil in her case, and I began texting our team. I texted Jason and asked him to please put up another bed. I felt an urgency and I could not leave without knowing she would soon be coming into the faithful arms of the momma's at HoP. We would receive this sweet baby as soon as possible.

Of course, our team shot into action!  You see, we have the most sturdy and tender women that there ever were. They love big and hold nothing back. They love Jesus and work hard. They trust that if the Lord asks us to do it, He will equip us. They assembled the most well thought out welcome bag, and gathered new toys. They purchased new bedding and comforters and made sure every detail was just right! They prepared the other girls and everyone held their collective breath until the day we would welcome our sweet little! We know, at House of Providence, when we work together we can do really hard things! We knew this would not be easy… this taking in a feral child who knows nothing of boundaries, structure or safety… but, we did not sign up for easy.

This little has been with us for months now, and she is the light of our house! We persevere and we wait! She waits. We all wait...for her mommy and daddy to come forward. This is what we do at HoP. Until every child has a home...

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Families Needed

She sat sullenly on our couch waiting for her "interview". Another child, not even a teenager yet, who is alone on the planet. Another girl who had been sexually abused and brutalized - mentally, physically and emotionally. Her matted braids and slight frame showed no signs of thriving. She couldn't muster a smile. She blinked incessantly to shun the tears that were defying her steely stance. I took a deep breath and approached her with a careful cadence that would offer no surprises, so as not to startle or trigger her.

Every time that I interview a girl for our program, I prepare myself so that I am extremely aware of my facial expressions and body language. The things that the children say are often shocking and their life experiences are jarring, but I cannot let on that I feel that way. I smile, but try not to over do it. I appear relaxed, but I definitely am not. I engage them as much as they can endure. Even a gentle hand on their forearm, as it rests on the table, can be a reminder of their abuse. Physical touch, for girls who have suffered such acute and prolonged physical and sexual abuse, is never without horrifying reminders.

We began to chat and she never relaxed. I asked about her favorite colors, foods and television shows. She answered in rote as though she were trying to get every answer "right". As the interview went on, she began to share, quite matter-of-factly, about her brother's death and her grandfather's abusive treatment. She shared how the two tries at adoptions just hadn't "worked out". She was completely shut down and her affect was totally flat. She had methodically and successfully shut her emotions down. She was in protection mode and did what was necessary to survive.

She arrived for her "move in day", and she was extremely tense. She choked back sobs and pretended as though she didn't care about anything. It didn't matter how many gifts we had given her or how many hugs we offered, she did not budge. She was determined to remain isolated and hold-up inside of her own psyche. Her muscles were hard as rocks and her shoulders could've carried the weight of the world...and it seems they did. Her world crumbled...again, and she found herself entering another unknown. She was being "placed" into a residential facility. This fate is reserved for the most profoundly traumatized children in foster care. How was this her story? How had she gotten here? Just 24 days ago a family had promised that they would adopt her and be her "forever". Forever seemed to be much shorter than she had hoped for. 

She settled in to the routine at HOP. Her first months dragged on and they were not easy (for any of us). She was (understandably) angry and she let everyone know it! She didn't trust us and she made it known almost every moment. She didn't owe us her trust and we were determined to earn it. Almost like it snuck up on all of us, momentum was suddenly on our side! She began catching up in school and believing what we said. She decided to try trusting one. more. time. She began discovering herself. She realized that she loved coffee (pretty much a prerequisite at HOP) and that she was extremely athletic. She quickly discovered that she was the best dancer, and that her sarcasm, previously used to keep others away, was actually a natural hilarity that brought belly laughs to the house! She reluctantly joined a basketball team and much to her own surprise, she shined and made basket after basket.

Slowly, but surely, this child's ego strength was building. She was processing her trauma in therapy and reframing it as a profound tragedy that she endured because of the brokenness of others. She trepidatiously accepted that her story and trauma weren't things that befell her because she was so easy to hate and abuse. The shadow that darkened every interaction had dissipated and she was lighter, somehow. She was becoming bubbly. This angry girl who could only cling to hate as her safety net to protect from any intimacy that would result in ANOTHER rejection, was transforming into the most conscientious sister in the house who gave encouragement and hugs like they were going out of style! Forgiveness was now her freedom! 

Two years later and she is well and she is kind. She is funny and she is a GREAT soccer player. She was the center forward and she scored nearly every weekend. She is doing great in school and she has learned how to authentically cry when she is hurting. She is active in our therapeutic groups and recalls her mile markers of growth. She tenderly encourages the other girls who are not quite as far along in their journey. 

Won't you please consider opening your home to a kid like this? There are so many opportunities to wrap your arms around a girl who just needs a chance. A girl who just needs a family and a bedroom to call her own. A girl who just wants to be chosen and wanted. A girl who needs her "forever family" to really mean FOREVER