He told us how many of them did not cry the first night.
In 2004 I learned about foster care from Perry Downs, a long-time professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He and his wife had taken in many children over the years. When he would check on them, they were screaming into their pillows. They had learned that they would be beaten if they cried, so he would only see silent screams.
Twelve years and a few kids later, my wife and I have opened our home to foster children. We have been part of a church culture that cares for orphans. During Sunday services we are graced with numerous racially mixed families (a little foretaste of heaven) as families are diversified through adoption and foster children. As pro-life Christians, we strive to care about orphans and neglected children who have made it outside the womb.
Caring for Children in Need
Foster care is a system run by the government where minors are put into the custody of the state and placed with foster parents to care for their daily needs. Staggeringly, there are 415,000 children in foster care right now, each staying in foster care an average of two years.
Brokenness festers among foster care children.
Many of the teenagers have significant needs due to years of abuse and abandonment (some will physically attack you or your children). Many teenagers are even living in shelters because it is hard to find a family to take them in. Others are junior high children who are confused about their sexuality — having been abused by their parents or family friends. Still others are in elementary school and have had to be pulled out of their home because of a drug raid where their mom and her boyfriend were arrested.
Foster care is hard on foster parents.
Many calls come. My family had said yes to eleven different children before one was finally placed with us. If you care for newborns, you encounter things like meth and cocaine addiction or fetal alcohol syndrome. You may receive a call like the one to a friend, asking, “This newborn’s mom has HIV. No one is willing to take her. Will you?”
If you care for older children, foster care involves dealing with children who have been abused. Sexually. Physically. Emotionally. Some older children come to foster care due to neglect, others due to homelessness. Some struggle to form healthy relationships. Some experience developmental delays that will play a significant role in the child’s life. Some have parents who have given up and don’t want to take care of them anymore. As foster parents, you welcome these children into your homes and hearts, unloading all of their baggage with them.
Might they be numbered among those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40, 45)?
Count the Cost of Child Care
Foster care means playing by the government’s rules, which requires a lot of flexibility. Are you ready to be told you can’t discuss the sexuality of a teenager in your care, or “force” the child to come to church with you? Are you ready to work with government agencies and workers who are burnt out? You may be the only evangelical they have ever met. You may be yelled at or mocked or derided by your state worker because they are having a bad day. Are you ready for visitations with birth parents who cannot be counted on to show up? People sign up to take care of children, but often end up spending a fair amount of emotional capital on the state workers and parents.
Foster care can be a part of dying daily. When we think of denying ourselves and taking up our cross (Matthew 16:24–26), many of us do not think that mundane life is what Jesus had in mind. That passage is typically preached in relation to missions. But Jesus says daily. Surely he knew that included changing diapers with gloves to avoid infections, lying awake with a meth-addicted baby, signing up your children for fewer activities because of visitations, getting questions from your Christian friends about the wisdom of foster care, receiving other questions wondering if you are sacrificing your own children in the process, and more.
Since the goal of foster care is reunification, it can be hard for the whole family when the child leaves. You and your kids attach to these children who need your love, and then they leave. The longer they stay, the harder it can become. With babies, it is easy to get attached, and as a result, you may end up holding your crying 9-year-old because she doesn’t want the baby to leave. You may experience saying goodbye to a 2nd grade girl who has latched onto your daughters and sees them as sisters.
Furthermore, it can strain family dynamics. Are you ready for your children feeling jealous and acting out because you are spending time with a baby that has just arrived? If the foster children are older, it means teaching them acceptable boundaries, not allowing your children to hug them in order to teach them appropriate physical contact. It also means your children may learn behaviors from the foster children that they would not otherwise pick up. Are you willing to put in the extra work to shepherd your family through these things?
Finite Creatures in an Orphaned World
A question that can plague the minds of foster care parents is: If we open our homes to two, why not twelve? And if twelve, what are a few more — say, fifteen?
You must come to grips with your limits, resolve to lay your head down each night in peace, trust in a sovereign Lord that is doing a million things you cannot see, and have wisdom to know when you are destroying your own family in the name of orphan care. When your ability to love, shepherd, monitor, and care for children is exceeded, you end up with brokenness, not faithfulness.
Americans, in particular, are doers. Foster care is not like a two-week trip to an orphanage where you hold babies, paint a wall, and leave. In foster care you are committing your finances, emotions, and even personal safety on a much deeper level. This isn’t something you can post about on social media. You legally can’t share pictures of these children you care for online. Can you serve without telling everyone on social media how it’s going?
As I walk to work every day I see homelessness, abuse, drug addiction, loitering, prostitution, and more. Every day. And every day I do not engage in ministry to address these kinds of issues. Of course, I see these people. I am moved to compassion for them. But I cannot do anything for them in the moment. Am I disobedient to Christ? No, I am a finite man, and in the time I am given I try to make the most of the opportunities in front of me. For me, it is children. For you, it could be someone else.
The Gospel: Light and Heat for Foster Care
The gospel of being an adopted, blood-bought child of the living God has been light and heat for many who care for orphans. Foster care provides daily reminders of our need for the gospel. Foster care, like many things, provides a window into my soul, and the picture is one of need. I need Jesus. These children are little image-bearers that do not need me to be their Savior. There is one far greater than I am.
Foster care puts the need for the gospel on display for our family. It is a chance for our children to see Jesus’s demands in action. It certainly has given them a lot of opportunities to see their parents asking for forgiveness from one another. It has also given them a window into a world they do not experience — a world of broken families, due to recurring sin distorting generations of relationships.
And foster care provides a platform to share the gospel with others. I cannot tell you how many times people have asked us why we are doing this work, and how many times I have been able to share the gospel in reply. It is a natural entryway, as we live in a culture that still thinks caring for abused children outside of the womb is a good thing. We are doing something both the secularist and the religious respect, and as such we can share the gospel with both. And they are far less likely to argue. They may not like what we say, but since most of their arguments are grounded in the supposed hypocrisy of Christians, their pushback is weak at best.
Into the Brokenness
This is the part where I should bring down the guilt on people — but I can’t. Not everyone should do this work. I will say that, for those of us involved in foster care, we would love for the church to help us.
There are many ways to get involved. You could provide meals for a family as a child enters the home without warning. Perhaps you could help find babysitters, offer to babysit, or become certified to take a foster child for 48 hours as a respite to the family. It could mean something as simple as coming over to watch the kids so mom or dad can catch up on things at home. You could also commit yourself to practice affirmation and encourage worn-out foster parents with Scripture promises. Foster care is much too difficult for isolated families, but no better context exists than families deeply embedded, and supported, in the community of the church.
There will always be orphans. There will always be foster kids. You can’t save all of them, but you might be able to provide a stable environment for one or two to heal and flourish. And in that context, you can bring the gospel to a broken family, a broken foster care system, a broken child. And in the process, God will remind you daily that you need a Savior as desperately as the child you hold and rock at night, who is trying to overcome the drug addiction handed down by his mother.
This ministry is not for everyone, but every Christian family should pray and ask God if foster care is for us.