Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sitting in the middle

Between a dear colleague and her family mourning the tragic loss of her police officer brother-in-law ambushed and killed in the line of duty on the one hand. On the other, watching those in Feguson and elsewhere who are expressing their anger, fear, and distrust of our legal system. 

Thinking about my friend, Becky, who has three sons the same ages as my three boys and how we have shared so many similar stories about them and the challenges of raising them over the years. Yet always recognizing that there is a big difference in our experiences of motherhood because Becky and her boys are black, and me and my boys are white. Talking with her about Trayvon Martin, and realizing that she has to have a whole set of conversations with her sons that I barely have to consider when talking to mine.

We haven't had a conversation about Ferguson. But whatever her thoughts, I know they are largely motivated by her love, care, and concern for her children. And I cannot deny that the world is a scarier and more dangerous place for them.

I keep thinking about Elvis Costello singing...what's so funny about peace love and understanding. I do not know. I really do not know.

Friday, October 17, 2014

So you think you can do math?

My eleven-year-old son, Sam, has been working on a school project, and I decided he should be my guest blogger today because I think the end result turned out so well.  He had to research and write about a mathematician, and what he came up with was so funny and creative.  I've always loved to write, but I have also always struggled with this sort of assignment.  I can imagine that if it were my project, I would have come up with something quite dull by comparison.  Now, I just wish I had a video of him reading this to his class.  He was disappointed this morning that he didn't have a wig to wear.  Poor kid.  Next time, plan ahead.

My name is Sophie Germain. I was told to read off these questions here, some sort of dumb, talk-show type of thing. First question here... "Who ARE you?" I was born on April 1, 1776, and I died June 27th, 1831. I'm a female mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. "What did you do in life?" asks another beautiful fan. As a child, despite my parents opposition, I read my father's books from his library and connected with a lot of famous mathematicians such as Lagrange, Legendre, and Gauss. They all had weird names, not sure why exactly. But anyway, when I grew up, I became very interested in the "Elasticity Theory." This theory basically means if I were to bend the new iPhone 6 into a complete right angle, it would return to its original shape, such as a rubber band. This applied to any solid object, not just these new-fangled cell-phones. I became one of the earliest pioneers of this "Elasticity Theory", and ended up winning the grand prize from the Paris Acadamy of Sciences for my essay on the subject. My mommy was definitely proud.

Speaking of my mother, she would like to ask, "What else did you do in your lifetime, other then sit around?" She also says she hasn't forgotten about my room I never cleaned up. Anyway, I worked a lot on "Fermat's Last Theorem, and due to my general awesomeness, I provided a foundation for mathematicians to explore this subject for centuries after. Because I'm a woman, I was unable to make a career out of mathematics, but I worked independently throughout my life. In recognition of my contribution to mathmatics, an honorary degree was granted upon me six years after my death. The Academy of Sciences established "The Sophie Germain Prize" in my honor, not to mention a street and a girl's school were named after me. Bet you can't say that about you, huh?
"What about your teen years?" another devoted fan asks me. When I was thirteen, the French Revolution happened. With my small thirteen-year-old brain, I thought someone had stolen a baguette or something, and now everyone was mad. But it was different, and the revolutionary atmosphere forced me to stay inside, which is why I am so pale today! For entertainment, I immediately went to my father's library, but remember, there was no "Captain Underpants" for me. Instead, I found the book J. E. Montucla's L'Histoire des Mathématiques, and his story of the death of Archimedes intrigued me. "What happened then?", you may ask. I figured if geometry could fascinate Archimedes so much, it was a subject to study for me. I read every book in my father's library about mathematics. I taught myself Latin and Greek just so I could read some books in that language.
"What did your parents think of all this?" asks a snobby man who clearly dislikes me. My parents did not approve of this at all. They thought it was horrible I was into mathematics, which was apparently "inappropriate for a woman." When the nights came, I was denied warm clothes and a fire for my bedroom, but that didn't stop me. I studied much, and for a period of time, even my own mother was secretly helping me. Thanks Mommy!
And finally, the last question, "What was your correspondence with Legendre and Gauss?" I became interested in the number theory in 1789, when Legendre published his "Essay on the Theory of Numbers." After studying his work, I responded to him on the theory, and later we showed a love for "Elasticity Theory." He even called my work "Very ingenious." I'm so cool!
Thats all for today folks! I'm going to go make a sandwich then go to sleep. Goodbye everyone! See you next week on, "So you think you can do math?"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Love your neighbor

