Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
7:15 a.m. It’s Friday morning. Time for breakfast. I stand in the kitchen as my daughter explains with discomfort that her stomach hurts and she’s not hungry. She asks to take a, “stomach pill,” to which my husband says, “Of course,” while trying to negotiate with her something for breakfast. “I have a headache, too,” she adds.
My husband – her biological father — and I look at each other, a quick reassuring glance that we are in this together. We are all sleep deprived. This week our daughter only woke three nights with nightmares, a decrease from weeks where she has three nightmares in one night. However, unlike most nights where we are able to help her fall back to sleep somewhat quickly, last night, she remained awake for over an hour. As did I.
It was around 3 a.m. I heard her feet walking on the wooden floor before I saw her silhouette in our bedroom doorway. This time, tears were streaming down her cheeks, and her voice was shaking as she said, “I had a nightmare.” I wrapped my arms around her body and pulled her close as she cried, her body feeling lifeless in my embrace. She began telling me that she was at a grocery store with my husband and me, smiling and happy. Then, suddenly, she was taken by her biological mother and two men. She was forced into a car where she tried to escape, but could not because, “special locks,” kept her from opening the car doors. She said she screamed for help, just like we told her to do in our, “if someone tries to take you,” talks, but no one came. And as she looked out the car window, she said her mother and the men shot and killed us. She said her mother laughed when we died. “I tried to get back to you,” she said through tears, “but she wouldn’t let me.”
As Friday night rolls around, our daughter shares how hard it was to focus at school today–on what the teachers said, on what she was supposed to read, on the games she played during recess. She points to red splotches that have appeared on her body, “anxiety rashes,” she calls them, and asks if she really has to go this weekend, and WHY no one is listening to her.
I dig deep to muster up the courage to look at her and say what is the truth, yet has become, out of pure dumbfounded desperation, my habitual response, “Daddy and I are listening. We hear you, kiddo.” I hope she does not hear my anger, sadness, disappointment, or disbelief; I no longer know what else to say or do.
She is my daughter. Those are words I never imagined I would say. Nor did I imagine the battle we — my husband, daughter, our families, friends, and I — would endure. When I met my husband, he was a single father raising a toddler, his biological daughter. He had already lost his home, and most of his physical possessions, during custody court proceedings.
You see, we live in a county that favors the biological mother; in a mother State. I know the law says differently, but what the law says and how it is practiced do not necessarily align. Along with this lesson, we have also learned that the court gives a biological mother infinite chances, but not a biological father.
She is my daughter. Along with my husband, I am the one who helps her with homework, expects her to clean her room, makes her lunches, drives her to appointments, signs her up for activities, takes her shopping for clothes and shoes, teaches her about self-care, provides consistent rules, puts her to bed on time, holds her when she is scared, sits with her when she is hurt, shares in her laughter, dreams, and prayers, talks with her about sports, art, music, giving back and whatever her kind, loving heart desires.
She is my daughter. But I do not need the title of being her mother to love her. She has a biological mother. Her biological mother suffers from medical and emotional challenges that she refuses to address. She has demonstrated poor decision-making skills and clear abuse that have led to my daughter experiencing nightmares, stomachaches, headaches, increased anxiety, skin rashes, panic attacks, accidents in her underwear, and at times, hair loss. And these are just the immediate effects.
Common sense and life experience, oh, and research(!), tells us that even a one-time traumatic event can disrupt development and the formation of a sense of self. Have you ever been in a car accident? It only takes a second to happen, but the memory and effects can last for a life-time. Imagine what happens with repeated trauma in childhood . . . with your mother.
To address concerns we had about our daughter when in the care of her biological mother, a number of years ago my husband and I turned to the court system. We thought (naïvely) legal involvement would help our daughter and hopefully, her mother. Things had escalated to the point where legal intervention seemed the only way to help our daughter.
When we entered court, it was because our daughter was reporting that she was not being given food and water during visits, including overnights, with her biological mother. She would return to us ashen faced and sullen; often looking deflated and defeated. My husband would make dinner for her while I rocked her. Then, we would sit with and spoon feed her. It was as if she didn’t have the energy, or maybe even the will, to feed herself.
After a visit, our daughter would come home smelling like a dirty ashtray; we could almost see a layer of smoke on her. Due to a heart condition, our daughter was not to be around cigarette smoke. She would often become physically sick after a weekend visit with her biological mother, which while we couldn’t prove was due to stress, was due to stress. This was yet another reason we turned to the courts; to protect her lung and heart health.
And we pursued legal action because the end of a visit often resulted in police involvement. When court ordered visitation ended, my husband would arrive (at our daughter’s biological mother’s home) to pick up our daughter.
He would ring the doorbell, knock on the door, repeatedly call on the phone, and eventually, because no one answered, contact the police. When the police arrived, they would force open the door to remove our daughter while her biological mother screamed obscenities. As our daughter has grown, she has shared her memories of these times; of wanting to come home, but being locked in and forced to hide; of hearing the police arrive, and being pried from her mother’s grip to safety.
When we entered court, our daughter was also not being picked up after school for visitation as scheduled. Our daughter would fall asleep at school waiting, literally for hours, for her biological mother to pick her up. School staff would repeatedly call her mother, and when she did not answer and did not call back, my husband would receive a call.
