The first children who depended on me to care for them were teenage boys. As a housemom to 6 boys ages 12-18 at a group home when I was in my early twenties, I started this whole parenting thing in an odd position. I was barely older than the kids we were working with and I can only imagine how those parents felt entrusting me with their care. But I came to love those boys, to feel motherly feelings of protection for them, and I became passionate about their families. Over the next decade I watched them grow and become independent men. Some of the choices they made were amazing illustrations of how resilient kids can be as they struggled to break the cycles of abuse and addiction they were born into. Some of the choices they made were heartbreaking as they fathered children they couldn’t care for and did time in prison for crimes that continued the patterns they experienced as little children. But whatever choices they have made, I have loved them. I remember what they were like in their younger years. How they rested their heads on my shoulder when I read to them. How they’d laugh at the dinner table. How they’d sing and dance while doing chores in the kitchen. To me, they are not their mugshots or rap sheets. They are people I love.
After five years of working with those teens, we adopted our first child and transitioned to fostering infants. Many infants in the foster care system don’t have an identified father involved, but we had one that did. When I met him for the first time, he had just gotten out of prison and was the same age as many of the boys we had worked with during our years at the group home. Looking into his eyes felt very familiar to me and my heart broke for what he had been through up to this point in his life and what he was currently going through with the removal of his child. Instead of just feeling sadness for the ways this baby had been mistreated, I felt that sadness for this young man, too.
I find it’s easy for people to have compassion for the infant born exposed to drugs. As that infant ages they may become the toddler in the church nursery with sensory issues who bites other kids, or has trouble with impulse control so he throws things when he’s upset. It may be harder to have compassion on the child that seems aggressive. That toddler may become the school-aged child who curses at the teacher when things aren’t going his way because these are normal parts of speech he’s heard at home. He may be the kid who picks on other children at school because he’s learned that being in control, being the biggest and strongest is the only way to stay safe. It’s tough to have compassion on that child when he’s making conscious choices to be disrespectful to authority and makes other kids feel unsafe. And what about the teenager who starts stealing because in his home that’s no big deal? As long as you can get away with it, it may even earn you respect. We are all outraged at that out of control teen and see his prison sentence as justice being served. And then one day that man fathers a child who ends up in foster care. We are heartbroken all over again at the innocent baby who is suffering for the sins of his father, but we’ve lost the ability to extend our compassion to the father who was once a wounded child himself.
I don’t have any desire to excuse the behavior of adults. Laws rightly protect the innocent and justice is necessary and good. Where parents may have failed to teach important lessons, sometimes the justice system has to step in and become the teacher. It’s sad, but it’s needed. As a community, it is important for us to support the enforcement of laws, but as foster parents and those who love foster children we need to engage our empathy.
I have yet to see a situation where a child enters foster care because things were going so well at home. Kids come to us because there has been a major crisis in the lives of their parents. This often involves some combination of poverty, substance abuse, joblessness, homelessness, an incarcerated parent, or domestic violence. Children come to us when their parents are already at their lowest. And we have a choice to make about how we view them and work with them.
We can choose to be angry. We can be mad about the damage done to this precious child. We can see how this little one’s life would be so much better and simpler with us. We can expect the parents to pull themselves up and achieve all goals set out for them in a timeline we deem appropriate in order to prove they love their child. We can whine and gossip and vent to anyone who will listen about how they shouldn’t get any more chances, about their troubling history with law enforcement, about how many visits they’ve missed, about what they post on social media, and about how they treat us. In some ways, we have every right to do these things. We are the ones caring for their child and picking up the pieces of what they’ve broken.
But we could also choose compassion. We have to understand these patterns of abuse are often cyclical and we may be raising the victims of victims. We need to develop a curiosity about what lead a parent to this place. We can put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what our lives would be like if we had the upbringing they did. What if we had grown up in foster care ourselves? What if we had never known stability? What if illegal drugs were a constant presence in our lives from our earliest memories? We can let that empathy guide our interactions with these parents as we learn to love them right where they’re at without sacrificing our desire for justice for this child.
This isn’t an easy task. These families are likely to hate you. They will want to prove they are the better parent, pouncing on any perceived inadequacies (Why did you let my child get sick? Why aren’t they wearing better clothes? This isn’t the brand of diapers I want them in. If they were with me, they wouldn’t have fallen and gotten that bruise.). It is frustrating to be the one dealing with the majority of diaper changes, tantrums, homework help, preparing meals, whatever it is a child needs and then feel judged for it by this parent who is the source of much of this child’s pain. You can easily find yourself getting involved in weird turf wars over brands of baby food or hairstyles because you’re both grasping for control in a situation where neither of you seem to have much.
In my years of caring for kids from difficult homes, I have found myself again and again coming back to Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We have to do justice– to do right by these children who have been wronged and to support accountability for the parents. We have to love kindness– to treat parents with dignity and respect, with compassionate understanding that this is not what they wanted for their lives. And we need to walk humbly with God in the knowledge that we are not perfect parents and aren’t responsible for saving these kids or their families.
For more information about foster care, contact Christian Heritage.