When my wife, Trisha, and I signed up to be foster parents 20 years ago, we were in our mid-twenties and had never parented before.
As you would expect, there was a lot of paperwork to fill out. One particular form that is common in foster care and adoption lists conditions and experiences that may apply to a child needing a home. Things such as a child with a hearing impairment. A child who has experienced physical abuse, a child who has a family history of mental illness, etc. To the right of this list are three columns indicating “yes,” “no,” or “open to consideration.”.
I don’t remember everything we filled out on that sheet, but I’m pretty sure of two of the things in the “no” column. The first was sibling groups. We had never parented before. It only seemed rational that we would start slow with one kiddo at a time.
The second was major medical needs. We figured someone would have to be crazy to put a child with medical conditions in a home with two twenty-somethings. Especially two with no medical training. Indeed they found nurses, physical therapists, and physicians to take children with medical needs, right?
The First Foster Care Placement
We received a call from our social worker about a potential first placement. She told us there was a set of preemie twins (for those keeping track, two children, not one) who had been in the hospital for three months. They were born ten weeks early, both very sick, and both on oxygen. They would be on oxygen for as long as 18 months. And they both had heart conditions. One of them had heart surgery at 11 days old and nearly died.
There was a significant possibility that they could have cerebral palsy but couldn’t be diagnosed until they were two-years-old. The social worker asked what we thought. I think she didn’t read our paperwork.
My wife, being the compassionate soul that she is, said, “They told us we could visit them and don’t have to make a decision yet. Let’s go down to see them.” You know how this story is going to end.
When we stepped into the neo-natal intensive care unit of this enormous University hospital, I was immediately overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by a room filled with babies, yet quiet. By the sight of the smallest humans I had ever seen. By rows of machines faithfully proclaiming, through a series of beeps, the presence of life within the incubation pods to which they were affixed.
At the end of the unit, there was a small room with sliding glass doors that contained a sterile steel crib.
Inside were two beautiful but very sick baby girls with tubes and cords draped over the sides of their bed and carefully connected to the machines that were keeping watch nearby. As I looked into that crib, their preciousness was clear, but so was the feeling that I didn’t have what it takes to care for them.
“Do I Have What It Takes?”
Like most boys, I grew up wondering if I had what it took to climb across the creek on that gnarled tree branch, or if I had what it took to hang on to the back of a pedal-powered car, dragging in the dirt, while my friend drove it down the hill behind my house (we were pretending to be stuntmen). Most of us carry the question of “do I have what it takes” well into adulthood, and that was the question to be reckoned with at the edge of that steel crib. The answer was clearly “no.”
But in prayer, an equally obvious truth became clear.
God reminded me that it didn’t matter much whether I had what it took. He does have what it takes and is in the business of helping ordinary, weak people do things they are not qualified to do. Scripture is full of examples. Re-armed with this truth, Trisha and I prayerfully said yes, and we brought the girls home. They eventually got off oxygen (at 9 and 18 months, respectively) and did not end up with a cerebral palsy diagnosis. We fostered them for three years, at which point they became available for adoption. We finalized their adoption, and now they are college sophomores.
One of my favorite passages in scripture is in the book of Nehemiah. The walls of Jerusalem are in shambles and have been for decades. Nehemiah, the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, learns from his brother that the city he loves remains unprotected, and he is deeply grieved.
He asks the king for permission to return to Jerusalem to repair the wall. The king sends him off with his blessing and the resources he needs to get the job done.
Nehemiah rallies everyone together, and they begin the rebuilding process even in the face of opposition.
My favorite passage comes in chapter three, where there is a list of all the people working on each section of the wall.
Nehemiah 3:8 gives us just a glimpse:
“…Next to them Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, goldsmiths, repaired. Next to him Hananiah, one of the perfumers, repaired, and they restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall.“ (ESV – Emphasis added)
I love this passage because it tells us that the people building the wall were not professional wall-builders. One of them was a perfumer! We often tell ourselves that we should leave broken things to the professionals. There are people trained to do this, after all. And for a long time, that is the stance our communities have taken towards foster care. However, we should never underestimate the power of the perfumer to restore broken things.
Foster Care Movement
In recent years, there has been an exciting shift in communities across the country from foster care activity to foster care movement. Foster care activity is responsible for the bulk of the help and healing that has been coming to kids for decades. Don’t get me wrong; foster care activity is good. It is just not enough. Kids still languish for too long. Families that could be restored are left without the support needed to reunify. Foster families are too few and burn out too fast.
The Foster care movement changes all that. It happens when groups of churches work together with each other and with local and state agencies and organizations to transform foster care in a community. It happens when we transition from most of the work getting done through agency-led programming (those who are paid to do so) to being driven by community-led advocacy. While professionals are vital, there are not nearly enough of them in your community to care well for the children and families there.
You Don’t Have To Be A Professional
In communities with foster care movement, people from all sorts of backgrounds, careers, and educations step in to fill gaps. Traditionally in foster care, the role of the community has been to point out the potholes in the system. However, in the foster care movement, community members grab a bucket of asphalt and fill in the potholes themselves. They recognize that you don’t have to be a professional to take great care of children and families. Here are just a few examples.
- Ann was a preschool teacher who now helps facilitate foster parent recruitment and training through churches in four counties in Arkansas. One of which has now recruited more than enough foster families for every child who needs one in that county. The words “not enough” are heard every day in our nation’s foster care system. But this former preschool teacher has decided that “not enough” is not okay where she lives.
- Kay is a senior adult and is often homebound because of physical limitations. However, she has quarterbacked an effort through her church that has provided many resources for children and families in her community in Oklahoma.
- Keith is a project manager at a major department store headquarters. He spends many of his weekends training new foster parents and has done so for over a decade.
God Multiplies What You Bring
While many people don’t feel like they have what it takes to make a difference in foster care, we have a God who sees it differently. He is the one who inspires people like Ann, Kay, and Keith to bring their loaves and fishes. God multiplies what they bring to provide more than enough. He can do this with your meager offering as well.
Can’t be a foster or adoptive parent?
Great! Your community needs an army of people just like you to support families in dozens of other ways. From cooking meals, to legal advocacy, to child care, to mentoring.
Essential People to Foster Care
When I shared the story of our first foster care case at the beginning of this article, there are several essential people I Ieft out on purpose until now:
- There was the nurse, Heather, who took care of and prayed for our girls for months before we met them. She and her husband, Brian (a fireman), along with their small group, prayed for the girls regularly and asked God to give them a Christian family. He said yes.
- Two co-workers, Lynn and Marcie, who swung by the store and picked up car seats for us while we were at the hospital getting trained to take care of medically fragile twins. They supported us in so many ways for years into our journey.
- David, a computer guy and friend from church who knew we were in the middle of a remodel of our hundred-year-old house when we got the call about the girls. He brought a friend over to install floors while we were at the hospital, so we wouldn’t have to bring them home to plywood.
- Jon and Diane and June and Steve, friends from church, had a combination of medical and social work backgrounds. Ironically, they were the only people we knew that were qualified to babysit our girls because of their medical needs (even though we were their foster parents and had ZERO medical training). These four friends made sure we got to go out on dates.
This is only a partial list. None of these people were called to be foster parents.
None of them were paid to care.
But each of them holds a piece of our girls’ story. Each of them is a restorer of broken things.
More Than Enough
When it comes to foster care, you don’t have what it takes — just like I didn’t. But having what it takes isn’t a prerequisite for bringing your loaves and your fish to the one that can turn them into more than enough for the children and families in your community.