Annie Who?

Two days ago, I asked my adult (college graduate) grandson if he knew who Helen Keller was, He told me he had “heard of her.”  Then I asked my son with the severe learning problems.  He laughed and said, “Yep, I know who she is.”  I was relieved.  So, I asked him to tell me and he told me that she was part of the joke.  Joke?  “What joke?” I asked him.  And he told me that when someone doesn’t clean something right on his job, the other guys will say, “Who are you? Helen Keller?”  That’s all he knew of her…..This is worse for me than recognizing that the music of my much loved and still listened to Beatles will disappear into history as my generation dies off.

Helen Keller, or more accurately, her teacher, Annie Sullivan, has been a personal hero of mine for decades.  When I was a child care worker, working in the institutions, I used to say that Annie Sullivan should be the hero of all child care workers.  For those reading this who have no idea who either woman is – would such people be reading this? – a quick Google search will tell you plenty.  For everyone else, I am going to assume that we are each familiar with “The Miracle Worker” – the fifty one year old movie, if not the play, or the now 111 year old book that both were based on: “The Story of My Life.”

The NY Times obituary* for Helen had this paragraph: “After Helen’s illness, her infancy and early childhood were a succession of days of frustration, manifest by outbursts of anger and fractious behavior. ‘A wild, unruly child’ who kicked, scratched and screamed was how she afterward described herself.”

Hmm….I wonder how we’d approach the care of Helen today.

Here is Helen’s description of how Annie did it:

“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water** and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.

“I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away.”

Helen had an awakening.  She had a realization.  She woke up.  She got it.  She changed. She was freed.

And  “In 1964 she was one of 30 Americans on whom President Johnson conferred the nation’s highest civilian recognition, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Can you imagine that award for any of our kids?  I certainly can and hope to see the day.

I am who I am today hugely due to, as I have said many times, the gifts of themselves that Aunt Rita and Msgr. Christopher Huntington gave to me. It wasn’t behavior management or medication or therapy on their parts that helped me.

It was simply teaching me real truths, in the context of loving me for real.

I have had many who cared about me; many who were attached to me.  But these two freed me.

That is what our model needs to be: teaching with the goal of freeing.  If behavior management is needed, fine. If therapy is helpful, good. If medication moves us along that road, then by all means let’s use it.  But those things are not ends in themselves – they haven’t the power to free anyone. Not because those who need them are broken, but because these things are only tools. Tools are needed to build, but they, of themselves, build nothing.

Coming to recognize the truth – not all truth now, but simply the relevant truth – is what frees people. All people. Including and especially our kids. Annie Sullivan is the model.  Not psychiatry, not psychology, not social work – tools all, but tools only.

Helen Keller was the incredible beneficiary of Annie Sullivan’s belief in Helen’s wholeness.

I hate to see that witness lost to history.

It remains too real.


* []



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Arrogance and Some “Helping” Professionals

I was reminded this past week of two very painful life changing events in my life, that led to wonderful changes in my thinking pretty much immediately.

The first was the death of my mother, forty seven years ago yesterday.  She was killed early in the morning in a (single car) car crash.  My father, who was driving, was hospitalized.  It fell to Aunt Rita and Uncle Frank to inform us kids. Some time between the crash and our alarms going off to get us up for school, they came over to wake up my fifteen year old self, my almost fourteen year old brother, and my ten year old sister.  They told me first, and then my brother, as we shared a room.  Then one of them, Uncle Frank I think, was going across the hall to tell my sister.  I begged them not to.  I remember that Aunt Rita’s response to me was simply that they had to, but I also remember her being surprised by that immediate and non-thinking reaction on my part.

Years later, I became a foster parent to my first three kids, brothers, eight, ten, and twelve. They had a fifteen year old brother who was in Children’s Village. Some months later, I heard through the grapevine that that boy had been referred to the foster home department.  Immediately, I reached out to the foster department and told them that I wanted him here with us.  They refused.  They told me that I had “too many kids.”  I was shocked, and horrified.  I fought. Ultimately, without telling me, they went and asked him if he wanted to come live with me.  He, of course, said no.  And with that, they closed it out, perfectly sure of themselves. When I asked them if they had told him first that I wanted him with us, they said they had not.  I begged them to let me talk to him and they refused. I said to them, what else could he have said to them but “no” when he had experienced me taking his brothers and essentially abandoning him (I had known him for many years)?  I said to them that he needed to hear first hand from me that I wanted him with us and that I had gone to get him the second I learned that he was being referred to a foster home.  Only then could you trust his “no.”  They refused.

When he was eighteen, I adopted him out from under them anyway.  But for those in-between three years, he lived with believing that I didn’t care about him.  (I couldn’t tell him because he had to live within the agency with those folks till he was eighteen.)

That behavior on the part of my caseworker, and her boss (significantly to me: neither had kids) is my definition of arrogance.  My intended behavior towards my sister that night my mother died, was also arrogance.  Not in the “overbearing” definition which I have been accused of many times in my life, but rather in the sense of “presumptuous claims or assumptions.”

Many years ago – decades now – my boss in my last job accused me of being arrogant.  We had a long discussion about it and he came back to me and said that upon further thought, he decided that I was “abrasive.”  And I said, “absolutely.”  He was surprised how immediately I had accepted that.  I told him that abrasive is always in the mind of the “abrased.”  And that most often it was the truly arrogant who felt that I was abrasive as I went after their “presumptuous claims or assumptions.”

Out of my experience with my son came two rules at Family Focus: one, adults go first – always.  And two – every decision we make about one of our kids or one of our families has to pass “the forty year test.”  How, we are required to ask ourselves, will this decision  I am making, impact this child or this family forty years from now, when I am long gone from this position, and maybe from this earth?  That arrogant caseworker and her boss didn’t stop to think that by me adopting the three brothers, the fourth brother would be a part of our lives, one way or another, forever whether they agreed with it or not. And how would that look to the boys: that three got one life, and the fourth, a very different life.  And that then becomes the starting point: will this be right in the long term. Not “too many kids.”

Out of my experience with Aunt Rita that night, came my recognition that I wasn’t trying to protect  my sister – there was no protecting her after all – but rather trying to protect my own feelings about her devastation and my need to respond to it.  With Aunt Rita’s words, I realized that I was being stupid: my sister “had to know.”  But only later did I realize that I was really being arrogant.

I had – and have had for three weeks now – a responsibility to speak to a fifteen year old kid about some stuff that will impact her life from today until at least forty years from now.  But the powers-that-be, afraid of the current behavioral impact on her of what I have to say (all of which is affirming and empowering so I don’t even get that) have forbidden it.  Exactly what I would have done to Aunt Rita and Uncle Frank, had I the power to keep them from talking to my sister that terrible and life-changing night.  So was my thinking forty seven years ago incredibly mature and years beyond my age? Or are the current powers-that-be thinking like a fifteen year old, and a very arrogant one at that?

The only question that matters is how their arrogant decision will impact this teen “forty years from now.”  Not whether I will shake her world today.  Even if they were right about my shaking her world today – which they are likely not.  This teen is entitled to a conversation with me.  And she will get it.  Perhaps not till she’s eighteen and free of them and their arrogance and power, like my son became.

And this posting this morning will serve as evidence to her then that I wanted to talk to her now.

Hmm….this blog has it’s benefits for me far beyond any I had originally thought of……

Humble Jack, the Abraser

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What If We Are Wrong?

I came home late yesterday afternoon from the annual adoption conference up in Albany. One of the workshops I went to was run by Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK), a non-profit arm of Wendy’s set up originally by Dave Thomas himself to promote adoptions of the foster kids in the country who have no one.  It was, of course, all about their success – their tremendous success actually.  The leader of the workshop was prepared, knowledgable, and articulate.  So I asked her the question that I have not been able to get an answer to since Family Focus decided a long while ago that we were not ready to partner with this program.  While she was unable to answer the question either, she did give me the name of a higher-up in the organization that might be able to, and I will follow up for sure.

The question is: what happens when it doesn’t work?  How do you protect the child –  the mulitply-betrayed child, by definition (or he/she would not need to be part of the program) – how do you protect the child when all these extensive, personal (they look into the child’s background to find folks who know/knew the child) and “aggressive” (to use their word) means to find a family don’t work?  What does that do to the child who now knows definitively that there is nobody, even among all the people he/she has ever known, that will become family?

And then there’s the question of funding.  WWK now partners, we were told, with at least one state government, whose funds will allow them to hire 50 child recruiters.  Each recruiter is expected to carry about 20 cases.  That is a thousand kids.  And that opportunity for those kids is mind-blowing to us in the field.  It is wonderful.

But those of us in the field, older than say 25, know that government money comes and government money goes for reasons that too often have nothing to do with the value of the programs being defunded.  What happens to those 1000 kids who will be in various stages of this program, if (when?) the state government pulls out?

So I will go to the person at WWK who might be able to answer these questions.  But I am pretty will sure that there will be no answer.  Because nobody thinks like that.  Aunt Rita (Happy Mother’s Day) would say that nobody thinks, period.

I was very very lucky as a teenager to be in a high school that confronted us with the big questions of life very early.  Talking about “ends vs. means.” would not have been out of place in my school from the ninth grade on.  From today’s perspective it would appear to be a fantasy educational experience.   But it was – lucky for me – very real.

The entire WWK workshop on Friday inevitably led me to thinking about ends and means.  The obvious “end” or goal of the public adoption programs at Family Focus, like all such adoption programs, is to find families for the children who so desperately need them.  But we long ago decided that in dealing with kids who have experienced such deep consequences from the failure of the adults – many different adults (and coming from well-intentioned adults doesn’t change the experience)  – that it was our responsibility to protect those kids even – no, especially – from our failures.  We decided that a successful adoption program required us to be successful for these kids even when we failed in our goal of getting them adopted.  Absurd talk? Confusing?

