What is a foster parent? Is it a superhero as some charities have described? A villain as TV might show? A crazy person as strangers have exclaimed?
The definition of “foster parent” holds a deep meaning to me that has developed over my five-year career as one.
My faith is not only the reason I became a foster parent but also the lens I use to define what a foster parent is. There are a plethora of verses about caring for and serving others, but one verse stands out to me specifically.
James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV).
This is the job description and definition of a foster parent.
Foster parents everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief at the use of the word “visit” in James 1:27.
The Bible doesn’t say “to solve the problems of” or “to be the savior of” the vulnerable. Instead, it says to “visit.” Foster parents are not saviors but servants.
A foster parent is a person who cares for a child while their biological family cannot until the biological family can. They do not fix families but walk alongside them and other professionals in the healing process. If you decide to become a foster parent to save children, you will quit. Sometimes there is not a happy ending. A foster parent is a visitor, not a savior or a solution.
The word “visit” also implies “temporary.” A foster parent is temporary. This role is crucial but not sustainable. Many foster parents quit because they miss this foundational part of what it is to be a foster parent. They fix their eyes on spending forever with a child when their role is, at the core, temporary.
Anyone planning on becoming a foster parent to children whose case plan is reunification needs to put the thoughts of adoption on the back burner. The ultimate goal and hope of foster care is safe and successful reunification. Child Protective Services is not an adoption agency.
James 1:27 makes it clear that the vulnerable people Christians are to visit are in affliction. The dictionary definition of affliction is “something that causes pain or suffering.”
Being in foster care alone causes pain and suffering, and a foster parent is someone who recognizes that. Being taken away from your family is a very traumatic experience even if it is necessary. Then add on top of that all forms of abuse and neglect, and the amount of affliction these children experience is astronomical.
A foster parent is a person who willingly goes into this affliction and sits in it. It is a person who day after day provides meals, shelter, and love to a child experiencing unimaginable pain. An important reminder here: a foster parent is not someone who solves this pain but is merely willing to sit in it with the child.
“Unstained from the world”
There is a lot of frustration and grief that comes with working with “the system” or Child Protective Services (CPS). I have only been working with CPS for five years, and yet I have outlasted most social workers and CASA volunteers.
Being submerged in story after story of child abuse and neglect often creates an “I give up attitude” that is understandable. But a foster parent is someone who loves as if unstained by the world they work in.
I have suffered from compassion fatigue, burnout, secondary trauma, and first-hand trauma. And yet every day I chose to love those in affliction while having wounds of my own. This is where I cannot separate my faith from foster care.
I rely on God second by second to help me love kids in care as if I am unstained from the system they are in. He gives me the strength to love despite the trauma behaviors and despite knowing at any moment a child could leave. To love despite the constant disappointments and frustrations that come with working with government systems can only be accomplished by relying on God.
We Must Rely on God
What is a foster parent? It is a person who loves and temporarily cares for a child in affliction despite the disappointments and frustration the world brings.
How can anyone accomplish this? God.
God has to be my reason, my motivation, my sustaining force. I am not the savior for kids in foster care. I cannot heal their families, stop abuse from reoccurring, or solve years of addiction. But I can sit next to that family and cry with them, pray for them, and love them.
Ultimately, I would describe my role as a foster parent as learning that I am totally reliant on God. Is not that the journey of all believers?