Foster parents Major T.J. Menn and his wife, Jenn, discuss the joys and challenges of caring for 24 different children over a 10-year period, and encourage listeners to consider how they can share God's love with orphans and foster kids. (Part 1 of 2)
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Child: Being without a home, it's like well, what am I gonna do to survive this day? Well, how can I fix this? Or you know, conduct this day where I can still be around tomorrow to, you know, every day is just a survival day and being passed around and stuff from family to family, it's like, well, you know, not get too comfortable because you know, you just gotta have to leave again. So, it's always today when am I gonna go?
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John Fuller: And that's a child who experienced firsthand the uncertainty and the stress of living in the foster-care system. And today on "Focus on the Family," we'll look at how foster care impacts children and birth parents and those who are courageous and willing to bring help to those hurting children as they bring those kids into their homes on a temporary basis. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, a lot of people know my story. I wrote that in Finding Home, but I did a stint in foster care as a 9-year-old when my mom died and my dad wasn't around. And it was horrific and I can relate to the comments made just then, feeling like what's happening next? Just that loneliness. There wasn't a lot of fear, but I was lonely and I felt like there's nobody there to kinda be on my side. And it was desperate, that isolation, I guess, that feeling.
Tragically many children enter foster care today because of much worse circumstances—drug abuse by parents and then that neglect and abuse toward the children. So, that seems to be a common thread in many of the cases today.
There [are] about 400,000 children in the U.S. that are in the foster-care system and that's a lot. But you know what? We have over 300,000 churches in this country. That's almost, you know, 1.3 children per church. If we could do that as a community of believers, to do the work of the Lord, not just speak about it, but actually roll up our sleeves and engage this area, I think that would bring so much respect and dignity to the church and to our Lord. It's like that Scripture that says, "Do these good deeds so they'll honor your Father in heaven." And that's what we're gonna talk about today.
John: Yeah and we have TJ and Jenn Menn here. They've been involved in foster care ministry for more than 10 years, foster parents for 24 different children in 10 years. TJ is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He serves as an aviation officer in the U.S. Army and earned a Master's degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of government at Harvard and currently teaches economics at West Point.
Jenn graduated from Trinity College of the Bible and is a certified member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. She received her Master's degree in public administration, also from Kennedy School at Harvard University. And besides foster parenting, she continues to operate a small counseling practice.
Jim: Well, TJ and Jenn, welcome to "Focus on the Family.
Mr. TJ Menn: Thank you so much for having us. We're delighted to be here.
Mrs. Jenn Menn: Yes.
Jim: Hey, now you teach economics. That was the toughest course in my undergrad business degree (Laughter), was economics. Man, how do you do that? (Laughter)
TJ: You just, where the lines intersect.
Jim: You know, I like graphics and all that. I didn't know there was so much math in economics. (Laughter)
TJ: I tell my students the "beat Navy" answer in our class is marginal revenue equals marginal cost.
Jim: (Laughing) There you go!
TJ: Somethin' important always happens where those two intersect.
Jim: You know what? I just cringed when you said that. That must be like (Laughter) a reflexive reaction there (Laughter). But it is so good to have you. Now hearing your background, a lot of people say, wow, you guys just sound, you know, like super people. What about that idea that you have to be extra special to do foster care?
TJ: Oh, I definitely disagree and I think if you knew us personally, you'd realize we are not superstars. And the Holy Spirit empowers everyone. He's an equal opportunity "empowerer."
Jim: Yeah, I love that.
Jenn: And when we get a new placement, I'm must like every new mom who might not remember the last time she showered or brushed her teeth. (Laughter)
Jim: Yeah, right. Well, that may be a lot of detail there. (Laughter) But first of all, how many kids?
TJ: Twenty-four off and on over the last, you know, eight to 10 years.
Jim: Twenty-four, so that's an amazing number. I think Jean and I have had probably about 14 kids through our home in the last eight, nine years. But it does take an awareness that you're doing this almost as a service to the Lord, right?