It’s actually pretty simple. It’s where my high school’s question of whether or not the “ends” justifies the “means” comes in.  We recognized that if our processes for getting these kids adopted, at least, empowered the kids, they would be better off for having dealt with us, no matter what the outcome.  Their experience of themselves would be forever changed, even if they ended up not getting adopted.  To go through our processes would be to make decisions, not to have them made for you; it would be to have your “no” respected, not opening the door to adult harassment: “C’mon, this is better for you; don’t throw away such a great opportunity etc.”; it would be to experience the protection of having your boundaries defined and protected without being “guilted” into anything.  Empowerment, which erases victimization, became our means to adoption.  Or did empowerment become our “end” and adoption our “means”? Who cares?  We can argue that in philosophy classes.  Meanwhile, we empower.

Our “Chocolate Milk Club,” by the way,  becomes our protection from defunding.  The income that comes from the monthly dues, will allow us the fiscal means, at least for cash ourlays, to finish out any case we begin.  Of course, that also requires a staff so committed to the value of empowerment that they would finish the work on any case for free.

The first question we have for any and every successful program we see is “how do you protect the kids when your processes fail?”  Your 70% success rate really doesn’t mean much to the other 30%.  Or your 90% success rate really doesn’t mean much to the other 10%.  Even your 99% doesn’t mean much to the other 1%.  If you don’t see that, we must be very wary of your “means”  no matter how good your “ends” look, even to us.

Covering for one’s inevitable failures always requires asking, and answering, this question: “What if we are wrong?”

Happy Mother’s Day.





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Is What I Have, Who I Am?

I began the week by being told by a psychiatrist that when it comes to mental illness, I am “naïve.”  He told me that I do not have the same belief (or words to that effect) in mental illness that I do in physical illness.  As he was talking I kept saying to myself: “yep, yep, yep, that’s true, I don’t.”  He was clearly missing the fact that I am proud of that conviction.  I don’t deny the existence of mental illness, but the unspoken context is too often “permanent damage.”  And even if that were true, the deeper, and key, context always seems to be that damage to the psyche is the same as damage to the person. Folks don’t talk that way, of course, but they don’t NOT talk that way.

To wit:  “He has cancer” or “She has heart disease” or “I have diabetes”.  The cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is not identified as the person.  On the contrary, the person has these physical conditions.  But watch with mental illness: “He is schizophrenic” or “She is bi-polar” or “I am an addict.”

There is some overlap, of course: “I am diabetic” or “He has post traumatic stress disorder.”  But mostly, it seems to me, the language of our culture says that we “have” physical illness, but we “are” mental illnesses.  Interestingly, despite the apparent truth that lifestyle choices bring on many physical illnesses, we seem to recognize that they could happen to any of us precisely because they exist outside of us as people.  However, mental illnesses, being something that folks “are” could not happen to us because we “are not” schizophrenic, or bipolar or an addict.

Once we move from “have” to “are,” the personhood of the person in question simply disappears.  I am not saying that this is taught.  I am saying that it is the reality of how we speak, and how we think, and therefore, how we respond, far too often, to the person who “has” a physical disease but “is” a mental one.

In the field of foster care adoption, it is this thinking that allows folks to give up their already adopted children, rather than focusing on solving the problem of living with or at least relating to these very difficult children as their parent.  Within their social circles, I can’t imagine an adoptive parent getting away with telling folks that they gave up their child because he had heart disease, or because he had diabetes, or because he had cancer.  Such people would be looked upon as disgusting and shallow folks.  But giving up a kid who doesn’t relate to us as we expect, or want, or understand?  A whole different ball game.  All we have to do with our friends, our families, and ourselves even is to tell a few stories of the behaviors of these kids – perhaps their coldness, or their apparent consciencelessness, or their dangerousness, or even their abusiveness.  Then, everyone is with us and we can give our kids up fully justified and supported by our people.  Of course, we have already first given up, and very slickly so, the idea that they are “our” kids.  That’s what allows the rest.

Yet, every regular old parent has dealt with any one of those pathological behaviors in their regular old children: when the children were two years old.

At Family Focus we are currently doing a retrospective of what we have learned over the 25 years of our existence.  It is a lot.  But in looking at that very long list, I have been trying to figure out what is the most important reality that we have recognized. It is probably this:

A normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance appears abnormal, while an abnormal reaction to an abnormal circumstance appears normal.

“Appears” is the operant word here.

I don’t deny that “mental illness” exists.  But I insist that there is a person, exactly as worthwhile as me, existing beyond that illness, just as there is a worthwhile person existing beyond any physical illness.  And I don’t, and won’t, trust any psychiatrist who doesn’t make it clear that they recognize and respect that.  Hell, I don’t trust any person who doesn’t show me that same recognition and respect for that core truth.  Which, of course, comes back to this core truth: there is nobody who is better than anybody else.  As people we are each exactly equal in the dignity and respect we are each entitled to.  And that is true despite any behavior we exhibit, or any illness  – physical or mental – that we have.


P.S.  For an example of a trustworthy psychiatrist, one who gets it, and shows that he gets it, one into whose care I would easily leave my children or grandchildren, or yours for that matter, please look up Dr. Bruce Perry and his wonderful book with the very revealing full title: “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing.”



