Weathering family storms

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.

Having her away for that long was a wrenching experience, but at the time we felt it was worth it. She worked hard for someone her age on many difficult issues. Her graduation was one of the most emotional experiences of our lives.

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 (when we'd worry about her), and briefly appearing at home (when she was verbally abusive and untrustworthy). She was older - 15 - and the risks were greater. She burned through friends, boyfriends and neighborhoods (the worst was the U District), and we know she was doing drugs. We suspect she was involved in other illegal activities as well.

We called the police several times, and once we found her ourselves and brought her home (the most nightmarish car ride of our lives), but she just turned around and ran away again. Our attempts to rein 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 turning 18. I cannot emphasize enough how much distress this injustice causes me.

We were feeling more and more isolated and full of despair. Some of our friends had stopped calling; perhaps our situation was too unsettling, or we were no fun to be around. We decided we needed support. Surely there were others with this problem.

In November 2004 I called around and found out about Changes. My husband and I attended their very next meeting, and have attended faithfully ever since.

At our first session 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?

I now know I did nothing wrong (nothing significant, anyway - nobody's perfect). Changes has 10 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.

I have tried hard to understand why my daughter makes the choices she does, and I can't. But Changes has shown me that understanding does not necessarily lead to change. I have changed despite my lack of understanding.

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. Another is that it takes time.

To change, what you are doing must be challenged, but some people are defensive about how they parent.

The second time I attended Changes, another new parent described an interaction with her child. Someone else 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 like that. The way things were was just not acceptable, and I was open to being critiqued.

Changes meetings are highly structured. They last two-and-a-half hours and seem to fly by, because of the structure. They are divided into four parts that have a clear purpose and time limit.

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 four to six 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.

My husband and I have our own team and also serve on other people's teams. I have experienced tremendous growth pains at our own team meetings, and I will be forever grateful to members of our team for enabling that. As a team member, I often startle myself by saying to others what I need to hear.

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. We had heard about it before, but did not have the strength to pursue it because the process requires tremendous parental perseverance. Its prospect was just too daunting.

Changes gave us that strength. Several 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 by actually appearing in court with us. (We have since done the same for others.)

This is how ARYs work. 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 12th 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.

Some people still attend Changes even though they are no longer in crisis. 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 to the core. 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 she and I will 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 or call 888-468-2620.

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