Note: This series of posts illustrates the early childhood experiences contributing to attachment issues in adopted or biological children. While this story is fictional, the majority of children suffering from attachment issues will have experienced much of the trauma written about here. The childhood trauma, as well as behaviors depicted, are common in lessor or greater degrees to the majority of children treated at Zion Hills Academy.
The Ketchings had experience with high-risk or hard to place foster children. Their policy was to only take one child at a time, even if it sometimes meant having to break up siblings. They had a unique approach to dealing with difficult children and Kyle felt that they were Mariana’s last real hope of a loving family. He was out of options and ideas. A pretty little toddler should be an easy placement and certainly a shoe-in for adoption.
But this was not the case with tiny Mariana.
At almost two years old, Mariana still struggled with balance and did not walk gracefully. She rarely used words, instead preferring to communicate with noises and wild gesticulations. When these failed, Mariana would move to one-word commands. She often sucked her thumb or fingers and showed no interest in potty training.
Susan Ketching admired the little girl’s beautiful features. She had a warm brown skin tone and soft chestnut hair. Mariana’s hair had never been cut and it fell in long curls down her back. Susan reached out gently to sweep a hair from her face. The unexpected physical contact frightened Mariana and she reached out at swatted Susan’s hand and began screaming. Susan wanted to reach out and pull the toddler into her arms. She had been a foster mom long enough to know that Mariana was not ready.
Jack Ketching always felt a little apprehensive about welcoming a young child into their home. Many of their previous foster children were in their teenage years. Jack knew what to expect and how to manage an older kid’s behaviors. This tiny child’s needs, however, were complex and foreign to him. At first, Jack had not wanted to take Mariana into his home at all. Only after Susan assured him that she would be the primary caretaker did Jack relent. He looked at Susan’s bright eyes brimming with hope and was no longer able to refuse.
Mariana wobbled when she walked and often fell; Susan put up gates on the stairway to keep their new daughter safe. Mariana seemed to like Susan, allowing her to hug Mariana and carry her to bed the first night. Mariana put her head on Susan’s shoulder and whispered “mama” into the foster mother’s ear. Susan melted with emotion and knew they could share a whole lifetime together.
Jack knew something was off with Mariana, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Something was off with that baby. Jack shrugged and headed up to bed while Susan laid the child down and then slipped quietly into their room. He smiled as Susan climbed in bed. Things were calm and comfortable. The couple kissed goodnight and went to sleep.
For two whole days, Susan and Mariana played, sang, cooked, and did chores like a genuine mother-daughter team. The tiny girl loved the attention and the love that focused solely on her. It was warm and easy. Susan almost wanted to believe that this was the child whom she could finally adopt and live out the rest of her days in this happy state. Susan knew there was always a “honeymoon” period with new placements, but she felt in those first 48 hours that Mariana was different.
Jack woke up the third night and heard scratching and clawing accompanied with a wail that reminded him of dogs being beaten. He leaped out of bed, yelled for Susan to wake up, and ran down the hallway to Mariana’s room. She somehow had gotten out of the crib and was trying to open the bedroom door. As Jack entered the room, Mariana’s beet red face looked up at him. Her fingers were bloody from scratching at the door, and all that crying had turned her hair into a stringy, tangled mess.
Susan reached the room and her stomach turned when the screeching Mariana began howling in her direction. Most of her fingernails were torn and bleeding. The bedroom door looked as though an animal had been clawing at it. Mariana looked straight at Susan and pointed to her. Mariana screamed “Hate’chu” repeatedly at Susan. The tiny bundle of fluffy loving dreams Susan had about Mariana ended abruptly as the raging toddler continued her assault.
Mariana’s rages never fell into any discernible pattern. Susan never knew what would set the child off, and a delicate dance began between her and Mariana. Susan felt tense and concerned almost all the time. She had two contrasting relationships with Mariana sometimes a sweet child, others a crazed demon.
Susan talked with Kyle after the first four days and requested a referral for Mariana to see a doctor regarding these types of behaviors. Kyle, fearing that the Ketchings were wanting to surrender the child, was extremely relieved to only need approval for a doctor visit.
The Ketchings woke up early the day of the appointment. Mariana had hardly slept that night. She was now in a low toddler bed. Mariana tended to get up on her own, and Susan was terrified she would hurt herself climbing out of the crib. Mariana still could not open the door herself, but would bang it with her tiny fists as Susan and Jack helplessly listened to her fury from their bedroom.
Doctor Hastings was a pediatrician who contracted with the county to see kids in foster care. He was familiar with many of the needs of this marginalized population. Dr. Hastings listened carefully to Susan as she described the behaviors and concerns she had about Mariana. The two-year-old had gorgeous hair and bright eyes. She was charming and polite to the Doctor. Mariana appeared to be behaving exceedingly well for a young child with such a rough beginning. Doctor Hastings examined the child fully. She was attentive, responsive, and extremely polite. He made a note of Susan’s concerns, but did not speak his honest opinion. Dr. Hastings was certain that the problems Susan was describing were more a result of her own shortcomings. This adorable toddler could not be a monster to the extent Susan had described.
Jack knew Susan was unhappy as soon as they left the doctor’s office. She tried to pick up Mariana to expedite their leaving, but the toddler stiffened her body and pushed away. Susan felt a sharp bite of rejection as her frustration immediately returned. Jack picked up the child and hurried outside. Within three minutes of starting the car, Mariana began her wailing again. This time it was not only shrill, but filled with rage. Jack turned the radio on and drove the twenty miles home. Susan looked out the window, crying silently.