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I was at a meeting this past week to address some concerns I had about a young teenager, whose future I am involved with.  It happened to be with a psychologist, but that is not an intrinsic part of my point – although it is troublesome to me.  The man was not new but was new to the case and had been updated from the old worker.  He pretty much began our conversation by telling me that he was aware of, and understood, my concerns.  And immediately I knew that this man, at least at this point, was not to be trusted.

What kind of stupid talk was that?

How could I be so certain that he was not to be trusted?  Because I had two huge concerns. The first I had spoken of to the former worker, and more than once at that, and I figured that he’d been updated on it. But the second, even bigger, concern I had never voiced to anyone.  Ever.  So not only had he not – no way – been updated on it, but he sure as hell couldn’t have “understood” it.

This is an example of something I call “not seeing the invisible” or, at least not covering for the possibility that there could exist things that you might not see.  It is arrogant.  It is common. It is culturally accepted. What would have been wrong with him telling me that he had been updated from the earlier worker on what she understood to be my concerns? Then repeat them for me in his own words perhaps.  And then ask me two questions. First, ask me if he had understood accurately what he’d just reported to me; and then second, ask me whether or not that covered the whole of my concerns.  A “no” from me to either one opens up a real conversation.  A “yes” to both gives us a common ground to start this new relationship from.   Either way we begin on the firm ground of mutual respect.  We become what I call a “we.”

Why couldn’t he have been open to the possibility that third hand information is rarely accurate enough, even among professionals?  And why was he not covering for the possibility that I had other concerns that either I had not spoken of to the first worker or that she had not understood the seriousness of and therefore hadn’t updated him?

I, of course, dealt with all this – I made visible all my concerns – and to his credit the man saw it and fixed it.  So I trust that he will fix what he sees: he’s a good man, he appears to have integrity.  But I still do not trust that he will cover for what he doesn’t see.

And I kept thinking: what chance does a kid have with “helping” folks such as this, when the kid does not have the internal resources that we develop as we grow up; or the external protections that our families provide for us?

Covering for what one doesn’t see appears to me to be the main work that any person in the helping professions must learn to do.  Actually I think it goes deeper than that.  Anyone in any relationship needs to do that.  I have had some pretty serious experiences in my life where a problem had clearly developed in the relationship and yet the other person made all sorts of assumptions and then acted on them without ever checking with me first – as this psychologist hadn’t done. Rather than being open – to the possibility that there might be something going on that they don’t see.  But that openness would require a stance of vulnerability, at least to this extent: I could be wrong; I may have done wrong; I may not see what it is I did wrong; I may have to change my stance.  Let me enter into a conversation to find out because it’s the only way to find out.  Let me enter into a conversation so that the other person and I are on the same page.  I call it, as I said, creating a “we.” And it is not something that happens anywhere near enough.  What do we do instead? We create an “us.”  Not: let the two of us, as equals, create something real between us, which means having a conversation. (And a real conversation eschews “blame.”)

The man I met in prison, Micheal (sic),one of the three who beat up Abe, has done exactly that: he has entered into a conversation with me, despite the reality that he contributed to the death of my son.  He wants real and he’s going after it with the father of the man who died in part because of his actions.  Courageous, no?  My respect for him is deep.

What stops us from that – from asking questions?  Well for one thing, to ask questions is to reveal our recognition that we don’t know everything that we think we should know.  I suspect the usual suspect here: the fear of being blamed by the other or ourselves if we find out that we did wrong, especially if the wrong came about because we assumed wrong.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard people defend themselves from something that they finally see was wrong, by immediately jumping to: “I didn’t mean to hurt you; I didn’t intend to do wrong.”  Who the hell cares?  That’s not the point. Most of the evil in this world is not done intentionally; it’s done stupidly.  The point is to solve the problem and move on.  Where do we get this idea that the wrong is mitigated enough as long as I did it unintentionally?

Conversation requires assuming that we might not get it; listening to the words of the other person, both unspoken and spoken; eschewing blame but holding accountable; and making sure, ultimately by asking questions, that one is responding to the other person.  In my experience? There is nothing more wonderful, nor more powerful. I think it the source of many of the miracles I have experienced in my life.

But, sadly, there appears also to be nothing more rare.




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Getting Past the Self-Blame

This past week I was taking my son (see “Rant on Can’t” – post before last) to his bus stop as I do every weekday morning so he could catch the bus to work.  The weather report was on the radio and the prediction for one day this past week was for it to be 70 degrees. My son turned to me and said, “70 degrees is good, right?”  Now, had I made some comment of joy prior to him saying that?  Probably. I am in Syracuse as I write this morning and it is 34 degrees so I am well sick of the cold by this late in April.  I was certainly happy to hear “70 degrees.” But what does it matter? He heard the weather report; he may have heard me comment; and he added the two together to come up with the conclusion that 70 degrees is a measure of good weather.  And then he checked it with me to confirm.  All that is what thinking consists of, doesn’t it?