He would stop whatever he was doing and go pick up our daughter. In our state, the school could have easily contacted child protective services instead of contacting my husband. Who knows if that would have changed anything, but sometimes I wonder if that would have resulted in a better situation for our daughter than what we have now.
Over the course of years in court, our daughter’s biological mother has repeatedly made false accusations, lied to lawyers and judges, fabricated evidence, and created stories that could have resulted in my husband and me losing our jobs and careers, respectively. But she has yet to be held accountable for anything. Literally.
In fact, a guardian ad litem (GAL), who is an attorney for a child, was appointed at the beginning of our court adventure. Initially, the GAL told us if our daughter’s biological mother had something like cancer, and her ability to parent was affected due to her diagnosis or because of treatment side effects, she would be expected to follow doctor’s orders to address parenting challenges or her visitation would be reduced, if not suspended. Based on this conversation, we expected that our daughter’s mother would be required to follow medical orders as well as court orders to address health issues that influenced her parenting. Yay!
So, imagine how baffled we were when the GAL stated that, “For the 99% of the time your daughter is with you, you can fix what happens in the 1% of the time your daughter is with her biological mother.”
This statement at minimum reflects how poorly, if at all, this GAL is trained in child development and especially, child trauma. In our state, it easy to hire a GAL if one is not appointed, but incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to remove or fire a GAL; and it does not matter if we can no longer afford our GAL. AND it has been explained time and time again, that we have no recourse to hold our GAL accountable. We have repeatedly been told, “It looks bad to fire the GAL,” and “The GAL has no liability, therefore, no you cannot sue.”
Our daughter has twice, yes, twice, experienced parental kidnapping across state lines. “The crime of unlawfully seizing and carrying away a person by force or Fraud, or seizing and detaining a person against his or her will with an intent to carry that person away at a later time,” is how the Free Legal Dictionary defines kidnapping.
And parental kidnapping, “is defined as the concealment, taking, or retention of a child by his parent in violation of the rights of the child’s other parent or another family member. Violated rights may include, for example, custody and visitation rights.” According to law, everyone, that is a felon.
Combined, we have spent two different holiday breaks working with the FBI, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and police in different states, trying to locate and bring our daughter home.
One time, upon our daughter’s return to us, she shared that she hid in our city for over half a week in her biological mother’s home. When the police arrived at her mother’s home daily in an attempt to find her, she said she was forced to hide and threatened with physical harm if she screamed.
The results of all of these incredulous, scary, and forever life-impacting acts has been an increase in visitation with her biological mother.
I am not crazy, nor am I creative enough to make this up. But there are days when I sure feel insane; like I have fallen into a nonsensical abyss or wish I would wake up from this horrible nightmare. I believe in the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
And in the past years have come to understand that saying to mean that in raising a child, the village also supports the parents. While we have some friends and family who are truly unending in their unconditional support and understanding, we have lost friends through this process because we have had to cancel one to many times.
We have learned that our lives can change in a flash, so we can either makes plans with a caveat of having to cancel at the last minute, or repeatedly decline invitations and pretty soon, not be invited anywhere any more. Trauma can be difficult to understand.
Currently, our daughter continues not to be fed and is inhaling cigarette smoke during visits. She is still physically, emotionally, and psychologically abused by her biological mother. Court orders are still repeatedly violated and blatantly disregarded by her biological mother, without accountability or consequence. And the GAL appointed to represent our daughter, continues to advocate and act as an attorney for her biological mother.
Our daughter continues to demand people listen to what she wants because she wants to, “tell her truth.” Yet the GAL, has told our daughter that she, “HAS,” to see her mother and is acting, “like a brat,” when she expresses herself. Therapists repeatedly attempt to convince our daughter that she needs to give her mother, “another chance.”
All of this goes against our daughter’s wishes. The system we thought would help us, our daughter, and her biological mother, has only created further trauma; it has been an experience of hermeneutical violence beyond our imaginations.
We heard our previous attorneys, who were from a renowned law firm (thought that would mean the best representation . . . ha!), tell us that we needed to show the court we were willing to spend every last cent for our daughter in court. I remember thinking, “Really?”
Then as now, I am trying to reconcile how the court views spending every last penny so that we are unable to meet our daughter’s basic needs-say just food, shelter, water, clothing-let alone our own (“care for yourself first so you can care for someone else”) equals great parenting. We listened though, and (mostly) did as advised.
The bills keep coming as we have spent and borrowed almost every last cent, yet our daughter continues to suffer. The direct effects the court system has on my husband and me as caregivers, as parents, as productive members of society are broad. We are continuously managing our daughter’s worries and fears, physical symptoms, and academic challenges while trying to balance our own feelings. The stress is real and high.
Here is what I know for now. I am a parent. I am a mother. I have responsibilities, but no rights. I am unable to proceed with adoption as my daughter’s biological mother will not give up her parental rights, nor will her parental rights be terminated because things just, as we have repeatedly been told, “aren’t that bad.”
While I continue to have hope and advocate, while I continue to believe that this too shall pass, while I continue to wonder who to turn to next, and who, if anyone, can help us, I find myself thinking, we can’t be the only ones. I refuse to give up. And I continue to wonder . . . how did we, our society, my family, our court system, end up here?
**I have spent years wondering when I would share our story and how. Due to continued legal involvement, and to protect our family, for now, I have chosen to tell only a brief overview of our story, with some vagueness, and to remain anonymous. I hope that soon, just as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford so courageously did, I am able to share our story openly.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter