Stepping Out of Ignorance
“I’ve heard it said ignorance is bliss. And sometimes I miss the blissful ignorance of not knowing 35,000 children have no place to call home in my city. Some of these children, through no fault of their own, will live in 15-20 homes before 18 years old, never finding a family to call their own. Sometimes I miss the blissful ignorance, though most times I am glad to be called Dad by those who typically have never had one.
I was aware of foster care as a concept, an idea, but not something with flesh and bone. Much like I am still aware of global hunger, though I don’t have a single name or face of someone experiencing that kind of gnawing hunger. I owe a lot to some really special, very bold people in our church community, who saw my lack of awareness and wanted to help.
‘I want to teach you how to love our family,’ I was told by a couple who had recently adopted their son. I knew I had no experience with the world of fostering/adopting, and I was willing to learn all I didn’t know. And there was so much I didn’t know. I knew nothing of the ecosystem of poverty that creates the conditions for foster care to be necessary. I knew nothing of the thousands of children trafficked in my city simply because they were easy targets for predators.
From Four to Eight
Shortly after my initial dive into the world of foster care, my wife met a woman who was struggling to take care of her four young children, all under the age of 7. In our county, failure to provide bedding for a child is reason enough for removal. This young woman was also diagnosed with stage 3 Breast Cancer making caring for and providing for her children more difficult. We came through with some beds and things for the kids, hoping we would be able to support her in any way we could. Within two weeks, that support would look vastly different than we imagined.
We received a call on Wednesday, March 18th, 2020, the week the world shut down. The social worker on the other end told us they had sufficient reason to believe the children we just met were not safe at home with their mother, and they were looking for a family to take all four children in. Typically, it is hard enough to place one child in a home, much less keep siblings together. When a child is removed from their parent(s), the siblings are also usually separated, and some never connect with their siblings again.
We deeply wanted to be able to keep these four children together, so without knowing what the future held in regards to the pandemic, much less how we would fare with eight children in our home (we have four biological children as well), we said yes. Since most of our children are teenagers, we knew if we were to do this, we all had to be willing to say yes. Willing to be inconvenienced. Willing to do hard things. Willing to adopt a posture of learning. Willing to walk towards broken people and places where happy endings are not guaranteed. Our children also said yes to the future we expected, and that which we couldn’t have foreseen.
The next day, at 1:00 a.m., the social worker, with four children in tow, showed up at our door. They came with nothing but the clothes on their back, which for the toddler meant nothing more than a diaper and a blanket. We were excited but didn’t want to show it. Our excitement to meet them was clearly juxtaposed with their wariness about meeting us. Bewildered, hungry, and tired, the kids silently sized us up, trying to discern if we were safe.
Caring for Foster Families
After several days, the kids took to all of us. We got to see each of their personalities, their quirks, and the way they communicated in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Being the first week of the pandemic, it would be a while before we had an in-person visit with their Mom. Relegated to Zoom calls several times a week, we got a chance to spend more time with their Mom and tried to have them engage her. Emotions were raw, and just under the surface during the early days.
We had to wrestle with our feelings about their mother. Despite the life they lived with a mother addicted to drugs, the kids wanted nothing more than to be with her. How could that be? The kids would ask us to pray for her at night, and we would talk about their life at home. They had been wisely told by a social worker they were staying with us until Mom finished her homework. They didn’t know the homework was parenting classes and clean drug tests, but the kids took it quite literally. Every night they would ask us how many pages of homework Mom had left, and every night it would break our hearts a little more.
Demonizing the biological parent(s) of children in foster care is a common experience for new foster parents. I didn’t understand the complexity of poverty, the hopelessness, or how deep the bond a child will always have with their mother is. The goal of foster care, unlike adoption, is to provide a safe, loving, temporary home for a child while their biological parent(s) gets healthy enough to be able to care for them again. But what would they go back to? Would it really be better?
There is a lot of talk about what is best for a child. And I had to learn my house, though stocked with food, wasn’t necessarily best. My clean, large home, free from drugs or drama, wasn’t necessarily best. My loving family, even with the best of intentions, still wasn’t necessarily best. I had to learn that a child at home with their parent(s), despite the poverty, struggles, or difficulty, was actually best for both the child and their family. We could provide a temporary home where they felt loved, safe, and cared for, but they would trade everything just to be with their Mom.
