An Adoption Journey Home

Eye on LSSIFall 2008 ( Note: This article has been abridged. Click on PDF to see complete article.)

[Trish] told me from the get-go what I had to do to get Lexi back: This is what you have to do. You don't have to like the system or the rules, but these are the steps you need to take.Whenever Melanie feels out of kilter, all she has to do is look at the sign hanging on the living room wall: “Live well, laugh often, love much.”

“I’ve got those signs all over the house. That’s definitely my motto. All I have to do is look at it, and I’m back to normal,” Melanie says.

These days, it’s a lot easier to take those words to heart now that she’s been reunited with her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Alexis. Alexis and her mother have been through a long and emotionally draining ordeal that started 18 months ago — when the world turned upside down for both. But it was a world partially of Melanie’s own making.

On a cold winter night on Jan. 17, 2007, Melanie and her daughter were at their Champaign home, asleep in Melanie’s room. Suddenly, Melanie’s ex-boyfriend broke into the home, burst into the bedroom and started pummeling Melanie with his fists. Alexis, known by her family as Lexi, ran out of the room and called the police.

The boyfriend was arrested and jailed, but Melanie refused to go to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. When the police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigated, there were other issues involved, too.

“Alexis was removed from the house because of domestic violence (the ex-boyfriend beating Melanie) and drug issues,” says Trish Bratton, a caseworker with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) in its Champaign office. “She was placed with her father’s aunt and uncle where she lived until the end of May. She then moved to her paternal grandparents’ home.”

Bratton was assigned to the case. Once Alexis was placed in foster care, it was her job to see Melanie and her daughter reunited. DCFS contracts with LSSI and other private agencies for their services.

“DCFS contracts with us to provide a full continuum of services,” says Darrin Holt, program director at LSSI’s Champaign office. “Our initial goal is always to return the child home to the birth parent.”

Of course, once a child is taken from the home and enters the legal system, many criteria have to be met as the case winds its way through the court. There are court dates, and counseling, drug abuse and domestic violence classes; and measured, meaningful progress has to be made by the individuals involved.

Melanie, meanwhile, had been in a downward spiral because of the deteriorating relationship with the boyfriend and her own drug use. A few months earlier, in November, she had sought counseling at the local mental health center.

“I saw all this coming — I just didn’t see far enough into the future,” Melanie says.

Bratton adds, “One thing I will say for Melanie is that she had already gone to the mental health center in November, and that’s very rare.”

A troubled upbringing
Melanie’s own mother has bi-polar disorder, and growing up, she was not exposed to the best influences. She started drinking when she was 13 and would sneak in the garage where her father kept his beer.

She married young and divorced young. A daughter from her first marriage, Samantha, 14, lives with her, while her 15-year-old son, Clinton, lives with his father.

“I was numbed by drugs and alcohol,” she admits. “I didn’t always use the best judgment.

“When Lexi was put into foster care, I was so upset,” she adds. “I was mad at everything, and I didn’t understand why they were taking her. First, I had to learn that this wasn’t all about me. I had to change my outlook in order to change the situation.”

It is a pattern that Bratton sees over and over again as a caseworker. A troubled upbringing leads to a troubled future.

“These parents need someone to believe in them and encourage them,” she says. “They repeat what they’ve lived growing up. If you are told you are worthless over and over as a child, you think you are worthless as an adult. If someone grows up in a physically abusive household, they become physically abusive as an adult.”

Bratton grew up in a verbally abusive household herself and identifies with her clients’ troubled and often fragile mental states.

“I’ve lived a lot of what my birth parents have been through,” she says. “That’s why I tell them, ‘I’ve been there. I know if I can do it, then you can do it.’ Part of my job is to encourage them and help them believe in themselves. I also work with the child. There was a lot of anger on the part of Alexis that her mother had let it reach the point that this happened.

“We always talk about improving the child’s self-esteem, but I also believe that goes for the birth parent as well,” Bratton adds.

Melanie calls Bratton a godsend for her steadfast, encouraging approach. She also had a new boyfriend, Curt. He, too, became a steadying influence and provided her a shoulder to lean on.

“The only thing positive to come out of all this is that [LSSI] helped me hold my head up high,” Melanie says. “Trish is a great person. She told me from the get-go what I had to do to get Lexi back: ‘This is what you have to do. You don’t have to like the system or like the rules, but these are the steps you need to take.’”

Righting the ship
Melanie never missed a visit with her daughter, even though her own relationship with her ex-husband’s family is rocky. Still, she wasn’t sure at first whether Alexis would ever move back with her.

“I felt like it was not going to work and that I would never get her back,” Melanie says. “I thought it will just be visits and that’s it. But then I started taking the classes, going with the flow. I would talk with Lexi every night on the phone. Then, when I moved in with Curt, he gave me the chance to start a new life.

“I thought, ‘If he’s going to give me a chance and Lexi is going to give me a chance, I can make this work.’ Curt and Trish gave me the positive encouragement I needed,” she adds.

And there were the classes: parenting skills, drug abuse, domestic violence (which Curt also agreed to take to help Melanie get Alexis back) and anger management. She also had to learn patience as the case wound its way through the court system.

“When a child comes into foster care, it’s my job to refer the parent to services and classes, and to ensure that visitation takes place. If the parent is going to the classes, I monitor how he or she is doing,” Bratton says.

“Melanie came into this angry at herself for letting this happen. I hear this a lot from the birth parent: ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to get my child back.’ Unfortunately, they don’t always do that. But with Melanie, she did all that with flying colors. The fact that her daughter was taken from her was a huge wake-up call,” she adds.

Statewide, according to DCFS, only 38 percent of the birth parents are reunited with a child who has been placed in foster care. In Fiscal Year 2008, the reunification of children with their birth families accounts for 45 percent of the total permanencies achieved in LSSI’s foster care program, which also include adoption and subsidized guardianship.

When a child is placed into foster care, it is usually for a minimum of one year. Often, even when a parent takes all the right steps, as in Melanie’s case, the process of having parental rights returned can take more than a year. Everything is on a schedule, from court dates to classes the parent has to take and successfully pass.

And from a child’s point of view, the process can seem like an eternity. “It was kinda hard,” Alexis says, “not seeing my mom all the time.”

Alexis comes home for good
Melanie took a stubborn, bulldog-like attitude when it came to attending the classes and then taking what she had learned to heart.

“The fact that Melanie completed the 12-week parenting class with perfect attendance, I could see from week to week that she was implementing the things she had learned with Alexis. And with the 18-week domestic violence class, she only missed one session,” Bratton says.

Alexis came home Nov. 30, 2007, for what is called an “extended visit.” Bratton and the court system carefully monitored their progress. Then, in April 2008, Melanie was awarded custody, although DCFS still had guardianship. She had to wait until July 14 for that to happen and the case to come to a close.

“For me, there is no better feeling than to have the birth parent reunited with their child,” Bratton says. “That’s what I love about this job.”

Melanie must still undergo random drug tests. She still struggles on occasion with “life’s little tests.”

“I’ve learned that it’s not about you. You are here on this planet to guide your children and make sure they have a good life. You have to look at things through the eyes of a child,” Melanie says.

“It’s not easy. I’m not perfect,” she adds. “I would probably still be in that relationship [with the ex-boyfriend] if they had not taken Lexi. I failed for a little while, but I’ll never let that happen again.”