As I finished up my counseling session with Marisa and her adoptive parents, Eric and Michelle, I felt sad and frustrated. Theirs was a story I had heard many times before: Eric and Michelle’s support system, including the church they had attended for years, was very excited about the couple’s plans to adopt. In fact, the church made a big deal about Adoption Sunday, exploring the global orphan crisis and encouraging congregants to prayerfully consider whether God might be calling them to adopt or foster.
Eric and Michelle’s family, friends and church community were all eager to help, and there were quite a few meals and visits during the first few weeks after they brought Marisa home. But after the initial “honeymoon period,” the excitement waned. And now, a year into their adoption journey, all that support was nowhere to be found.
Eric and Michelle loved Marisa deeply, and being her parents filled their life with much meaning and joy. Yet they were completely blindsided by the struggles she faced. Marisa had some serious challenges related to the abuse and neglect she experienced during the first year of her life. She had trouble bonding with Eric and Michelle, and many of the things people love about parenting – the hugs, kisses, cuddles and “I love yous” – were few and far between.
Marisa’s demeanor was often unpredictable. Sometimes she was kind and playful, other times she would lose control for long periods and struggle to calm down or be comforted. Play dates and babysitting options began to dry up once the extent of Marisa’s erratic behavior became apparent.
The folks in the church nursery were kind, but eventually they said either Eric or Michelle would have to stay with Marisa because they weren’t equipped to handle the girl’s behavior. The couple was thoroughly confused – their daughter was precious to them, but Marisa was struggling because of the trauma she had experienced early in life and they didn’t know how to help her.
Isolated and Alone
I’ve encountered similar scenarios time and time again in my work: first as a therapist in the foster care system and later through Replanted – a small group-centered ministry that provides hope, encouragement and support to adoptive and foster parents and their children. Friends, family and fellow church community members have an awesome opportunity to play a role in an issue we know is dear to the heart of God – the plight of children without families – but we often fail to understand the trials of the adoptive and foster journey. More importantly, we fail to recognize how those trials impact both parents and children, especially when we fail to support those adoptive and foster families for the long haul.
Simply put, Eric and Michelle were worn out. They were trying their best, but the challenges they were facing with Marisa were far greater than they had expected. It didn’t help that they felt isolated and alone – that no one understood what they were going through. On those rare occasions when they did open up about their struggles, they usually got a boatload of advice that they had already tried (and didn’t work). Eventually they stopped reaching out entirely.
My own sadness and frustration over their situation was related to the lack of support that Eric and Michelle received. I kept thinking, Where is the church in this? If we really care about serving the needs of vulnerable children and their families, we have to do more than just encourage people to adopt and foster. We have to keep doing the hard work of supporting those families – day in and day out.
Not everyone is called to adopt or foster. But everyone can play a role.
Four Ways to Help
How can we provide assistance in ways that help without hurting? Below are some important things to keep in mind when we reach out to support the adoptive and foster families in our church communities.
Offer grace and presence. Adoptive and foster families need grace-filled, safe relationships in which they can be vulnerable and share what’s really going on in their lives. One of the best ways to truly support adoptive and foster families is by offering them grace and unconditional acceptance right where they are, just like God offers grace to us. That means loving and accepting these families no matter how their kiddos are behaving. Many, if not most, of these kids are fighting battles that you might know little about. Be a source of safety: Don’t judge, criticize or offer advice. Instead, offer your presence and a listening ear.
Become “trauma informed.” Adoptive and foster children often have a history of abuse and neglect, which in turn impacts their future relationships and behavior. Some kids may have physical or developmental disabilities, or have been exposed to substance abuse in utero. These experiences impact their ability to connect with others and regulate their behavior.
Most of those in support roles have little experience with the specific challenges facing adoptive and foster children, so they end up suggesting the same tips that worked with their biological kids. If you really want to help, begin by learning about abuse, neglect, trauma and attachment. The books Replanted: Faith-Based Support for Adoptive and Foster Families and The Connected Child provide a good base for understanding trauma and trauma-informed parenting. There are also conferences and events such as Replanted, Empowered to Connect and Refresh that offer a wealth of information and resources. Another important step is to make sure all the childcare workers at your church are trauma trained and informed.
Support both parents and children. When I started Replanted, most of our efforts were geared toward adoptive and foster parents. This was important – those parents need support! But I soon realized that children who are adopted or are in foster care need attention, too. I remember counseling one child who was ashamed about living in a foster home. She didn’t want anyone to know about her situation. Kids need to be in loving, grace-filled communities with other children who understand the journey they’re on. When you offer support to foster and adoptive families, don’t forget about the kids.
Be consistent. Eric and Michelle’s story is a common one. Many folks offer help and support early on, but disappear after the excitement of the new placement wanes and the reality of daily life sets in. If you’re going to support adoptive and foster families, do your best to be in it for the long haul. Take stock of your capacity to help, and be realistic. If at all possible, try to make a long-term commitment (i.e., six months to a year).
So, how can you be a part of a family’s support system? Try starting small: Begin by thinking of just one way you could begin to provide help on a regular basis to the adoptive and foster families in your community. What is one way your church could begin to offer support?
People like Eric and Michelle – and Marisa, too – could really use the help.