I will simply apologize now for the length of this post. Sometimes it all comes to a head rather abruptly and this is one of those times.
The last two weeks were a whirlwind.
Leading up to them, Joseph and I began to hope in big ways that Asher was changing. His self-awareness was taking into account more than the most basic of black-&-white concepts. He wrote three letters of apology that included acknowledgments of betrayal and pain beyond the abuse. He showed emotional regulation in the face of big feelings. And, added to victim mediation, we were preparing to finally begin family counseling.
Then little things started to show up that were inconsistent with the bigger picture. Asher was less than gracious when he received feedback from Georgia and Olivia on his letters to them. He had a volatile outburst and spewed expletives about and towards me and Joseph only a few moments before we arrived at JCF. His peers were the ones that insisted he come clean about his behavior behind our back. The unsettled feeling stemming from his lack of enthusiasm to return home kept growing. We brought Ginny for her third special visit but even amidst the smiling and singing along while she played her ukulele, Asher was distant and preoccupied.
We received a letter from Asher last week only a few days after the visit with Ginny and our first family counseling session. Along with a school update and a rather condescending, but we believe age-appropriate, bravado for the necessity to engage in the hard work of counseling, Asher wrote this:
I was wondering about the question that both of you gave me in our first counseling session and how I can best answer it. For I do want to come home but at the same time I really don’t for different reasons. Please don’t be sad that I am not home yet for I know that this program is not about the amount of time that I spend here but the change that I make. There are things that we need to work out and come to an angreement on. These are things that I am not going to go into for it would take too long, but I know that we both know what they are. I think that I am ready to return to the community but I also know that I will make mistakes and I will need help but I will also need room to grow on my own in some ways. Please understand this and that I am not avoiding you or the rest of the family but I truly will need time and some space not just at home but while I am still here, too.
The statement that he doesn’t want to come home was sad but expected. What surprised us was a clear lack of understanding for our motives (we are not sad that he is not home because he has not shown nearly enough emotional growth to warrant his return), the ongoing belief that he has a place at the negotiation table as an equal in the discussion of how his reintegration process will work, and his continuing need to push us further and further away. The idea that he needs even more space away from us is ridiculous considering we spend, on average, 10 minutes a week on the phone and 1.5 hours a week during a single visit. If you do the math, he has spent over 20,000 hours at JCF and we occupy less than 1% of that time. I’m not exactly sure what deep growth point needed those additional 90 minutes but considering the way he uses access to him as a weapon*, we were not surprised when he chose not to call or put in passes for us the following weekend.
We are not clear, as the letter states, on what the matters are that require our agreement. We put together a safety plan that encapsulates our personal commitment to Asher’s wellbeing while balancing our convictions and family culture with the requirements placed upon us by the law. That safety plan, assigned to us by the court, is the only document of authority dealing with Asher’s reintegration. It is a unilateral report of what Asher can expect and will be expected of him. As a law-breaker, abuser, and all-around self-absorbed adolescent, he does not have the privilege to weigh in on how we run our home. He certainly does not have the right to demand concessions or make qualifiers for what we must do to “earn” him back.
Our heads were spinning from the obvious entitlement still oozing from every one of Asher’s pores. Not once has our son acknowledged the heartache he caused me and Joseph, nor recognized the sacrifices made on our part to continue pursuing relationship with him. He refuses to grasp the truth that his sin causes a ripple effect that passes through Georgia, Olivia, and Nathan to the rest of his family, extended family, friends, church, and even greater community.
A few days after receiving his letter, we received his bi-monthly progress report put together by input from his school teachers, lead staff, social worker, and sometimes probation officer. Asher’s lead staff wrote this phenomenally poignant remark: This type of behavior [referring to Asher’s inability to accept a necessary plan by staff to keep him safe in light of a new peer who was targeting our son] demonstrates a lingering obstacle in Asher’s way of making genuine amends, which is his tendency to be self-absorbed and more concerned about how things will either benefit or be a detriment to him. Asher has the necessary skills to accept this as something that needs to improve, as well as making it happen. If he could make this the greater priority, then things like this safety plan may not be that big of a deal.
It hits the nail on the head.
Asher sees everything based on a cost/benefit analysis and filters his decisions through a matrix of perceived pros and cons. There is no room for relational connection, trust, vulnerability, or love in his model. He radically oversimplifies the options into a list of good v. bad where good is defined as giving him what he wants and believes he needs/is entitled to and bad is defined as everything else.