The Ketchings spent the next two years with Mariana as though they all lived in a prison camp of sorts. Susan kept rigid routines and timetables as if she were a Drill Sargeant, getting Mariana up, dressed, and off to preschool at precisely the same time every day. Activities were overbooked to minimize the amount of time Susan was home alone with Mariana. On the rare occasion that Mariana was home with unstructured time, Susan did her best to keep the child engaged, switching activities frequently.
Jack had installed an alarm on the outside of Mariana’s door the morning after she first realized she could open it herself. At four years old, Mariana had made her way to the kitchen, eating leftover mashed potatoes, chicken drumsticks and nearly a quart of blueberries. Mariana then stuffed fistfulls of chicken and fruit into her pockets. When Susan woke the next morning, there was a trail of food leading from Mariana’s room to the kitchen. Food on the wall, the floor, and a fridge that remained open for several hours. Susan did her best not to scream at the child.
Jack put the alarm up and Mariana tested the alarm for an entire weekend. She almost seemed delighted to set off the high pitched whine. Mariana’s favorite result of the alarm was the way it got the Ketchings up from their bedroom. It was great fun that first weekend to watch them up and down, over and over. Mariana seemed to enjoy having this power.
Susan woke up every morning for two years praying to God that today would be the day that she and Mariana would finally make a breakthrough in their relationship. Inevitably, every day was the same. Mariana would either be disengaged and politely cold with Susan, or filled with intensity and anger toward her. Jack was supportive, but when he was around Mariana his temper flared quickly. He secretly hoped Susan would not see the growing resentment and disgust he was feeling towards Mariana. For Jack, the graying in his wife’s hair and the growing wrinkles around her eyes only hardened his heart more toward Mariana. Something had to break and he hoped it wasn’t Susan.
One morning while Mariana was at preschool, Susan went into her room to do some cleaning. She bent over to make the child’s bed. Jack heard Susan’s screams from way out in the yard. Running into the house and fearing a burglar or rapist had made their way inside, Jack grabbed the rifle above the door frame and carried it as he raced up the stairs. Susan’s screams turned to sobs as she saw Jack. He held Susan close and looked over her shoulder. On the bed, under the covers, was the lifeless body of Rango, the family cat.
Jack did not know how or when things got so bad. Dealing with teenagers made sense to him. This little princess with chestnut hair and wide eyes had some demon inside of her that blackened her soul. Handing Susan a Valium, his hand felt heavy as he picked up the phone.
Kyle hated his job. Something in him prevented him from leaving to find more meaningful work, however, and he could not seem to ever make any real steps to leave Child Protective Services. Jack’s call had left Kyle with no other option than to retrieve Mariana once again. This time was different though - she would not be going to a residential program. Kyle’s hopes that one day that spritely Latina child would find happiness in a loving adoptive family were quickly disappearing. With a heavy heart he reached the Ketching’s home. He stepped out of the car, steeling himself for the task, but was met with an excited and polite Mariana.
The child did not hug the Ketchings goodbye. She shook Jack’s hand and simply smiled at Susan, who could not stop crying. Susan felt a curious mixture of loss and relief to see Mariana get into the car and drive off with Kyle. Susan felt that she had deeply failed Mariana. At the same time, each day, each hour, and sometimes each minute, she had been walking on eggshells. For such a small creature, Mariana had held the Ketchings’ life hostage to her emotions. Jack took Susan in his arms and held her while she cried.
Mariana was taken to a child inpatient psychiatric ward for evaluation. In listening to the Ketchings account of Mariana’s behavior, Kyle felt that it was important that she be evaluated. Jack and Susan had a lot of experience dealing with difficult behaviors in foster children, so to have to return Mariana to the county’s custody meant there were some significant issues in the child. Kyle felt that she was rather young for a hospital placement, but he really did not have any other solution.
The doctor pointed Kyle to a chair in the corner and then asked the charming Mariana to sit on the examining table. Kyle looked at the small body with her rigid jaw and cascade of curls, and wondered how someone so precious could wear out the Ketchings. Mariana was supposed to be an easy placement and yet here he sat once again.
The doctor looked Mariana over very thoroughly. He did a complete body check and even stepped out and brought in a nurse. Kyle was reading a magazine in his chair when the nurse came into the room. Mariana was asked to lie back while the doctor checked her for signs of any trauma. The nurse gently help the child’s hand and talked closely to her.
Kyle sensed he knew that nurse. She was making Mariana giggle. The nurse smiled at the little girl and told her, “I used to know a baby named Mariana.”
Kyle grew a smile. “Are you Carrie?”
The nurse moved her gaze to the corner. “Kyle? With CPS?”
Kyle cleared his throat. He hated his job. “Yes, I am the man who comes to, ahem. Well..”
Nurse Carrie smiled and nodded, understanding the difficulties Kyle was having in describing his regular visits to the labor and delivery unit of the hospital. The doctor cleared his throat loudly. All eyes were on him. His eyes told them everything they needed to know.
Mariana got dressed with the help of Nurse Carrie while Kyle spoke in the hallway with the Doctor. Kyle hated to ask, but was patiently waiting.
The Doctor said, “Looks like she has signs of recent vaginal and anal penetration. There are lesions and contusions consistent with some abuse in that area. I went ahead and did a full rape kit just in case.”
Kyle went white.
Nurse Carrie came out of the the room holding a now-dressed Mariana. The two went down the hall to the intake room of the residential unit like old pals. Mariana was like that, though, so loving. At least in the beginning.
Kyle gathered himself. He asked the doctor to fax the full report to his office. Kyle walked down the hallway, following the path Carrie and Mariana had taken. His heart heavy, Kyle knew that this nightmare was far from over.
Continue to Part 4