Ask the Author: A discussion of “Finding Pony” by Kara Lucas, MSW

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Many of our CHI families will smile if you check out this book cover closely. If the author was your former social worker – you can now claim to know a famous author!

The lovely Kara Lucas, MSW, has written a fiction novel, Finding Pony, Kara Author Pictures 027which has proven to be quite the page turner!  You might not be aware, but several of our CHI social workers are qite bookworm-ish ~ and therefore several of us obtained a copy upon the debut.  As an agency, we have always loved to review books that may have an impact on our adoptive families.

Briefly, Finding Pony is a Young Adult fiction novel about a boy trying to find his sister in foster care.  Obviously, that subject matter is important to the hearts of CHI!  Although Kara is no longer a social worker for CHI ~ she has graciously agreed to do an “Ask The Author” piece for us.  Please enjoy that interview below.

Also, in the spirit of creating Adoption Awareness during the month
of November, Kara has graciously gifted CHI with a book to give away.  Please visit our Facebook page and follow the instructions there, to be entered to win!  (Kara also mentions that there will be a give-away on Goodreads during the month of November!)

Here are the questions we supplied Kara and we thank her immensely for sharing her writing talents with us via her new book & also in each of her answers below.

CHI:  I love how you titled each chapter. The titles drew me in and kept me reading (“Just one more chapter before bed..,” I thought. Well… until I read the next title & was sucked in further!)

The titles contributed to the pace of the novel, which is swift and full of angst and tension. I bet a true foster care experience would “feel” similarly paced, by those experiencing it. Although your novel is fiction, the thoughts and feelings struck me as highly realistic. How did you wrap your head around what Pony and Jesse might be feeling and thinking?

Kara:  Thank you very much Stacy for your kind compliments. I wanted the book to be a fast, quick read that got people staying up to read it, so I am very glad that I accomplished my intended goal!

Yes, I wanted Finding Pony to be realistic. I knew I wanted to write about kids experiencing the foster care system because I have witnessed what they go through, first hand. When I was researching other fiction books in the genre, I felt that many of the books available for teens weren’t realistic enough–they seemed to me to be too sugar-coated, or too loaded with inaccuracy. I wanted something real, that (in a fictional way) reflected my observations as a social worker.

I really tried to put myself in Jesse’s head when I was writing. I have three teenagers myself right now, so it is easy to write angst when you are around it a lot! Also, back in college, I worked at a group home for juvenile violent offenders. That experience–one of my earliest in the social work arena–taught me a lot about human nature. One truth that really struck me about working in that group home is that, at the end of the day, most of those boys were just kids who were in bad circumstances, making bad choices. Despite their crimes, I liked many of them quite a bit, and saw their humanity and inherent goodness. So, to speak to your comment about the book being realistic, I think that my experiences in social work gave me an advantage, for sure. As far as wrapping my head around the characters, I think that is just the fun of writing–immersing yourself in that person’s skin, and imagining what they might do.

CHI:  Those considering a fost/adoption may be frightened after reading this fiction. What advice would you offer a Prospective Adoptive Parent who hasn’t read your book, but would like to? What words would you express to a family who has read it and might be jumping to the conclusion that this fictional story may be the “reality” of their future experiences?

Kara:  Finding Pony is a young adult fiction novel–emphasis on the fiction part! As a writer, I wanted to write something fast and dramatic. As a social worker, I wanted the authenticity to be there, as well. Jesse’s inner struggle is, I hope, very real. Other issues: siblings getting separated in foster care, parents who are drug users, kids getting molested in foster care, sexual trafficking (the Indian’s story)–any social worker will tell you that yes, sadly, these things do happen.

But as a work of fiction, the drama is definitely exaggerated. I would want to remind any prospective adoptive parents that, no, teenage kids in foster care do not typically try to kidnap their siblings! In fact, I have never seen it happen, ever, nor with birth parents. A common question prospective adoptive or foster parents often have had for me is this: will the birth parents search for the children? Will they come to my home? I have actually never seen that happen in a non-relative adoption.

