Foster Care: what I’m learning, relearning and unlearning

Honestly, I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the foster care world. Especially when it comes to the lived experiences inside of it. There are so many who have been here, quietly digging in the trenches. Hands dirty, brow sweaty, body worn, soul heavy, heart soft. They’re often the ones who aren’t writing about it. Who aren’t on the rooftops shouting it. They’re in it. They’re doing it. Year after year, shoveling through layer upon layer.

But as I have begun to pull back the curtain into this world and peek inside, there is so much I’m learning and unlearning and relearning. At the beginning of this year I partnered with The Forgotten Initiative to become an advocate for the area I live in. This role was created to bridge a connection between local agencies and local churches. Much of what I am learning has come through the training, coaching, encouragement, and resources provided through this ministry. And even more has come through the hands on experiences brought about by seeking to build a trusted relationship with the agency and working alongside our church to support the foster care system. Here are a few things my eyes have been opened to along the way:

1. The need is so great

If you live in a county with children then you live in a county that has children without homes. Where neighbors live, needs live. And I can tell you without a doubt that the numbers and the needs you will find in your area will be staggering. Wherever you might live. Here in Idaho, there are 6 total segments that make up our “regions.” The small town that I live in, including the surrounding areas, make up a single region. This region alone has approximately 250 children in the foster care system at current. As of 2020, there were estimated to be 3,000 children in and out of homes each year in this state. Some of whom could not be placed due to shortages of foster homes, and were sent to hotels instead. These are numbers for one town, in one city, in one state. The need is desperate wherever you go and the call is urgent whoever you are.

2. Awareness leads to action

This is one of TFI’s core tenets that I have personally seen proven true time and time again. It’s a simple and universal concept that I think too often becomes overlooked and overcomplicated. Love begins with learning. In this case, it can start by looking up the statistics. Showing up to a trauma training class. Reading a book or listening to a podcast on fostering. Understanding how things such as homelessness and poverty intertwine with foster care. Sitting down with someone who is already immersed in it. It may seem small, but it is so very significant. Our brains fuel our hearts and our hearts fuel our hands.

3. Everyone really can do something

I think the church can get a bad rap for being more talk than walk when it comes to something like foster care. While I understand too well where this idea stems from, I truly do believe many churches want to do something. They just do not know where to start. I am focusing on the church here because I believe it is the call of the church to enter into broken places. To care for the needy, the oppressed, the fatherless, and the vulnerable. Not because “we are the rescuers but because we are the rescued” (David Platt). This is the gospel we proclaim. This is an opportunity we get to live it.

It doesn’t take long when a discussion about foster care comes up for a person to make it about their ability or inability to open up their home and do it. While I desperately believe that many more could and should pursue fostering, the list is endless for other ways to be involved. There are meaningful, helpful, tangible, life changing ways to be a part of foster care without becoming a foster parent. We just have to be willing to ask how. And then to say yes. There is so much value in simply showing up.

4. Sometimes helping hurts

This is a concept I learned while living in Africa as a short term missionary. Americans (especially categorically Christian ones) have been known to enter into foreign places as the arrogant elephant stomping out the silenced mouse. Also known as “the savior complex.” In this scenario, the “helpers” leave feeling generous and accomplished and the “helped” are left feeling overrun and overlooked.

In my own prideful power play, I have entered into foster care spaces thinking I needed to have the answers. When in reality, what I needed to have was the questions. I have started to see how meeting perceived-needs puffs up the individual who is seeking to help, while meeting real-needs builds up the whole community. And the only way to know what real needs are is to ask and then to listen. Really listen. Just because you think the donation closet surely needs more diapers, or the kids need jackets, or the office needs a makeover, doesn’t make it true. Ask what the actual needs are. Believe them. And act where you can.

5. Foster care is a community not a caricature

Foster care is made up of real people with real stories. It’s a student who sits beside your child in class who just got placed in care. It’s a mom at the park who had a 4 year old stranger sleep in her house last night after saying her most courageous yes. It’s a social worker in the grocery store, who can’t get the child waiting in their office after 20 calls that all ended in a no, out of their mind. It’s a couple that lives down the street who are staring out the same window that they once watched a stranger drive away with their child from. Their home now occupies an empty bed at night.

I think the reason foster care conversations often quickly turn to whether or not someone plans to open their home to a child exposes our narrow view of who and what foster care really is. It’s certainly not less than becoming a licensed foster parent, but it’s absolutely more than that, too. Most parents and social workers will say that children are the focus of foster care. Which I believe. But, they are not the only face of it. So to care about foster care is to care about all who are involved: children, parents, foster parents, case workers.

6. Fostering is about being the middle not the main

I have recently heard this idea that fostering is about choosing to become a “middle family.” I think it is such a helpful shift in both terminology and function. As Emily Smithart put it, “I started foster care because of the children. The reason I continue to foster is because of their families.” Another way to put it is that foster care is about protecting an individual child in the present while hoping to preserve a whole family in the future.

To be sure, foster care can lead to adoption. This is a reality to be both grieved and celebrated. As Jason Johnson has said “adoption is less about getting a child for your family and more about giving your family for a child.” It’s a beautifully complex redemptive reality riddled with loss. The fact children are adopted goes to show that the end game of foster care is a child’s ultimate safety and well being. Yet to love a child in foster care and to fight on their behalf is to choose to place yourself in the middle seat. Not the main seat.

7. Proximity changes us

When we see their faces, it changes everything. A few months ago I choked back the tears as I saw her. Warm yet hesitant eyes and a bright yet bashful smile. She’s just like my Reese, I thought. Probably 6 years old. I wonder if she likes coloring and horses and sprinkled pancakes and maybe purple, too? I don’t know but here she is. Right in front of me. Next up in line to pin the nose on the clown at her Back to School Carnival for kids placed in foster care.

Choosing to put a name and a face to a statistic will wreck your heart in all the best and most needed ways possible. Saying yes to seeing their faces and holding their hands and knowing their names will change you. We’re all afraid to get too attached, and it’s exactly what they need from us.

8. It’s not a world of villains and heroes

The narrative in foster care has historically been one of good guys and bad guys. Winners and losers. The side to celebrate and the side to scoff at. Yet I’m learning that foster care, as with most in life, isn’t split evenly down the middle. It’s not so cut and dry. It’s not this or that. Because foster care is full of people, it is full of nuances. It is full of good intentions and bad executions. It is full of bad intentions and good executions. It is full of stories. Stories interwoven with trauma, pain, cycles of addiction, and abuse.

I think foster care is a heart of empathy and a work of accountability. I think that being a part of this system takes the recognition of “if I lived through what you lived through, I bet I would have done what you did.” This doesn’t or shouldn’t discount personal responsibility. But it should bring more understanding, empathy, and humanity to the table. It causes us to move towards others with open arms and not come down on them with clenched fists.

There are hurtful parents.
There are hurt parents.
There are selfishly motivated foster parents.
There are selflessly driven foster parents.
There are kids who’s behavior is almost unbearable.
There are kids who’s trauma is completely unimaginable.
There are social workers who are calloused and cold, staring lifelessly at a screen.
There are social workers who are warm and welcoming,
and a lot like warriors on the frontlines.

We enter into a broken system with broken families as broken people. It’s not all capes and fangs in this foster care world.

It’s just people.

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