"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Taking Back the Reins

Just watched Big Brown win the Preakness – well run race!!

Yesterday, I had a meeting with several staff members in a residential program in which a young lady who is my ward (call her Gertrude) has been participating. I’ve known this child, for years. When she first became involved with the court system, she was just a wee thing. She was in middle school in the process of failing 6th grade (again) because she simply WOULD not go to school. Gertrude was not small for her age so falling two years behind was particularly problematic. Not only that, but she is SMART. Such a waste of potential.

This situation followed an unfortunate but familiar pattern. Gertrude was a difficult child who had learned that if she was obstinate enough, her family would give in. She was running the streets, refusing to go to school, experimenting with drugs and running with a crowd that included older boys. The family was worn out and simply did not know what to do with her – and she knew it. The more she fell behind at school, the less she wanted to go. The parents were weary of being the heavy and angry at Gertrude for placing them in that position.

Now that the court was involved, they felt even more like failures, particularly since the Judge, probation officer and/or the guardian ad litem were all insisting that they needed to put their foot down – as if they hadn’t TRIED that already! After all, those people don’t have to live with the girl’s tantrums, sulks and willfulness. All kids go through that stage, right? Drug use and skipping school are normal, don’t you think? Any parent would worry about her young daughter being involved with older boys/men, but isn’t it natural for kids to experiment? Or is it? Why won’t she listen to us? We’ve always been there for her. She always knew she could talk to us. Why is Gertrude so angry?

Homebased counseling has been ordered and what a pain that is. Now, the GAL wants THEM to participate. She says these things tend to be “system” problems and the whole family needs to change before the child will be able to. She is so snooty! What does she know about our family? I wonder if she has kids? Sure feel sorry for them if she does. She sounds like she DOESN’T have kids. If she did, she’d understand that kids aren’t little angels. They all experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex, and cut class. That’s normal. Right?


So what commonly happens, unfortunately, is that once the child has to answer to a probation officer or the court, the parents (one or both) grab the opportunity to take a break from having to be the heavy (if they haven’t completely given up, already). For the first time in a long time, they are on the same side of the battle as their child. It feels great! The child suddenly LOVES them and instead of feeling unappreciated and worn out, the parent is now smothered with love and affection from the child. Their darling daughter recruits them to help her outwit those meddling so and so’s from the court. When the child breaks curfew, the parents don’t turn her in – earning them the child’s “undying” gratitude – “You’re the BEST, mom (or dad)! I promise it won’t happen again! You know I’m doing better, right?”

Parent nods. The child IS doing better. She used to sneak out 5 nights out of 7 and now she is down to 2 nights out of seven. Why tell the probation officer? The parents are certain their child understands and “gets” that she was going down the wrong path. If the parents tell the probation officer, the child will hate them. They don't like that GAL, anyway. She just looks like a know-it-all. The parents are working so hard to rebuild their relationship and if they “betray” their daughter’s trust by turning her in, they’ll lose all the ground they’ve gained. The child has become so loving, lately – just like she was when she was little. She has really had a wake up call and is really sorry that she was so difficult. She said so!!! If only the probation officer and that pushy GAL would stay out of the picture. Now that the child has figured it out, there is no need for court involvement.


There is a predictable pattern.

In just about a month, on the outside, the child typically is mouthing off to the parents, just like before. She thinks nothing of telling mom to go to hell, calls her very ugly names (VERY ugly) and laughs in her face when she tries to set limits. Breaking curfew becomes routine. She doesn’t bother to go to school, at all. Her parents know trouble is back but can’t bring themselves to turn her in. They’ll look like fools. They are so MAD at that kid for doing this!! Maybe, THEY’LL be prosecuted!

At some point, the school drops the child for non-attendance and/or she gets caught breaking curfew or gets bad drug screens once too often. Of course, now that the court is involved, the GAL checks school attendance and the probation officer is doing drug tests.


Yup – that is "pretty much" what happened with Gertrude.


A typical scenario continues. The probation officer tries to avoid coming to court. First, he infomally assigns the child to community service. The parents are no longer trusted by the GAL or the probation officer because they didn't turn her in to the probation officer and/or comply with the terms of her probation. The violations continue, unfortunately. The probation officer has no real choice but to file a violation of probation which could result in the child being placed in detention for 30 days. Equally likely is that the GAL will file a motion to either transfer custody to social services, or seek to have the court Order the child to cooperate in applying for a group home or residential facility. Normally, this wouldn't be requested unless homebased counseling has not worked or the child is so out of control that there is realistic fear that she will come to harm OR things are so bad at home that the parents want the child out or keep filing assault and battery charges against her. The GAL’s motion would be premised on the fact that the child’s behavior has become unacceptably risky and the parents are simply unable or unwilling to control her. Alternatively, the GAL could ask for a psychological evaluation or medication evaluation, if the home based counselors have expressed cause for concern.

