Healing Pinocchio

By: Dr. Valerie D. Jackson

Date

In 2021, eight-year-old Noah came into my life after his release from a psychiatric hospital. His prospective adoptive parents had sent him to the hospital after only two weeks in their home. Although initially committed for a seven-day psychiatric hospital stay, the family decided to permanently discharge him from their home. So, on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, a slender boy with large, fearful, empty eyes waited in the lobby of the psychiatric hospital for yet another stranger to pick him up. I was his seventeenth foster care placement by Child Protective Services (CPS). 

 

After moving in with my family, which already consisted of two other adopted children who had similar journeys before coming to me, Noah had extreme, daily tantrums. During one, while lying on the floor and crying hysterically he said, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just be a normal boy?” I couldn’t help but think of the story of Pinocchio. 

 

The tale of Pinocchio is frequently depicted as a moral narrative emphasizing the significance of honesty, responsibility, and the repercussions of one’s choices. However, in that moment of watching a sweet but traumatized eight-year-old child literally groveling on the floor, I saw Pinocchio as a quest for personal development and meaning, symbolized by the desire to become a “real boy.”

 

That moment facilitated a new direction for my journey and purpose. 

 When I started my work in child welfare services twenty-five years ago, I was a strong advocate for stranger adoption as the best way forward for a child who had been abused and/or neglected by their family of origin. I set out to make child welfare adoption services my purpose in life. 

 

I have since discovered how misguided I was. As a licensed clinical psychologist, I am compelled to comply with the ethical professional principal of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, which mandates that we strive to benefit those with whom we work and do no harm. Having adopted three children that were egregiously harmed by the current child welfare system, I’ve came to understand that no child should ever be involved with family separation framework. 

 

Per my experience, children placed in the foster care system are typically removed from their families of origin. It is a capitalistic system in which a price for their care is determined and the benefactors are predominately those that compose of the protective structure for the child.  The child is subjected to experts in the field of child protection labels such as mental health diagnoses, prescribed medication, determined levels of care, and subjected to live in a facility (shelter, foster home, group home, residential treatment center, etc.). There is little to no discussion with the child regarding what is thought to be for their own best interest. Essentially, they become a puppet within America’s historical legacy of family separation that incentivize child welfare entities for financial gain rather than focusing on the well-being and protection of the alleged neglected and/or abused child. 

 

After meeting Noah, I became a stronger advocate for keeping children and youth within the family of origin, specifically with birth parents, if possible; if not, then members of the kinship (biological family) or fictive kinship (members of the child’s community). 

 

In cases where a child cannot sustain a safe home environment with their birth parents, it is a prudent choice for them to stay within familiar surroundings. This will enable them to access essential services and support alongside the family unit, promoting the health and well-being of the youth. Children that remain within their kinship networks draw on a series of additional social, cultural, and psychological supports that undergirds the resilience needed for the changes occurring in their living situation. It has long been noted that cultural continuity has major impacts on individual resilience and mental health (Fleming & Ledogar, 2008), and that it can be detrimental for a child to be separated from their family of origin only to enter a system that, in most cases, causes more harm than the circumstance from which they were removed.

Noah has not had contact with his birth mother since age four. The documented reason for removal was “neglect” and subsequentially he was placed in CPS custody with his three siblings. The first placement with a stranger lasted for three months. The children moved several times until the separation of the sibling group occurred at the fifth foster home placement. Noah and his older brother stayed together until their tenth placement. That foster family decided to adopt the older brother but not Noah. So, he went on to six more foster homes with strangers, until that day I pick him up at the psychiatric hospital. 

Three years later, I adopted Noah. I am not sure he understood the true meaning of the transition, but he did understand that CPS caseworkers would no longer visit the home and that he would receive presents on adoption day. Those two things brought immense joy to a now ten-year-old boy in his seventeenth and final CPS placement. 

A couple months following his adoption, Noah was engrossed in playing at his game station. His laughter filling the room as he immersed himself in virtual reality on his gaming console. I gazed into his light brown eyes, noticing the gleam reflecting from the television screen. His face radiated with joy and expression. In that moment, I could not help but feel that he had found acceptance and belonging within our family unit. With the love and respect of every member, Noah had a support system willing to make endless sacrifices to ensure he felt connected, he would experience personal growth, and find his place in the world. As I watched him, I couldn’t shake the thought of the many children still awaiting their turn to find such a place of acceptance and belonging within the child protective system.

 

Weeks after the adoption, Noah’s birth mother found me on social media. She sent me a private message thanking me for taking Noah into my home. 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1fUijirn_iFR3oPF4QzWf05PCtiqwmNYN/view?usp=sharing

 

Adoption marks a beautiful beginning, yet it is not the conclusion of the narrative for a child who has experienced trauma within the system. Their journey is laden with losses, evoking sorrow for what they have left behind. At the outset, there is the loss of birth parents, cherished toys, friends, traditions, and customs. This is followed by the separation from siblings, genuine connections with foster parents, supportive mental health professionals, schoolmates, and other foster youth friends left behind. Lastly, there is the transition from the “old life” to embrace a new family with its own traditions, customs, culture, and way of life. Is it a moment of pure happiness? Or does it carry a bittersweet tinge?

 

If Noah had the opportunity to stay within his familiar ecosystem, with proper government support and services available to him and his family of origin, I believe he would not have had to experience the evolution of becoming a real/normal boy again. The trauma of the child welfare system would not be that phenomenon from which he would still be healing. My purpose and life work, post Noah, are to change the child welfare system to a family friendly, kinship first, supportive structure. The $12 billion that the federal government (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2023) currently spends annually on this system that has the worst outcomes of almost any social service framework. More than 40% of foster children will be homeless, incarcerated, or die within three years of aging out of the foster care system. That money should be spent providing concrete needs (i.e. food, shelter, employment, financial assistance, etc.); psychological, medical, case management supports, and preserving the original family units. The family friendly, kinship first supportive structure also has the propensity to strengthen poverty-stricken neighborhoods with the additional resources. That is true child protection!  

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