I feel sneaky and invasive, but titillated, as I read these files. They are better than the best fiction. Thick folios of unexpurgated personal narrative, they are full of crises overcome, life-changing regret and thinly disguised hostility. There are sweetly unabashed plot points of intense joy, unapologetic pride and revelation. I read about drug abuse, marital problems, financial instability, mental illness. I also read about dog pedigrees, children's swim meets and spelling competitions, job promotions, success in the stock market and a mother's gourmet cooking hobby.
The information is, for the most part, either too shocking (Grandma committed suicide at age 47), too private (after four years of therapy, dad is finally conquering his obsessive-compulsive disorder), or too mundane (little brother Jimmy loves Elmo and Barney) for the principals to share with anyone outside of family. But it is all laid out for me, a complete stranger, on crisp white papers with the occasional Xeroxed photo to illustrate an achievement, a catastrophe or piece of ordinary life.
I am picking someone's parents. I am looking for one family -- the perfect family -- to adopt a 2-year-old I will call Joshua. It is a surreal task that both requires and inflames my less admirable tendencies (prying, judgment). It is a serious job, but so huge it is almost laughable. Most people are stuck with who they're born to, no matter what idiosyncrasies their parents possess or what transgressions they've committed. But Joshua gets to start fresh, and I am compelled to search until I find him the best new parents available, especially since he was cheated the first time around.
Joshua's biological parents nearly killed him when he was an infant, throwing him down on the floor, breaking several of his bones, burning him with a cigarette, tearing his mouth apart by force feeding him. When Joshua left the hospital, nobody knew whether he would ever learn to walk, to talk or to interact with anyone. Mostly he just screamed. He held his body rigid and would not look at the face of whoever held him. He was terrified of men, and would wail inconsolably at the sound of a male voice. He was not hitting the normal developmental milestones. At birth he weighed 8 pounds; at 6 months old, he weighed 11 pounds. He vomited most of the formula fed to him. He got pneumonia and had constant ear infections. The antibiotics for his pneumonia gave him a diaper rash so bad that he bled. He didn't smile and he flinched at any touch.
Child Protective Services placed Joshua with foster parents whose family already included three teenagers, two 4-year-olds and another baby, also a foster child. The parents and the teenagers took turns holding Joshua as he screamed, day and night, for the first three months. The 4-year-olds sang to him. His physical injuries took months to heal and he was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, which means that because of the abuse he suffered, he will most likely have a difficult time bonding with any parent figure in the future.
His foster mother took him to the pediatrician, the orthopedist, the pulmonologist, the neurologist and the psychologist. She sat through months of physical, occupational and speech therapy, and did hours of assigned exercises with Joshua every week. She carefully recorded every tiny step in his development in monthly reports to his caseworker. She comforted him through surgeries, stressful visits with his biological family, and screaming fits of rage that lasted far longer than normal temper tantrums -- frequently an entire day. She opened her door to dozens of strangers who paraded in and out of the house to check under her stove for dust balls, and to track and report on Joshua's progress.
And his progress was incredible. Gradually, Joshua began to relax in the arms of whoever was holding him. He smiled when the other kids made funny faces at him. He stopped flinching when people reached for him, and he started to giggle when he was tickled. He learned to run and to talk, to cuddle and to call his foster mom "Mommy." When he is downstairs and she is upstairs and he hears the crash of a book falling on the floor, he runs to the bottom of the stairs and yells "Mommy? Mommy?" When she responds "Yes, Joshua, I'm OK," he is visibly relieved.
Now it is time to find him a permanent family. So every night I ingest a bit more of the teetering pile on my desk -- the life stories of people hoping to adopt children. Each file holds an application, some court papers, letters from the family and friends of the prospective parents, results of personality tests, medical histories, financial records, fingerprint checks, criminal background information, and detailed interview notes.
The tone is always confessional but polished here and there with a certain Stuart Smalley-esque flair, as if exclamation points with smiley faces belong at the end of every other sentence. "The Bensons say they have been praying for a child for four years," says one. "The Millers have prepared a beautiful bedroom for the child they hope will come to them," says another. Resonant in these declarations is the voice of an adoption agency, pushing potential parents with bright side language and images of stoicism.
Joshua's foster mother cannot adopt him because she just adopted one of the 4-year-olds and he has been diagnosed as mildly retarded with severe behavioral problems. (He has lived with her since his birth.) She also is a professional foster parent, running a therapeutic foster home for medically needy children. The state only allows her to take a certain number of children, and if she adopted Joshua it would mean one less slot for a child in desperate need of medical foster care.
So it is my job (along with others) to select the people who will be Joshua's parents. I am his Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and I have been working with him for over a year, since he was 6 months old. I report to the court on his progress, and I have been with him for all of his "firsts" -- the first time he crawled, his first haircut, his first birthday. He knows me and we have spent many lazy days together, swinging at the park, staring at orangutans at the zoo, floating in the pool on an inflatable boat, napping in a hammock. I've given him baths, fed him dinner, put him to bed, endured temper tantrums at Kmart.