I thought of his teacher and the teacher’s life-deadening perspective on “limits.” And it reminded me of why the phrase “developmentally delayed” is so much more accurate than the word “retarded.” My son’s experience of learning has always been – and still is to a lesser degree – screened first by his determination to not feel the laser sharp pain and humiliation of being called “stupid,” or worse, feeling stupid.  I doubt that he ever felt “stupid” on his own anymore than I feel “stupid” because I can’t do brain surgery.  No, the feeling of stupid came because he had internalized what the culture surrounding him had announced as true.  And then he used (for evidence that they were right) the irrelevant but true facts of the things that he saw he could not do, or did not know how to do. And then – my favorite theme apparently – he blamed himself for being “retarded.”  [in recognition of the pain that that word has inflicted upon him over his life, it is a word that is absolutely forbidden in my house, by the way. We never let it pass without comment.]

It is a very short jump then – and a sign of emotional health – that he refused and refuses to place himself in any circumstance where he might feel stupid.  What has astonished me for over twenty years now is that he apparently unconsciously figures out in advance what those circumstances would be and avoids them with a ten foot pole. Brilliant, no?

For him then to ask me if 70 degrees is a good thing….no, he didn’t ask that. For him to confirm his hypothesis that 70 degrees is a good thing reveals how internally strong he has become in accepting himself as whole.  That affirmation of himself – which is what it is – is not only what thinking always leads to, it is what loving oneself is all about.  And that is what spiritual freedom is.  With it, the world then opens itself to us – or more accurately, we become open ourselves to the world, no longer worried about defending ourselves from it.  And what better definition of psychological freedom?

Every so often, I remember learning as a kid that God has a very special connection and  relationship with those whom we define as handicapped.  He gives them less in order to witness for the rest of us what we really need in this life. But it’s a measure of God’s trust in them, in their ability to take it that they have been so chosen.   I’m sure I am not remembering it right – but the point is there: at best, nobody is better than anybody else. And at worst (for us): “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

The real handicaps come into existence when we fall for the blame for being ourselves that are thrust upon us by others.  For African-Americans in our culture, James Brown got to the heart of it a generation ago (two generations?) with his song “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Followed shortly thereafter with Jesse Jackson  and the phrase he used over and over and over: “I Am – Somebody.”

Some years ago – and,  if I have written this before, apparently the price of reading a blog over time is dealing with repetition from the writer – there was a very discrete moment in time, when I realized that this son of mine would be okay when I was no longer alive. Something happened on one of his jobs and one of his co-workers said something about him being retarded.  My son went up to him – he told me – and asked him what made him think that he was “so much better than I am.”  I don’t know if that really happened. But my relief came from knowing that my son knew that’s the truth of it. You don’t let the attacks inside you: you respond to them straight out.  He knew when to respond, and how to respond, to attacks on his “self.”

Would that the rest of our society was that far along…….



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Blame. Still Again….

Since I work for an agency that helps to create, or recreate – and then hold together – new families, an article in today’s Times – entitled “Lessons in Domestic Diplomacy” * – caught my eye.  There are some good ideas in the article, and towards the end the author straight out says, “To stop fighting, stop saying ‘you’.”  In other words, eliminate blaming. I don’t know how you can possibly blame someone without using the word “you” and it’s cousin “your.”  But, for me, the most interesting thing in the article is that the word “blame” was nowhere to be found.   It is the blaming itself that destroys – the use of the word “you” is how people blame. It is the means.  But I suppose there could be other ways of blaming, without the use of the word.

I sound, I know, like a broken record on this, but I see it everywhere. Two weeks ago, the top article, on the front page of the Times was titled, “Rise in Egypt Sex Assaults Sets Off Clash Over Blame.”** If you run the word “blame” in the Times search engine, you get 379,000 results.  I just went through the few pages at the beginning of the list and it is overwhelming to see how pervasive that word is.  And that is just Times articles, not the whole internet.

Are they using “blame” as a synonym for “accountable?”  I ran “accountability vs. blame” on Google and found this sentence: “To be blamed for something is to be made accountable in such a way that deserves disciple, censure, or some other penalty, either explicit or tacit.”  Uh huh.  Penalty.  Deserves penalty.  Uh huh.  What’s the missing word?

The missing word is anger.  Blame is not about responsibility, nor accountability, nor solving the problem.  Blame is about expressing, or more likely, inflicting our anger onto someone.  And it is always about the past, not the present nor the future, which are all that matter.  When my son Irving got killed because the drunk driver of the car Irving (stupidly) was riding in hit a tree at a curve in the road on a rain swept night, I didn’t blame the driver.  I knew that it could just as easily have been Irving, presumably also drunk, driving that night.  I don’t even know what happened to that guy long term. But I know his father showed up at Irving’s funeral.  All I wanted was for that kid to wake up and never get behind the wheel of a car drunk again.  I wanted to “solve that (for me, very personal) problem.”