The thing about kids in foster care, teens included, is at the end of the day, they are just kids. I have seen some kids in adoptive homes transition extremely well, despite their issues, and others really struggle. It just depends on the individual child, & the individual family. However, I have always been so impressed with adoptive homes, including some of my beloved former Chrysalis House families, by their ability to just deeply be there with a child who is hurting, and really be successful in creative a nurturing, safe environment in which that child can blossom, and ultimately heal from their former traumas. Do you need to be a perfect parent? Absolutely not. Do you need to have a lot of love, compassion, and understanding? Yes, yes, and yes.

Parenting any child, whether biological or through adoption, takes a lot of love, and courage. As they say, parenting is not for sissies! I would advise any prospective adoptive parent, as I did with my Chrysalis families and I do with my current Aspira families, is to ask a lot of questions during the certification process. Meet with other foster families and adoptive families. Read a lot of memoirs on adoption and foster care– & Pick your social worker’s brain. Educate yourself on some of the issues surrounding kids who have been in the foster care system, as much as you can. In Finding Pony, the main character Jesse struggles with, among other things, PTSD as a result of being molested in a foster home when he was a child. This is a very real issue some of these kids face.
CHI:  Jesse and Pony have very different emotional reactions to their removal and adjust to their new life at very different paces. Do you feel this is typical of youth coming into care and dependent on age, maturity and former familial roles? Why do you feel Jesse and Pony adjusted in their individually unique ways?

Kara: I do feel it is typical. I have seen kids respond in a full spectrum of behaviors to how they initially adjust to life in their adoptive home, as I am sure you have as well. Again, I think a good yardstick is to view each child as an individual and meet them where they are at. I think anyone will attest to the fact that young children are very resilient, which is why many families will often be drawn to adopting younger children. However, younger children can struggle with trauma, and attachment issues as well, even when adopted at a very young age. Paradoxically, and perhaps incidentally, some of the easiest transitions during the adoption process happened with adopted teenagers. It all depends on the child, their background, the home, everything.

I think in Jesse’s situation, he struggled a lot with his identity. He felt rejected by his birth mother, and had conflicting feelings about being the primary caretaker for his sister, Pony. He was older and had a more realistic view of his world. He knew it was a rough place. He was perhaps more apprehensive and jaded about foster care than Pony, who bonded quite easily with her new adoptive parents, because he had had a previous bad experience in foster care. So when he encounters the DeLeons, he doesn’t trust them at first, and assumes that they will eventually hurt him, and give up on him, which has been his experience all of his life. Unfortunately I see this all the time with kids in care.

Pony, I saw as a little girl, who never really had a mother fussing over her, nurturing her. She had Jesse, but not that traditional functional family unit. Despite her love for her birth brother and mother, I really saw Pony as a little girl just soaking up the love, the attention of her adoptive parents, which ultimately facilitated her bond with them.

CHI:  What are the best fictional books you would most recommend to Prospective Adoptive Parents on the topic of fost/adoption? Did any of these books have any impact on your writing of Finding Pony?

Kara:  I don’t really have a favorite YA out there that addresses kids in foster care. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book. <grin> I keep looking, though.

Some pretty good titles for the teen market are: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (older, a classic), Right Behind You by Gail Giles, After by Amy Efaw, Sweet Hearts by Sarah Zarr, Returnable Girl, Hope in Patience (The Patience series, by Beth Faulbaum does not deal with foster care but sexual abuse), The Shadow Society by Marie Rutoski, One for the Murphy’s by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, The Genius Squad by Catherine Jinks, The Guardian by Joyce Sweeney, and Throwaway Girl by Kristine Scarrow. None of these books influenced the writing of Finding Pony, really, because the story came from inside of myself. When I started writing the book, though, I did my research. It was comforting to know that yes, there are teen books out there that deal with these issues!

If I was a prospective adoptive parent, though, I think I would stay away from the fiction books, for now, because it might distort your reality of what actually happens. I would recommend prospective adoptive parents to stick to memoirs and books on attachment, parenting, and learning what makes an adoption successful. 