TJ: Oh, definitely and we kinda came into this pretty naïve. And our first placement was three children 4 and under.
Jim: What led you there first? Let's go there.
TJ: We started, I think because we both had exposure. Jenn was on the board with a children's shelter in high school and I grew up in a home where my parents chose to welcome foster children. And so, I grew up seeing kids come in and out of our home that needed parents, that needed a loving structure and quite frankly, like got to see and participate in a ministry with my parents.
Jim: Did that have a negative effect on you, as the biological son in the home? Did you ever feel like, wow, why are mom and dad doin' this?
TJ: Not at all. It really showed me how we could participate in ministry together as a family. And I felt like my brother and I got to play a role together with my parents, instead of just them doing something and Caleb and I chillin' on the sidelines.
Jenn: Well and I think, similarly, when we were dating and first married, TJ was pretty intentional of wanting us to find a ministry that we could do for the kingdom of God together. It's so easy to get involved in helping with the Sunday school at our pregnancy center separately or being in our workplaces separately and not having something that binds us together in service to the Lord. So, foster parenting really seemed like, okay, this can fit. We can still keep our jobs. We can still stay where we're living and we can serve together in a real need in our community, not just something we manufactured as, oh, it'd be fun to do.
Jim: Yeah and at the same time, I mean, it is still a[n] outreach or a ministry that pulls on you in unique ways. I mean, it's not comfortable. It's not something you could do on Saturday afternoon and go home and then, you know, continue with your normal life. It's with you 24/7. In fact, how many kids do you have with you right now?
Jenn: We brought with us out here to the studio are four, but we have six in our home, 9 and under. So, we have a bustling household.
Jim: Six kids, 9 and under. (Laughing)
Jenn: Yeah, 9, 8, 4, 2, 1, 4 months.
Jim: So, back to your first placement.
John: Yeah, TJ's wondering, let's see, you lost me after about the second one there. (Laughter)
Jim: No, but I mean, that's a busy home, no matter if it's biologically possible or if you're doing this through foster care, that's a busy home.
TJ: It is and I will say that it is only possible because of friends and really the church support that we receive. And it seems like wherever we've been and wherever we've fostered, we've had friends.
Because I'm in the Army, we don't have a lot of family living close by. But we've had friends and church that have stepped up in enormous ways and to see the church rally together is really encouraging and it's one of the reasons why we wanted to share our story and to write the book, is to encourage Christians, like you can do this. And the church can solve this problem or be part of the problem-solving that you mentioned, as you know, helping these 400,000 kids find a loving family.
John: And I neglected to mention that TJ and Jenn have written a book called Faith to Foster, which really captures your story to date and calls people to do as you said, step around and take care of foster families.
TJ: Yeah and the book originated, we had a placement for almost two years and just a lot of difficulties and trials with that placement that we didn't necessarily agree with some things that happened. And really the book originated out of Jenn's journal and just the sorrow and crying out to the Lord, like why did this happen the way it did?
Jenn: Yeah and it seems like walking through just telling our story, even just personally to the Lord, The Holy Spirit started revealing different truths about our experience in hindsight, when we reflected, He showed how He was using it for everybody's good, that whole experience, even though it didn't feel good at all.
Jim: Yeah and we're gonna get into some of the stories, you know, without names and those things, because we need to protect the confidentiality of that.
Jim: But let's go back to where I cut you off a moment ago and that is, your first placement. What were you thinking it would be like?
Jim: And what actually occurred?
TJ: What were you thinking? (Laughter) That's a good question. Jenn likes to say we walked into this naïve. And I think we probably were. I don't know, had you ever changed a diaper?
Jenn: I don't think so.