Loving your neighbor can be difficult when you're talking about the ones who annoy you, the ones who frighten you, the ones who don't love you.  But sometimes, you get lucky, and it's really easy, and at those times, you really ought to stop and just be grateful.
I started thinking along these lines for a couple of reasons: 1) When I go running, I almost always just run around my own neighborhood, and 2) I'm a pretty quiet and reserved person until I get to know you.
So, I started thinking about these two things because they are related.  I stay in my neighborhood when I run for practical and personal reasons:
1.  It keeps me close to home:  This is important to me because sometimes my husband is not at home, and I can leave my teenager in charge while I get my miles in, knowing that if the kiddos need me, I can be home in just a couple of minutes.  Also, those same kiddos, while lovely, did a number on my bladder (future blog: there is nothing natural about child birth), so I like knowing I'm close to home if the ol' bladder can't make it through the entire run I've planned!
2.  It's familiar:  I am not now nor have I ever been an adventurous person.  I'm good with running the same path most of the time.  And I like that I know exactly what constitutes one mile, two miles, three miles, etc., in my neighborhood.
3.  It's comforting:  Continuing with my introvert tendencies...I like seeing the same houses, the same dogs, the same people, smelling the same yummy smells from those grilling their dinners.  This does not bore me, it comforts me and reminds me that I am home.
4.  My neighbors rock:  The longer I keep getting out there, the more supportive my neighbors become.  I can't tell you the number of friendly smiles, waves, thumbs up, and atta girls I receive from my wonderful neighbors every day, and it never fails to make my day.  I pretend I have my own personal cheerleaders, and I guess in a way, I actually do!
5.  Even the dogs have mostly gotten used to me by now:  I'm a cat person, and while I appreciate all animals, I'm very respectful of dogs and their space.  I've had a few scares here and there, but I've learned a lot about my canine friends.  When you see them, give them a wide berth, and consider slowing down or walking when you pass them.  Again, my neighbors are equally respectful and always keep their pooches in check.  And now, my doggy neighbors all pretty much know me and realize I'm no threat to them.  So I still get a few barks, but mostly just drooly grins and waggy tails.
So, all of that is to say, thanks, neighbors!  I'm the quiet one in the earbuds, who smiles shyly back at you when you wave at me.  Your introverted running neighbor loves and appreciates you!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Running...some suggestions for getting started and keeping it going

I started running maybe a year and a half ago.  For several months, I had been walking around my neighborhood each evening.  One day, I just started running instead.  I still do a combination of walking and running, as this has allowed me to keep going and gradually improve my endurance, distance, and speed.

The hardest thing most days is just getting out the door.  When I started walking regularly a couple of years ago, I was trying to interrupt my pattern of veg-ing out on the couch every evening, which almost always led to mindless snacking while I read my book or watched the Red Sox with my husband.

So, to get myself out the door, I'd promise myself I could have that snack when I returned from my walk.  And it's like magic.  Rarely do you even want it by the time you get back.

Other times, I'd tell myself, "You only have to go one time around the neighborhood."  But then, once you get out there, usually, you keep going.

Now that I run, I love the above meme (and many variations on it that I've seen), and it's often my mantra when I get going.  Just get through the first mile, and it generally gets a lot better as you go.

So, I guess that makes Rule 1--lie to yourself/trick yourself, and Rule 2--keep going/don't give up too soon.

Rule 3--listen to music. (Not a hard and fast rule, as every once in awhile, it's nice to just run with no accompaniment except your own breathing and the occasional bird flying by.  But most of the time, music makes it go by faster.)  One of these days, I'll share what I've been listening to...for awhile my favorite was the Weather Girls singing "It's Raining Men." Recently, I've been playing Old Crow Medicine Show and Paul Thorn tunes over and over again.  Don't ask.

Rule 4--you can zone out to some degree, but you've also got to stay alert, especially if you've got your ear buds in and the music turned way up.  People and dogs and cars and birds and lots of other things come out of nowhere.  So, keep your eyes open and be safe!

Rule 5--run no matter what.  No excuses.  It's been so hot this summer, but I've still gone out almost every evening, rain or shine.  Or go in the morning if that's your thing.  (Personally, I only drink coffee first thing in the morning, and it's just not something I'm ready to change.)  But get out there.  The beauty of having stuck with it all summer is now it's fall.  It's amazing how much faster and farther you can run when you start to feel a little coolness in the air. 

Rule 6--you don't have to kill yourself.  I take off every Tuesday because I have choir practice.  I usually go out most other days.  But every day doesn't have to be your fastest and your farthest.  I gauge this on how I feel, and it's worked well.  But there is all sorts of guidance out there if you want a running plan--couch to 5K or whatever.  It's about having fun and feeling good, so push yourself, but don't go crazy.

Rule 7--keep track.  I use the Map My Run app, and once I figured out a few of its quirks and got it synced up with my music, it worked great.  Now that I've been using it for awhile, it's great to look back at how far I've come.  A year ago this time, I was running a 36-minute 5K (3.1 miles).  Yesterday, I did it in 34 and a half minutes.  Progress.

If you're social, find a running buddy.  If you're more of an introvert like me, just get out there and let your mind wander.  It's heavenly, really.  Set some goals.  Early on, I signed up for a few 5Ks, and now I'm looking for a 10K to do.  Next year, a half marathon, for sure!  I'll never be super fast, but I'm a whole lot faster than the couch potato I used to be.  So, that's something.

I never thought I would be a runner.  Give it a try.  You might be as pleasantly surprised as I have been.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Puzzles...Waste of time or Way of Life?

About two weeks ago, Ben found this jigsaw puzzle in my closet.  I knew it was in there, but I was ignoring it.  I thought it might be fun to bring out around Thanksgiving.  You know, work on it during the holidays when family is visiting, and everyone can fit in a few pieces here and there until...voila...somewhere around the new year, it's magically finished.