CHI:  What message would you most like to give children in care who might read your story? Why would you advise that they read your book & why? What age range would you recommend the novel for & why?

Kara:  I think I would want the kids to read my story who have been through foster care, or are in foster care, to get this message: I see you. What you have been through is tough, and hard, and I am blown away by your courage. Keep fighting for happiness, because you deserve it.

I would hope that kids who have been through foster care will maybe perhaps recognize pieces of themselves in this story. Pieces of their own life. I have been fortunate to have heard from some kids–a few adopted, some in a group home–who really loved Jesse’s story because it reminded them so much of themselves. Hearing their positive feedback was worth the world to me. And for other kids, like perhaps kids like my biological kids, I would love for them to realize that everyone out there has something they are going through that’s tough. That kid walking down the hall that scowled at you? He may have not eaten today. That girl that dresses provocatively? She might be getting molested right now. My favorite quote, one which I always try and remember is “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

I wrote this book aimed for the YA market, for kids ranging in age from 13 and up. That being said, there is s colorful language, and mature themes that are depicted (drug usage, molestation, sexual trafficking), so please read before if you are conservative in what your child reads. I have allowed my 13 year old to read Finding Pony and she loved it.

CHI:  You are an amazing advocate for foster care and adoption. Why did you choose this field to dedicate your life’s work to? What advice would you impart to a fledgling social worker considering an entrance into our field?

Kara:  Thank you for saying that, but really this book is just my small way of trying to point some light on these kids! I think I chose social work as a career because I always had a heart for people who struggled in the world. I think all social workers have huge hearts! I don’t like seeing people lonely, or without love. When I worked in CPS, I would see kids at the very beginning of their journey through foster care. The great thing about adoption is that I get to see kids at the end of their journey, with their forever family.

I would tell a brand new social worker to learn from older social workers, never stop the education process, and most of all, be tolerant, curious, and come from a place of love. I feel it is important to have profound respect for everyone you are dealing with: the children, the birth parents, foster/adoptive parents. When I was a brand new social worker, I was so clueless. I was 22, had never been a parent, and didn’t really know a thing about child development at the time. And here I was expected to counsel these parents on how to raise their children! Looking back, I knew so little, and made a lot of mistakes. But because I stayed open-minded, and tried to leave my judgement at the door, I got through it. And became better in the process.

CHI:  You include facts about foster care at the end of the novel. The numbers are staggering. You also include resources and suggestions of how readers can help at-risk children, of which I’d like to add ‘volunteering’ to the list. [The gift of time to a group home or county agency can have profound impact (although requires a clearance process)]. Are there other things that… after printing… you might wish you’d added to the lists, storyline, etc.?

Kara:  I keep wondering how best we can help. I lie awake at night sometimes and think about it. What can we do? The obvious solution is for more amazing families to step up to the challenge and become adoptive parents. We need more mentor programs. Older children and teens need more encouragement in the education process. Another issue which was touched upon in Finding Pony with Walter Blackfoot was the sad statistic of former foster teens ending up in the human trafficking industry. I am just starting to learn more about this issue and it is heartbreaking that these kids, who have been victimized their whole lives, will continue to be victimized as adults in this way.

In closing, from Kara:  Thank you so much, Stacy, and my former Chrysalis House family! I would love it if everyone checked out my website at karalucasauthor.com. For more suggestions on books to read about social work and adoption related issues, check out my Goodreads pages: child welfare issues and social work. I also have some great articles on the Foster Care Books and Social Work page on my Pinterest Page. And if you had any great book ideas to share, I would love to hear them. Have a great fall!

Dear Readers… Feel free to a leave a question for Kara in the comments!

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Book Review: The Child Catchers

Our Kara Lucas, MSW, reviews the controversial title by journalist Kathryn Joyce, which takes readers inside the evangelical Christian adoption movement.  Here’s what Kara has to say:

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Description: The Child Catchers is a shocking exposé of what the adoption industry has become and how it got there, told through deep investigative reporting and the heartbreaking stories of individuals who became collateral damage in a market driven by profit and personal beliefs.