Seventeen years later, when Abraham was beaten so bad that he later died from his injuries, there was obviously more intention to hurt here than with Irving’s death. But still, I didn’t blame the guys who did it. I simply wanted them to wake up and decide never to do anything like that again.  Should prison have been involved? I don’t know. I don’t care. But what was missing was any focus on “solving the problem.”  Putting them – putting anyone – in jail in order to wake them up hasn’t really been proven to work too well. It may often be necessary, but it is almost never sufficient.

And it’s not just about eliminating blame in one’s approach to life. During this past week, I had two very intense conversations where I realized that blame is built so automatically into our culture, that it is not enough to avoid it – one must consciously make decisions and build processes, rules, protocols, to build it out of our systems, out of our approaches to life. One of those, certainly, is the rule I started this posting with today: forbidding the use of the words “you” or “your”.  People, especially vulnerable people, are too prone to automatically blame themselves when things don’t work for them.  For instance, if we place a child for adoption with a family who later kick the kid to the curb, unless we have built in ways to prevent the self blame from taking root at those times, those kids will automatically, and probably silently, blame themselves for the breakdown.  Especially when that’s the only way families ever kick kids to the curb: by blaming the kid.  Thus, our naming of the reality of “counterfeit adoption.”  Telling a child “it’s not your fault” usually has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing their self-blame.  Telling a child about the concept of “chocolate milk” as an analogy for authentic adoptions and using the phrase “counterfeit adoption” as a name for the experience when adults kick their “adopted” kids to the curb, actually work to prevent self-blame from taking root.

It is my experience in this world that far more evil consequences come from stupidity rather than intention. It is our responsibility, as Aunt Rita insisted day after day after day, to figure these things out through thinking.  She was so right.  Thirteen years after her death, and she continues to influence my world.  Now that’s a person who was real…..


* []

** Online headline differs a bit from the paper edition I quote.


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My Rant on “Can’t”

Because I have had so many kids in the school district, I once knew many many many of the teachers and administrators – all long retired now, if even still alive.  Some of my kids were in the special education department and I certainly knew those teachers well.  One day, having a conversation about his program for one of my kids who had – and still has – severe academic learning problems, one of his long time teachers told me that I had to accept the fact that my son “had limits.”

Let’s see now: I adopted him……… I lived with him………….. I was impacted by his abilities (and otherwise) every day of my life, and had been for years by that point.  But I was now being given this revelation from this teacher whom I had known – and once respected – that my son had limits.  I simply said to the teacher words to the effect (well….somewhat stronger than what I write here) that I full well knew, better than anyone, that my son had limits.  But having watched him grow and learn things beyond anything that anyone had ever predicted for him, neither he (the teacher) nor I (the father) yet knew what those limits were.  Therefore, he, the teacher, was to eliminate that concept from his belief system, as I had eliminated it from mine, and teach my son.  Would my son reach some limit someday?  I don’t know. I’m sixty two, have I?  The point is to avoid – desperately avoid – making any kind of self-fulfilling prophecy about any other human being, especially one who is in our care and responsibility.

I can’t jump up from my roof and reach the moon. Nor can you. Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy that I am making?  I don’t think so. I think that it is a legitimate use of the word “can’t.”  It is a situation that is either evident or easily verifiable.  But I say all the time when I am watching these unnecessarily graphic TV shows that are broadcast nowadays (“Criminal Minds” and “Chicago Fire” spring to mind) that I can’t ever become a doctor or even a nurse because I can’t deal with all the blood, and gore.  In that situation, the use of the word “can’t” is really a misuse.  I actually mean that I wouldn’t want to or I couldn’t easily see doing it.  But using my much used “imaginary scenario” tool (see posting June 25, 2011) I could well imagine realistic situations where I would deal with all the blood and gore; e.g. helping an accident victim who is right in front of me or some such.  To get Chris Huntington back in my life right now? Or Aunt Rita? Or Gilbert, Irving, Ricky, or Abraham? Or many others? I would deal with any blood and gore that I had to in that imaginary scenario. So: not “can’t” but rather “won’t” or “don’t want to,” would be the proper words for my position.

But there is a third use of the word “can’t” and it’s that use that leads to this posting.  It’s the use that the teacher was doing. And I have seen it elsewhere plenty of times.  People use it to tell us what a third person “can’t” do.  Based supposedly on the objective evidence of what the person has done or not done. And the evidence is real, and sometimes even overwhelming.  But as Chris Huntington taught me so well: there is nothing that is not mutual.  To use a wonderful old and very wise saying: “It betrays more [about the user of it] than it conveys [about the person being referred to].”  It’s what the psychiatrist I wrote about three weeks ago was doing when he implied that he knew with the certainty of God that the boy he was treating required the meds he was on, no matter the alternative explanation that I was able to give for the better behavior.  And, of course, the unwillingness to explore options.