TJ: So she's 21, 22 and we have nothing in the house. I'm just returning from a deployment. It's been a few months after we'd been separated for 15 months in Iraq. And they call us on a Friday and say, "Hey, we have three kids, 4, 2 and 9 months. Would you be willing to welcome them in our home? And so, we prayed about it, thought about it and said, "Sure!" And brought 'em over and we did not know what we were doing (Laughter) at the start.
But on Sunday morning we go to church and we're in Sunday school and they ask for prayer requests and our hands shoot up, you know, both hands and sayin', "Hey, like we need help." And our church really rallied around us, brought over car seats, toys, you know, bottles, formula, food, whatever we needed, the church equipped us with and it was phenomenal to see.
Jim: It sounds like you jumped into the deep end of the pool.
Jenn: Well, I think there was an amount of anticipation that happens when you start going through training, which we had finished most of the process before TJ deployed for 15 months. So, we knew for over two years. Like we had committed. We're going to do this and so, when the call finally comes, it's like yes! Here's our time!
Jenn: And we did. It went from "deep water" would be a great way of explaining it.
Jenn: We had no idea!
Jim: And I love the honesty of saying, we were naïve. I think Jean and I, even though I was the kid, I remember Jean, you know, saying you talked a lot about doing this, Jim. I think we should do it since you encourage others to do it! (laughter) And I was like, well, wait a minute. I was the foster kid. I did my time.That was enough for me. And she just gave me that wonderful eye (Laughing), you know, that a lot of spouses will do. You know, (Sounds of bruump). And I went, okay and we did the training.
Just describe that. For us in Colorado and it's really particular to each state for our listeners to understand. So, in Colorado it's about 40 hours of training. You do a home inspection, just to get ready.
Jim: And that's to foster. This isn't foster adoption we're talking about. This is to foster. The state wants to make sure the environment the kids are coming into, that it's safe. You have to have a [fire escape plan], which I think every family should have now that I've done it, fire escape routes kinda mapped out. You gotta practice them with the kids to make sure they know what to do. It's all good stuff. In fact, the parenting material is quite good coming in our training here in Colorado.
Jenn: I think we would agree and we've had to recertify in different states as we've moved around as a military family. And each time, of course, any time you're having to approach a whole training process and a bunch of paperwork, it feels burdensome. But as you're going through it, it really does prepare you and provide us as a couple, a time to talk through some of the details that we otherwise would not have considered. So, I'd say it's a positive experience.
Jim: Yeah, it is good. So, you described that, maybe that first one as a tornado experience and you were tryin' to figure out what's goin' on.
TJ: Yeah and they came to us with no family that was in the picture. And they told us to expect a long-term placement. And so, we kinda went through, started schedulin' appointments. Jenn started potty training the youngest, or the 2-year-old and things. And we kinda braced for that. And then two weeks basically, two weeks to the day we get a call.
Jenn gets a call sayin', "Hey, after the visit, they're just gonna go home with a different relative. So, have all their stuff packed up." And she's out shopping. I didn't expect this call. I'm on a training mission, so I didn't get to say goodbye to the first placement. And Jenn gets pulled over by a policeman on the way home.
Jenn: We don't need to say that. (Laughter)
Jim: Oh, yeah. No, this is the good stuff. (Laughter) Tell us more about this.
TJ: She did. So, she's crying.
Jenn: Like ugly cry.
TJ: I mean, [cryin'] 'cause she's upset and you know, she can't get ahold of me and they're just tellin' us, "Hey, you've gotta get their stuff ready. They're leaving." And I don't even remember what the offense was, but the police officer, you know, not a lot of sympathy, still wrote her a ticket.
Jim: Oh, okay.
Jenn: That seems to work [for some people].
Jim: It always works for Jean. (Laughter) But you were crying. You're just upset.
Jenn: Yeah, I think at that point it was the shock of it. You know, they'd only been with us a couple weeks and really it feels like babysitting for a while. Of course, there's an attachment, especially knowing the circumstances they're coming from. It just creates an empathy for them.
