Clearing Up Misperceptions of Out-of-Home Placement

by Betsy Grigoriu, PhD

Out-of-home placement for children under 18 is counterintuitive for most parents/guardians. It is hard enough to think about our teenagers going off to college, getting a job and living on their own, or going off to the military when they are 18. Before that time arrives, out-of-home placement is not an option that comes readily to mind as a viable solution for troubled children. Out-of-home placement takes on special meaning for adoptive parents who are aware of many adopted children’s feelings about the parent who “gave them up.” Neither biological nor adoptive parents bring children into their lives in order to send them away.

Part of the mental resistance for parents making this decision is based on misperceptions about therapeutic, out-of-home placements. Three concerns come immediately to mind for parents:

1. geographic separation will harm family relationships;
2. parents will lose the affection of their child; and
3. the child will never return home.

Just as propelling our bodies down a ski slope is counterintuitive but necessary if we want to learn the skill of controlled, fluid skiing, we as parents and professionals can learn to cast these misperceptions in a different light. Clearing up misperceptions can help alleviate our fears, put our minds at ease, and instill the confidence we will need to see our family through a tough but rewarding journey.

As both educational consultants and parents ourselves, we acknowledge the validity of the fears associated with placing our children in the hands of professionals outside our protective home environments and the resulting disruption to everyone’s lives. By acknowledging that the decision is not easy, let’s look at how each misperception can keep us stuck and unable to make a necessary decision for our children’s safety and well-being.

First, usually there is the geographic separation. Rather than focusing on the concreteness of location, we can focus on what we will be doing as a family during the time we are geographically separated. The schools/programs with which we work have a strong family therapy component. Therapeutic work is accomplished through letter writing, telephone calls with a therapist, periodic on-site visits, workshops/seminars, and eventually family visits near the school and at home. For most of us, we do not experience or engage in this kind of intentional, deliberate communication or interactions with our children. Even if they are living at home, attending weekly outpatient therapy, individually or as a family, it is not of the same intensity. In our experience, families get closer emotionally during this time because they are in more frequent and attentive contact as a family. The separation can create a safe, less chaotic space to heal family relationships. It also helps to keep in mind that the time we spend physically away from each other is a short span of time in the bigger picture.

A second concern is losing our children for good. We fear they are going to be so angry with us that they will never forgive us. We might as well sever all ties now because it is inevitable that they will disown us as parents because of what we did “to” them. Truthfully, they will probably be pretty angry at the outset. They will probably be angry with us, with themselves, with everyone around them. We can expect their first letter to us pleading to bring them home after a few days—You have made a big mistake; how could you do this, what were you thinking; I’m not like any of the kids here, other kids are far worse off than I am; I don’t belong here because I’ve changed—really; you’d be amazed at how different I am; I promise I’ll never do anything wrong again. There are times, however, when some teenagers are secretly relieved that their parents did something, because as children they were in over their heads and did not know how to get out or did not know how to ask for help (other than acting out).

As a comparison, if we think about how we as individuals have handled huge disappointments in our lives, all of us were probably, initially angry and blamed others or circumstances for what happened “to” us. We felt terribly out of control of our lives and destiny. Whether it was getting fired from a job, being rejected for a promotion, getting a divorce involuntarily, or learning that our parents were not going to support us anymore! At the time our situation was devastating. Looking back on those bleak times, most of us are glad that we did not get the job that would have been really wrong for us or that we are free from a relationship that at the time we could not see as oppressive. Teenagers tend to react similarly. Most often, when they have had a chance to examine themselves, recognize their risky behaviors, and the impact their behaviors had on others, they are in a position to say to you, “I don’t want to be here, but I know I’m in the right place and I know what I need to work on.” The translation is thank you for being a parent and making a parent decision for me, your child.

A more accurate way we can frame an out-of-home placement is that this is a gift to our children. Oftentimes, teenagers are screaming, “I need help!” through their acting out behaviors. If we ask ourselves how many children are given the opportunity to focus on themselves 24/7 with numerous professionals several times throughout the day and week or to get their lives on track so early in life, we realize how fortunate children are whose parents hear their cry for help and are in a position to do something that will be life changing. It can be, most often is, a life saving gift.

A third concern is that our children will never come home again. This misperception is rooted in the belief that we are sending our children away “to be fixed.” A decision for out-of-home placement is not about identifying a child as “the problem”: the person in our family who needs to change, to be different, to alter his/her personality and/or behavior. A more accurate perception is, “This is a family problem.” Even though children need to be out of the home environment so they can work on their issues with trained professionals among their peers, the message is, “We’re in this together. We have expectations of you and we have expectations of ourselves as we go through this process together.” If we go through this process together, then we end up together. Our children come home reconnected within healthier family relationships. Many parents have told us, “We’re so happy to have our kid back.” They are glad to have their children back physically. But what they really mean is they are happy to have the child they knew before he or she went so off track.

Parenting is the hardest job any of us will ever undertake in our lifetimes. Making decisions and following through with them on behalf of our children makes sense intellectually, but our emotions sometimes prevail and cloud our understanding of what we need to do now that will have a lasting, long-term effect. If we start from more accurate, realistic understandings, then we can better manage how we feel about the tough decisions we make in our children’s best interest. Clearer thinking doesn’t make the emotional pull go away, but it can help us to feel as though things are not completely beyond our control and instill a sense of calm in confusing and seemingly hopeless situations. We can rest on the knowledge that we’re doing the best thing for our children at this time in their young lives.

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