Review: This book had me thinking long after I finished it, and it has taken me nearly two weeks before I finally drew the courage to sit down and write a review. At first, I had to decide quite simply how I felt about the book, how much of it I believed, how much of it I still questioned, and whether it had me thinking about adoption in a new way.

As an adoption social worker, I will always be undoubtedly pro-adoption; I have seen too many legitimate children in need of forever homes, and have met and worked with so many amazing families who have opened their hearts and lives to them. That being said, like any formalized institution, adoption undoubtedly has its flaws, and I think that it is important to examine critically the problems in adoption and explore ways to make adoption better.

While I appreciated The Child Catchers in many ways, I was disappointed to find it extremely biased in nature. To begin with, The Child Catchers seeks attention from its reader. The very name of the book is titillating and titled as such to shock–are people “catching” children in the sense of saving them from a worse fate, or are they “catching” them, as in “snatching” them from their families and countries of origin? While it would seem these questions would be fairly explored throughout the book, I would argue that that the stronger sentiment would be in favor of the “child snatching” perception of adoption.

The books is very critical of domestic adoptions past and present. It summarizes the Baby Scoop Era of the early days, and provides stories of young girls being forced into maternity homes and given virtually no choice in placing their babies for adoption. While I deeply sympathize with women who have gone through this experience, I would argue that as a community, we have come a long way with honoring and supporting birthmothers, open adoption, and acceptance. Ms. Joyce argues that modern domestic adoption has many flaws, including adoption social workers failing to give proper counseling towards grieving birthmothers. And while I appreciated the criticism, I wondered if she ever thought domestic adoption was appropriate, because she never gave a positive example of one.

Ms. Joyce discussing in depth the modern phenomenon of the rising numbers of Christians adopting, and the corruption that can ensue as a result in developing nations. It was heartbreaking to learn of the different corruptions and atrocities present in various Third World countries: outright child kidnapping, not adequately advising birth families of their rights prior to relinquishment, and falsifying adoption documentation to make a child-available’s profile more “appealing.” Such situations are worthy of criticism, however I found myself asking: does Ms. Joyce ever think it is appropriate to adopt from a foreign country? And what about the truly orphaned child?
I feel that these questions were never truly answered.

Target Audience: Regardless of my criticisms of the book, I feel that this is an important work, in that it should and will encourage much thoughtful discussion within the adoption community. I feel that every adoption professional should read this book, and take an opportunity to look at their own practices, especially as how they relate to domestic adoption. This book will be very relevant to every adoption professional, adopting family, and people interested in adoption.

Strengths: Meticulous journalism, she interviewed many people and travelled overseas to several countries over a long length of time.

Weaknesses: Comes across as particularly biased against adoption in all forms, in all circumstances.

Checking In

Kenz, sprinkler 

The Inner Emotional Life of the Traumatized Child

by Kara Lucas, MSW

As a young MSW student, I was taken by my supervisor, a maternal, sunny Jamaican woman with a lilting accent to the site of my first internship: a clinical support counseling position at an inner-city Head Start in Compton, California. There on the playground, some little boys were playing the classic game of cops and robbers. As I neared closer, however, I was surprised to discover that in this game, the cops were the bad guys and the good guys were the children pretending to be their parents, hiding the drugs and trying to escape. As a product of middle-class suburbia, I was stunned, but as time went on I began to realize that my reality, my life paradigm, was infinitely different than that of my young clients. As I became a more seasoned social worker, I came to understand the value of checking in with your clients, to see if you are both on the same page when it came to words, experiences and values.

