How to Address America’s Foster Care Crisis? It Takes a Village
Life as we knew it changed on April 16, 2000.
That’s the night my husband, John, and I sat at a friend’s dinner table surrounded by five girls between the ages of 5 and 15. Some were adopted; others were there through foster care. She told us, “There are orphans right here in Hawaii who need adoptive families. The church really needs to get involved.”
When we prayed about it, we sensed God calling us to become foster parents. Eleven-year-old Angie arrived a few months later, and John and I were nervous but ecstatic. Surely this was going to be a happy-ending story, different from the harrowing tales our friend had told us.
By the end of month, though, we were wading through unprecedented darkness. Faced with her stealing, lying, cursing, and insults, we felt hopelessly unprepared and inadequate for the task at hand. Angie made the choice to leave our home for good, leaving John and I shell-shocked.
Looking back on that experience 15 years later, my own family makeup has shifted and so has the church’s involvement in foster care and adoption. And yet, I would still affirm that adoption and foster care remain unimaginably hard, and God is still calling the church to care for orphans.
A positive trajectory
In churches and ministries across the United States, evangelicals have responded to Scripture’s command to care for displaced children (James 1:27) like never before.
“A decade ago, the concept of the church having a dedicated ministry for orphans and children in foster care was generally rare outside of the occasional mission trip,” said Jason Weber, the director of foster care initiatives at the Christian Alliance for Orphans. “Today, if people don’t have a ministry like this in their own church, they are likely aware of other churches in town that do. It won’t be long before this kind of ministry will be as standard in the church as youth ministry or men’s ministry.”
Barna Group research indicates that practicing Christians are more than twice as likely to adopt than the general population, and 50 percent more likely to foster. Congregations across the country—Overlake Christian Church in Seattle, North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Colorado Community Church in Denver, and countless others of all sizes—are getting involved with formalized programs to support children and potential parents and caretakers.
In Colorado, Focus on the Family, Project 1:27, and other Christian nonprofits worked with the state’s Department of Human Services to lower the number of waiting kids in foster care from 800 to below 300. In Florida, 4Kids has linked dozens of churches to the needs of kids in the foster care system—starting with supporting families to prevent the need for kids to enter the system in the first place
The emerging challenge
In the midst of success stories like these, an urgent need has emerged: post-adoption support for parents who have welcomed children with trauma backgrounds.
Like our experience back in 2000, many adoptive and foster care parents couldn’t have imagined how hard it would be to meet the needs of the children entrusted to their care. How could they? Some of the problems take years to fully materialize. For some, fanciful notions of parental love righting all wrongs have been replaced by gut-wrenching challenges including family devastation, divorce, disruption, lost faith, and heartbreak. Adoptive parents are crying out to the church, “Please help us!” It’s especially important for the church to lend a hand to these families—these kids have been through so much in their lives and desperately need stability. By strengthening and helping adoptive parents, congregations are directly helping the kids, as well.
The body of Christ can answer this cry in tangible ways—with meals, respite, prayer, compassion, and a constancy of presence. Those are the actions that have helped John and I the most and are things we couldn’t have guessed we’d need when we welcomed Angie into our home all those years ago. I often note that there are more churches in the US than there are adoption-eligible kids in foster care. This is a crisis that the church could literally eliminate, but in order for that to happen, we need more than just brave families who feel called to adopt. We need brave congregations willing to come alongside them for the long haul. Adoptive families cannot make the journey alone.
The parable of the Good Samaritan seems so obvious to us today. Who among us would be so callous as to see a beaten man on the street and pass by on the other side, leaving him with nowhere to go? Answering that question may be more uncomfortable than we think.
Many of the more than 400,000 children in foster care have been beaten and abandoned just like the man in the parable. Do we see their need and pass by on the other side, telling ourselves that caring for the broken and abandoned is not our calling? Do we convince ourselves that someone else will surely stop along the way and help?
Unfortunately, there are not enough Good Samaritans to go around, and these precious children continue to suffer. Most can’t presently return safely to their birth parents or to any family, and some never can. For more than 100,000 of the kids in foster care, parental rights have been terminated, and they have no permanent place to call home. Their only legal “parent” is a government agency. And so they wait, living in temporary foster homes, moving frequently from place to place, gripping their meager possessions in trash bags.
Breaking the cycle
The number of modern-day orphans in the US foster care system has remained steady. But each one is made in the image of God. They’ve been wrongfully described as “unadoptable” because they are older, in sibling groups, or have special needs. They’ve endured unthinkable trauma in many cases and have challenging behaviors as a result. These children will become adults who belong nowhere and with no one, and they often, in turn, have children who end up in the system. The cycle continues through generations. In our family, two of our children adopted from foster care are the third generation in their families to be involved in the foster care system, and in talking with other parents who have adopted from foster care, this is a scenario that comes up again and again.
To break it, the church must continue to embrace this ministry as integral to our witness to the love of Christ in our communities.
For some families who have adopted kids from traumatic backgrounds, a saving grace was the church—a caring community that surrounded them and helped them love those whom society deems unlovable. And the thing that will save thousands more image-bearing kids in foster care with challenging behaviors is, yes, the church. Whether that’s through adoptive families who allow their lives to be turned upside down and continually trust God for the strength to carry on, or through the congregations that make long-term commitments to embrace those families with practical support, the church must be ready to exercise what Scripture calls “religion that is pure and faultless.” This National Foster Care Month, may we recommit ourselves, as one body, to the mission of ensuring that every child has a forever family.
This article originally appeared on ChristianityToday.com