Monday, February 19, 2007

Sebastian overcoming his night terrors in his new adoptive home

Smiles all around as new world has opened for boys, the parents
Sauer, Mark. San Diego Union Tribune, Feb. 18, 2007.

The two young brothers batted a balloon back and forth, laughing each time one of them took it on the nose. Then they hustled to the kitchen for a snack and cartoons.

Photo taken by San Diego Tribune staff, Sebastian (left) and Billy Ferreira played on the electric piano the brothers got for Christmas, the first they'd spent together.

“Either they are all over each other wrestling and giggling like this, or they are bickering – which is completely normal,” their mother said.

For the younger one, 6-year-old Sebastian, life once held very little to laugh about.

He had been taken away from his mother and father after spending most of his early life living on the streets, often hungry, neglected and inevitably traumatized. Sebastian's birth parents had been homeless and addicted to drugs, unable to cope with the needs of their young child as they grappled with their own demons and abusive pasts.

After several unsuccessful interventions by San Diego Child Protective Service investigators, the boy's parents lost him for good when Sebastian was found in the care of drug dealers during a police raid on a rundown hotel in January 2004.

Sebastian's journey from the streets, through the foster-care system and into the stable, loving, East County home of the Ferreira family – Bill, Barbara, Billy (now 8) and Grandma Gerry and Grandpa Joe – was chronicled in Currents last summer.

It was a rare inside look at the difficult process of finding homes for children who have been through the heart-rending process of being taken from their parents and placed in foster care.

Such cases are usually kept confidential within the juvenile court system; a court order granting permission to follow this case was secured in order to produce the stories.

The two-part series, called “A Forever Family,” can be viewed on the Union-Tribune Web site at

One year after arriving in his adoptive home, Sebastian is thriving in ways beyond the fondest hopes of the adults involved in his placement.

“This boy was a poster child for failure,” Barbara Ferreira said, ticking off Sebastian's at-risk factors as her two sons played together in their spacious family room. “Poverty, homelessness, abuse, neglect, dysfunctional parents with substance-abuse problems. But all of those elements are now gone.”

As the adoption loomed last February, Sebastian was suffering frequent night terrors, horrific nightmares in which he bolted upright screaming, sweating and panting, like a shell-shocked soldier home from the war.

Those episodes have all but ceased.

“When he has a nightmare now, I generally hear it first,” Bill said. “I go in, hug him, rub his back and he usually goes right back to sleep.”

Myriad medications the child had been prescribed to quell his emotional extremes and behavioral problems have been almost eliminated, Barbara said.

“He still does not want to be left alone,” she said. “That's really the only issue he still has.”

But he's “still a little conniver,” Bill added. Telling the truth, about things like whether he took his scheduled bath, remains a challenge.

“Maybe that's a survival instinct left over from his days on the streets,” Bill said. “We remind him over and over: You have to tell the truth.”

Sebastian and Billy, who share a bedroom, attend the same neighborhood school (first and second grade, respectively). They played on the same soccer team last fall; Bill was an assistant coach.

“Sebastian is an aggressive player,” Bill said. “In one game he took two balls in the face; I took him out for a rest, but he wanted to get right back in there.”

Both boys have expressed an interest in music, and their parents got them an electronic keyboard. “They can play in silence using headphones – a godsend,” Barbara noted.

And despite mild misgivings early on, Barbara's parents, who share their home, have adapted well to their adopted grandson.

“I'll go back and look in on my folks' room after dinner and one boy will be playing on the stationary bike and the other will be cuddled in with grandma and grandpa watching 'Wheel of Fortune,' ” Barbara said.

Children in waiting
Bill and Barbara strongly felt that their son Billy, born in September 1998, needed a brother. But Bill was 50 and Barbara 40 when Billy was born.

They decided in 2005 to adopt a boy from the county's foster-care system and took extensive classes and read several books in order to learn what they were getting into.

“That preparation,” Barbara said, “made all the difference.”

Social workers, under court authorization, remove kids from troubled homes in order to ensure their safety, often after a call is made to the child-abuse hotline.

Neglect is usually the cause, often the result of substance abuse, domestic violence, or an arrest.

Of the 6,000 to 7,000 children who are in foster care at any given time in San Diego, the vast majority are returned home after their parents complete rehabilitation and coping classes.

But some parents fail, and some children, like Sebastian, are permanently removed.

Infants and toddlers are quickly claimed by couples wishing to adopt. But older children – who tend to have myriad problems caused by their abusive pasts – are more difficult to place.

San Diego County typically has about 150 such children of all ages in foster care. Some suffer from physical impairments or mental illness; some were born with drugs or alcohol in their systems; all have emotional issues to overcome.

The Ferreiras learned about all of this, and the specific problems Sebastian was struggling with, as they worked their way through the adoption process.

They were introduced to Sebastian and his desperate need for a “forever family” from a Web site that profiles foster-care children awaiting adoption.

Introducing these children on Web sites, in “heart galleries” and at picnics and other occasions known as “matching events,” are ways San Diego social workers have increased efforts in recent years to find homes for children in long-term foster care.

Such children are often described as “languishing.”

But the Ferreiras feel that Sebastian's luck changed dramatically when he was placed in the home of Gilberto and Yaira Dixon.

A Panamanian couple living in University Heights, the Dixons (who have since moved to Texas) relished their role as foster parents – a trait that, unfortunately, is not universal.

“It's clear that the time he spent with the Dixon family, and in therapy and special-education classes during the year before we got him, made a huge difference in Sebastian,” Bill said.

“That year turned out to be a great bridge to adoption for this child.”

Though they vowed to stay in touch with the Dixons, the Ferreiras said they have yet to find the time to write or call. Having two children, Barbara said, “is way more than twice the work of having just one.”

A model adoption
The Ferreiras said that for them, the adoption system “worked perfectly.”

“Yet we have heard our share of horror stories,” Bill said. “We found it really helps to take the classes and to take the time to understand the system going in and adjust your expectations. Otherwise, you can easily end up at odds with it.”

Having caring and experienced social workers was also very important, Barbara added.

After the adoption was finalized in a brief September court ceremony, the two brothers delighted in a series of firsts together: first Halloween; first Thanksgiving; first Christmas.

“We were a bit concerned because we wouldn't be able to give Billy as much at Christmas this year,” Barbara said. “But when I asked him about it, Billy replied: 'Mom, this was my best Christmas ever because I had my little brother with me.' ”

For information about the San Diego County foster-care and adoption system and profiles of individual children waiting to be placed, visit the Web site or call (877) 423-6788.


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