After pouring over the full progress report and praying fervently for wisdom, Joseph came to a strong conviction that we need to significantly cut back on the number of visits we make. This decision, not made lightly, resulted from the ugly but real truth that Asher does not want us. He shows little enthusiasm for our arrival and even less disappointment at our departure. He is easily distracted and often appears to resent our presence since it regularly occupies a chunk of free time the juveniles are given on Sundays. His peers are more concerned with the ways our son treats us than he is and Asher’s probation officer even said she believed he may be jealous of the ways his peers thrive during our visits. We are the only parents who come consistently and also the only adults, outside of their immediate staff, who make an effort to know each of them by name. Even there own social workers cannot name them on sight.
We shared the news with Asher during his staffing this past Thursday. He did not take the news well. He became immediately incensed and started to cry out in anger and frustration. We believe that some of his histrionics comes from losing control (how dare we choose not to visit when he tells us we can) and the rest is probably manipulation (showing powerful emotions that belie a calculated or self-absorbed response). His probation officer stated that she believed our decision was about a year overdue.
As we left the staffing, I was overwhelmed with confusion about our path moving forward. I know that under all the ugliness, our son is really a very small boy hurt by the ugliness of sin. I also understand that the armor he has assembled to protect himself against (mostly perceived) threats is damaging and we cannot enable it.
I experienced three panic attacks this past weekend as I waited for Monday and our next family counseling session. I’m not driven by anxiety and don’t often handle stress in this manner, but I would suddenly find myself wrapped up so tightly in fear while my heart raced. Walking a path of healing through abuse with three other children, I’m fairly well-acquainted with the different steps needed to truly mend a broken life. The biggest is willing yourself to look at your heart and compassionately, with honesty and vulnerability, acknowledge the darkest of thoughts and fears. You can’t move forward with any success unless you first face the reality of your heart. But Asher refuses to endure the pain that comes from that work so he wraps his behaviors up in rationalizations, projections, and false beliefs. It is infuriating and utterly demoralizing to be unable to shake him awake. Additionally, we have no real power in any of his rehabilitation including what professionals he sees and how they practice therapy.
Joseph and I finally decided to write down some notes on what we believed were the biggest factors facing our broken relationship with Asher. We took the notes with us on Monday in anticipation of sharing them with both our son and his therapist, Jon. Here are a few excerpts:
*We are motivated by love! It is this fundamental desire to be attached to you that continues to bring us to JCF week after week, month after month, year after year. We are not remaining actively involved in your life because we are required to, or because we are trying to impress anyone, or even – at this point – because we enjoy it. It all comes back to our heart that longs to be affectionate with you.
*We are concerned that there is no heart-connection between us. This leads to:
-a complete lack of relational trust
-no emotional reciprocity
-a much higher likelihood of emotional/psychological abuse towards us/our family
*It appears to us that you define love as giving what you want or demand with no exception. When we do not do what you want, regardless of whether it is healthy, you become sullen and isolated. This pattern of behavior was at work long before you were removed from our home. Essentially you say, “Give me what I want or else I will withhold warmth, affections, or even consideration.”
*Cost/benefit analysis will always, ultimately, prove unhealthy in determining whether you want to come home. We will fail and we will hurt you, which will unbalance your scales. Without a relationship between us to support you, you will have no reason to be or remain affectionate.
The decision to capture our thoughts and bring along Asher’s most recent letter was clearly Holy Spirit inspired. Jon met us at the front desk of JCF and announced that he believed it best to meet with us alone this time. We barely know our son’s therapist, and we welcomed the opportunity to share with him our thoughts without worrying about Asher’s responses. The ability to clearly articulate exactly what we wanted to gain from counseling was a Godsend.
Jon was not surprised by Asher’s letter though disappointed by it. He confirmed our son’s abnormal view of entitlement and even shed light on exactly how far-reaching Asher’s belief is of his right and ability to be independent and autonomous. Jon also acknowledged the difficulties for us presented by a system designed to reach and rehabilitate boys who are assumed to be products of generational, systemic crime. When that is not the case, there are real drawbacks to the way JCF operates.
