My ability to write a catchy introduction dwindles with each interruption by my young children. And yet, this topic is of such importance to me, I feel the need to juggle “daddy duty” with writing. My three biological children are old enough that each one is off doing his or her own thing, but the foster children in my care take our home back to the days of reading children’s books, watching cartoons and navigating through toys on the living room floor. I could have a quiet place to work (or just relax) this Saturday morning, but my wife and I felt the pull a few years ago to become foster parents. We have since foster parented up to four children at a time, which is how many are with us now. When friends ask how it’s going, I smile and say, “We are never bored!”
From a spiritual standpoint, I’m reminded of several verses one can apply to foster parenting. For example, Psalm 127:3 says, “Children are a gift from the Lord” (NCV). Notice it doesn’t distinguish that some children are a gift from the Lord. Just because they were born into unhealthy situations does not negate the fact that all children are gifts from God. James 1:27 tells us, “Religion that God accepts as pure and without fault is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help” (NCV). While children in foster care may have parents who are still alive, they do not have a safe place to live. Loving them when they need a family who can provide care seems, to me, like the spirit behind James 1:27.
While I try to recruit good potential foster parents at every opportunity, I believe it is important for those who enter this important role to understand there are many aspects to consider, including the children themselves, their parents, one’s own family, the foster system, and the local church body.
Focusing on Children.Children are generally placed in foster care as a result of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or significant parental neglect. The goal of Children’s Services is to protect children, and where possible, reunite them with their parents. If a child comes into care, she or he has likely experienced circumstances no one should ever face. Yet, children respond differently to their trauma. There is a stereotype of foster children as destructive and out of control. We should ask ourselves how we might respond to some of the circumstances these children have faced before we judge them too harshly. In addition, there are different “levels” within the foster system. Children who are in need of intensive supervision and therapy are placed at higher “levels” with families who are specially trained to address their needs. Our experience is that foster children are just that: children. They throw the same tantrums, test the same limits, play with the same toys and crave the same love as any other children.
All children want stable adults to love them and be in charge. Sometimes, though, children struggle to allow foster parents to be in charge for a couple of reasons: (1) The child may have been in charge of taking care of himself or herself and even younger siblings; and (2) the child does not know the foster parent. Imagine trusting a stranger when the adults who have raised you have been inconsistent your whole life.
Yet, even when biological parents have been unable to provide care or protection, children’s first love is naturally for their birth parents. It’s important to keep in mind that for all children, the homes from which they come are likely the only homes they’ve ever known. They don’t know that all families are not like theirs. It can be hard to understand why they still love their parents after abuse or neglect, but think about friends and family in your life. Do you reject them because they have some undesirable trait? Or do you tend to tolerate certain characteristics because you love them, perhaps hoping they will change one day? The same is true of children and their biological parents.
For this reason, fostering cannot be about meeting emotional needs for the foster parents. The children will always love their parents, and it is important to speak respectfully about birth parents, despite what may have happened. Failure to do so only hurts the children and lowers their self-worth. It may also drive a wedge between foster children and foster parents if children feel they must choose loyalty to one family or the other.
Another reason fostering cannot be about meeting the needs of foster parents is that we have little to no influence over when or if children will be returned to their biological parents. Rather than throwing up our hands in frustration, my wife and I choose to see it as an opportunity to love children and teach them about Jesus while they are in our home. Not long ago, a child in our care asked me, “Can we still call you when we go back to our mom?” Of course, I said, “Yes,” not knowing if or when this would happen. Kids need to know they are loved, and that our love for them won’t end even after they leave our care.
When foster children are placed with us, we treat them as our children. Whatever rules apply to the Archer children, apply to them. Behavior that would be unacceptable for our biological children is unacceptable for our foster children. And whatever privileges our biological children enjoy, our foster children enjoy. However our biological children are dressed, our foster children are dressed comparably. We hang pictures of current and former foster children in our house, because we have pictures of our biological children, too. Right now, I’m working to reinforce that we don’t ring the doorbell or knock on the door at our own house. Foster children are not guests in our home; they are our family. This important message helps fill the need for belonging we all have. Imagine being pulled suddenly from your home and placed with complete strangers—then living with them for months or years. It would be terrible to feel like a guest, rather than a family member!
Focusing on Parents. A key understanding for our family where foster care is concerned has to do with the birth parents. While there are parents who harm their children deliberately, this is not typical even of children placed in foster care. Most parents care for their children to the extent they can at the time. Don’t we all? The difference is that, in cases where children must be removed, parents’ abilities fall short of providing adequate care and protection for their children.
It is natural for birth parents to love their children, even while they may be struggling with issues of addiction, mental illness, or lack of a support system. When parents are undereducated, they may also lack the skills necessary to get and maintain a steady job. If they, too, have come from a background where their parents were not positive role models, they likely are parenting the way they have seen it done before. The point is not to excuse parents, but to understand what factors led to placement of their children in foster care.
