On December 5th of 2017, I received a phone call that would change my family’s life forever. My sister-in-law had unexpectantly passed away sometime during the night. She was only 39 years old and had 3 kids without fathers. The kids needed someone to step into parental roles immediately.
Meet the kids
Dawn, age 18
Dawn lives with her boyfriend’s family, who is amazing. They are kind, generous, and law-abiding. Whether Dawn will someday marry her boyfriend, who knows. His family is going to great lengths to help Dawn gain independence. Dawn had dropped out of high school while living with her mother, but will now pursue her GED. She’s earned her driver’s license and we have very high hopes for this smart and very capable woman.
Matthew, age 10
Matthew spent over a year in an in-patient mental health facility for violence. Diagnosed with severe mental disorders, Matthew poses risk to everyone around him. After agonizing for days over what do about Matthew, we decided a family friend could raise him best. While we cannot risk violence to our young children, the family friend’s children are grown.
Rana, Age 12
Rana posed no threat as far as we knew. She had come to visit us the previous summer. Her manners and personal hygiene were lacking, but we felt we could help her. With a bedroom to spare, it seemed like the best decision.
My husband and I thought we’d have years to learn the skills needed to raise a teenager. I like to refer to the process of adopting our niece as an advanced course in parenting skills. When you have a newborn you feel unprepared, but that baby teaches you how to care for a toddler. The toddler prepares you for a school-aged child, and so on. We did not have the luxury of learning with Rana as she grew.
Life with Rana’s mother
Under “normal” circumstances, this situation would be stressful enough. Tragic enough. But my sister in laws life was…dramatic and she wasn’t always the mother her kids needed. Over the 15 years that I knew her she’d had several men whom the kids called Daddy. To my knowledge, all were abusive to either my sister-in-law, the kids, or both. The kids were victims of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. They lived with fleas and rats, in filth. “Discipline” in the home was also known as Ritalin, and sleep hygiene? Clonidine. Food was withheld as a form of punishment. When my sister-in-law taught the kids not to curse, she poured hot sauce into their mouths. I could go on, but let’s say it wasn’t the healthy happy home you might have been imagining.
New Beginnings…New Challenges
It’s been exactly two months since we gained guardianship of Rana. It hasn’t been as smooth as we envisioned. Although we knew it’d be rough…this is hard. Rana thought that her life was normal, that everyone lived that way unless they were rich.
A few days after she’d been here, I caught significantly inappropriate behavior. We installed a camera outside their bedrooms to ensure everyone remains safe. Rana lies to us constantly, even about things that have no negative repercussion. We can ask what she had for lunch at school, only to be deceived. We lock the pantry door because she will eat an entire weeks worth of groceries within 2 days. Rana is in tutoring for math twice a day, but often skips sessions. She doesn’t like hard work, but what child does?
We know that most of these behavioral issues are consequential to the environment she was in. Rana is grieving the loss of her mother, and missing her school friends. Moving across the country is stressful for adults, let alone a girl going through puberty. We understand that she is going through a lot.
That’s not to say it’s not stressful and frustrating on our end as well. Things that other kids learn at very early ages were not taught to Rana. As parents, we can not take any knowledge for granted. We want good things for Rana, we love her and want her to be able to accomplish goals. It’s a very delicate balance at times. We must use proper discipline to teach Rana a proper way of living. Equally important, we must always show compassion and understanding. It comes down to “Yes, we know that you’ve never been held accountable for this behavior, but now you are. We do not accept that behavior in this home.”
Rana’s behavior is improving. When she came to us two months ago, she was on 7 different medications for mental health issues. With the help of a team (counselors, child psychiatrist) we’ve been able to wean Rana off ALL meds. She has learned proper sleep hygiene! Rana is learning what is socially acceptable behavior and how to not only treat others with respect but how to build her own self-esteem. Progress is slow and steady, but like a wise family member told me, there is no magic switch we can use to fix things.
Our hopes are that with time Rana will begin to not only have dreams but the skill set and confidence to make those dreams a reality. We want so much for her…but she has to want a better life for herself and be willing to put in the hard work of learning new skills and habits. Her past could be used as a motivator for helping others and propelling herself further. As for my husband and I…we’ll continue to study and practice the skills required for our advanced course in parenting skills.