Facing a troubled child can take serious dedication to uncomfortable new changes

I belong to a support group called Changes Parent Support Network, for parents of at-risk youth. Though I am not the support group type, this one works for me.

I attend Changes every week because of the actions of our younger daughter. In the spring of 2002, when she was almost 13, she morphed from a delightful child into someone unrecognizable. She became hateful and ran away, frightening my husband and me to the core. When she came home, things got worse. Weekly counseling was pitifully insufficient. We had to do something more drastic; we had to intervene.

We sent her first to a wilderness camp in Idaho for a month, then directly to a therapeutic boarding school in Oregon for 18 months.

After she came home she did well for several months. Teachers told us she worked hard in school and was a delight to have in class. Then she suddenly spiraled downward again. Soon we were going to her school almost daily in response to the latest report of abhorrent behavior. Finally, she ran away again, and was gone all summer.

Thus began a long, depressing, sorrowful pattern of her running away for months, and briefly appearing at home. She burned through friends, boyfriends and neighborhoods, and we know she was doing drugs.

Our attempts to reign her in and help her were futile. She did not attend school, drug treatment or psychiatric appointments, and there was nothing we could do to make her.

In the State of Washington, parents lose most of their parental rights when the child reaches the age of 13, but they remain legally liable for anything harmful the child might do until they turn 18.

We were feeling more and more isolated and full of despair. Some of our friends had stopped calling. We decided we needed support. Surely there were others with this problem.

In November 2004, I called around and found out about Changes.

At our first meeting a woman said, "My son's been picked up by the cops and he's in juvie!" People laughed and applauded. I was dismayed; I did not understand their jubilation.

Now I know that woman well, and I do understand. A child should experience the consequences of his or her behavior, and if it's juvenile detention, so be it. Plus, juvie is safer than the streets, and you know where it is. I have now experienced that same strange jubilation, and relief, with my daughter.

When I first joined Changes, I felt like a failure as a parent. I had not abused my daughter, nor neglected her. I had loved her well. I was even a PTA mom! But here we were in a terrible situation. What did I do wrong?

Changes has ten fundamental beliefs that are read aloud every week. Number 9 says, "Our success as a parent or person is not tied to our kid's choices." That one resonates with me.

Many parents come to Changes wanting to "fix" their kids, now! One of the first things you learn is that the only person whose behavior you can control, and change, is your own.

The second time I attended Changes, another new parent described an interaction with her child. Someone asked, "Why did you do that?" The new parent took offense and said, "I don't think you have any right to question me like that." Tearfully, she got up and left, never to return.

Witnessing that, I realized I was hungry to be questioned. The way things were was just not acceptable. I was open to being critiqued.

During the meetings there is not much opportunity to talk at length about your particular situation. That is done outside weekly meetings, where the real work of Changes is done, in what are called team meetings.

After being in Changes for a few weeks, you form a team of 4 to 6 people who focus on your situation. They thoroughly examine your issues, generate more ideas for alternative approaches to your problem than you could by yourself, then help you develop a detailed plan of action.

In January 2005, after much discussion with our team, we filed an At-Risk Youth (ARY) Petition with the Juvenile Division of the King County Superior Court.

Several Changes members had been through the process, or were in it at that time, and they supported us, not just by telling us what steps we needed to take and what we could expect, but also by actually appearing in court with us.

Based on a family assessment performed by the Department of Social and Health Services, a judge hands down a court order stating what the child must and may not do. If the child violates that order in any way, the onus is on the parent to file what is called a contempt. Otherwise there will be no consequences and the ARY is worthless.

Consequences, determined by the judge, increase in severity as time goes on. They include writing a paper on a germane topic, community service, electronic home monitoring and detention.

We filed many contempts against our daughter, and warrants for her arrest if she ran away. We appeared in court many times, and sat on the opposite side of the courtroom from her. At first this was excruciating, but I learned from Changes that sometimes good parenting is counter-intuitive. The long-term goal was to make her accountable for her actions.

After nine months, many of which she was either on the run or in detention, the ARY finally took effect. Our daughter returned home and did relatively well for several months. She enrolled in a GED program, got a job and regular counseling and was pleasant at home.

Then, abruptly, she ran away again, and has been gone ever since. We know she is somewhere in the Puget Sound area because occasionally we hear from her. We have filed the twelfth runaway report with the Seattle Police Department.

But, thanks to Changes, we have our lives back. The group helps me identify and confront my fears, let go of what I cannot control, set boundaries, grieve, regain my sense of humor and preserve my sanity. For them the crucible is past; their acting-out teenagers have become responsible adults. They come to offer the rest of us wisdom and hope, and I thank them.

When our daughter was little, we vacationed in Hawaii. Once, when our backs were turned for a moment, she ran down the beach and disappeared under the waves, frightening us deeply. She surfaced moments later, laughing, and we grabbed her.

Now she is doing it again. We have grabbed her many times, but at this point (she is almost 17) we can only hope that eventually she will surface again on her own. I hope that someday we'll have a halfway normal mother-daughter relationship, but what I hope above all is that she will one day be healthy.

Changes Parent Support Network has chapters in Seattle, Des Moines, Everett, Kent and Redmond. For more information log on to cpsn.org or call (888) 468-2620.

"Jane Doe" may be contacted through editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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