“Life takes us to unexpected places. Love brings us home.”
The sentiment decorates a black wooden frame collaged with photos of beaming mothers, infants, and toddlers. It’s one of many family photos on the walls of Jennifer and Naomi Meyer’s spacious two-story in the west hills of Eugene. Guests at their New Year’s Eve party—early, to accommodate children’s bedtimes—sip wine and remark on the pictures. They study the inspirational refrigerator magnets and the weekly menu posted on a chalkboard with Tuesday’s “kid dinner”—cheeseburgers, mac ’n’ cheese, and carrots prepared by younger members of the household.
In the living room, Katy Perry’s “Firework” pumps over the sound system. A dozen kids, toddlers to preteens, gyrate to the beat. They’re Black, Latino, Anglo, amalgamations of ethnicities. They grin and twist while their parents applaud on the sidelines. It’s an unusual gathering. Therapists, artists, academics, people who might otherwise remain unaware of each other in this mid-size city gather around one commonality—many have adopted children from the foster care system. And some of these children were born addicted or exposed to illegal drugs.
BABIES BORN ADDICTED
The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare estimates that in the United States, more than 400,000 infants each year are affected by prenatal alcohol or drug exposure. Oregon, a state hit especially hard by the methamphetamine epidemic, passed a game-changing law in 2006 that regulated sales of medications containing ingredients used to make the drug. Still, a 2015 report conducted by the Oregon High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program found that meth use had increased. Heroin, controlled prescription drugs, and cocaine continue to threaten child and family safety as well.
At any given time, about 8,500 Oregon children live in foster care, at least half of them because of parental drug addiction and resulting neglect and abuse. When a baby’s living situation is flagged as unsafe, the Department of Human Services (DHS) removes the child from its birth mother at the hospital and places it in medical foster care. Reunification with kinship family is always the goal, but biological parents in the throes of addiction or mental illness sometimes relinquish legal custody. Then, the DHS looks for a permanent placement for the child. But adoptive parents aren’t always easy to find.
A baby born drug-exposed can be miserable. Often premature with scant birth-weight, she may suffer tremors, vomiting, diarrhea. She may have a defective heart or lungs, eye disorders, fluid on her brain. She may be unable to suck or swallow, in which case doctors insert a feeding tube into her stomach or down her nose. She’s given medical treatment, but not the tender affection of a parent seeing an infant for the first time.
Still, these babies need adults who are committed to caring for them through fostering, therapy, medicine, and permanent adoption.
SERVING CHILDREN, 24-7
Erica Johnson-Garrick, BA ’99, works as a foster parent certifier for the Department of Human Services in Springfield, Oregon. As a sociology student at the University of Oregon, she interned at Sexual Assault Support Services and Womenspace. These experiences, she says, taught her to think outside of her personal experience. “I grew to love the feeling that came from listening to others in crisis,” she explains, “and helping them to find hope and traction within their own life circumstances.”
In her last term of graduate school, the DHS hired her as a child welfare caseworker; she’s worked there 13 years. She sees between five and 10 medically fragile infants a year—children born significantly disabled or diseased, premature, or drug-exposed “It’s excruciatingly painful,” she says, “to watch families fall apart, and to watch children suffer as a result of their parents’ decision-making.” Eventually, she moved from case management to foster parent certification.
Part of Johnson-Garrick’s job as a certifier requires her to check in with foster parents, ensuring that their home is still up to code. She visits the Meyers’ home regularly to check on the toddler for whom they’re caring along with their three adopted kids. “That family’s amazing,” she says. “I go out there and think of how it’s always so calm in their house.”
It’s calm because the Meyers have done extensive research into their children’s specialized needs. Downstairs, there’s a giant playroom equipped with a hanging swing, a climbing wall, and shelves of therapeutic toys. Schedules with both text and pictures are posted to let the children know exactly what’s expected of them and when—crucial because of attention-deficit issues, common in those born drug-exposed.
Foster parents across the state have skills and affinities for particular medical issues. One of Johnson-Garrick’s tasks is to identify the most appropriate placement for each child. “For medically fragile infants,” she says, “our hope is that the foster parents have the ability to attend to all the kid’s needs. Often, they’re driving to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland twice a week and visiting clinics for weight checks and blood draws. They have to be okay with nurses coming to their house to do things like change out bandages and tubes.”
Foster parents also have to remain cognizant of the fact that unless they apply to adopt the child in their care, eventually the small being on whom they’ve lavished 24–7 attention will move on to a permanent family placement. The DHS provides drug rehabilitation and reunification services to birth parents. “Even if a foster family applies for adoption,” says Jennifer Meyer, “they are not always given priority and not always selected by the committee as the adoptive family.”
A NETWORK OF FAMILIES
Meyer is director of clinical education for the communication disorders and sciences program in the UO’s College of Education. One of her roles is to oversee the HEDCO Clinic, which houses the UO Speech-Language-Hearing Center serving children and adults with communication disorders. “A large number of children exposed to substances have speech and language delays,” she says, “or develop speech and language disorders.”
