When you first get into this fostering thing, it’s easy to just be focused on the kids. That’s how they sell you on foster care, right? Poor needy children have no place to sleep tonight unless you let them in your home. It’s true and we do this because we love kids, but there comes a moment when you realize it isn’t just about the children.
We have worked with kids ages birth to eighteen and while the kids have had struggles, the hardest part of this process has never been the children. The hardest part has been dealing with a system that moves slowly and learning how to build relationships with people who have hurt the very children you’re trying to help. It feels counterintuitive to want to see them get help and make changes when you love their child and are worried about them going home, but when you see how much these kids love their parents, you can’t help but root for them.
I had an idyllic childhood. I came from a middle-class family where parents stayed married and extended family was supportive and available. My mom stayed home to invest in her kids, my dad worked a good job to provide for us. While we may have had clothes from Goodwill (before it was cool to have clothes from Goodwill) and we didn’t go out to eat much, I don’t remember being hungry or wanting for any of the necessities. My parents taught me the value of education and that to succeed you need to work hard. They told me to trust the police, obey my teachers, follow the rules. But what if that hadn’t been the case?
What if I had grown up in poverty or neglect? What if I had witnessed terrible acts of violence in my home? What if I learned from my mother that the way to deal with your mental illness is to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol? What if the only time I felt loved was when a man used me for my body? I can hardly imagine these realities, but they are a fact of life for many of the families we deal with in foster care. The problems that bring a child into foster care rarely happen in a vacuum. There are cycles of abuse that are being repeated generation to generation and breaking those cycles takes more than just a desire to change. It takes support. It takes education. And most of all, it takes time. And time is often not on the side of biological families.
While we got into caring for kids because we wanted to care for kids, what we soon learned was that loving them meant loving their families. We might be the first people in their lives that believe they can change. We can treat them with respect they haven’t known before. We can be the support system that doesn’t exist anywhere else for them. This isn’t easy, especially if they don’t view you as a person who can be trusted. It takes time and persistence to develop a positive relationship, but sometimes it can be done. And when you’re able to build that relationship, you are doing what’s best for the child.
If a parent can’t achieve the goals that have been set for them, do you want an adversarial relationship with the birth family of your adopted child? Do you want your child to someday ask you about their birthparent and you have to admit that you were rooting against them? That you couldn’t support them? What about when your child makes contact with the birthparent and finds out there was animosity between you? Some of that can’t be helped, but as much as it depends on me, I want to live at peace with the man and woman who gave my child life and her beautiful brown eyes and bubbly laugh. And what if the child does go back home? Then the tables have turned. If you want any kind of ongoing contact with this child, you have to have developed a positive relationship of trust with the parent. Since the initial goal in most every case is reunification, it’s a good perspective adjustment to imagine how you want to be treated and what level of involvement you’ll still want with this child once that reunification happens. If you want to stay connected, you have to be intentional.
With the first group of kids we parented we wanted to be the good guys and paint their biological family as the bad guys. We quickly found it wasn’t helpful to building a relationship with these children and it certainly did nothing to help support a safe environment for them to return to. Over the years we learned how to be honest with the children in our care about the struggles their parents were facing while reaffirming our love for them and without painting them as bad people. It requires a commitment to trying to understand the whys of how a person gets to the point of not being able to safely care for their child. And an understanding of the pain that must cause them, even if the drugs or alcohol keep them from fully dealing with that pain and the realities of their situation.
A few months ago our foster daughter’s biological mother had her parental rights terminated. It was a day of mixed emotions for us as we knew that opened the door to this precious girl becoming our daughter, but we felt the heartache of a mother permanently and legally separated from her child. I told our oldest son Josh (7 years-old) that the judge had decided this woman wouldn’t be able to safely parent her daughter. Josh was quiet for a minute and said, “That’s happy for us, but sad for her mom.”
He gets it.
There isn’t a happy ending for us without a sad ending for this mother and we care because we love her and her child. That is the complexity of foster care where joy and pain happen in the same moment. This is why we need foster parents who are able to look beyond the paperwork and the court documents and see a person who needs to be loved. This is why we need YOU in foster care.
For more information about foster parenting in Nebraska, check out Christian Heritage.