This use of the word “can’t” tells us little or nothing about the person it refers to despite all the evidence that is pulled out to convince us (or maybe themselves.) But it tells us loads and loads and loads about the user of it: beginning with the person’s incredible hubris, arrogance, and conviction that the person they are talking about is somehow “broken” in a way that they themselves, of course, are not.  When spoken by a declared enemy, say an angry cop for a drug dealer, the disrespect is at least out there, able to be confronted.  But when spoken by a helping person, especially a professional such as a therapist, a social worker, a teacher, a psychiatrist, or even – hell, especially – a parent, it is buried underneath layers of “niceness.”  And buried destructiveness has no peer in the power of the destruction because it attacks the very identity as a human being of the person we say “can’t” do, feel, think, change, or whatever.

Want to know how to catch it in another or even in oneself?  Look for “feeling sorry for.” That will reveal it every single time.



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Again, the Bureaucrats….

With Sunday being Easter and my promise to post every Sunday, I am going to do a little cheating here and post early. Then I am going to do a little more cheating, and post what I have written for another place that I write.  There will be some overlap between both groups. Forgive me for that.

Last summer, Family Focus created what we call “The Chocolate Milk Club.”  It is a way for regular folks to help us with our mission by sending us $25 each month.  The mission, as readers know,  is to find adoptive homes for the foster kids still waiting for families.  But all the means that we use to do that work is to do it in a non-bureaucratic way, protecting as best we can the kids that we work with from the bureaucrats.  Sometimes we protect in a small way; sometimes in a huge way. But always we need to protect, because kids without parents need such protections beyond anyone else.

Each month I write an update for our Chocolate Milk Club members. Here – at the suggestion of my boss – is the one I have written for March.  It is my hope that some people reading the blog will come join the Chocolate Milk Club []  and stand with us.




                                                                                                      March 2013: VOL 1: ISSUE 8

My grandson, David (pseudonym), is thirteen and for various behavioral reasons he is currently in a psychiatric hospital. [I adopted him through FFAS even though he calls me grandpa.] He also has diabetes 1, requiring an insulin shot after each meal.  Ordinarily, he lives with me.

At the beginning of this week, I spoke to the head of his unit, the psychologist. I told the man that I wanted to take my grandson out on a day pass yesterday for lunch and a movie.  David, of course – and maybe more than many – due to his eternal dietary restrictions, would want to go to McDonalds for lunch. The visit was approved.

However, yesterday, not three hours before I was due to pick him up, the nurse called asking me if I could bring the McDonalds’ food to the hospital for my grandson to eat before we left so that she could give him his insulin shot.  I told her that that was ridiculous. My plan was to sit with him at lunch and discuss his future and make our plans for him to come back home, which he is very nervous about.  She then wanted to know if I could take him to McDonalds – six miles away – and bring him back after he ate so she could give him the insulin. Doing so, however, would have meant us missing the start of our 1:30 movie, planned on by he and I for over a week.  And approved, let us all remember, on Monday morning by the powers-that-be.

I told the nurse that I could count his carbs, do his finger stick, figure out his dosage, and give him his insulin.  That, after all, is what we did when he was home five times a day, or more, but always seven days a week.  I had been taught to do that; I was required to do that; I knew how to do that; and I would be doing that again when he came home. And, by the way? David himself could do all that.  But, she told me, that that was not allowed.

So what could I do?   I went through a drive-in McDonalds on my way down and ordered all our food.  When I got to the hospital, I asked her where we were to eat.  I was told, and I knew from experience, that we could go inside the locked doors, but then when we were done, we would have to wait until someone came along to unlock the doors.  That has been as long as 15-20 minutes in the past. Even when I use my cell to call the front desk to ask them to send someone to open the doors.

Or, she told me – and she was very nice, and very apologetic – we could eat right there in the reception room. The reception room, where people walk by at all times, in and out of the hospital. Very conducive to this private and very important conversation that I needed to have with my grandson.  And then she gave David his shot, before he’d eaten a thing – which means that we could have gone to McDonalds as we’d planned anyway.

I was furious.  David asked me if we could eat in the car, but I sure didn’t want to do that as there was no place to put down the food etc.  So we left, found a park bench right outside the door, and sat there, juggling the food, and the drinks, and attempting to get through this serious talk.

Now mind you, when a person has Diabetes 1, they are always at risk for going too high or too low on their blood sugar. Too high will kill you long term; but too low will kill you today.  To protect against that, one always needs access to what’s called a glucagon needle. They are very expensive. And they are rarely ever needed.  But they could be.  Did the hospital give me one to take on our trip to the movies? No.  And that is not the first time that I have taken him out, and always without it (I keep one myself in the car.)

So, what was this about, this refusal to allow me to give him his insulin?  Protecting David? Or “looking” like they were protecting David? You know the answer. It was about bureaucracy.

And why wasn’t I told this insulin problem prior to yesterday so that I could have come earlier, perhaps? Or gotten tickets to a later movie?  Why? You know that answer too.  Bureaucracy and the right hand not knowing – nor caring – about what the left hand is doing.

And what happens to a kid with no family – as David was before I adopted him – and therefore with no protection from the bureaucrats?