But you know, it was just the shock of, we had been doing so much to create a family routine and then to know, oh, it's time to rip it off. [It] just felt like what?! It felt like we were out of control and we weren't used to feeling out of control.
Jim: And Jenn, some people heard you say that just now listening and they said, "That's one of the reasons I won't do that kind of thing because I don't want to feel that." What would you say to that person, in order to protect those wounds, they want to not engage?
Jenn: I think you're right, that a lot of people think about the ending.But it neglects to look at the breadth of joy that we experienced even in those two weeks. Yes, it was hard work, but it's kind of like counting the cost without paying attention to the benefit.I'm talking like an economics wife. (Laughter)
Jim: You talking like a counselor.
TJ: But if you know, we like to say Jesus is not defined by His death, but rather His resurrection. And in the same way, we are not defined by loss. We like to think that the life that we celebrate and cultivate while the children are with us in our home is much better and certainly goes beyond or exceeds any of the loss that you experience.
Jenn: And I mean, we've said 18 goodbyes with likely six more pending in the next year. And we don't regret any of those lives that we've experienced.
TJ: Not a one.
John: Yeah, still, there's a courage aspect to stepping into this space that you've really gotta consider and our guests today on "Focus on the Family" are TJ and Jenn Menn and they've written a book, Faith to Foster. We've got that at our website and we have a download for you. It's called "Wrapping Around Adoptive Families." It really does apply to foster families, as well, how to provide support to those who are called to be in this space. And our team here at Focus has put down some great ideas. So, if you don't feel the tug to step up quite yet to do this, maybe you can do as the Menn's church did, which is step up and offer a lot of support.You'll find these resources and more at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: John, let me just add there, one of the fascinating kinda rebounds that I've experienced here at Focus since we've been doing a foster engagement effort here, is many people that have been negative toward Focus on the Family, when they learn of what we're doing in this space, they really have said, you know, we respect that.
It's been amazing to see the attitude change with respect to those that maybe aren't Christian. They don't understand what we believe. But they have been negative toward Focus for what we talk about in terms of God's values and those kinds of things.
But this area of foster engagement, whether that's foster care or actual adoption, it really turns people's heads in a different way about the ministry here at Focus. And I'm sure that's happened for you as a family. Is that fair?
Jenn: Absolutely, I think just as when Jesus heals the blind man, that changes the life of that man, but it also changes the lives of those who are near that and see it and their family.
And so, when we got involved in foster parenting, we kind of expected to help the children, but we didn't realize how much it would affect the people that we worked with and our neighbors and the birth parents. And there's been so much opportunity to really share the gospel. I think that's one of the reason[s] that Scripture says that taking care of orphans is a pure and undefiled religion, because it just shines light very purely when people see people loving children.
Jim: And I think to that point of the Lord saying it I think over 50 times, He says, "Take care of the widow and the orphan." One, I think He's saying, "It's gonna be hard." (Laughing) And it's gonna be messy, but this is something I want you to do because that's kind of the trademark of who I am as God. And I love that because you can do that in foster and be a part.
Jim: Let me ask you this though. I think one of the things that can be a little bit like oil and water--I'll say the church and the world. So these things can work against the environment you set in your home. You have to have, I would say, appropriate expectations for what's gonna take place.
Describe that expectation situation and I think some of the conflict that we have with the folks that foster, which include Jean and myself and many, many others. Thank you everyone who is doing that kind of engagement with the foster community.
But you have an idea of how it will go. We'll all get dressed on Sunday. We'll go to church. We'll come home. We'll have a nice interesting brunch, talk about spiritual things with our 5-year-old, who's coming from a really horrific background. It doesn't work out that way, does it?
