By T. R. Robertson
Last Christmas our home was filled with the same sort of holiday laughter and sharing that most families experience. We had a houseful of grown sons, now young men in their upper 20s. Along with them came a wife, a girlfriend, and little kids. All of them call us Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa.
Not one of them shares a drop of our blood or a strand of our DNA.
The only one of our foster sons not there was Jeremy, whom we haven’t seen since he left our custody just before he turned 2, over 30 years ago.
Sandwiched in between those two came foster son number three, Cody. He tried hard not to let Keith push his buttons and draw him into an argument, as only a younger brother can do.
Our youngest foster son showed up, late as usual, with his younger biological brother in tow. Adrian has more or less raised his brother since they were both kids. His foster brothers still call him Sam, because that’s the name they knew him by when he was the baby of the house.
At other holiday celebrations over the years, our crowd has included additional blood brothers and sisters, cousins, second cousins, parents, and grandparents of the various boys.
Twice our holiday celebrations have included the “Christmas miracle” of discovering the long-lost biological siblings of one of our foster sons.
Technically, we were official foster parents for only 10 years, to five boys. Through them, though, we have found ourselves intertwined with the lives and needs of their extended families, far beyond the scope and years of our official state of Missouri foster parenting license.
Children in Need
Our foster parenting journey began when my wife’s cousin Lora was a student intern at the local office of the Missouri Division of Family Services. Her supervisor was bemoaning the difficulty of recruiting qualified foster parents for an overburdened system.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 400,000 children spent time in foster care in America during 2012. Of those, 102,000 were in foster care waiting for adoption.
Unfortunately, there are not enough couples qualified and willing to become foster parents.
Lora told her supervisor that representatives of Family Services ought to go to the churches in the community to recruit foster parents who would be motivated to practice “pure religion” by caring for orphans. She got the go-ahead to contact every church, of all denominations and practices, in Columbia, hundreds of congregations. She asked each congregation if someone from the office could come present the need, or at least drop off some informational brochures.
Most churches didn’t respond at all. Of those that did, nearly all told her they weren’t interested. Only two houses of worship agreed to make brochures available.
Lora, an idealistic college student, was heartbroken when she came to our house to talk about it. I explained to her that most people know next to nothing about foster parenting. It’s not even on their radar to consider the need.
Personally, I didn’t know the difference between foster parenting and adoption. While adoption involves permanent custody, the average stay for a foster child is 22.4 months.
Sixty-six percent of children who are removed from the custody of their parents and placed into the foster care system are victims of neglect; 7.7 percent are victims of physical abuse. Nearly all have been through some type of maltreatment or abuse, according to statistics from HHS.
The courts remand these children into the custody of the state temporarily while their parents go through court-ordered programs designed to reform and rehabilitate them as parents. For some parents that includes incarceration.
Some parents fail to achieve the goals set by the court, and eventually their parental rights are terminated. Their children are then put on a path that hopefully leads toward adoption, either by a relative or someone else. For many of the children, though, adoption never becomes a reality and they remain in foster care until they age out of it.
Because of the shortage of foster parents, the stress and strain it can sometimes bring, and the unwillingness of some foster parents to let a “temporary” arrangement turn into long-term parenting, some children bounce from one foster home to another until they reach the upper age limit set by law.
We Were Sold
Listening to Lora’s stories sold us on being foster parents.
After we completed several months of training, a social worker brought our first foster child to us one afternoon. This little boy, 14 months old, toddled into our apartment and looked up at me. He immediately raised his arms toward me and said, “Daddy.”
The caseworker explained that he had been removed from his parents just four months earlier and we would be his fourth foster family in that time, due to people moving or dropping out of “the system.” He had learned the hard way that “Daddy” was the name of any man who appeared to be the source of his next meal and a bed.
Most church volunteer opportunities require committing to a specific time and place where the service will be done. Even if the place is a homeless soup kitchen or prison ministry, the volunteers generally show up, do what they came to do, and go back to the privacy of their homes.
Foster parenting, though, is a never-ending undertaking. You’ve invited the target of your ministry into the privacy of your home, and, like any child, they have a constant impact on your life. Unlike your own children, they often come with baggage foisted on them by their biological families and the culture of poverty and neglect from which they often come.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Too often Christians are held back from stepping out in faith to practice the “pure religion” of the first part of that verse by a fearful misunderstanding of the second half.
Becoming involved in the messy lives of foster children most certainly will expose Christians to the sorts of things in the world that can cause spiritual and emotional pollution. In theory, the foster parent is kept at arm’s length from the troublesome lives of the families whose children end up in foster care. In our experience, it seldom works that way. For a Christian foster parent, the opportunities to shine God’s light into a dark world are unparalleled.
Not everyone in the church family has been entirely encouraging or supportive of our efforts to be a foster family. Sometimes they say things without realizing how discouraging it is. One man informed me he would not be voting for me to be a deacon because “the Bible says a deacon has children, but you don’t have any.” I nodded my head, told him it was his decision to make, and went to collect my three boys to herd them to their Sunday school classes.
When we first became foster parents we were part of a campus ministry-based church comprised of mostly college students. The coming and going of foster children from our family did not go unnoticed by the students. They became involved in the lives of our boys. They learned to see foster families as something normal and less scary than they had thought. Some of those students are now foster and adoptive parents themselves.
The ministry priorities of our current congregation, Blue Ridge Christian Church in Columbia, Missouri, was transformed by several members who were houseparents from the nearby Coyote Hill Christian Children’s Home. They showed up for church every Sunday with a continually changing family of kids who became involved in Sunday school, youth group, and other activities.
The Sunday school teachers learned to adapt to the needs of additional kids who often came with behavioral issues and little religious background.
The church family as a whole responded to the challenge by not only focusing on these families’ needs within the current church programs, but through work projects and other activities at Coyote Hill.
At Willamette Christian Church in West Linn, Oregon, foster families have had a huge impact.
“The presence of foster parents has impacted our church by creating a culture in which it is accepted and encouraged to care for vulnerable children in a way that is visible to the church body,” says Kerri Dawson, who is on the WCC foster care ministry leadership team. “We see children come and go in families, and our goal as a church is to wrap around and support fostering, as well as equip families who want to pursue this avenue of parenting.”
“I think one of the most helpful things our church has done,” says Elizabeth Sale, a WCC foster parent, “is to provide wrap-around care. This includes preparing meals, praying for, and connecting foster parents to the support and resources they may need.
“Last summer three girls were placed with a Willamette Christian family who was just being certified for foster care. They attended Willamette with their foster family all year, and nearly everyone in the children’s ministry hallway recognizes them and loves them each Sunday. When the foster family was no longer able to care for the three girls, and the state was looking for another placement that would be able to keep these sisters together, word spread throughout the church body regarding this need.”
While Sale is heavily involved in foster and adoption both professionally and as a volunteer, she and her husband were not certified for foster care and had never served as foster parents. “Because of the specific need for these girls to find a home and to remain connected to the church body, we felt called to become their foster placement. They have been with us for just over a week and it has been the hardest thing we have ever done! The prayer and practical support of our church family has made a huge difference.”
It doesn’t take a church of thousands to recruit and support foster parents. It can take the decision of just one family to begin foster parenting. That initial step can lead to challenging the entire church family to move beyond their comfort zone and become more involved in ministries to children and families in need.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.