One of these children is her son. Meyer and her wife, Naomi, adopted three children through the Department of Human Services, two of whom were born drug-exposed. They’ve fostered three babies, as well.
“We really wanted to help our community,” Meyer says in her office, surrounded by photographs of her kids and a wall of framed lyrics from the musical theater productions she adores. “We had the resources, the skills, a stay-at-home mom. We knew we wanted to foster to adopt, and that a lot of the kids coming into care had drug and alcohol exposure in utero. We were open.”
After they adopted their two daughters, they fostered a drug-exposed baby who needed an interim four-month placement before moving in with a relative’s family, an endeavor she describes as “really challenging.” “There were a lot of late nights,” she says. “We just tried to take turns and take care of each other.”
A year later, they adopted their son. His birth mother, tested after he was delivered, had what the Meyers refer to as a “laundry list of drugs in her system.” He eventually presented with a speech disorder that still requires treatment eight years later.
When he was only a year old, the boy’s anger issues grew so profound that the Meyers had to enlist the help of a pediatric psychologist. “This was not a baby having a tantrum,” Naomi Meyer says. “This was a child who was raging, who couldn’t control his emotions and response to stress. I’d never had a one-year-old punch me like he meant it.”
The Meyers learned how to mother this specialized demographic of children on the job, relying on doctors, therapists, and support groups. Over the years, they’ve built up a network of families—parents and children who gather a few times a year to dance and play games and trade stories and resources.
“It’s a different kind of parenting,” Jennifer Meyer says. “It’s not that you can’t have friends and support folks who aren’t foster or adoptive parents, but the struggles and challenges and extra support that you need are understood more by other people who’ve been through it.”
One of the Meyers go-to groups is the Foster and Adoptive Parent Association of Lane County. Visit the website and you’ll see a photograph of a grinning little blond boy of perhaps seven, posed beside a rocky stream. Above him, links to a wealth of resources—everything from free clothing and state park recreation passes to information about how to register for the free parent training sessions offered through the DHS.
PRESCHOOL PREPARATION FOR DISABLED TODDLERS
The Department of Human Services sometimes refers foster and adoptive children to Early Childhood Coordination Agency for Referrals, Evaluations, and Services (CARES)—an organization affiliated with the UO’s College of Education—which provides intervention and education to developmentally delayed or disabled children from birth to age five. Staff members rely largely on assessments such as the “Ages and Stages” questionnaire, developed by the UO’s Early Intervention Program in the 1980s, to help them monitor at-risk infants and young children.
At Early Childhood CARES, teachers work closely with speech, occupational, and physical therapists to address each child’s needs. The Meyers enrolled their son in the program’s therapeutic preschool. He boarded a bus in the mornings like his older sisters and attended a half-day program at a local elementary school with seven other students. There, teachers taught him to sit still, take turns, “all of those things that go against his nature,” says Naomi Meyer.
“He got a jump start on academic skills, too,” Jennifer Meyer adds. “He’s good at math. I attribute some of that to the early math skills they did in the classroom.”
Kathy McGrew, BA ’80, MS ’90, is an early intervention and early childhood special education specialist with Early Childhood CARES. As an undergraduate, she worked at the UO Child Development Center. In graduate school, she enrolled in practicums with children who had special needs. “That’s where I found my passion,” she says.
She also found her mentor, the late Beverly Fagot, PhD ’67, a former member of the UO psychology department (1978–98) who researched the differences in social development in children. “I was a coder in her research,” McGrew says, “one of the folks behind the one-way mirror, coding the behavior of the teacher and the children. I eventually got to be the teacher who was coded.”
These days, McGrew oversees two parent-toddler classes a week. She seems to possess the ability to be everywhere at once in the large, colorful room she’s created to help developmentally delayed and disabled toddlers get a head start on life. She pulls a big pink plastic pig from a cupboard marked “Fine Motor Skills” and hands it to a ponytailed girl who’s reaching to take a similar toy from a boy in a Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt. “I know better than to get out just one,” she says to the parents, laughing. Both children happily slip big coins into the slots on the pigs’ backs.
The pigs sit on the “Thinking Table,” full of cause-and-effect toys that can be pushed, pulled, and stacked. It’s near the “Messy Table”—on this day, set with four mounds of turquoise dough beside rolling and shaping tools. There’s a “Chill-Out Corner” with books and a hanging chair; a loft with stairs for little legs to navigate; a carpet-covered swing on a rainbow rug; and a sensory bin at toddler level, which, on this mid-September day, is full of dried white beans.
One of the tools that guide this class is the Assessment, Evaluation, and Programming System for Infants and Children, developed by Diane Bricker, UO professor emerita. “It looks at each child’s individual development of fine motor and gross motor skills,” says McGrew, “plus communication and social and cognitive development. It helps us to determine the goals for each child.”
McGrew refers to her class as “preschool prep.” “Everything is about language,” she says. “Everything is about following directions. All of my newbies are in diapers, and they flit from one activity to another. At the end of the year, they’re sitting in circle and they’re sharing. These kids are rock stars.”