Yeah, right.  This is my problem with puzzles.  I love them too much.  I become obsessed.  Like a good book you plan to put down right after you finish the next chapter...or as we used to say to our mom when we were kids..."just let me find a good stopping place!"

Once that puzzle was opened, I was a goner. Just one more piece, just one more piece.  Needless to say, it's cut into my reading time, my writing time, and my sleeping time.  And it's still sitting out there on the table taunting me.  Just a few more pieces to go, and the elusive grapes will be complete.

I realized, though, as I was sitting there, scanning the pieces for the correct shape with just the right color combination, that the puzzle is not the problem.  The problem is that never-ending quest to keep life in balance, to figure things out, to make good decisions.  I need the puzzle.

Just like when I go running, working on a puzzle gives me the time and solitude I crave.  Time to think, or not think.  How often do we just allow ourselves to be?  It reminds me of what my pastor says about prayer...don't forget to be quiet and listen.  Oh yeah.  That.

I always know progress is going to be slow when I'm actually thinking about the piece that I need...when I'm lining them up and methodically looking at each one to see if I can find the one that will fit.  This technique works, but it's slow going, boring, and frustrating.  When I find myself doing this, I know it's time to get up from the table and turn my attention to something else.

The beauty of the puzzle is that when you return to it in the right state of mind, after awhile, you slip into this zone.  The right pieces come into focus and start fitting in more and more easily.  And you feel like you aren't consciously doing anything at all.  You let go, and the puzzle almost puts itself together. 

I definitely need the puzzle.  It reminds me not to try so hard.  Take breaks sometimes.  Be quiet.  Listen.  Be.  How it all fits together will eventually become clear.  Yeah.  That.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Parenting (from one who usually just knows what NOT to do but occasionally gets it right): the ugly, the good, and the bad

Confession time...I let my youngest child eat too many chicken nuggets.  Don't judge me. Or do.  Just keep it to yourself.

The Ugly

So, we returned to McDonald's today. Last time was so unexpectedly heart-warming, I was willing to go back sooner than usual.  Sadly, this time was much more what you'd expect.  Worse actually.

After Ben and I sat down, I heard a very angry dad at the table behind us.  He was reading his kid the riot act, "I can't believe you are treating ME like this!  This was supposed to be a treat, but if YOU are going to behave this way, I will NEVER do this again."  And on and on.  You get the picture.

I finally turned around, expecting to see him yelling at some six- or seven-year-old boy, who I was picturing squirming around with ketchup on his head or something.  God knows, I've been there.

Instead, I see a little girl sitting very quietly in a high chair.  She's maybe three years old, and she is not uttering a peep.  Just staring wide-eyed as her dad berates her.  Mom is sitting there too, looking tired, also not moving and not saying a word.

Turns out, dad is mad because little girl is not eating her food.  So, he threatens her until she eats, and he's literally commanding her step-by-step, "You've got six minutes. Put it in your mouth.  Now chew. Now swallow." And on and on.

He finally bullied the poor kid through her meal, and they all left.  Thank God.

The guy was just too scary and out-of-control for me to confront.  I'm a wimp, I know.  But I so wanted to talk to him about children's developmental stages, reasonable expectations for toddlers, that sort of thing.  But I figured he'd kill me, and then Ben would've witnessed that in addition to the other hideous behavior that he was clearly baffled and troubled by.

That little girl was just tired and ready for her nap.  Many little ones that age might've been misbehaving, even melting down into a good old-fashioned tantrum.  But this tiny sweetie was too scared of her dad to engage in that sort of age-appropriate behavior.  I shudder to think what that home is like.

The Good

On a more positive note, I had a parenting win this week.  Ben was prescribed a really gross-tasting (and smelling) antibiotic, and he cried for 30 minutes after swallowing the first dose.  I'm thinking, we've got nineteen more doses to go over the next 9.5 days, we'd better figure this thing out.

So, after he calmed down, we talked about it and came up with a plan:

1. I squirt the medicine into his mouth with the little syringe thingy rather than him drinking it out of the little cup thingy (no idea why this is preferable, but not a problem, I can accommodate).

2. Ben then immediately drinks his cup of ice water (not plain water...it must be ICE water...again, not a problem, I've got this).

3. Ben then grabs and consumes the popsicle of his choice (can do...those things have been sitting in the freezer untouched all summer...it's about time someone eats them).

That simply, the problem is solved, and the following doses have gone perfectly smoothly.  No tears.  I love it when a plan comes together.  I especially love it when my kid demonstrates such excellent problem solving skills.

The Bad

A friend of mine posted on Facebook this week about her recent struggles with her toddler at bedtime.  He stays in bed but cries and cries, and of course, it's driving her nuts.  He wants her to sit with him until he falls asleep, and she is afraid of creating a bad habit.  Sound familiar?!  I think it is mandatory that every parent go through some variation on this theme.

She received a lot of good comments in response to her post, so I never weighed in.  But it did make me think about the special challenges presented by little kids--especially when it's your first kid and you're just learning all the many difficult things they do, which drive you far crazier than you could have ever imagined possible.