Just recently, I was sitting at the table of one my adoptive families, and we were discussing the small details of their two children’s impending adoption finalization. Carrie*, a vibrant, adorable six-year-old who had been in the home almost a year, sat at the table and colored as we talked.  I asked her if she had any questions about her adoption day, and casually described what an adoption looks like, what kinds of things the judge may say, and who will be present. “Will there be any policemens there?” Carrie asked me, her eyes wide and innocent. “Why yes,” I told her, and proceeded to describe the bailiff, how nice he was, and how even though he was in a uniform, he would just be there to make everything official. That got me thinking. “How do you feel about your adoption, Carrie?” I asked. She looked down at her coloring book.  “Scared,” she replied, in a small voice. The adoptive mom and I exchanged a glance—this was not the response either of us had expected. After all, young Carrie and her little brother Ethan* had blended beautifully with this family. By all accounts they had bonded well, and were thriving with the love and consistency their prospective adoptive parents had provided. “Can you tell me what makes you scared?” I asked. Carrie hesitated. “The policeman might take my mom to jail.”

Later I discovered that Carrie entered the system when her birthmother was arrested for drugs. Undoubtedly, she witnessed some conflict between her birthmother and law enforcement, and undoubtedly, these frightening images stayed with her for years after the fact. Carrie’s prospective adoptive mom and I gently assured her that the bailiff at her adoption would by no means be arresting anyone, and we made plans to be sure to be extra sensitive to Carrie’s emotional state on adoption day.

I have found that images and symbols that the average person finds benign or even comforting: police cars, government buildings, people in uniform, even American flags—can produce feelings of anxiety in a child who has been a part of the system. I have always observed that many fost/adopt children appear more anxious when their county social worker comes for monthly visits than when I, their adoption agency worker comes. Most adoptive parents noticed this as well. After thinking about it, I came to see that often what induced fear were certain symbols associated with the county worker: the clipboard, the badge they wore, the government car they often drove. These images were undoubtedly a part of the memory of when they were initially removed from their birthparents. The anxiety is not a conscious one, but more of a part of a deeper muscle memory.

Holidays can often be a very negative experience for adopted kids, because they are forced to remember past holidays with their birth parents. For a child struggling to overcome from sexual abuse – changing clothes, bathing, and physical affection may trigger certain anxieties.  It is important for adoptive parents to learn to check-in with their children, and find out what symbols and images resonate with them, both negative and positive.

Here are some simple things we can do to help our adoptive kids to work through some of these scary feelings:

  1. Check in with you child. If you notice a situation giving them anxiety, ask them why are feeling that way. If they are not able to tell you, pay attention to the trigger points and remember them. Get your child to expand her “emotional vocabulary.” Does she feel angry, scared, sad, nervous, embarrassed, excited, frustrated? Oftentimes it will be a combination of emotions. Once a child knows that it is okay for her to have her emotions, it will be easier for her to work through them. One picture book I really like to read to my kids is Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods that Make my Day by Jamie Lee Curtis. It is funny and readable and at the back has an emotional “wheel” where kids can move it to describe how they are feeling.
  2. Affirm their feelings. In Carrie’s case, I sensed that she was feeling guilt for her fear over her adoption, as her adoptive mom and I were so happy about it. It is okay for kids to have mixed feelings about being adopted, especially if they know you’ll love them anyway.  It is okay if they don’t like Christmas. It is okay if they are afraid of policemen—for now.
  3. Try to help them through the memory. I like to have children draw pictures as a way to express their feelings. Drawing is also a way to bubble forth some of the subconscious thoughts they may be having. Ask about the picture. Why is the little girl inside of the house? Why is she crying? How does the little girl feel right now? And also—you can help them change the story: “Do you think the little girl would feel happier if she has someone to talk to? Can we draw a picture of someone nice who can be her friend? When a child gets older, writing in a journal can be a great tool for expressing herself. I knew of a mother and daughter who employed a “shared journal”—the preteen girl would write in her journal, then would leave it on her mother’s bed. The mother would then write back, and this became a beautiful way for them to communicate thoughts and feelings that otherwise might have been more difficult to express verbally.
  4. Find a good therapist.  The legacy of having been adopted is a life-long state of being, and I try to encourage all of my families to view therapy as a revolving door situation. If your child has been to therapy, or is currently in therapy, be open to having her return anytime she feels like she needs it. If you see certain fears, such as a fear of policemen or being bathed, persist, then perhaps this issue is something to be addressed sooner rather than later.