Where possible, it is helpful if birth parents understand their children are in a safe, loving home that is not trying to take their place, but trying to meet their children’s needs until they are returned to the birth family. Foster parents must keep in mind that reunification is always the initial goal. Termination of parental rights only occurs if/when the biological parents—and perhaps even extended family—are unwilling or unable to meet standards established by Children’s Services or the courts over an extended period of time. Federal law directs that, after a child has been in foster care at least 15 out of the preceding 22 months, states are required to move forward with termination of parental rights.
Focusing on My Family. Fostering is a family commitment. My wife and I are partners in all our foster parenting decisions, just as we have always been with our three biological children (who are now 18, 16, and 12). An added layer, though, is the involvement of our older children. Their lives are impacted by the foster children who come into our home. They share their home, their rooms, and their belongings. Most of the time our schedule is impacted by what our foster children need. When talking with our children about foster placements, we are careful to draw the distinction between input and decision-making; we ask for our children’s opinions, but ultimately our home has two parents who make the final call.
Due to confidentiality requirements placed on foster parents, we do not tell our biological children all the details we know about children placed in our home. There are, however, things they need to know to help them understand our foster children’s needs. When children have experienced trauma, their emotional and/or intellectual age may not be the same as their chronological age. We all have to work hard to remember we should treat a child according to her or his developmental level, not according to how old he or she is, with the goal being to close the gap between the child’s emotional/intellectual age and her or his chronological age.
My biological children are not complainers. They don’t tell us if they feel neglected, so we have to be mindful to pay special attention to them from time to time. This may be as simple as making sure we attend their church and school events—even if that means bringing along several small children. It may mean giving extra hugs, reminding them of how much we love them, and thanking them for their help with the younger children.
Fostering gives us the opportunity to see characteristics from our biological children most parents do not have the chance to see as their children grow up. I see generosity as they share their rooms with foster children in our care. They rearrange or even vacate their rooms to make space for the other children’s belongings. Of course, with more children, money for Christmas gifts, clothes or where we go for dinner gets divided among more members of the family, so they share in these ways, as well.
My children hug our foster children, play games with them, help watch them for us, and refer to them as “my brother” or “my sister.” They show love to children who have nothing to give, understanding we are blessed, and it is our privilege to share. This is where I see my children living out James 1:27, and I couldn’t be more proud. Imagine how our heavenly Father must feel when He sees their love and generosity!
I am keenly aware not every church is like ours. Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "We must face the sad fact that at the eleven o'clock hour on Sunday morning when we stand to sing, we stand in the most segregated hour in America." While this remains true in many places, our church is an exception largely because of our pastor's vocal stance on issues of race over many years. As a result, the children in our care will likely see someone of their race among our congregation. The value of this type of church family cannot be overstate.
While I do encourage friends to consider fostering, I realize not everyone feels drawn to this area of ministry. It’s important to recognize our gifts and follow them, and not everyone should be a foster parent. But as I write, I think of a generous lady in our church who has blessed our foster children repeatedly with gifts of clothes and diapers. She, too, is ministering in the spirit of James 1:27. She wants no recognition, but sees children in need and wants to bless them. According to James, this is pure Christianity!
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, at any point in time, there are over 400,000 children in foster care. More than 100,000 of these children are available for adoption, but 40 percent of them will wait more than three years for a “forever family.” It is sad that minority children are harder to place than white children, and the larger the sibling set, the more likely the children will be split up, intensifying their trauma. As children grow older, they become increasingly hard to place for foster care or adoption. Many families who are willing to foster only want babies, but the average age of children entering care is over 6 years old.
According to the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, each year about 27,000 “age out” of the system without reunification with their families or adoption. The prospects for teens in foster care are not good, with 17 percent of girls being pregnant at the time they “age out” (and therefore potentially repeating the cycle of abuse and neglect). Sixty percent of boys who “age out” are convicted of a crime, and 40 percent of both boys and girls become homeless at some point.
The need for foster families is evident, and we have the best Good News children in crisis could use. It’s news many of these children have never heard—let alone seen lived consistently. What a tremendous opportunity we have to change a child’s eternity, just by showing the love of Christ! I encourage you to consider serving as a foster parent or finding out how you can help someone who is fostering.
After several months in our care, the night before one of our foster children was to leave, her bedtime prayer included, “And thank you, Jesus, for letting me meet Steve and Tonya, because I didn’t know about you before I met them.” We can’t control where this child’s future will lead, but we were able to pour into her while she was in our home. Because of this, she now knows she has a Father who loves her unconditionally and will never leave her. Could there be a greater reward?