I couldn't stand all the crying and getting out of bed when Jack was little, and I definitely went through a too-long phase of lying down with him until he fell asleep.  Eventually, I successfully bribed him with a gift--he stayed in his bed and fell asleep on his own for a whole week, and I rewarded him with some toy or other. Magic.

I don't remember going through anything similar with either Sam or Ben.  Maybe I got better at it, or maybe things just don't bother you as much by the time you get to your second and third kiddo.  Who knows.  I often say that it's worth it to have three children because by the time you get to the third one, you finally feel relatively competent.

Bottom Line

Kids are challenging. Parenting is tough. But how we do it matters. I've just shared examples of the Ugly, the Good, and the Bad (screwed up the order, but what are you gonna do?).

For the Ugly--I pray that guy was just having a really bad day and doesn't routinely behave like a douchebag, terrorizing his wife and kiddo in ways that are going to cause irreparable harm.  Get some help, dude, you'll all feel better.

For the Good--Share what works and those special little victories when you have them.  I've discovered that the calmer I remain, the more simply I focus, and the more I engage with and empower my kids, the better off we all are.  Oh, and we laugh a lot too.  That helps.

For the Bad--Hang in there, take deep breaths.  It doesn't feel like it, but whatever tough phase you are going through truly is temporary.  A new one will come along before you know it, and you will be the old hat giving advice to the new parents in your life.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A busy couple of weeks, and my tribute to English classes past...

Life has been a little crazy by my standards in recent days.  I was in Denver three days last week, and I'm spending most of this week in Orlando.  Apparently, this is the time of year for big child welfare conferences, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to attend, to learn, and to share.

Last week was a group of kids in foster care, kids who've aged out of foster care, and professionals who work with this population of youth.  This week is the big statewide dependency summit that we have in Florida every year.

Yesterday, I was part of a small team who presented some information to a large group of Florida judges--talk about an intimidating crowd!  But they were attentive and had thoughtful comments and questions--not a heckler in the bunch--and I was fortunate to be presenting alongside some wonderful people, including my colleague and friend, Jen Behnam, who gave a TED talk on the value of permanency, which nearly knocked my socks off.  Jen and people like her are why I get up every day and head to the office with a positive attitude.

So, because I have been out of my beloved routine, I've struggled to find time for my blog.  I've got a bunch of ideas floating around in my head and notes scribbled on paper, but I don't know when I'll have time to develop them into something worth reading.  Therefore, I will go to my fall back position and share with you a piece that I wrote a few years ago after reading a book that continues to resonate with me today...

Jeanette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” is a study in contrasts.  The writing is both raw and beautiful, and Walls pulls no punches as she describes her childhood—one of grinding poverty and unbelievable neglect, as well as undeniable examples of an at times almost magical existence with truly unique parents, who although limited by their personal struggles with alcoholism and mental illness, also encouraged in their children incredible spirit, intelligence, strength, and love.

            “The Glass Castle” contains a valuable message for the child welfare world:  We should never become so committed to our particular system of care that it causes us to overlook the individuality of each child and family and the importance of sibling and family bonds.  Even when a child’s experience includes terrible neglect, those experiences belong to the child, contribute to her individuality and strength, and often exist side by side with other experiences that can be quite lovely.

            Jeannette Walls grew up with her brother and two sisters, the children of an artistic mother struggling with mental illness and a brilliant father struggling with alcoholism.  Walls’ earliest memory is from when she was just three years old.  She suffered severe burns as the result of her clothes catching on fire while she was going through her usual routine of preparing hotdogs for herself:

I’d put a chair next to the sink, climb up and fill a glass, then stand on a chair by the stove and pour the water into the pan.  I did that over and over again until the pan held enough water.  Then I’d turn on the stove and when the water was boiling, I’d drop in the hot dogs. ‘Mom says I’m mature for my age,’ I told [the doctors and nurses at the hospital], ‘and she lets me cook for myself a lot.’

            This type of extreme inadequate supervision, while shocking, does not tell the whole story of this family.  Although Walls’ parents had some questionable ideas about child rearing, they loved their children and sometimes showed that love in startlingly beautiful ways.  One Christmas, although the family had no money for presents, their father “took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one” and allowed each child to pick out a star as a present.  When it was Walls’ turn, the “star” she chose turned out to be a planet, and her father responded, “It’s Christmas.  You can have a planet if you want.”  Walls marveled, “And he gave me Venus.”  Later, the children “laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys.  ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘you’ll still have your stars.’”

            Later in the book, as her parents struggle to support their family, Walls draws a stark contrast between the hardships in her house and those of a troubled boy in the neighborhood.  Billy is emotionally disturbed and in many ways is much worse off than Walls and her siblings:

The funny thing Billy wanted to show me was in his house, which was dark inside and smelled like pee, and was even messier than our house, although in a different way.  Our house was filled with stuff:  papers, books, tools, lumber, paintings, art supplies, and statues of Venus de Milo painted in different colors.  There was hardly anything in Billy’s house.  No furniture…It had only one room with two mattresses on the floor next to a TV. There was nothing on the walls, not a single painting or drawing.  A naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling, right next to three or four dangling spiral strips of flypaper so thick with flies that you couldn’t see the sticky yellow surface underneath.  Empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and a few half-eaten tins of Vienna sausages littered the floor.  On one of the mattresses, Billy’s father was snoring unevenly.  His mouth hung open, and flies were gathered in the stubble of his beard.  A wet stain had darkened his pants nearly to his knees.

