Opening Your Home and Your Hearts
When people hear that we are an adoptive family and that we do foster care, we often hear things like, “I could never do that. You are a saint.” OR, “You are such an angel. There will be extra treasures for you in heaven.” OR, “You are changing these kids lives. You are such a special person.” The thing is, I don’t feel like we are special, I don’t think we are getting any extra blessings in heaven, and I am certainly not a saint and neither is John. We struggle like everyone else in our marriage, in our parenting, and in our fostering. We get tired. We are short with one another and selfish. We’ve gone too far in discipline, sinned in anger, had to humble ourselves and apologize to bio parents, social workers, and our own foster children. We’ve questioned our ability to do any of it and whether we should continue on to the next placement. We are not special. We are very ordinary, sinful, oh so sinful, people. So why do we do foster care? Doesn’t it take very special people? The answer is NO. In fact, it takes very ordinary people who struggle in their own sin but want to continue to strive towards Christ-like character, who can exemplify what it means to face their own failures and then humble themselves before God and others to model dependence on His glorious grace and forgiveness to us.
Families who have entered foster care (the biological parents and their children), do not need perfect, saint-like people. In fact, those kind of people (who don’t really exist, they just pretend to be that awesome) don’t belong in foster care. What good will it do a broken person with little to no self worth to have a foster parent who seems to never do anything wrong and exudes self righteousness? Most likely it will do more harm than good. Broken people will not only see a healthy lifestyle to be unattainable and therefore not worth pursuing, but it will cause them to cast doubt that a merciful God could have compassion on such as they when they are so far removed from the model of a perfect foster parent. Surely God will save the righteous, but what about someone broken like me? Families in foster care need the vantage point of seeing people that they look up to make mistakes and learn from them. They need to see what humility and seeking honest forgiveness looks like. They need to see a model for dealing with anger that does not include physical violence, verbal abuse, or shutting people out. They need oh-so-ordinary people in their lives. They need to be told that we are no better than they; we are just coming from different backgrounds and choices. They need to see that you are not their judge and that you are no more deserving of Christ’s love and forgiveness.
How do you achieve this openness with the families? How do you the acknowledge the abuse and horrors that have at times befallen these sweet children and move beyond it to genuinely love the people who may have inflicted the pain? How do you move from wanting to shield and protect these children to whole heartedly supporting reunification? It is actually pretty simple. Be open and engage them in your reality and pray, pray, pray for them.
When you enter foster care, you come into it with certain expectations of what you think it could be like. Perhaps you come into it imagining children in drug houses, with no food, sexually and physically abused, dirty, and needing to be loved. Perhaps you imagine parents who can’t possibly love their children if they would choose drugs and addiction over their babies or let anger cause them to strike their children. Perhaps you dream of being the loving saviour to these babes, rescuing them from horrific circumstances and then being the beneficiaries of forever gratefulness and hearts of love for your choice to love them. Some of these circumstances could be true, but very rarely are they accurate or give a complete picture of truth. It certainly has not been true in any of our placements. More than that, being a foster parent is about grace and hope: not self gratification.
How quickly we discover our misconceptions and prejudices. The simple fact is that many of these parents are just modelling the way they were raised. Conflicts were often dealt with in physical violence and sexual abuse is just part of the gang lifestyle that they might have grown up in. Some were in foster care themselves or lost siblings to foster care. They do drugs because their parents did drugs, or a boyfriend introduced them to it and they learned to sell it in their early teen years. Addiction is such a powerful thing and cannot be put in a sentence with a lack of love. Bio families often come in ready to do battle with foster parents because they have been taught that foster parents are their enemies – self righteous and full of judgement. It is up to us to prove them wrong and make them aware of their own misconceptions.
If we allow ourselves to be open with the families and learn their story, acting only with respect and compassion for the parents as we learn about them, we can come to a common understanding where we have opportunities to then, and only then, introduce the gospel. This starts with the children in your home and continues in every visit and meeting with social workers and Bio parents. Here are your basic steps to openness:
- Be open with the foster child. Love them and treat them like your own. You may not feel the love for them (I certainly did not with our first placement) but you can CHOOSE the actions of love again and again. You WILL MESS THIS UP. Forgive yourself and ask the child’s forgiveness. You are not perfect and it is good to let children see that.
- The first meeting with the BIO parent sets the stage for the rest of the relationship. Smile your heart out, offer tidbits or stories of how their kids have been doing in your care thus far, and ask advice of them to overcome hurdles on eating, sleeping, routines and such. Give them value in their knowledge of their child. After all, they have been parenting them, even through their own mistakes.
- At every meeting with parents, whether visits, court hearings, kinship meetings, or family team meetings, smile and put your best foot forward. You are to lavish kindness on them because their reality is that you may be the only one in their life to take time to do so. Compliment them on their progress, appearance, how their child misses and adores them. Tell them you are praying for them and that you are rooting for their recovery (even if it is more just words at first the more you say it, the more you will believe it and it will be true). Ask them how they are doing and take every opportunity to congratulate them on any and all progress and tell them you are proud of them. Also, take a step back and let them take over all parenting and relationship with child and encourage them in it. You don’t want a power struggle over who is boss of the child.
- If you make a mistake or have a tiff with anyone involved, take ownership for any part you had in it and apologize sincerely.
- Relate to them in any way possible to put them at your level so that they feel camaraderie with you (the child is a great platform for this).
- Never ever speak poorly about anyone in the case in front of the foster child. It WILL get back to the bio parent and will burn any bridges you have made.
These best practices might seem like a lot, but they are just common sense principles that should guide our every relationship. It all amounts to simple respect and kindness toward others, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, I mean the entire BIO family, not just the kids. As you think about foster care and whether you could take the first steps in that direction, I recommend some books that have really impacted me on this journey and that spur me on when things get tough. They are:
- Dear Birthmother. A great resource to get inside the heads and hearts of one of the victims in the system – birthmoms. US reader? Click here. Canada reader? Click here.
- Faith to Foster. A wonderful book that follows TJ and Jenn Munn through many placements across many states. US reader? Click here. Canada reader? Click here.
- Welcome to the Roller Coaster. My personal favorite. A compilation of diverse stories of foster stories, written by foster moms, dads, and foster kids. US reader? Click here. Canada reader? Click here.
Finally, I have two resources I would like to share that we have used as we have transitioned kids to permanency, either in our family or going back to their own biological family.
- If they stay with us, I do an adoption baby book that describes the journey you have been on with them up until adoption. My Family, My Journey: A Baby Book for Adoptive Families. US reader? Click here. Canada reader? Click here.
- If they go on to another family or back to their biological, I get a book called, “Love You From Right Here.” US Reader? Click here. Canada reader? Click here.