Friday, June 22, 2012

One for the Murphys (book review via

***SPOILER ALERT***  If you have not read the book and don't want to know what happens, you should not read this review. 

Okay, I am very conflicted about this book - just as conflicted as Carley Connors is about being a foster child.  I highly recommend this book, especially to foster parents or people who are considering becoming foster parents or people who have regular contact with foster children.  However, from this review, you might not think so.  What I dislike about the book appears to outweigh what I like about it.  It really doesn't, though.  Since I am a social worker (by default, through a long and winding road of state employment that covered law enforcement, corrections, etc.), I am very concerned with what I did not see in the book.  But I still love the book.  I do.  My very favorite line is, "'We're almost there,' Mrs. MacAvoy says, taking a corner faster than I think any social worker is supposed to."  Cracks me up every time, probably because some of my kiddos think exactly the same thing when they ride with me.  That said, here is my review:

What I LOVED about this book:  Carley Connors is REAL - every nuance, every knot in her stomach, every emotional conflict, every minimalization of past events, every smart aleck response to change the subject, etc.  I ABSOLUTELY LOVE HER!!  She embodies the turmoil felt by every foster child over the age of three, regardless of placement and regardless of length of time in the system.  Carley perfectly expressed the anger she felt at her mother, but the love she still felt for her and how confusing that was.  A few times I caught myself thinking Carley's voice was too old for a 12- or 13-year-old. Then I stopped and remembered a couple of my former kiddos who were that age and were just as savvy, just as witty, just as street-wise, and way more jaded about life.  Watching Carley's evolution in foster care felt real - and it was watching, more than reading.  I felt like a fly on the wall.  I have seen kids come into a new home with their guard up, keeping an aloof distance from everyone because they were afraid to get too close.  In Oklahoma, we try to keep them in the same schools for consistency, but that is often not possible, so there is more anxiety and more concerns about being an outsider at the new school.  After a while, though, those walls the foster kids put up start to crumble a little at a time.  Some days they seem to be gone completely, but one little thing can build them right back up in an instant.  Foster kids are sponges - they watch and absorb everything for processing later.  They do most of this on their own, just like Carley. The feelings of not belonging are constant, even when they are with other family members.  It takes patience and time and near-constant reassurance that they are safe, they are loved, they belong, they are good, they are smart, they are winners...  Carley was spot-on.

I loved the interaction between Carley and the boys.  It also rang pretty true.  I liked the conversations between Carley and Mr. Murphy, but I was sad that these didn't really seem to occur often until Toni broke the ice with Mr. Murphy through their baseball rivalry of the Yankees and Red Sox.  Mrs. Murphy was good and honest and kind and caring.  She genuinely loved Carley and tried to do the right thing by her.  I figured out she had been a foster child way before she admitted it to Carley.  I liked that the family was able to show their emotions with each other, and to demonstrate that families can disagree and argue, but forgive and still love each other. 

I enjoyed Carley's friendship with Toni, and her antagonistic relationship with Rainer.  Although, I wish Rainer's character had been a little more explained.  It would have been nice to have seen them call a more definite truce on their own, without interference from Toni.

What I HATED about this book:  When Carley asked if she could call Mrs. Murphy "Mom", she is rebuffed - gently, but still rebuffed and still heartbroken.  There is no discussion about using a nickname.  (Mrs. Mom, which Carley joked about with Toni earlier, would have been a PERFECT nickname.)  Mrs. Murphy's excuse is, "I just don't think it would be a healthy thing for you", even after Carley says she knows it's just pretend.  Mrs. Murphy was a foster child, so she should have known how important this was to give Carley a sense of belonging and fitting in - even if it was pretend and there was no intention to make Carley a permanent part of the family.  Wanting to call the foster parents "mom" and "dad" is completely normal, especially when there are other children in the home who do so. 

Mrs. Murphy should have known how the court system worked, yet she spoke as if she had no understanding of the legal system with regard to foster care.  Mrs. MacAvoy, the social worker, was basically non-existent.  Once she placed Carley in the home, she did not bother to come visit and check on her until Carley called her several weeks later.  I don't work in Connecticut (where the book is set), but I find it very hard to believe that once they place a child, social workers don't have to go back out unless they get a phone call.  The social worker should have had an on-going and hopefully, close relationship with Carley.  Mrs. MacAvoy should have kept the foster parents and Carley in the loop as to what was going on in the court case.  Instead, Mrs. MacAvoy is a peripheral figure who is crazy busy all the time and even talks to Carley like she is a bother sometimes.  That's not okay.  (While social workers are mostly crazy busy, our kids deserve our full attention and respect, even when they are not acting their best.)  Carley should also have had an attorney who represented her only, and who would also have kept her informed on the case.  Carley should have been asked what she wanted to happen in the case - whether or not she wanted to go back to her mother or if she felt safe with her. 

Carley had no professional to express her feelings to - not the social worker, not an attorney, not a counselor, no one.  No foster child who had been through what she went through would have been without a therapist.  Foster Parents are not trained as counselors.  Victims of abuse and neglect need the insight of professionals to ensure they are getting the proper treatment to move forward in their lives and to ensure they do not blame themselves for what happened to them.  Instead, none of the core issues or feelings are ever resolved for Carley.  This is very bothersome.

Mrs. Connors' character was not fleshed out at all.  She was stereotypically a neglectful, abusive mother.  There was talk of charging her criminally for her part in the abuse, but this is magically dropped because Carley's stepfather admits she did not help (even though we know that she did).  I found that implausible, but was willing to overlook that, thinking that she would be held accountable in the juvenile court system.  But, she was not.  She woke up from her coma, went through rehab to learn to walk again, was released from the hospital, and got Carley back. She was not required to go to court, complete a treatment plan, nothing.  In reality, she would most likely have been required to complete counseling for domestic violence victims, complete parenting classes, prove that she had adequate income and a safe, stable home for Carley, participate in family counseling with Carley, etc.  She was allowed to see Carley unsupervised, and to say mean and hateful things to her - even telling her she didn't want her anymore.  [That is not a reality of the foster care system that I know.  Visits with parents are supervised until we know that the child will be safe to visit alone.  They would never have been allowed to visit alone the first few times, even if Mrs. Connors was considered a non-offending parent.] 

Telling Carley - or any foster child - that they cannot have any contact with the former foster family they have possibly grown to love is just asking for those kids to develop Reactive Attachment Disorder.  It is rarely better for the child to undergo the additional trauma of removal from a foster home and also have to suffer a complete disconnect from the persons in the home, especially if they have gotten attached to the family.

Carley would not have been returned to Mrs. Connors' care by the Court unless she could have been returned SAFELY.  No one seemed to care that there were huge red flags as to the potential for future neglect.  No one asked Carley about her concerns for the future if she went back to her mom.  Everyone just talked about how much her mother "really loved her" and had "put her life on the line" for Carley.  Sorry, that's not good enough.  By not ensuring that Carley would be safe when returned home, all of the adults were complicit in allowing Carley to minimize her mother's participation in her abuse.  Mrs. Connors learned NOTHING from Carley going into foster care! She stated that they would move back to Las Vegas (where Carley does NOT want to be) and everything would be "just like it was", which was horrible.

NO ONE - and I mean NO ONE - was advocating for Carley.  And that broke by heart...

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