When Walls shares this with her family, her mother takes the opportunity to talk to her daughter about compassion: “She told me I should try to be nice to Billy.  ‘He doesn’t have all the advantages you kids do.’”

            Like many people, Walls’ mother taught her children to be wary of the government.  When Walls approached her after having had nothing to eat for three days but popcorn, her mother refused any suggestion of signing up for benefits such as food stamps:
Mom wouldn’t hear of it.  Welfare, she said, would cause irreparable psychological damage to us kids.  ‘You can be hungry every now and then, but once you eat, you’re okay,’ she said.  ‘And you can get cold for awhile, but you always warm up.  Once you go on welfare, it changes you.  Even if you get off welfare, you never escape the stigma that you were a charity case.  You’re scarred for life.

            At only one point in Walls’ childhood does a child welfare worker show up to check on the family, and Walls, although living in deplorable conditions in a decrepit house without heat, running water, or indoor plumbing, has nothing but fear for what this might mean:

If the child-welfare man got it into his head that we were an unfit family, we’d have no way to drive him off.  He’d launch an investigation and end up sending me and Brian and Lori and Maureen off to live with different families, even though we all got good grades and knew Morse code.  I couldn’t let that happen.  No way was I going to lose Brian and Lori and Maureen.

            As they grow up, Walls and her siblings help each other find ways out of the unstable life of poverty and neglect they have led.  Their parents taught them to think for themselves, and ironically this ultimately leads them to leave their parents and their unstable lifestyle behind.  Sadly, their parents continued to live in the same manner they always had—ending up virtually homeless in New York City, rejecting all offers of assistance by their children.

            “The Glass Castle” is an excellent book that everyone should read just because it is so good.  However, for those of us in the child welfare arena, there are important messages that should inform the work we do every day.  All families are not alike, and we must approach each with respect and compassion.  One size does not fit all, and determining what will work best for a particular family requires true collaboration, creativity, and open-mindedness.  Additionally, just like the Walls family, many are distrustful of the child welfare system and have strong views about what it means to accept help.  A strength-based and family-centered approach is a must.  Of course, this is not always easy and rarely happens overnight.  Finally, we need to really see our kids and hear what they are telling us.  The bonds they have with their brothers and sisters often represent the most important thing in their lives and absent significant evidence to the contrary should be treated as sacred.  We cannot just say these things, we have to recommit ourselves to these principles and find creative ways to fundamentally change our system to embody them.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lesson in love...at McDonald's?!

I'm the first to admit that, while I love being a mom, it can be challenging, to say the least. I've learned, however, to take joy in the small things, and kids are the greatest at this.

Today, I reluctantly agreed to take my youngest to McDonald's for his chicken nugget fix. He insisted on getting my Diet Coke for me, and then led us to the table where he wanted us to sit. Now, my instinct is always to head to the quietest, least crowded corner, but Ben headed to a small table right next to a father and son who were eating their McFeast and chatting together.

Ben was immediately engaged in devouring his food, and so I sipped my drink and eavesdropped on the table next door. 

The boy, maybe 11 years old, was telling his dad all about the dance he had gone to the night before, and the dad was commenting back about how glad he was that the boy had had fun. Then dad shared that he had been excited for his son and was thinking about him all evening. The kid wondered why, and dad told him that attending his first dance was a big deal and went on to talk about all the other firsts that he was imagining for his son...first day of high school, first time driving a car, first day of college. He joked with his son that when he got older the boy would start ignoring his dad and only talk to him when he needed some cash. They both laughed about that, and I was smiling along with them.

Who knew I would get to overhear this lovely conversation while sitting in one of my least favorite places (albeit with one of my most favorite people)? My work in child welfare can be so sad and so discouraging, but I'm heartened when I witness these simple moments. Great parenting, an obviously beloved kid, and a wonderful reminder that you cannot love your children too much. There is no way that speaking truth about love to your child can be anything other than good. That boy was so engaged with his dad, and it was obviously a familiar conversation, which has resulted in a confident, happy kid.

Way to go, dad, and thanks. I wish I had taken your picture and shaken your hand. The little things are the big things. And thank you, sweet Ben, for insisting that we sit in the middle of the hubbub, instead of my usual quiet corner. You're a great kid.

Friday, August 29, 2014

My recent book relationship history

After I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, I went through kind of a dry spell.  Four books in a row, I opened and then closed without finishing.  I won't name names because I really think it was me and not them.  Really, they seemed like great books, but I just wasn't that into them.

I loved Americanah so much, so when it was over, I just needed a little time.