A mutual goal – as a social worker and a parent – is to help children improve their emotional health.  We want them to make connections with others, and to replace sadness, anxiety, anger, and frustration with happiness, peace, and hopefulness for the future.

Regular “Check ins” are an important stepping stone within this process.

*Names have been changed to respect privacy.

Book Review: Instant Mom

Kara Lucas, MSW, shares another book review with us:  This time she gives Instant Mom, by Nia Vardalos a solid 4 stars.

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Description: Writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos firmly believed she was supposed to be a mom, but Mother Nature and modern medicine had put her into a headlock. So she made a choice that shocked friends, family, and even herself: with only fourteen hours’ notice, she adopted a preschooler.

Review: Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos is the perfect summery, beachy read for any adoptive parent or person interested in possibly adopting. Funny, chatty, and personable, Nia’s adoption memoir had me laughing out loud in places. I loved her voice; I honestly found myself wishing I could somehow be her friend. (Also a plus: she calls social workers really pretty angels! Now she’s a friend for life!)

On a more poignant note, she bravely chronicles her heartbreaking journey through infertility and the sometimes agonizing adoption process and the hard road of waiting for that certain phone call. Prospective adoptive parents and first-time adoptive parents alike will be able to relate a lot to her struggles and triumphs throughout the whole book: from the bewilderment of what to buy for a preschooler, to the success of getting Ilaria to sleep through the night for the first time.

Nia Vardalos is a spokesperson for National Adoption Day, and the fost-adopt adoption community is blessed to have such a positive and enthusiastic celebrity in our corner.

Highly recommended.

Target Audience: Any person interested in adoption or adoptive parent, also a great read for anyone just interested in the subject.

Strengths: Funny and easy read; a very good “How to Adopt” appendix in the back, plus links to great resources.

Weaknesses: Nia speaks often about how she dreamed about her future daughter, and felt as if she was given signs that she would someday adopt a girl with “blond highlights.” While I do not doubt her personal experience whatsoever, I would caution potential prospective adoptive parents by saying that not anyone has such clear-cut premonitions as to what type of child will come into their family. And of course, sometimes children struggle with attachment issues far more significant than what this family encountered.

Book Review: Another Place at the Table

One of our favorite bookworms on staff, Kara Lucas, MSW, will be sharing regular reviews on books relevant to our work with families.

One of Kara’s favorites, which she awards a strong 5 stars, is:

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We recommend this book for: ALL FOST/ADOPT FAMILIES (applicants, waiting and finalized).
**Remember that “training” credits can be earned for family review of books. Please contact the office to inquire about this opportunity!**

What you can Expect: The book is a somewhat startling and ultimately uplifting narrative of one woman’s thirteen-year experience as a foster parent. The memoir encompasses insights and experiences gained through fostering over 100 children.

Kara’s Thoughts on Another Place at the Table:
It can be hard to describe to prospective adoptive parents what it is like, really, to be a former foster child or what it is like to parent one. The intricacies of the foster care system can be very difficult to describe, and each child comes with his or her own unique story and set of challenges. It doesn’t help that there are so many erroneous portrayals out there in the media, with the pendulum swinging wildly from portrayals of Pollyana-esque children grateful to be adopted to budding sociopaths who will try to hurt the family cat. Both of these versions are damaging and inaccurate, of course. As an adoption social worker I try my best to educate my prospective adoptive families as best as I can on some of the unique challenges and issues that come with children who have had to try and survive the foster care system.

Kathy Harrison’s beautifully written memoir, Another Place at the Table, does just that. Warm, encouraging, and full of wisdom, Kathy shares her experiences of what it is like to be both a foster parent and an adoptive mother. Her stories ring with truth and you come away inspired and full of respect for someone who has “walked the walk” of trying to help children heal. She doesn’t sugar-coat her experiences, but at the same time her words are full of love and hope for the children she has cared for. I found myself taking notes and have consistently recommended this book to many of my families seeking to adopt a child through fost/adopt.

For additional Reviews on this book, visit:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/391081.Another_Place_at_the_Table