Jenn: No and we say the first month really takes extra grace. I mean, and that's really what it is. It's just looking at the kids through the eyes of grace, expecting to just be that hand of God to them in the way that might let them stay up later than I would want them to or you know, I might be sleeping on the recliner for a while as the kid just cuddles 'cause they're not sleeping by themselves. It might mean feeding foods that in three months I probably won't be feeding them, just to help them take in our home one step at a time. I know, if we were to just have them open the door and give them a list of rules and tell them, "Well, this is how it's gonna be here," that's not loving, even though six months down the road, that conversation might be very familiar to them.
Jim: Right, they'll be far more accustomed to that after they've lived with you for a while, but that's really wise advice. Don't go right for all the rules right in the beginning, 'cause that typically puts distance between you and that child or those sibling sets, if you end up with two or three kids. Do you have a story that reflects that from your experience of 24 kids?
Jenn: Sure, I think when we have two middle-schoolers join us, they were 11- and 13-years-old and we really saw it as us entertaining them. Those first few weeks we did a lot of like family dates together. We'd go out to obstacles courses. At our family meals we'd just ask them what they're interested in and saw it almost as us like dating them.
We tried to curry their favor in a lot of ways, take them out shopping to get some new things, letting them pick out some of their clothes instead of us just handing them, letting them decorate some of their room.And as you're doing those positive experiences that they feel treated, that creates a natural space to have conversation in a positive direction of like what it's like in our home and what the expectations are, instead of it being laid out in a negative way, of "If you do this, then this will happen."
Jenn: And I think that really helped Ariel and Jack feel comfortable in our home and like they were a part of what we were creating as a family. They weren't just coming in and feeling like intruders to a family that's already there. But they were creating a culture with us.
TJ: And one of the things I'd recommend to your listeners is, if you have biological children of your own who are used to the routine of the home and used to the way things work and they have those expectations already in mind, the kids help the other kids. And so, when we've had foster children in the home already and we've welcomed other foster children in the home, it's amazing how quick they just adapt. And these other kids kind of like lay down the rules, as well
Jim: Tell 'em what's what.
TJ: That's right.
TJ: And so, it helps, I think, sometimes having your own biological children or having kids in the home already if you're welcoming kids in, because they all get together and they, you know, kids can tell other kids things that sometimes they're more receptive.
John: Have you had any circumstances where you showed that extra grace to a new child coming into the home and there was some resentment from somebody that had already been through that drill?
TJ: Oh, yeah. So the same teenagers that Jenn was mentioning earlier were in the home and you know, there's certain language that is acceptable and not acceptable in our home. And we had another sibling group of children come in that were from a pretty tough background.
Jenn: About six months later.
TJ: Yeah and [they] started using some words that were not appropriate, you know, and things and those first couple weeks, we kinda just let things slide. We'd discipline on the major things. You know, no hitting, stealing. We try to start talking about lying, things, but basically you know, just kinda welcoming them in the home. So, that first couple weeks we just kinda allow those things to go. And the teenagers had a rough time.
John: That's not fair. Did you hear that? (Laughter)
Jenn: Well, especially 'cause the little ones that came in, there were 3- and 4-years-old, so the language that they were using was much more teenage profanity. And so, they said, "What! How come he can say that?" (Laughter) Well, at least he's speaking to us right now. (Laughter)
Jim: And those are all within the foster kids. We had that situation where we had our first placement. It was two boys. They were 8 and 9. And we were down playing Wii baseball and one of the kids blurted out some profanity and Troy at the time—he was 9-years-old—and he looked at me, 'cause that's not a word he had ever heard (Laughter) in his life. And he looked at me and with these big eyes, like, "What?!" And you have to direct that energy and say, "You know, we don't speak to each other that way in this home."
Jim: And you know, we have appropriate ways and we encourage people." But it really draws on all those basic parental instincts, but you start from square zero often with these kids. But you have to look at it as an appropriate spiritual challenge, right? You're trying to build into these young folks. I know for me, the recent placement that we had, we had a 5- and 3-year-old, two siblings. And I remember the 5-year-old, after she had gone to church with us a couple of times, and I'd ask Trent or Troy to pray at dinner and so, I may have said, "Trent, you want to pray tonight?" And she said, "No, Mr. Jim, I want to pray."