Finally, I dallied with a little something that didn't require a lot of investment. I had a fling with the easily read and then set aside Firebird by Susanna Kearsley.  I loved Kearsley's Winter Sea, and so returning to a little history, a little romance, and a lovely Scottish background was just what I needed. Kind of like fooling around with your ex--you know it's not really going to satisfy, but it's a comforting and perhaps necessary distraction.

Fortunately, the next two books I read were the real deal.  Whether you loved or didn't Kathryn Stockett's the Help, you would probably be interested to read both House Girl by Tara Conklin and Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (of Secret Life of Bees fame--one of my faves).

The lawyer in me enjoyed House Girl, as the book is the story of a present day lawyer working on a reparations case, and in her research, discovering the story of Josephine.  Josephine was a slave and also an artist whose art was wrongly attributed to her owner, a much less talented artist.  Interesting, readable, thought-provoking.

I then turned to Invention of Wings, which was similar in that it was told from two voices, though in this case, both were from the same time period: Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a slave, who tells the story of her life and that of her mother, both of whom are excellent seamstresses and love quilting, which they use for warmth, story-telling, and all sorts of other things; and Sarah Grimke, who is given Handful as a gift for her birthday and who goes on to become one of the first pioneers for abolition and women's rights.  The story is historically based, as Sarah and Angelina Grimke were actual prominent figures in the abolition and women's rights movements, though not particularly well-remembered.  And there is even a historical record of Hetty being one of the slaves in the Grimke home, though in reality she died fairly young, and the story about her imagined in this book is almost entirely invented.

I didn't really set out to read two books in a row that delve into the awful history of slavery in this county, but I think they were exactly what I needed after Americanah, which contains such profound commentary on race through an author and main character who are born in Nigeria, move to the U.S. as young adults, and then return to Nigeria with a perspective altered by time and experience.

The other aspect of Americanah that I loved was that the main character, Ifemelu, is a blogger.  I'd been seriously thinking about starting my blog, and reading this novel was one of the final pushes I needed to go ahead and get started.

I am officially a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi fan, and I've just started reading her first novel, Purple Hibiscus.  So far, so good.  I'll let you know how it turns out.  But I'm pretty sure it's true love.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Getting to Normal (Partnership for Strong Families, Partnering Connections, October-December 2012)

As I mentioned in my last post, I work in child welfare and have been in this field in some capacity for more than sixteen years.  I love my work, and I especially love weeks like this one.  I'm in Denver for the Daniel National Independent Living Conference.  This afternoon, some colleagues and I will be offering a presentation on the value of "permanence" and creative ways to achieve legal permanence (reunification, adoption, legal guardianship) for older youth.  The child welfare system has a dismal history of allowing kids to linger in the system and age out of care without a real connection to family.  Over the last six or so years, I've been fortunate to work with Partnership for Strong Families and Casey Family Programs to make progress in these areas, and it's been incredibly rewarding.

Initially, I thought I would take this opportunity to re-post an article that I wrote for PSF's Partnering Connections newsletter that talks more about the idea of permanence, but when I read through them, I realized they weren't really getting at what is on my mind today as I watch the hundreds of kids attending this conference, who are in foster care or who aged out of foster care, walking around the Sheraton here in downtown Denver. 

So, I decided to share a different article instead (also written for Partnering Connections back in the fall of 2012).  I often come back to the notion of "normalcy."  Another term we throw around a lot in the child welfare world.  What always resonates with me are the things we take for granted in our own lives.  We all give lip service to the concept of treating kids in the system like our own kids, but we so often miss the simplest ways of doing this.

Getting to Normal
The new school year has begun, and with that, our family has shifted back into high gear after the somewhat slower pace of summer.  For us, this means lots of homework, all manner of school activity, seemingly constant scouting events, karate classes twice a week, myriad holidays, a few family birthdays…you get the picture.  These are the sorts of things that seem so ordinary, and I know that in our family we pretty much take them for granted.  But the truth is these seemingly small and simple moments are actually everything—the funny things we laugh about together, the unexpected joys we remember fondly, the small achievements and heart-breaking disappointments, our interests and values taking shape and developing, the traditions and times together that we will sorely miss when they come to an end.

In the child welfare world, we realize how important these normal daily activities are for the children we serve.  Sometimes, however, we are so focused on whether we followed the law, abided by the policy, complied with the performance metric, and met the deadline, that the concept of regular life can be all but forgotten.  A couple of years ago, we got a memo from our statewide leadership giving us some practical guidance on the concept of “normalcy” for youth in the dependency system.  My favorite part was the quote from a child who said, “Stop calling us foster kids!  We’re just kids.”

You, as partner families and caregivers for children in the child welfare system, probably don’t need this reminder.  You are more likely looking for practical support, less red tape, better communication, and additional resources.

One of the exciting ways that we hope to make progress in this area is through the QualityParenting Initiative (QPI).  In Florida, QPI started as a pilot project in 2008 and has now spread to almost every county in the state.  We are kicking off our involvement in QPI in October 2012 with a meeting that will be led by Carole Shauffer, who has been instrumental in the success of this initiative.  Shauffer and QPI have made great strides in re-branding the foster care system in a positive light and transforming the culture and working relationships within the child welfare system.

