TPR – This is the hardest one to talk to kids about, but I prefer that they hear it from me and their therapist rather than their parents or even their DHS worker. The parents may not have the language to describe what’s happening, may get it wrong, or may have too much emotion tied to it to give them the support they will need. They may also play the victim, blaming everyone else without taking responsibility for their own actions (or inactions). And it’s likely that I know the kids better than the DHS worker (and they trust me, because they know me). This may not be true for all GALs, but it is often true about me.
Once I get a sense that we are not going to be reunifying, I start talking to the kids about how their parents are doing with their homework. I start by telling them that their parents are having some troubles getting their homework done. I tell them that this has nothing to do with how much they love their child(ren). If parents are struggling with SA, I tell kids that there are drugs that are good medicines that help us get well or do other things (because a lot of these kids are on ADHD meds) when a doctor or other medical person is helping us. But when a doctor isn’t involved, or when parents aren’t using drugs in a safe way, it can make their brain sick. It tricks their brain into making bad decisions. And it’s hard to stop because their bodies are also telling their brains that they have to have this drug. And it’s really hard to stop using those drugs. And then I tell them again, that this has nothing to do with how much they love their child(ren), because kids (and adults, often) believe that if their parents loved them “enough,” they would stop using.
If it’s something else, I may say something like, “Your dad needed to go to a class to learn how to be safe with your mom, but he doesn’t understand what that means, so he doesn’t think he needs to go to that class,” or, “Your mom needs to work with a therapist about some of the things that keep her from being able to take care of you in a way that you can learn and grow and be safe, but that can be scary or hard sometimes (and can remind them of their own therapy sometimes), and when things are scary or hard, we sometimes just don’t do them.” This, they will understand from their own personal experience.
Regardless of the issue, I tell them their parent loves them. I worked with a teen once and finally got her to a place where she understood, and told the judge that, “I know my parents love me. But I also know they can’t safely parent me now or in the near future.” And she asked for her parents’ rights to be terminated so she could be adopted. This is highly unusual, but it can happen with the right support. If necessary, I might tell them that their parents love them, but don’t always know how to show that in a safe and appropriate way. This is usually in cases where there has been physical or sexual abuse, because we don’t want kids to think that “love” includes abuse, or that that’s ok.
If we get closer to the permanency hearing and are still of the opinion that we’re going to TPR, I ask the therapist to talk to the child about what that might look like. I talk to them as well, and also tell them that we will not “forget about” them after their parent’s rights are terminated. That we will make sure that we have a safe home for them to go to, that will be “permanent.” Some kids will continue to say they want to go home because they are worried that if their parent’s rights are terminated —what will happen to them? Who will take them in and care for them?
I tell them I am sorry that their parents couldn’t do their homework (and reiterate that this doesn’t mean their parents don’t love them). I also ask them what they think, and what they are feeling. Depending on the situation, I ask them if they think they will still want to see the parent (most do, but some don’t). If we do not think the parent should have any contact with the child, I ask them what they think about that. I explain why we are recommending that. And they will usually understand, even if they don’t agree.
I also tell the schools when this is happening, in part because they need to know for purposes of the parent’s access to the child and confidentiality of records going forward. The other reason is because there are often “behaviors” that accompany this loss, even if the kids understand, and even if they agree. It’s still a loss that has to be grieved. And our little friends do not always have the words to articulate and/or appropriately express that grief, so they act out. I tell kids it’s okay to be mad/sad/disappointed, etc., but it is not okay to hurt anyone else or take it out on anyone else. I commiserate with them that life just stinks sometimes, but I reassure them that they will be ok eventually—not today or tomorrow, perhaps, but eventually. We talk about who they can talk to if they are feeling bad, and I try to identify some school people specifically, because they almost always have some people there that they trust and feel comfortable talking to.
I also may talk to them about not being a “victim.” I had a kid once who started bullying another one. When asked why he was doing that, he said that he “had a tough life. No one had a life like [him].” I gently dropped the hammer on that one! I told him that everyone had, or would have, tough things happen in their lives, and we might not even know what those things were, or that they were happening. I also told him that when we were victims, then we were saying that we weren’t strong enough to make good decisions, and we tried to blame other people for our problems. I told him that he could be a good leader and help people (and then I reminded him of times he had done that before) and told him that helping other people not only made them feel good, but would also make him feel good.