It occurs to me that, for all these reasons, I will be too picky and emotional for this job. Or maybe I will be just picky and emotional enough. But my opinion of my own fitness doesn't really matter. It is the fitness of others that I am supposed to evaluate. Every six weeks I have received packages full of red files, each representing the local adoption agencies' best hopes for a family for Joshua. I must pore over these files and tell his caseworker which ones I like and which ones to discard.
When I first started, I thought we were going to vote, all the members of the family selection committee, on which family we liked the best for Joshua. As it turns out, I have veto power. Also, if I really like a family, I can tell the caseworker directly and she'll flag that family's file to arrange a meeting with all of us. The reality is that I cannot just hope or intend or wish for Joshua to have the family that he deserves. Instead I must choose Joshua's parents and his siblings, where he will live and whether his pet will be a calico cat or golden retriever.
The first section I flip to in the red files is one marked "Child Desired." It is a list of the attributes the family wants their child to have -- or not to have. This is a peculiar and humbling document, reminding me that, even though I can virtually handpick the people I want to be Joshua's parents, they can "pass" on Joshua if he doesn't have the particular characteristics they're looking for. Because Joshua is so young, because he is biracial and because we have no idea how he'll behave when he gets older, I'm tossing out anyone who seems too concerned about how their child looks or how he behaves.
Next, I turn to the "Motivation" section. This is where the parents say why they want to adopt a child. Here, I'm sacking anyone who writes only that they want a child as a companion or playmate for another child in their family. I know this is a very common motivation for people to have a second child, but it's pretty incongruous in the world of abused children. Joshua wouldn't make a good "spare," or "playmate." He will need a lot of attention, encouragement, boundaries and direction. He'll need parents who can fight to get him into special classes at school, receive better service from an HMO and who will be able to walk that fine line between being on his side and making excuses for him.
I'm also eliminating anyone who writes only that they are adopting because they are infertile. I want parents who write that they want to love a child, who believe that adoption is a great way to become a parent. I want them to have considered all of the issues surrounding adoption, and to have decided that they are ready to deal with some pain because the joy is worth it. Loving Joshua will be a gift; I don't want parents who see it as a fallback position.
Finally, I move on to the individual descriptions of the prospective parents and their relationships. Here, I'm looking for two things: anything that indicates that a parent might have real difficulty adapting to stress, change, or chaos in their life; and any unresolved relationship problems. Joshua's parents will need to be almost heroically flexible, tolerant and resilient.
Joshua is still tied up in the court system, and the adoption won't be finalized for at least 18 months. His biological father claims he is going to court to fight to get him back. This is not likely to work because of the father's drug addiction, his refusal to take responsibility for Joshua's injuries (either abusing him, or failing to protect him from abuse) and the fact that he hasn't done a single thing that CPS has asked of him.
Nonetheless, he will get his day in court, and Joshua's prospective adoptive parents will have to endure the emotional turmoil of the severance trial, constant visits from Joshua's entourage of caseworkers, therapists, and attorneys, not to mention the day-to-day challenges of raising Joshua. If marital problems or an inability to manage stress already are factors, entering Joshua's world may be more than they can bear.
After weeks of winnowing the files down to the ones that don't have any obvious problems, we've had some false starts. A family of two second-grade teachers looked great on paper; but when they met Joshua, it was a disaster. They obviously had in their minds what the perfect "first meeting" with their future child would be like, and Joshua did not follow the unwritten rules. They wanted to push him in the swings, he wanted to run up and down the hills. They wanted him to feed the ducks; he ate the bread. They gave him a special Beanie Baby; he threw it on the ground and ran on. Joshua ended the afternoon in tears, only quieting down when we got in the car to drive home. The couple later called the caseworker to specify that they wanted a girl, between 5 and 7 years old.
And then, in the last batch of red files sent to me, I find a family, the family -- I think.
The Andersons seem like a perfect match for Joshua. The father is an artist who works at home; the mother is a speech therapist. They have an incredibly strong marriage. ( I cannot disclose how I know this except to say that, among other things, Mr. Anderson once risked his life to save his wife's.) Their friends and family describe the pair as patient, devoted, loving and easygoing. They have a wide network of support -- family and friends both near and far who are as excited about them becoming parents as they are. They have endured great challenges and have come out intact and happy on the other side. They want a child to love.
Joshua's caseworker agrees that the Andersons look good, but she is worried. They don't make a lot of money and they don't live in a great neighborhood. Money can't be the deciding factor, she says, but it can't be overlooked. Once Joshua is adopted, his foster care payments will stop. He will be eligible for an adoption subsidy because of his medical and developmental needs, but the amount is barely enough to cover his routine medical appointments.
But we've looked at rich families, families who could provide Joshua with the best medical care available without thinking twice about the money involved. Not one of those families had the perseverance, the openness or the unconditional willingness to risk loving a child that I perceive in the Andersons. So we decide to let their adoption agency know that they are our top pick.