According to QPI Florida’s “No Place Like Home” report, Hillsborough County has seen the number of foster parents willing to act as mentors for birth families increase from 63% to 81%.  They also had an uptick in families willing to foster siblings, from 50% to 90%.  They also reported significant improvements in communication between case managers and caregivers.  The community based care (CBC) organization, Big Bend, reported a reduction from 20% to 10% of children in out-of-home care who lived in three or more placements during their first year of care.  They also saw a 56% reduction in the number of children who remained in foster care more than twelve months.

These sorts of tangible results mean to me that we would be crazy not to get on board with this movement.  Children and caregivers are the center of the child welfare system, and we need to work with each other rather than around each other.  The beauty of the QPI approach is that if focuses on common sense and practical solutions that are identified and implemented locally.  The positive and immediate impact on the quality of life for children and caregivers is tangible.  From the legal standpoint, cases are greatly strengthened when we have meaningful involvement of youth and caregivers.  Our courts can make better decisions with more information and a clearer idea of how their orders will impact the lives of the people at the heart of the matter.

I always approach the new school year with a sense of renewed optimism and hope for what is possible for my three boys, so the timing of our QPI kick off seems perfect from my perspective.  Just like I have great hopes and high expectations for my own children and am reminded of how precious the regular daily moments are, I am convinced that we are well-poised to continue on the positive path we are on in the child welfare system in our area.  QPI is the next logical step, and it holds such promise for our relationships and for our combined ability to provide great outcomes and opportunities for all of our children.
Kelsey Burnette is the Managing Attorney for Children’s Legal Services, the division of the Department of Children and Families that represents the State of Florida on behalf of the best interests of children in dependency cases.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Calculus of Child Welfare (Partnership for Strong Families, Partnership Connection, July-September 2014)

Every quarter, I get to write an article for the Partnership for Strong Families' newletter, Partnership Connection.  I've been doing this for years, and I love doing it.  It started out with a request for me to contribute an article from the legal perspective focusing on legal issues that foster and adoptive parents and other caregivers would be interested in.  It quickly deteriorated into me just writing about whatever came to mind when I received the reminder email that my article was due (it's only four times a year, but it comes around SO quickly!).

I always try to keep the article focused on child welfare, but often I end up commenting on some book I've read or some parenting experience I have had that ties into the child welfare issue I'm addressing.  Luckily, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive, and that has contributed to my decision to begin this blog.  Keeping work in balance with life is a huge part of my life calculus for sure, and one that I am forever thinking about and adjusting.

So, at least every quarter, I will share my PSF article.  It doesn't look like they copyright it, and even if they did, PSF is such a great organization that I'm certain they'd give me permission to re-publish (have I mentioned I'm an ask forgiveness not permission kind of a gal?).

So, here it is...

The Calculus of Child Welfare
            Full Disclosure:  I just finished reading Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” and whether you are a baseball fanatic like my husband, or just married to one like I am, “Moneyball” is a beautifully written and fascinating book. 

When you think about baseball, you can’t help but think about statistics—batting averages, runs batted in, on base percentage, earned run average, and the list goes on.  As a child welfare professional, I have been both a little suspicious and a little jealous of all these seemingly endless items that are painstakingly tracked in connection with the game of baseball.  Baseball seems to measure everything, so they must have it all worked out!  But as hard as we try in the child welfare world to come up with performance metrics, score cards, predictive analytics, and foolproof ways to measure our efforts, prevent serious injury and death of children, and ensure best outcomes, we continue to fall short. 

I always thought it was for a variety of reasons: 1) we’re late to the game and have only recently begun trying to operate in this realm of data and evidence-based outcomes; 2) we’re wasting a lot of time because just like Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and statistics,” or in other words, why bother because numbers will never tell the truth about the complex world that is child welfare, and 3) even if there is something to be gained from looking at these numbers, we will never have the level of resources dedicated to this task to allow us to do it right.

But after reading “Moneyball,” I feel differently.  Baseball has also struggled both to measure the right things and to properly interpret the many, many numbers they have at their disposal.  The biggest message I took from Lewis’ book is that statistics in and of themselves are not truth, but if you are willing to ask, “Why?”, the statistics and information you gather can help you gain insight into the most important issues you are dealing with, empower you to creatively solve problems and improve outcomes, and allow you to make the most of your limited resources.  The Oakland A's, under the guidance of General Manager Billy Beane, are the case in point that “Moneyball” focuses on, and it is an inspiring story.  If the A's can consistently create a top-notch team in an economical way by understanding the needs of the team and the abilities each player brings to the equation, we in the child welfare profession can do the same thing.

