I’m angry, Mental Health Stigma

I’m not happy. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. A couple weeks after the most recent post, we had some real problems. One of them involves our foster care license.

My wife and I have been foster parents for 9 years now.During this time we’ve fostered more than 30 kids, and adopted 4 of them. We also have two kids that are 18 and 19 who call us mom and dad, and whom we might adopt as adults.

We’ve never turned down a placement, no matter what the child’s needs were. Blind, pregnant, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), developmental delays, emotional disability, anything.None of them have we turned away. Most of them have worked out, but naturally, with these needs, a few have been beyond our abilities. We try, we really do.

We’ve never had any charges of impropriety, our record is clean. There is one thing, though. Both of us have bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders. We’ve always assumed that this was why we are so good with special needs kids, we have a more intimate understanding of their situation. DCS (Department of Child Services in Indiana) has never had a problem with our mental illness. They’ve known since before we first received our license, all they asked was a letter from our therapists or doctors saying that it would not be detrimental to the kids or us. We obtained these readily. It was a pleasant surprise that there was no problem, we took this as a sign that they were very understanding of disabilities.

Our most recent DCS training included a video that was supposed to teach us how to take care of our mental health as foster parents. In the video one spouse suffers some serious mental health problems and checks herself into the hospital for help. She’s there for a while, and her partner takes care of the kids with help from others, including DCS and all is well.

In light of this video, Karla and I felt no qualms about each spending some time in the hospital when we had mental health problems in October and November respectively. Karla’s problems were brought on by stress from financial issues and the trauma she suffered when she had an accident and was permanently blinded in her left eye. My problems were brought on by two med changes made at the same time. One of them was an innocent switch to a beta blocker for blood pressure. Who would have thought that this could bring on depression, but it did, and from my research, it can do so in people who don’t even have a history of mental health problems. But we figured no big deal, both problems were taken care of and after all, our training told us that this was the proper, supported, thing to do. Little did we know that it would be used against us.

A foster home in Indiana has to re-certify every year and re-license every 4 years. All of our re-certifications went through with no problem, so did our re-license at 5 years. Not so our re-license at 9 years.

There was a new licensing worker this time around, and he seemed to distrust us from the beginning. He did things like have us fill out questioners that asked about domestic violence in the house. Then he separated everyone in the house and interviewed them separately. He asked my wife and me if our spouse ever hit us. He asked me if I “got out of control” when I was manic. He asked what mania was like, but seemed disappointed by the explanation that I got really busy, hard working (to a flaw) and rather creative. This is hypomania, which is the level below full mania, which is what I experience. To be fair, before I was on meds for bipolar, I did get very irritable in hypomanias, but never “out of control” or violent.

Then he asked if he could interview our adopted kids who had moved out on their own. He asked them similar questions, focusing on whether I was violent, and why Karla went in the hospital last fall. Questions about suicidality.

Karla asked him if he asked similar questions about everyone he re-licensed. He said that it was part of the new SAFE Home Study. Karla told him that she’d actually looked up the SAFE home study, and that it included no such procedures. He looked startled and asked where she had learned about this. When she said that she Googled it and found the web site of the SAFE program he was put back. The SAFE home program is innocuous and seems a decent idea, not at all what we’d been through.

Then he asked us if we would sign a form allowing him to examine our medical records. Very unprecedented and intrusive. But we felt that there was nothing to hide, so we agreed. He was amazed that we did so.

Karla asked him if he’d request the medical records of someone with another chronic illness, such as heart disease or diabetes. He said, “Of course not, that’s different.” Karla told him that was wrong, mental illness was just an illness like any other chronic illness, it just happened to the brain, and it is actually treated with more success than either of these two examples.

I asked him why this preoccupation with our mental health when DCS had had no problem with this for over 8 years and there had been no dangerous incidents, or complaints of any kind. He replied, “You’ve got to understand, everyone I’ve ever met with bipolar has been unpredictable and dangerous.” I was stunned. Where had this come from? I had a sinking feeling that my worry about relicensing was coming true. This was the very embodiment of mental health stigma and discrimination, something that Karla and I, as mental health advocates had been working for years to eliminate from the world.

When he said that people with bipolar were unpredictable and dangerous, Karla said, “It sounds like you don’t know many people with bipolar.” I added that perhaps he didn’t know people with bipolar who were in treatment. I suspect that the only people he knows with bipolar were parents who were having their kids taken away by DCS. Perhaps they were under duress due to their kids being taken? Just a thought.

One of the things that this new worker’s concerned about was that we hadn’t reported our trips to the hospital to DCS. Again, would they expect that from a heart patient? While we did not turn in any official notice, we did tell our kid’s workers about it in the course of everyday activities. He wanted us to sign a “Safety Plan” (a favorite thing at DCS) that said we’d report any further hospitalizations or “instabilities” to DCS.

On March 17th, we got the call. The worker was recommending that our license not be renewed. The official explanation, “We could not regulate our emotions well enough to stay out of the hospital, and so we could not take care of our kids.”

Five minutes later, we got another call. Our 14-year-old foster child that we were in the process of adopting, who would be have been adopted in a month, was being pulled out of our house. They’d be by the next day to pick her up, and good luck explaining what was happening to her, our daughter, and our other foster child who was not being removed, what was happening. If we couldn’t regulate our emotions, and were dangerous, why did they leave this delicate task to us?

When she was first put in foster care, our 14-year-old, who had an emotional delay, and intellectual problems despite a high normal IQ, had had to leave her cat behind. She had become very attached to our kitten. After she left, we could not find the kitten, but weren’t worried at first. Then we got worried and called her worker. She had packed the kitten in with her clothes and it had died of suffocation. How horrible. After that, they could not find anyone who’d take her, not even group homes, so she’s in an institution. Probably traumatized severely. We hope to get her back some day.

As I said, they left our other foster child, who is 18, but still in foster care until she qualifies for the collaborative care program, in our house. She’d been in our house on and off for over 4 years, never with any serious trouble. When she was away, she was in a program for teen mothers. She, and sometimes her child, live with us. We called her worker, and he said that he had no problem with us, and she could stay. If we had to, we could take on the classification of “host family”, which does not require a license, just a background check. Host families take in kids in collaborative care. Here was a DCS worker who had known us for years, and he didn’t think we were unpredictable and dangerous (that phrase really pisses me off).

After this happened, we got another surprise. While our license had not been recommend for renewal, we were still a foster home, one in the process of re-licensing. They should never have taken our daughter away! We are furious.

Of course, we are going to appeal this decision. One problem with that is that, as I mentioned, our license still has not officially been denied renewal. They won’t let us see the report until it’s become official. Then we can see the report and respond to it. This is frustrating, as they have two months to process this, starting for some reason, several weeks after they took our daughter. We’re still waiting.

We have done something, though. We volunteer a lot for a large national mental health organization. So naturally we contacted them about this. They were very interested, especially as they are working on a program with DCS to help support foster kids with mental illness (the majority of the kids we’ve had). They’ve now decided to add foster parents to the program as well. They put us in touch with some people higher up in DCS who are looking int this. We’ll see what happens.

Now we are waiting.


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