There are meetings, lots of meetings. First, we meet the caseworker who represents the Andersons. She gives us a detailed narrative of their lives, illustrated by a mini photo album -- photos of the Andersons on their wedding day, on a trip to Disneyland, with their nieces and nephews, and in front of their home. We decide that we're still interested and arrange a meeting between the Andersons and Joshua in his foster home.
That goes well too. Everyone is nervous, and Joshua acts shy, but by the end of the visit, he is sitting on Mr. Anderson's lap. We arrange to have Joshua evaluated by his therapist to see if he is ready to move out of his foster home. While we wait for the therapist's report, we decide that the Andersons can visit Joshua during the week at his day care.
The therapist reports back that Joshua is at a great stage for a move to a new home and recommends a three-week transition period. Joshua's new parents will visit him in his foster home several times, observe and participate in his daily activities, meet his various doctors and therapists, and learn the routines and rituals of his everyday life. Near the end of the three weeks, the Andersons would bring Joshua to their home for three visits, and on the fourth visit to their home, he would stay for good.
At first, Joshua seemed to love his new parents, though it was clear he viewed them more as visiting playmates than as Mom and Dad. He was always excited to see them, engaging them in games, climbing on their laps, and crying when they left for the evening. Yet when he fell down or was upset, it was his foster mom he looked to for comfort.
The first day he visited the Andersons' home, I arrived a few hours after he did. He was shy and hesitant at first, but he showed me his room, the cat and the sidewalk chalk he played with. He seemed anxious, though, and worried, and he tore through the house as if on a mission, touching books, the television, toys, the cat, the dog, opening cabinets, tearing books off the bookshelf, tossing his toys across the room. He wanted me to pick him up, so I did, and then he wouldn't let me put him down. He clung to me nervously, like a little spider monkey. When it was time for me to go, I had to peel him off me and put him back on the floor. He tried to climb back up.
Maybe it was too fast. Maybe he needed to feel more comfortable in the house before we moved him. Maybe we -- I -- had made a mistake. I suddenly remembered staying all night at my aunt's house when I was 5, being miserably uncomfortable and wanting my mom to come rescue me. I imagined Joshua feeling the same way. I was terrified of a disruption. What if he didn't settle down, and had horrible temper tantrums, and the Andersons decided they didn't want him anymore? I called his caseworker and his therapist.
Neither of them were worried. His caseworker, who had adopted a child of her own, said her son acted the same way on his first day at her house. I told her I just couldn't stand seeing him in pain. She asked, "Are you sure he's the one in pain?"
The move went forward as planned. His foster mother called me after she dropped him off at his new home. "He's great! Everything is great! He showed me his room and he's comfortable there. I'm going to visit later this week. He'll be fine."
Two weeks later, I visit him again. His dad meets me at the door. "He's in the bathtub."
I can hear singing and laughing coming from the bathroom. I peek in the door. Joshua is in the tub with his mom bent over him. The water is running, and he is splashing her, then they both laugh hysterically. When he sees me, he drawls a Fonzie-like "Heeeeyyyyyyy!"
"That's his new word today," his mom says.
When the bath is over, she wraps him in a towel and gives him a comb. He examines himself carefully in the mirror, and begins to comb his hair. Then he begins to comb his mom's hair. Then he wants to comb my hair. Then he says, in a sing-songy voice, "Daaaaaddddddy, daaaadddddy." His dad appears in the doorway. "Is it time for you to comb my hair?"
"He does this every night," Joshua's mom explains. She puts on his diaper and his pajamas, and he runs into the living room.
"'Mon, 'mon," he motions to me.
"That means c'mon," his mom tells me.
I follow. He starts pulling a photo album off a bookshelf. "See? See?" He sits on my lap. We flip the pages together, and he points. "Mommy, Mommy, Daddy, Daddy, Mommy, doggy, kitty." He is pointing out his new family.
His parents tell me he has been sleeping through the night, eating everything they put in front of him, playing with his toys, meeting the extended family. They noticed that he looked for his special duck blanket to comfort himself when he was unhappy or afraid. They noticed that if they ignored his temper tantrums, he would usually stop. He is learning new words. He pretends every toy is an airplane. "We have to remember to get him a toy airplane next time we're at the toy store," his dad says.
His parents are as thrilled, amazed, and in love with Joshua as, well, new parents. They tell me they had expected Joshua to express rage and sadness because his life was changing so much. They were ready for it. It hadn't happened yet, but they were still ready in case it did, and would love him through it, and try to bring him back to his feelings of comfort and safety. When I leave, his dad is holding Joshua in his arms, and Joshua is waving, singing out "Byeeeeeee!" He doesn't even cry.
I am not the type of person who instinctively believes that things will be OK. Instead, I am ready for things to be difficult and scary and complicated. I am primed for disaster and woefully unprepared for success. I think it's the nature of this job, that it comes from loving children who have had so many horrible things happen to them. But as I do this work, I am ambushed by goodness, amazed by the faith of children, the courage of foster and adoptive parents, the dedication and stamina of caseworkers. I am reminded repeatedly that even though they are scarce or hidden or shy, there are sometimes enough extraordinary people to go around.