“I want to go back to Washington and live with my mom.”
It’s been a rough couple of weeks. We made it through the holidays, happily celebrating our first Christmas as a family of six. Gifts were opened, cookies were eaten, 2018 was auld lang syned. We were coming up on the five month anniversary of our daughter’s placement with us and had begun to look toward an adoption date. And then…
My daughter has a caseworker in Washington, a caseworker in Pennsylvania, a CASA advocate, two attorneys, and a host of service providers that have been tasked with making sure she is safe and healthy and that her voice is heard…which sounds great on the surface, but really it just means there’s too many cooks in the kitchen and that she and I and my husband have to repeat the same story to ten different people in a given week because no one ever talks to each other.
Still, they advocate tirelessly for my daughter and they believe my husband and I are the absolute best choice to be her parents…with one exception.
In April 2018, my daughter traveled to Pennsylvania to meet us for the first time. It was a very good visit and at the end of the week my daughter stated unequivocally that she wanted us to adopt her. She then returned to Washington and it all fell apart. Her attorney, having gotten wind of this potential placement, took our daughter on an unauthorized and unsupervised visit with her birth mother. The fact that any visit with birth mom had to be authorized and supervised by the court tells you everything you need to know. The attorney told our daughter she could live with her birth mother (she could not) and so our daughter announced that she would no longer be coming to Pennsylvania because her birth mother wanted her back (she did not).
Fortunately, with her caseworkers and service providers, we were able to work through this hiccup and our daughter came to realize that returning to her birth mother was not an option and that she was best served living with us…and so in August 2018 she traveled across the country and moved into our home.
I won’t lie, it’s been a struggle. Our daughter has a lot of challenges and she is prone to self-sabotage, meaning if she’s happy she will do whatever is necessary to punish herself because in her eyes she doesn’t deserve to be happy. It’s exhausting. But as a family we worked through the challenges and with help from her service providers we’ve helped our daughter come to a place where she allows herself the occasional happy day.
It’s been a long few months and everyone involved has gone above and beyond, and yet still, for one person it was not enough. Shortly after the New Year my daughter’s attorney visited our home. She spent less than four hours, over the course of two days, with our daughter and while she made nice to our faces, behind the scenes she was working to disrupt our daughter’s placement.
As we discovered a few days later, the attorney had (incorrectly) told our daughter that she could petition the court to have her birth mother’s rights reinstated and then she could live with her. You need to understand that for a child in the foster system the idea of being reunited with your birth parents is like winning the dream lottery…and it doesn’t matter why you were removed from their care or what harm they may have inflicted upon you, because if you can go back to your birth parents it will be different this time and better and you will finally be just like all the other kids.
Never mind that no judge would ever reinstate the birth parent’s rights. Never mind that birth mother had made no attempt to meet the initial, most basic requirements to have her rights reinstated. Never mind that the advice given by the attorney was incorrect and incomplete. Never mind that dangling this carrot in front of our daughter was emotionally abusive.
Almost immediately all of the progress we had made in the previous five months vanished overnight. Our daughter began to regress. She became distant and combative and mean. She isolated herself. She gave into her worst instincts.
“I want to go back to Washington and live with my mom. I don’t want you to adopt me.”
Over the next ten days we had meetings with caseworkers and advocates. They all told our daughter the same thing: You cannot live with your birth mother. She is not a safe option. You need to stay where you are. But our daughter was determined to claim her dream lottery prize.
I tried to reason with her. We all tried to reason with her. We explained that if she left she would end up back in the system. We pulled no punches, “You are a 12 year old black transgender girl. There are no other options. There are no other families. You will be placed in a group home until you age out of the system and then you will live on the streets. You will be trafficked.” We told her how black transgender girls are being murdered at an alarming rate. We tried to scare her with reality, but nothing got through to her.
I got angry. I threw in the towel. Fuck it, I thought. I took a tough love approach. You want to leave, leave. I started packing suitcases. I took down photos. I talked to the kids and prepared them for what was to come. I protected them and I protected myself. I told her, “We want you to stay, but we will not force you to stay.”
We had one final meeting with a team of caseworkers in late January. During that meeting our daughter announced that she wanted to stay with us. She had processed everything that had been said to her. She realized her lottery prize was a dream.
A week later the attorney emailed our daughter telling her that her maternal grandmother was ready to adopt her. Our daughter tore up the email. She fired the attorney. She said to us, “I want to stay with you. You’re my family.”
We can only guess as to what motivated the attorney to attempt to thwart this adoption not once, not twice, but three times. I suspect it was a mixture of racism and homophobia and our willingness to support our daughter’s gender identity. It is sad that the attorney’s narrow-minded, racially motivated, transphobic agenda were more important to her than her client’s well-being.
Meanwhile, we are left to pick up the pieces. We are tasked with putting back together our family. We wake up every morning and continue to remind our daughter that she has worth, that she deserves happiness, that she is loved.
Sometimes I worry that we will never not struggle. Sometimes I worry that we will always be just a placeholder. Sometimes I worry that the day my daughter turns 18 she will buy a one-way plane ticket back to Washington and we will never see her again. But sometimes is not now…so for now you hold on to the good days and you make it through the bad days and you trust/hope/pray that it will all work out in the end.
Sean Michael O’Donnell is 44 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband, three sons, and daughter. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym. He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?