Jim: And that became a regular routine every night. She would put her arms up to the side like, "Whoa! Wait a minute. I'm prayin' tonight." (Laughter) And that is the jewel of what you're talking about. That's, you know, what we're aiming for particularly, obviously with the Christian influence in our homes and to have them have that experience that someone, even beyond us, cares for them and loves them and His name is Jesus. And that's an awesome responsibility and reward.
TJ: Well, and such a great privilege and sir, I don't know your time as a foster child if you were to experience this or not, but we view this that children that come into our home, we're able to sow seeds into their lives. And we may not get to see the harvest. We may not get to see the end result, but man, it is incredible to see these kids pray and the opportunity to pray for their parents. And the same thing in our home, we have family worship, which we've started and the kids love it. And they get to pick out songs and then they, you know, their hands go up with who gets to pray and we read stories. And we're just excited and they are excited, because they love the time together. And it's such a privilege to share Jesus with these children, who have never heard about Him before, some of them.
John: Well, our guests today on "Focus on the Family" have been TJ and Jenn Menn and we're gonna have to wrap up for this episode of the program and invite them back. They wrote a book called Faith to Foster and we've got details about it. You can order it at our website and then it's called"Wrapping Around Adoptive Families," but it really does fit for foster families, as well. We have a download for you at the website on ways that you can provide support to those who are involved as foster parents. And you'll find these resources at www.focusonthefamily.com/radioor call us, 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: You know, also John, we'll look at that Scripture where the Lord does direct us to take care of the widow and the orphan. I mean, this is very specific—children without parents. In this case, it might be parents who just aren't engaged. They're incapacitated in some way. That is what foster care is about, getting the parents to a place where they can actually engage those kids again in a healthy way.
And I believe, you know, there's no qualification in Scripture. When the Lord directs us that way in the book of James and in other places, He doesn't say, "And for those of you who feel you are equipped and ready to take care of the orphan, may I direct you this way?" It's really a broad brush command. I mean, take care of the widow and the orphan.
And you might be teetering there. Can we do it? And certainly people's life circumstances may not allow them to do it. Next time I want to talk to you, TJ, about being deployed in the military and Jenn, that burden in the normal course of things what that would feel like, but yet you have, you know, six kids under 9 and how do you do that? And we'll get to that next time.
But consider it. John's mentioned the resources that we have here at Focus on the Family to equip you, to help you. And that's a good way to start and it is a good thing to bring a healthy, spiritual, Christian perspective to these kids who are desperate, saying, "Do you love me?" And we want to talk about that next time, too, just how these kids will test that in so many ways.
Give a gift of any amount to support the work here at Focus on the Family and we'll send you a copy of TJ and Jenn's book, Faith to Foster, as a resource to begin praying about and hopefully, get started in this area.
John: And these tools represent many different ways that you can get involved in helping foster-care children and we'll have a link to our www.icareaboutorphans.org website, where you can find out more information about foster care and adoption and our Wait No More Program. The starting point is www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 1-800-A-FAMILY.
Coming up next time, more on how being a foster parent can have a greater impact than you could ever imagine.
TJ: And this has really allowed, I think, given the church a rallying cry to unify behind, because there's no false agenda here. There [are] no ulterior motives. You're loving the kids and the community sees that.
End of Excerpt
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T.J. and Jenn MennView Bio
Major T.J. Menn is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he and his wife, Jenn, are both graduates of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Major Menn currently serves as an aviation officer in the Army, and Jenn operates a small counseling practice. The Menns are passionate advocates for disadvantaged children, and have welcomed 24 foster children into their home, ranging from newborns through high school-age teenagers. T.J. and Jenn are co-authors of the book, Faith to Foster. The couple currently parents six children, and their family resides in New York. Learn more about the Menns and their book by visiting www.faithtofoster.com.