This week, I received the May Scorecards for both the community-based care agencies and child protective investigations, and Partnership and our Circuit 3/8 investigators looked good, as usual, with their measurements of things such as, recurrence of abuse and reentry into the child welfare system, permanence for youth, investigation commencement times, timely closure of cases, case loads, and measures related to education and administrative costs.  My Children’s Legal Services team is also in preparation for our Northeast Regional Review of our work, where we will be evaluated on things such as case load size, quality of legal writing, quality of legal decision making and documentation, timeliness of adjudication of dependency and permanence, courtroom preparation and skills, efforts to address children’s educational, safety, permanence, and well-being needs, and whether children have the appropriate goals and are moving through the court system appropriately.  I have also had the privilege over the last several years of working with Casey Family Programs on the Cold Case Project, where we use predictive analytics to identify the youth in our system of care who are at greatest risk of “aging out” without permanent connections.  We then do in-depth reviews of cases and participate in Permanency Round Tables where we share our findings and help to develop action plans focused on achieving legal permanence.

With all of this information and analysis and grading and comparison, it is easy to get overwhelmed, and even defensive and discouraged.  But I prefer the approach of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's.  I want to find ways to dig into all of this data and make sense out of it so that we can use it to improve our work.  I want to make sure we are tracking the right things and that we are gathering accurate information.  I want to make sure we are making smart decisions about where to focus our resources and how to improve our system.

Also this week, I received a report that indicated that around 25 percent of the children in care in the Northeast Region do not have a father listed for them in our Florida Safe Families Network database (the statewide database we use to record all of our child welfare investigations and cases).  One possibility in response to this report would be to conclude that 25 percent of the children in care in the Northeast Region have no legal father.  Instead, we should be asking where the information came from and whether it is accurate.  Until we understand that, we don’t really know what the problem is and what the best approach would be.  Do we have a data entry problem, do we have a problem with identifying fathers, or do we have a problem with establishing paternity?  Probably a little of each, but until we can get a better handle on the proportions, we don’t know how or where to devote our resources.

I could go on and on, but there is only so much space in this newsletter, so I will just say this:  the data we collect and what we do with it matter.  We should never lose sight of the individual children and families, but we should also spend time gathering information, understanding what it can and can’t tell us, and never being afraid to ask why.  And then, to quote a wise man, “Do. Or do not.  There is no try.”

Kelsey Burnette is the Managing Attorney for Children’s Legal Services, the division of the Department of Children and Families that represents the State of Florida on behalf of the best interests of children in dependency cases.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Simple math: Three Little Things Plus Three Short Years Equals One Happy Birthday

Not quite three years ago, life was basically good but felt unbalanced somehow.  I made some changes...well, more like mini-commitments.  Now, three years later, on my 44th birthday, it seems like a good time to look back, reflect, and share.

Calculus sounds so complicated, and I've never been great at math, so initially, I did just three things: went back to church, went back to Weight Watchers, and went back to the library.

Not some outrageous bucket list.  Just a very simple, very personal list.

This isn't going to be a religious blog, though I will talk about faith.  I believe in God, I am a Christian, but I mostly subscribe to the notion that "we are all just walking each other home" (thanks for that image/idea, Ram Dass).  There are as many pathways as there are people.  I definitely don't have the perfect equation, but I keep working on it.

At first, I just sat quietly in a pew each Sunday, but soon I joined the choir, and I realized how much I had missed singing, something I had done for years but discontinued after the birth of my first child.  Making joyful noises with the little choir at my church has turned out to be immeasurably good for my soul.

Church also led me back to prayer, of course, and I love the quote from C.S. Lewis in the movie, Shadowlands: "I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn't change God, it changes me."

The first thing I prayed about in earnest was my Dad, who is in the later stages of dementia, and my step-mother, who is his primary caregiver and who, of course, struggles with grief and loneliness.  Prayer helped me to focus and act.  I talked with my step-mother, and we came up with a plan where I would visit about every other month, and on most visits I would bring one of my three kiddos with me. Three years and a whole bunch of visits later, it's been life changing for all of us.

Returning to Weight Watchers was somewhat less dramatic, and I'm not here to be their spokesperson.  It is just a solid vehicle for making a long-term commitment to my physical health.  I've struggled with my weight forever, and I've joined and quit WW before.  So, I went in with the mindset that I was going to commit for the long term, expect it to take time but be permanent, and that I would not say mean things to myself through the inevitable ups and downs.

It's taken every bit of the last three years, but I've lost more than 50 pounds, am adopting healthier eating habits, am much kinder to myself, and go running at least five days a week.  I've completed a couple of 5Ks and my first 10K is in sight.  This definitely isn't going to be primarily a weight loss or health/fitness blog, but I will share aspects of my journey, as this improvement in my physical health has been an important part of my equation.

Finally, I dusted off my library card.  I've always been a bookworm, but law school and then kids disconnected me from reading just for the sheer pleasure of it.  I started using Goodreads to keep track of my "to read" list, as well as to share what I've read and my reviews with friends.

Reading more reminded me of how much I like to write.  I used to journal all the time.  Now, I write my little book reviews, my endlessly entertaining Facebook posts, and a quarterly article on child welfare-related topics for the Partnership for Strong Families' Partnership Connection newsletter. 

All of this has been so much fun that it got me to thinking about blogging.  One thing you need to know about me--I usually think about things for quite awhile before I actually get started. Not sure what that's all about, but I'm sure as I continue to crunch the numbers, I'll figure it out.  So, here I am, on my 44th birthday, baby-stepping into the blogosphere.  Heaven help us all!