About a year and a half ago, I was talking with my sister, venting about all the frustration I felt with the child welfare system. My wife and I had just said goodbye to three children we’d been fostering for a little over a year.
The children had been wonderful, it was a good thing that they were returning to their parents, and we had been blessed by the faithful service of many people involved in their case — people I would count among the most loving, selfless, and hard-working people I’ve ever known. But throughout that year, we had also seen firsthand how profoundly inefficient the system can be and how easily justice can be hindered through the laziness, bitterness, and bigotry of those who are supposed to be working in the best interest of these vulnerable children but aren’t.
As I explained to my sister, over that year, the foster system wore out my wife and me. It shredded our hearts and bled our eyes dry of tears.
“So do you think you guys will ever foster again?” my sister asked.
“No,” I immediately replied. “We’ll never do this again. Not in a million years.”
Then my wife and I immediately said “yes” a few months later when our agency asked us to take another child in need of a home. Such is the nature of being a foster parent. The child welfare system is broken. It’s a disaster. It’s a travesty. And we can’t help but want to be part of it.
Netflix recently debuted “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” a documentary series that tells the tragic story of an 8-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre. In addition to focusing on the evil of his murderers, the series details those who had the opportunity to help Gabriel but failed to do so — those in education, law enforcement, and especially Los Angeles’ child welfare system.
While focusing on those in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) who faced charges for negligence and falsifying public records, the series does a good, if somewhat scattered, job of highlighting the brokenness of the child welfare system. It would make sense for any non-foster parents watching the show to say, “I would never want to be a part of a system that is so broken, heartbreaking, and soul-crushing.”
However, my hope is that non-foster parents will instead respond the way my wife and I have to the system: by saying, “This thing is a complete disaster, and I want to be a part of it. So it’s time for me to stop making excuses.” What are the bad excuses people make for not becoming foster parents?
1. ‘What’s the point if kids aren’t going to be removed from their parent’s homes?’
When you encounter cases like that of Gabriel Fernandez, it’s easy to conclude there’s no point in becoming a foster parent when foster services is failing to rescue children from the biological parents who are abusing them. Why bother opening your home to a child who won’t be placed with you? Why should you go through all those tedious steps — background checks, home inspections, fostering classes — if the room you’ve set aside will remain empty? Why offer to help if no one will let you?
Yes, Fernandez wasn’t removed when he should have been. And yes, there are many examples of foster services failing to remove children when it should or placing those children into equally dangerous and dysfunctional homes of other family members.
But plenty of children who have been removed from their homes still need yours. There are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. While you may not be able to help the children whom various child welfare agencies have let slip through the cracks, you can help the ones that haven’t.
You can be a father or a mother to a child who needs you. You can be the parent who helps heal the emotional wounds a defenseless child is suffering. Even if you’re only stepping into that role of mother or father for a brief time, you can be the parent who helps protect a broken child from the brokenness of the system. Just because you can’t help everyone doesn’t mean you can’t help anyone.
2. ‘I don’t think I could give them back.’
When people find out I’m a foster parent, they often say, “That’s so great. I don’t think I could do that, though. I don’t think I could ever give the children back.”
If you’ve ever said this, be advised that the next foster parent who hears you say it might staple your lips shut. Yes, giving children back is heartbreaking. Yes, it’s frequently the most difficult part of the fostering experience. But you should stop saying this for a few reasons.
First, it’s a hugely insulting thing to say to foster parents. We didn’t start fostering because we are able to welcome children into our home, feed them, change their diapers, kiss their booboos, and cradle them to sleep as they’re sobbing without developing an emotional attachment.
You are not more compassionate than we are. You are not better at bonding than we are. When the children we’ve come to love and view as our own go home, we cry as many tears as you would. In the same way that the flesh of firemen isn’t more flame-retardant than the flesh of civilians, the hearts of foster parents are not more impenetrable than the hearts of those who don’t foster.
Second, and most important, fostering is not about you. It’s about the children. Very often, it’s good for them to go home. Sometimes kids are removed without legitimate cause and the best thing for them is to return to their parents immediately. Sometimes parents have gotten overwhelmed and just need a little time to get themselves together, and when they’re able to be loving, protective parents again, it’s best for their children to go back home. Likewise, if you do all you can to build a healthy relationship with their birth parents, you’ll often see firsthand that they are ready to safely and faithfully care for their children again, making the children’s eventual departure much easier on you.
Until that “return home” moment comes, however, these children will still need a safe place to sleep, eat, and feel loved, which means they’ll need you. Of course, it will hurt when they leave. But sometimes these little ones need to sail home on a river of your tears. Sometimes they need you to sacrifice your happiness for their mental health.
If God calls you to heal their hearts by breaking your own, remember you’re in good company. If Jesus sacrificed the final beat of His heart so we could return home to our Father’s kingdom, how blessed are we to mirror that sacrificial love for the little ones in our own lives.
That said, the third reason you should stop saying, “I could never give the kids back,” is that many foster children don’t return to their biological parents. In fact, of the 400,000 children in foster care throughout the country, more than 125,000 are waiting to be adopted. If you become a foster parent, there is a good chance some of the children you welcome into your home will never have to leave.
3. ‘I’m afraid I won’t love them as much as my own children.’
When people who are already parents consider fostering, one of the things they fear, though they may not say it out loud, is that they won’t love their foster children the same way they love their biological children. If this ends up being the case, they worry that the selfishness and shallowness of their hearts might be unveiled before the world. Even more so, they worry their foster children will pick up on this and possibly experience more trauma over being treated like second-class kiddos.
To a certain degree, this is not an unjustified fear. Granted, every child placed in your home is different, which means every bond you have with each child is different. As any honest foster parent can tell you, this is what happens when a child is placed with you: Your agency calls and gives you a little information about the child. You fall in love with the idea of him. You want nothing more than to help him, care for him, and protect him.
The case worker drives up to your house. You rush outside, trembling with anticipation, eager to meet this sweet little angel that you’re convinced you need to have in your life. Then you see him. You look in his eyes, your heart drops into your lower intestine, and you think, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
The fantasy immediately crumbles, and you feel nothing. No maternal or paternal love. Nothing even remotely comparable to what you felt when you held your biological children from the first time. If you become a foster parent, this will likely happen to you.
But over time, things will change. The more that child becomes part of your everyday life, the more your heart will learn to make a place for him. The more you tuck that child into bed or help him with his homework, the more precious he will become to you. It won’t happen overnight. It may take months before love begins to overtake your discomfort. But it will happen.
Likewise, the love you have for that child may well remain different from the love you feel for your own biological children, especially if you develop a good relationship with his birth parents. But it will not be a lesser love. Instead, it will be exactly the kind of love they need. They will never stop benefitting from it.