Screaming babies and chatter filled the family court waiting room – and also the sweet, warm sounds of a ukulele.
Minutes before Kaine Lusk would be adopted and legally become Kaine Jackson Bauer, the 9-year-old tuned his new instrument. Using the guide of a phone app, he was determined to get the sound just right.
“You’ve got the C chord down, buddy,” his adoption specialist, Jennifer Brinkman, said.
Brinkman thought that on his adoption day, he deserved a good instrument; one he could start over with. Three years, seven months and five days: That’s how long Kaine was in the foster care system, having been removed from his birth parents’ home by Child Protective Services at age 5.
Still, the gift was a bit of a gamble.
He chucked the ukulele – made of mango and maple woods – across his bedroom after being adopted last month, but it didn’t break. And, maybe, it won’t. Maybe, it won’t land the same fate as a guitar Kaine smashed during a tantrum a while back. Under the care and guidance of his new adoptive parents, he’s fine-tuning skills to help him address anger and anxiety, results of the trauma he’s experienced.
“That’s where it all stems from, the trauma he was exposed to and the help he didn’t get when he was young,” Brinkman said.
Just because he’s been adopted doesn’t mean all that old trauma goes away, it’s imprinted in his brain and body. It’s made him angry, impulsive, hyperactive, prone to run and curse. He’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Kaine likes to ride his bike, dance and make fast friends. He’s also a boy who loves music so much he changed his middle name to Jackson after pop artist Michael Jackson.
Crystal Bauer, 56, and her husband, Roddy, 57, have become fierce advocates for Kaine, but they initially never imagined they would adopt a child. They are grandparents with their biological children are in their 20s. The couple began fostering about six years ago, typically taking in boys with behavioral health issues like Kaine.
“We had some relatives who needed support and foster care services,” said Crystal Bauer, who’s licensed to have up to five foster children in her Hazel Dell home. “And then the phone just kept ringing.”
Her goal is to get children back home with their parents. Brinkman said Bauer has mentored mothers to give them the skills they need to get their children back.
That wasn’t in the cards for Kaine, the oldest of three boys who, like many children placed in the foster care system, faced neglect in his formative early years. Crystal Bauer remembers first meeting Kaine a handful of days before Christmas in 2014.
“He was into everything. He did a lot of screaming. He had a lot of sensory seeking behaviors you just had to figure out,” she said.
He’s the first to notice when the mail arrives or the pizza delivery guy is walking up the driveway or the light turns green at a stoplight.
“The hypervigilance of trauma makes him acutely aware of what’s going on,” Bauer said. “He’s always going.”
One moment he’s talking to his biological mom on the phone, then he’s retrieving a package on the porch and asking Mom to download a game onto his tablet, eating a slice of pizza and hopping onto Mom’s lap.
“I love you,” Bauer said as Kaine slid off her lap onto the floor.
His biological parents’ rights were terminated about a year ago. That’s when the Bauers considered adopting Kaine, one of their longest foster placements, but they wanted to address his behavioral health and build up his supports first.
Kaine attends about a dozen different appointments and intensive therapies every month to get back on track. One of those is Masgutova neurosensorimotor reflex integration at Stargait Physical Therapy.
“We hold our stress hormones in our muscles. Kaine is very tight,” said Brooke Anderson, a specialist in training.
Owner and physical therapist Denise Wentzel said when she first started working with Kaine last summer, any kind of touch would hurt and he would run all over the place. Through physical therapy, she’s trying to create new pathways in his brain and retrain his body.
During Tuesday afternoon’s session, he was strapped into a bungee system, sometimes called a spider cage, and used the support to jump up and grab butterflies magnetized to the top of the cage.
“He’s so much more controlled, it’s amazing,” Wentzel said.
Kaine’s almost too big for the cage. He’s learning skills he should’ve gained when he was younger and smaller. And he tires of the movements after a while, preferring the play break and the chance to snuggle with one of the therapy dogs.
Trauma, Wentzel explained, influences reflexes, which are there to protect us. In children who have experienced trauma, fight-or-flight instincts take over and can be easily triggered.
Even when Kaine gets explosive, the Bauers remain calm.
“It’s better to be calm,” and counteract Kaine’s hyperactivity, Roddy Bauer said.
Kaine also takes part in weekly EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a type of psychotherapy meant to alleviate distress from traumatic memories. And he meets weekly with a counselor through Catholic Community Services.
“As we’re increasing therapies, we’re hoping that will decrease the need for some medicines,” Crystal Bauer said.
For instance, Kaine takes medicine that’s supposed to help with nightmares; he wakes up in the middle of the night and talks in his sleep. The Bauers are in the process of setting up a sleep study to better understand how to help him.
It’s a lot easier now that the Bauers are his legal parents to taper off any psychotropic or mood-changing medications and make medical decisions on his behalf. When he was a ward of the state, they didn’t really have any control and had to get state approval to make medication changes.
The day before his adoption, Kaine had an appointment at Catholic Community Services to review his medications.
“Carla, tomorrow I’m going to be adopted,” he announced before digging into a pile of Lincoln Logs on her office floor. When he was told to put away the toys, he curled up on the floor, slid under a chair and pretended to snore.
Carla Crockford, a nurse practitioner, said trauma impacts how we view the world and move within it. Children can be impulsive and aggressive like Kaine. Others may be fearful or withdrawn.
“They have a hard time struggling with their environment and making sense of it,” she said.
As his parents, the Bauers are there to help Kaine navigate this new, stable life. It involves a lot of trial and error, figuring out his limits and taking trainings to learn new parenting techniques to help him.
“I know the Bauers will always be there for him,” said Brinkman, the adoption specialist. “He’s more than a challenged foster boy in their home now. He’s their boy.”
That stability prompts small changes. More time goes by without Kaine escalating. Toys last longer. Hugs are more frequent. And, Kaine can maybe keep playing and tuning that ukulele.
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