It’s easy to assume that the drug-affected child in her class is the little guy lost in a voluminous hoodie. He falls as he climbs into a plastic ball pit. He’s small in stature, very pale. Drool shines on his chin. But he’s not the one. Rather, the kid in question strides between tables with an alert expression. The toddler rolls a plastic truck down a slide and laughs, builds a three-foot tower with multicolored blocks, then hops down the loft stairs to plunge two hands into the bin of beans.
“Once kids who are born with meth or heroin withdraw,” McGrew says, “once their bodies recuperate, some of them are okay.”
The toddler born drug-affected attends Early Childhood CARES classes with a parent—a friendly, tranquil adult who’s gone through a local co-residency drug treatment program with her child.
The child hands a cup of beans to the parent, who smiles and nods and repeats the colors of the stacked blocks. They’re close, with no indication of turmoil. The toddler holds up a Kermit the Frog doll almost as tall as the kids in the classroom. The parent takes it and playfully chases the child to the Chill-Out Corner.
“This family got help and responded to treatment,” McGrew Says. “Given early intervention, given that parents really buckle down and learn and use the strategies we share with them, the prognosis is really very good.”
THE CHALLENGE OF ADAPTING
Children born drug-affected may struggle in regular classrooms as they grow older. Imagine sending your first-grader to school and receiving daily phone calls from the principal’s office—reports of hitting, biting, refusal to sit still, and tantrums thrown over basic requests for math and spelling work. Even the most skilled teachers—equipped with weighted blankets and noise-canceling headphones and necklaces on which sensory seekers can chew—can’t always give drug-affected children the one-on-one attention and the quiet space they need to be academically successful.
Some parents put their kids in full-time behavioral-support classes offered by local school districts. Others homeschool. The Meyer children spend most of their day in a regular classroom, transitioning to a special-education room for individualized math and reading instruction. For behavioral issues, their mothers turn to the free outpatient counseling services and collaborative problem-solving classes offered by the Child Center, a Marcola-based nonprofit that offers psychiatric, therapeutic, and special education programs.
Once a week at the Child Center, parents check their kids into a supervised playroom, then enjoy pizza or sandwiches while learning communication strategies for kids who may—because of issues with executive functioning—have difficulty with planning, organization, or expressing their needs in a clear manner.
Jennifer Meyer describes how her son had always been a morning person before suddenly falling out of his routine and refusing to get dressed. In a calm moment, she tried the collaborative problem-solving model they’d studied at the Child Center. “We sat him down and said, ‘Hey, getting dressed in the morning has been kind of tough. What’s up?’” Eventually, she discovered that he didn’t like his underwear. “He wanted boxer briefs,” she says. “We went to the store, bought some new underwear, and worked it out.”
Collaborative problem-solving also informs the Keeping Foster Parents Trained and Supported (KEEP) intervention program, founded by Patricia Chamberlain, PhD ’80. Recognizing the power of foster and kinship parents to help each other with caregiving issues in a supportive environment, Chamberlain first established the Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care program model in 1983 to address teens with delinquency and mental health issues. The KEEP program originated from this model, with a focus on children between the ages of five and 12.
Initially, Chamberlain worked as a special education teacher, collaborating with the parents of some of her students to address difficult behaviors. “You can work with kids during the day in a school setting,” she says, “but for kids who have major challenges, if you really want that work to be sustained and generalized, you’re going to need to work closely with parents.”
The KEEP program gathers together seven to 10 foster parents for weekly sessions at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, where trained facilitators address the specific circumstances and priorities of caregivers and children. The goal of the program is to prevent foster placement severance and improve reunification rates with kinship families while reducing behavioral and emotional challenges.
Along with all the support groups and classes in Oregon, parents may rely on help from developmental pediatricians and psychiatrists who can identify anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and learning disabilities. They may prescribe medication, a choice that Early Childhood CARES’ Kathy McGrew and the Meyers embrace with practical enthusiasm.
“They need a way to stabilize their sensory systems,” McGrew says, “so they can learn.”
LOVE BRINGS US HOME
In their finished basement decorated with rows of family photos, Jennifer and Naomi Meyer gather together their community of foster, adoptive, and birth families in mid-October to create “Bags of Love” for babies entering foster care.
“In this season of thankfulness and social action,” reads their Facebook invitation to the event, “our family is looking for ways to band together with other families to impact our community. We are hoping that a project like this will bring our friends’ families together with a purpose and will allow us time to pause and think about a world bigger than ourselves.”
Adults and children arrive bearing packages of diapers and pacifiers, receiving blankets, warm outfits, bottles, and other essentials to place in colorful drawstring sacks created by the local nonprofit, Bags of Love. Parents stand on one side of the table to assist kids filing past on the other side. Small hands select bright quilts and burp cloths, hair ribbons and rattles to drop into open bags. Voices exclaim over handmade teddy bears and board books.
When they’re finished assembling, they move to a smaller table in the corner near the playroom. On it, squares of colored paper and crayons, plus a prototype of a personalized card for each baby that the Meyers and their children will slip into each bag.
First, a round smiling face. And below, these crayoned words:
Somebody cares about you.
—By Melissa Hart
Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014) and Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, April 2016). She teaches nonfiction writing for Whidbey Island MFA Program.