It is a humbling experience to recognize that. And it is a rewarding experience to be able to subdue our own desire for recognition and praise and to selflessly pour ourselves out on behalf of another family. But sometimes, that’s not what happens. Shortly after the kids entered the foster care system, their mother’s health declined rapidly, and she passed away. It was almost as if she were waiting to know her kids would be taken care of before it shut down.
Eventually, an aunt who lived about an hour away was located, able to take the kids, ushering in more conflicting emotions. We were so glad a family member could take the kids, and heartbroken our part in their story was done. As we drove away from them for the final time, all six of us were ugly crying and trying to find some comfort for our broken hearts.
It turns out most foster care is OK with conflicting emotions. Naturally pain avoidant, we try to shelter ourselves from experiences or people that will hurt us. It feels counterintuitive to walk towards brokenness, and even more so to offer up the existing health of our family to heal another family’s sickness. Joy and grief hold hands every single day a child is in foster care, and we try to help their little bodies and minds make sense of a world that has just become less safe and secure. The joy of watching a child be with their family is tempered by our grieving hearts that now need to let go, knowing our part has been played.
Applying Lessons Learned
After taking a break for a couple months, we were invited to take in another set of siblings, a baby boy and his 3-year-old big sister. Like the previous placement, this was their first time in foster care. Unlike the previous placement, their mother was healthy, fierce, and prepared to do whatever it took to get her kids back. Like the last placement, there was a familiar urgency and immediacy to caring for these children.
Unlike the last time, I wanted my entry posture to be far more honoring and respectful towards their Mother. Once I met her and got to see her heart, and understood more about the circumstances that led to the kids being removed, the more I wanted to be an advocate for her and her kids without judgment. OK, with less judgment. I’m still a work in progress.
I say ‘I’ rather than ‘we’, though my wife and I could not have done this unless we were a unified team. However, our experience with both parents and children has varied. For one, most of the kids who have been in our home either haven’t had a father in their life or haven’t seen one. This makes me less threatening to their mother, as I’m not competing with a biological counterpart. My wife, no matter how clear she is with the kids they already have a mom, can be a more difficult person for biological families to embrace. After excelling at being a mother to our four children, she still has the capacity and desire to mother others in need, which can seem threatening.
The biggest difference between the first and second placement wasn’t the emotion, the urgency, or the difficulty. It was my preparation for what was coming. I was ready to do what I could to aggressively assure the Mom I wasn’t looking to take her babies, nor did I view myself as the White Savior of kids in the hood. That takes time, consistency, and repeated proof that everything we do is for the end goal of this mother being reunified with her kids.
And I believe now, more than ever. Every tear we shed, every time we are frustrated by a lack of answers, and every late-night conversation with one of my bio kids about how hard this is all serves one goal: getting a child back where they belong, with their family. I completely understand some families foster until they are able to adopt, and I respect that. There are certainly too many children with families unable to care for them in need of a loving family.
I understand some families choose to go the private adoption route, bypassing the difficulty and complexity of families still in the picture for the time. But for our family, with four forever children, we feel the best thing we can do is to focus on the children that have a chance of being reunited with their parents. Parents who often just need someone in their corner, fighting and advocating for them. Children who want to be with their family, and just need a safe family to be for them until that happens.
Our second placement was in our home for about a year, until their Mom was in a better place to care for them. We finally had the experience of partnering with their mother, and the joy and sadness of saying goodbye to them when they could go home to be with their mother and sleep in their own beds.
The toll on our family is substantial. By toll, I mean the adverse effects on our family. Like the night I held my then 8-year-old who worried about being removed from our home, a concept she had never entertained until the kids came to live with us. Or the time my high school senior was dealing with an important AP test with a screaming baby that never seemed to stop. But by toll, I also mean the total count or number of children helped. The total sum of children who are now flourishing at home where they belong far outweighs any cost or effect to our family.
A mentor of mine once said maturity is the ability to tolerate the incompleteness of life. I didn’t like hearing that at the time. I like things that have a clean, neat ending. I like circumstances wrapped in a bow, completely resolved. Yet I appreciate more and more the wisdom of holding the tension between the beauty and the brokenness. I see what has been formed in myself and my family by our willingness to step into difficult situations. I see the emotional resilience and maturity being formed in my children through their mutual participation in this work. And I wouldn’t change a thing.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mike Brown. You can follow his journey on Instagram, and Facebook. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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