Now they are back in court.

Typically, the parents are now missing significant time from work to go to court. This is a nightmare! When asked by the GAL (or the judge), they have to admit that they simply can’t control their child. It is one of the worst moments of their lives.

Sometimes, the judge orders the child to the group home. She insists, loudly, that she won’t do it and she WON’T GO! She might be ordered to the shelter, where it is safer, pending acceptance into the program. If she runs from the shelter or throws a tantrum in court, she is placed in detention. The parents are absolutely dying, inside.

“Mommy!! Daddy!!” she screams as she is led from the courtroom to the holding cell.

The parents are shattered. This is THEIR child! How DARE the court take their child? They are either at each other’s throats or weeping in each other’s arms. “At least we will know she is safe, there,” they admit.

“We failed.”
“What will be tell your mother?”
“She’ll never forgive us.”


A bit like Gertrude’s parents.


So begins the long road. The girls at the group home come home on the weekends if they earn that right during the week. The time away during the week gives families the opportunity to heal. The girls typically test the limits at home, sometimes breaking curfew. Over time, parents usually become more willing to cooperate because they start to realize that their actions in not holding their child accountable contribute to placing her at risk. They aren’t perfect, at first, but over time, they “get with the program.” Amazingly, this results in fewer curfew violations, if you can fancy that.

Typically, if all goes well, the child starts to let them know that SHE knows that by placing limits, they are showing her that they love her. She has heard enough stories from the other girls at the group home about parents who just don’t care that she starts to appreciate, really appreciate, what a parent IS. She moves beyond being glad that her parents are gullible and easy marks, to being glad that they love her enough to hang with her and take the heat she dishes out – within reasonable limits. Appropriate boundaries are being established.

The parents marvel at the change in their child. “She has really grown up. She has so much more insight.” In family therapy, the child confronts her parents about how they have failed her, and she admits to them how she has failed them. They work to reach the place where their love, respect and trust in themselves and each other defines the relationship (as opposed to the manipulative, angry and hurtful patterns that existed, before). The child starts to want more for herself than just attention and fun from her peers. School is onsite so she attends regularly, gets more assistance because the classes are smaller, and perhaps for the first time, starts to think that she is actually, a little bright. Her parents are thrilled when their child starts being more excited about making the A/B honor role than going to the mall to meet that older guy and his friends from the high school. The program stresses holding herself and her peers accountable. She starts thinking in terms of doing the right thing instead of just getting away with things. Over time, the staff at the program, the probation officer, the GAL and the parents become a team. By the time the child is nearing completing of the program, chances are the parents and the other adults involved are in full agreement regarding whether the child is ready to go home.


Back to Gertrude. We discussed at yesterday’s meeting whether it was time for her to go home. She wanted to go home, right now, even though she’d hit a few bumps in the road, recently, and the adults didn’t think it was time. Her Mother listened, and then informed her, firmly and gently, that she needed to stay in the program through the summer, and bust her butt to bring up her grades so that she would be able to start high school, at home, in the fall. Gertrude began to get worked up into an argument, spitting out how much she wanted to go home and how unfair it was and on and on, ending with “but MOM!!” I said nothing. Staff said nothing. The probation officer just listened.

And then…

We watched as the Mother DID THE MOMLOOK! You know what I am talking about. She tossed up her eyebrow and stared down her daughter with an eye like a laser beam. It’s the look that any well bred child knows means it is time to stop talking and just say, "yes ma’m.”

And that is what Gertrude did.

Good for you, Mom. You’re back in charge. Your daughter needs a strong mother and she has one. And that is what this GAL work is all about, after all.


Jacquie said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. As we deal with issues with our son it helps me to read your posts. It is hard to be the heavy and let them deal with the consequences of their actions. I just about had to tie my hands behind my back not to "rescue" him. Even with the terrible situations you write about, I still get a message of hope from you.

Penny said...

Motherhood sucks and if it weren't so wonderful, I'd recommend skipping it! :)