I didn’t post last week because I had a mild concussion after hitting my head with a bike rack. It was fairly undignified.
It’s been an up and down week. Two weeks, actually. Grace has been going through medication changes as well as religion changes. She had a rough patch at school and we had to go in for a parent teacher meeting today. It seems that she has dramatic acting out behaviors in her English classes. It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that if she’s acting out in her English/Language Arts classes, there might be some kind of issue with the subject matter.
In fact, she is incredibly self-conscious about her reading and writing abilities. She’s actually a fantastic poet with a lot of raw talent, but she thinks she’s stupid. So she acts out in the hope of getting kicked out of class. So far, it’s working.
The real Topic this week is Jill. We’re dealing with an incredible downward spiral with her. For a while, she was receiving in-home intensive therapy, but that stopped after 3 months. At first she was just stable, neither better nor worse. Now she’s rapidly spiraling out of control and mimicking some of the behavior we saw from Joan over the summer.
The big issue is her parentification issues. Parentification happens when roles are reversed, and the child becomes the parent. Many, many people go through this, and it is especially common when parents have some sort of mental illness or addiction problems. The parent puts responsibility on the child for support: emotional, physical or even financial. In Jill’s case, their mom would leave for days or weeks at a time, leaving teen-aged Jill in charge of all the younger siblings. She is also expected to validate or uphold her mother’s emotional needs, sometimes to the exclusion of the other children (especially Grace). This turns into their mother being like a “best friend” person to Jill, pulling her in as a peer rather than a child. This is a very, very confusing role for a teenager.
We recognized the signs straight off, and have made some clear boundaries around what we expect as far as babysitting, caring for Gloria, her role as a child in the house, etc. On the flip side, we expect her to communicate with us, to answer our phone calls when she’s out and to tell us where she’s going and when she’ll be home. These may seem like minimal things, but this is a 17 year old who is used to acting like another adult in the family.
We’ve been informed that her mom has taken every opportunity to tell her that the only reason we want her to stay in foster care is so we can continue to get a check for her. This is, of course, ridiculous. Foster parenting is not a profitable gig. But anyway, that’s what she’s telling Jill, while Grace is saying that she thinks the only reason her mom wants her back is for the same reason- the checks that come with under 18 year old kids. We’re doing our best to make non-committal noises whenever this comes up and generally trying to not get sucked into the drama.
The other half of that is the long standing family dynamic between Jill and Grace is that Grace is the “dumb one” and the “crazy one” and it’s safe to blame all mishaps or broken dishes on her. Grace has actually been left behind when the family have gone on trips. She is laughed at, ridiculed, teased and told that she is a “bad kid” by her family. They have all learned that she is the one to make fun of.
But here that’s all changed. They are both getting support and love. This is a role change that Jill is having difficulty with.
Jill, on the other hand, has mostly locked herself in her room. She has developed actual hypochondria and won’t take any of the medication for a significant health problem she has developed. In the last month she went from being sulky to being downright hostile towards us.
She has been offered a Board Extension which would ostensibly extend her time in foster care to age 21. She would be eligible for an Independent Living Program, and would get support for school and job placement. She can stay with us or get signed up for another living arrangement. But to get it, she needs to write a letter stating that she wants it and why.
She is stating that she wants to hurry up and finish High School and then go back to live with her mom. So far the most compelling reason I’ve heard for that is she’ll get her own room. She also claims that we favor Grace and “give her whatever she wants and whatever she asks for.” Jill is too depressed and too wrapped in her own drama to see that we do not, in fact, give Grace whatever she wants.
What are the costs of this kind of neglect and abuse? Apparently, rather steep. I try not to project too much on what’s going to happen, but if Jill decides to leave us when she’s 18, there are very few positive outcomes. She is already showing the symptoms of a parentification problem such as a sudden temper and an inability to connect with people in a meaningful way and a total inability to discuss or share her emotions. She’s hoping to go back to the role that she is comfortable in as the sole caretaker for her family, including all her siblings and her mother. There she can be made to feel valued and important, above all others. At the same time, she will be frustrated knowing that she has the potential to do so much more.
Ultimately the decision is hers. We are trying to balance compassion and understanding for her plight with doing what is necessary to keep our home emotionally safe. The art to foster parenting is finding the place where you can support, love, encourage but not get too burned out yourself. I think this is why so many people prefer to foster-to-adopt. It makes sense. It’s definitely our next plan.
We just hope that in a few years, someone will be writing an article like this NY Times article about Jill.