Robyn and Vicki had been together for 30 years and were starting to think about retirement, not having children.
Occasionally, though, they would care for a little girl named McKenzie – the daughter of Robyn’s niece – on weekends or when there was an emergency. And emergencies were frequent. Robyn’s niece led a troubled life. She had a mental illness and struggled with drug and alcohol use. Interactions with her boyfriend – McKenzie’s father – were unpredictable and sometimes violent.
Robyn and Vicki knew circumstances at home were bad, and what they saw when McKenzie came to spend time with them concerned them even more. She was dirty, hungry, and extremely clingy. They contacted social services to express their concerns and seek help for Robyn’s niece, but conditions continued to decline. And when a little brother – Brandon Paul – was born they knew things would only get worse.
Then one night, there was an altercation at the niece’s house, and she was taken to jail. The children were removed and placed with Robyn’s brother for a time. Soon, though, Robyn and Vicki got a call from social services, asking them to consider becoming a permanent placement for McKenzie and Brandon Paul.
“Vicki had never been interested in having kids,” says Robyn, “but when the call came, she told me we had only one option. We were going to step up.”
Their home and their hearts were open, but they did not realize how hard it would be to deal with the consequences of the trauma the children had lived through. Brandon Paul was just six months old, but he already showed signs of traumatic stress. When they picked him up, he would stiffen against their arms rather than relax into them. McKenzie suffered night terrors and was always hypervigilant. Robyn remembers that the gentle squeak of the rocking chair would set her trembling all over while she said “bugs, bugs” over and over.
“I had never seen children reacting this way,” says Robyn. “I didn’t know where to get them help, but I just knew that help had to be available.”
Robyn’s intuition was proved correct when their social worker introduced them to the Center for Child & Family Health.
Robyn first enrolled with McKenzie in Child-Parent Psychotherapy, a model that uses play to build stronger bonds between a child and her caregiver as a way to heal from the effects of trauma. Early on, McKenzie would act out familiar storylines with the toys – chaos in the dollhouse, police officers arriving to arrest the dolls. Slowly, though, her play became more joyful and positive. Robyn remembers the day she arranged the dolls for a trip to the beach, and then for a birthday party.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) came next with Robyn and Vicki both participating in treatment sessions to learn positive parenting skills. They noticed that McKenzie had bonded more with Robyn, so Vicki became the primary partner in the PCIT sessions to build closer connections with McKenzie.
“I wasn’t really prepared for it, going into parenting later in life,” says Vicki, “so those moments when she would lean into me, touch me affectionately, really seemed like big breakthroughs.”
Robyn and Vicki also went through the Resource Parenting Curriculum – an eight-week workshop on trauma-informed parenting designed specifically for foster and adoptive parents. For Robyn, this is where she truly gained a full understanding of childhood trauma. “The most powerful thing for me was learning that trauma produces a physiological change and that their behaviors are not a willful choice,” she says, “but with the right support those physiological changes can be reversed.”
Today, their children are happy and healthy. Brandon Paul has no working memory of what he lived through, but McKenzie still remembers and struggles to understand why a mother and a father would not do what was needed to do to take care of their children. So, Robyn and Vicki talk often and openly with her about those difficult questions. They let both children know that they were was loved by their birth parents, but that their birth parents both had serious problems they could not manage.
They also reinforce the many ways that their home and the world around them can be good and giving places. In the cold months, for example, they buy fleece to make scarves for the people they see at intersections asking for money. And the children know that Robyn, like them, was adopted and grew up in a loving home.
Robyn and Vicki say they are eternally grateful to the staff at CCFH for the support they received. “They assured us that our children were resilient and had a bright future ahead of them,” says Robyn. “They illuminated the path and held our hands as we walked it together.”