The Chocolate Milk Club is the best answer we have yet devised to this everlasting problem of bureaucracy hurting our kids.  It wouldn’t have helped concretely yesterday, I know that.  But it helps me to know that we are not facing this nonsense alone.  There is a “we” behind us. And it can, and does, help concretely lots and lots of other times.  It allows us to bypass bureaucratic restrictions on spending money on the kids. Hell, one time I was with a six year old down in NYC on some mandated something or other.  Whatever we were doing took hours and hours, well into the evening.  But there were no provisions to buy the child dinner. None. Zero. The money it would cost was very specifically NOT to be reimbursed. We did it, of course, anyway.

The Chocolate Milk Club income gives us the money, but believe it or not, just as important is the support of our like-minded fellow citizens who are helping us to say: personal trumps bureaucratic every single time.  We stand together on this. I wish we had thousands of folks standing with us.  Maybe then, to copy the commercial, we’d be saying, “Can you hear us now?”

Thank you for being a real part of our solution.



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Falling Over the Brink. Or not.

On one of my visits home from college, one of my younger sibs/cousins came into the house to tell Aunt Rita that (their friend) Richie’s parents had sent his sister “back.”  I knew that Richie was an adopted kid, but my experience with adoption at that point was limited to other of my cousins who had been adopted as infants.  I had five of them in two different families and I couldn’t comprehend any one of them being “sent back.” They were family.  They still are.

I remember Aunt Rita being taken aback, bewildered, and saying that she didn’t know such a thing was even possible.  That’s all I remember. Was Richie’s home a foster home? Had the sister been adopted? Not yet adopted? I had, and still have, no idea. But the memory has stuck with me now for over forty years.  Something didn’t sit right.

This past week I met with a family who is actively planning on giving up their adopted and years long finalized child.  The child’s behavior is dangerous and he should not be living at home, or even in the community.  I get that.  And politically it is absurdly difficult to deal with this kind of problem.  The system sees parents – certainly adoptive parents – who ask for residential help for their child as “neglectful” parents.  That in itself – via the Child Protective System – can lead to terrible – and unnecessary – consequences for families.

But there are options that families don’t even seriously consider when trying to solve this kind of problem.  For instance, we don’t dream of killing the child.  I read the other day that there are three million children in the US currently living with relatives other than the nuclear family. I can’t remember where I read it, but I was astounded at that high number: there are less than 500,000 other kids in foster care. So clearly families turn to family most of the time when there is trouble.  How is it that the thought of giving up one’s child only seems to get carried out by adoptive parents?  Granted that the adoption world is the world that I live in, but I have never ever ever heard of a birth parent going to court to surrender their birth child to the system because of the child’s behavior.  Such surrenders happen, under pressure from DSS, because of the parents’ behavior.

This concept of adoption somehow allowing the possibility of ending the parental relationship reveals nothing about the kid, and everything about the parent.  There are times when it makes sense to legally walk away from one’s child. For instance, if there is no other way to protect the family due to a child’s dangerous behavior, and the system’s bureaucratic blindness, then legally surrendering one’s parental rights paradoxically becomes a requirement of true parenting.  For the Jews during the Holocaust who gave their children to Christian families to protect the children’s lives, it was the ultimate model of what it means to be a parent: sacrificing everything, including your relationship with your child, for the protection of the child.  But in either case the good of the child is the object, not the satisfaction of the feelings of the parent. The key is that in either case, the disconnect is intended as temporary, a function of current circumstances. And in either case, the decision has nothing to do with whether the child was adopted.

I now know at least six children – probably more – whose adoptive parents walked away from their child. And in every one of those cases, it is obvious to all but the walking away parent (and their supporters) that they did it because the child did not satisfy their wishes, their feelings, their beliefs.  I’ve been there, right at the edge of walking away from one of my own kids, before I pulled myself back from the brink.

That day that I pulled myself back, I changed forevermore. It was that day that I learned what it feels like to choose unconditional love.  Not deep attachment, not deep feeling, not – as one of my adoptive families put it – “like plus.”  On the contrary, that day I learned, as my mother had told me when I was a young kid, that “like” has not the slightest thing to do with “love.”  They are two entirely different experiences, springing from two entirely different places within us.

Hallmark doesn’t get that. Neither do these adoptive parents who walk away from their children, revealing not a broken adoption, but rather a counterfeit one.

The damage that they inflict upon the children’s thinking, believing, and trusting is beyond anything the children ever inflicted upon them.  They, of course, believe it to be the other way: every last one of them.  They insist – without using the words – that the child has betrayed them (that’s what I was sure of when I came to the brink) when in truth it is they who are betraying their already betrayed child (the abandonment by birth family).  They gather their evidence; they call upon their allies; they use their logic as the ultimate weapon.  And they walk away feeling justified.  They know that they are right.  All the evidence proves it.

But what they don’t know is the experience of love – and commitment to the good of another human being – as being unconditional.

That sure appears not to be an American word, so let me translate. It means “no conditions; none; ever; no matter what.”

The Family Focus mantra: adoption is like chocolate milk. Once those two are mixed together, it is impossible to separate them.  Not difficult; impossible.

One does not give up one’s children for any reason other than the good of the child. Ever. Or the child was never your child to begin with.  It was all counterfeit.



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