We spoke openly about many of our concerns and Jon graciously listened. He shared his own thoughts on Asher and we were greatly encouraged to hear many of Jon’s foundational beliefs about morality, ethics, family, and healthy relationships mirror our own. However, we were not prepared for the blow Jon dealt us when he began peeling back Asher’s thought processes and motivations as expressed to him in one-on-one counseling.
After clarifying our desire to have an affectionate relationship with our son, Jon bluntly said, “Asher sees himself as an adult and believes he is ready to engage in all interactions as an adult. Unfortunately, our program only reinforces this type of thinking. He will not submit to your family’s rule about dating and openly acknowledges he has every intention of seeking out a relationship so that he might have sex as soon as he is released. He renounces all your faith-based beliefs and your values, which stem from those beliefs, are in direct opposition to Asher’s values. Asher wants a relationship with his siblings and I believe he is motivated to move through victim mediation. He is also motivated to leave JCF. But he does not want to go home and he does not want a relationship with you in any capacity other than one seen as a fellow adult.”
Joseph immediately teared up and grew quiet. I had no idea what to say.
We knew that Asher questioned God and often claimed that he was unsure of whether he believed God existed. But to have Jon starkly lay out the essence of our relational discord was overwhelming. We spent the next hour trying to better understand exactly what we could do to retain some semblance of relational warmth with our son. We also struggled to understand how to relate to Asher if he believes he is ready for adulthood and yet I wouldn’t allow my adult friends to treat me the way he does! Jon agreed that Asher was immature and incapable of truly understanding the depth of what he believed he wanted. And while Asher has made remarkable changes in his values regarding sexual abuse, he remains unwilling to see any of his other behaviors as hurtful or abusive.
Asher believes all we do is demand obedience from him and he is unwilling to address any of our “demands” without first having his own heard. We are appalled at the idea of listening to and supporting his demands – the primary one being his “right” to date (either male or female) and engage in any level of sexual activity while living in our home. So, if we both see the other as only demanding his own way, and if we feel convicted that Asher’s demands really are impossible for us to support, is there any room for growth? If we are willing to show up and work to remain vulnerable to the task at hand, but our son is only interested in seeing his own bottom line supported, can we honestly engage in family counseling? By the end of our meeting, Joseph simply asked if family counseling was even worth it.
Jon immediately asserted that there was every reason to move forward with it.
So, we don’t know what this will hold for us, and we are not meeting for another two weeks. In the meantime, we are not visiting on the weekends and we will probably not call before our next session.
I am staring at the darkest point I’ve seen so far – we may be years, if ever, away from a reconciled relationship with our son. After our meeting, we spoke with his social worker for the first time about placement in foster care. We were encouraged by Jon, his social worker, his probation officer, and his lead staff that Asher is nowhere near ready for JCF to pursue releasing him. We were also reminded that they can hold him until he is 21 – that means 6 more years of mandatory therapy.
My heart breaks even as I am strangely moving towards peace.
Toay, I ordered a print of our family portrait taken just two months after Asher’s removal. At the time, it felt important to keep the appointment (made when Asher was still in our home), but I couldn’t bring myself to order any of the prints that included our whole family where the absence of Asher was so stark. We now have friends who don’t even know Asher exists.
I also told Joseph I was open to moving at any time. Our dream to perhaps build our own home came into being through this process, but I believed we needed to wait for Asher. I didn’t want to leave this house under any guise of denial. If we couldn’t reconcile the relationship with Asher in the home where he hurt us, then was it truly reconciliation? I still believe in this concept but I no longer believe we must actually wait in this house for my wayward son to return.
I am much lighter in my heart. The hole that is Asher has grown a little smaller. I wept over what I hoped for. I grieved these past two weeks for our losses. But I’m ready to embrace the life I have – and that life does not include much of Asher.
*JCF and the Positive-Peer Culture rehabilitation program uses a system of peer-initiated visitor permissions. It is designed for a two-fold purpose: 1) provide a level of safety to the juveniles who have unhealthy or even dangerous family members; 2) require the juvenile to take ownership of his relationships. This means Asher has 100% control over when and if we are allowed to see him or speak to him. If he refuses to take our phone calls, call us, or register us for a visitor pass, then we have no recourse. In the past, Asher has refused contact with us for weeks at a time. It is a thinly-veiled method of controlling our relationship and keeping it on his terms.