May is Foster Care Awareness Month. Most people know about foster care. Some are even called to be foster parents. But all of us are called to care for one another—so how can we? How can we step in and help a family or child in foster care? Dr. Deb Shropshire is a pediatrician who also serves as a Child Welfare deputy director with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. She’s passionate about helping people see the fact that parents whose children have been brought into foster care need grace, not judgment. And, she can help us see there are lots of things we all can do to help. Here’s a story from her and some ways we can immediately help with foster care.
I was excited as I raced down the colorful hallway. One of my dear friends had been fostering for several years, and the path was finally clear for her to adopt. The parents had given up their rights, avoiding the court battle that would have forced a jury to determine whether they were “good enough” parents or would lose their rights. The young boy my friend was fostering had some medical challenges, and it wasn’t unusual for me to visit her at the hospital. But this visit was different, and I couldn’t wait to celebrate the news that she was going to get to keep him.
I burst through the door to his hospital room with a big smile and a loud “Congratulations!” As I walked toward her, I noticed the man lying in the hospital bed holding the little boy. It was the little boy’s dad. I froze—not sure what to say or do. Fortunately, my friend rescued me, reintroduced me to the man I’d met a few times, and let me know that the boy was starting to feel much better and would be out of the hospital soon. I’m quite sure I looked like an idiot as I smiled and nodded, unable to understand why a dad who only hours ago gave up his right to his child was now lying beside him in the bed.
We stepped outside the room, and my friend explained that the “bio” parents of her foster sons had confessed to her that they were terrified of taking their medically fragile child home. For two years they fought to complete the “service plan” the case worker had given them. Struggled to keep stable housing, to find transportation to carry them to the latest minimum-wage job—especially when the assigned work shift or location didn’t match the bus route. They fought to attend classes on parenting, to show up at medical appointments, to attend regular visits with their children and court hearings. After all that, they realized no amount of love they felt for their children could overcome the fear that they might not know what to do if their child got sick.
But they knew the foster mom was a nurse and that she would know what to do. They believed if she would adopt him, at least they would know their boy would be safe. And she had been nice to them. Hadn’t judged them. Had encouraged them. The parents appeared in front of a judge, affirming their decision to give up their rights to these children. They gave up the right to see smiles on Christmas morning, to walk them to class on the first day of school, to hide a coin under the pillow after a lost tooth. Then they came straight to the hospital, where a dad held his young son and told him he loved him, and that he wanted the very best for him. This. This is what fostering is about and why it should matter to Christians.
Foster care isn’t only about providing a temporary home for the thousands of children whose parents can’t safely care for them. It isn’t only about managing case worker appointments, court hearings, the emotions of parent visits, and the extra care a child might need to address the adversity and loss they’ve experienced in their young lives. It isn’t only about surviving the daily struggle of falling in love with kids who aren’t yours. Wanting to protect them and provide the best life for them, while knowing down deep that they may go home or have to move somewhere else. No, on its best day, foster care is also about falling in love with parents. About realizing that we all need help. That some people happen to have harder lives than others. That every one of us has the opportunity to make bad decisions, but some of us have had an easier chance to recover from them.
The needs of the parent who has had their children removed from their care are deep and complex. And the needs of the families who choose to bring additional children into their homes are real, too. But what can you do to help? Here are three groups of people whom you can start to help today.
Help a child who’s been removed from their home.
- If you can, foster. If you have extra room in your house and you wonder how it keeps filling up with junk you don’t need, clean it out and call your local child and family services office. Do the paperwork, take the classes, make friends with people who have fostered and can give you advice, and get on the roller coaster.
- Volunteer with an organization that helps foster kids or serves those who have aged out of foster care and are trying young adulthood on their own.
- Serve in children’s or youth programming at your church and be another positive and encouraging voice to the foster children in your church.
Help someone who is a foster parent.
- Take them dinner on court days.
- Become the “alternate caregiver” who can help out for a weekend when they need a break.
- Ask them how they’re doing—and be a safe place for them to talk.
Help a parent who had, or may have their child removed from their care.
- Volunteer for organizations that help serve struggling parents.
- Offer to be a mentor to a family who needs extra support.
- Ask how you can meet immediate needs for a family at risk near you.
And pray. For all these groups, pray. Ask God to heal. Ask Him to be the source of the end of child abuse in our lifetime. Ask Him to soften your heart and open your eyes to the simple ways you can meet needs around you. Spend time this month learning about Foster Care.
The years have flown by since I walked into that hospital room. That little boy is now 9. My friend sent me a picture of his last birthday party. In the picture? Her husband and their kids, her two adopted sons, another toddler she was fostering, and the parents of those little boys. They are a family. A beautiful, messy, complicated family. How cool is that?