“I could never do what you do; I would get too attached.” This is what we hear. We hear it at the park, at school, and when we meet strangers on the street that eye us and ask about our diverse family. We even hear it from family, and dare I say, at church.
Every. Single. Time. I hear these words uttered, the phrase “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all” broadcasts emphatically across my mind. Who knew Alfred Lord Tennyson would have such a lasting impact in my life. But this is not usually how we respond.
After fostering for seven years, we have learned to respond with love as these words tumble effortlessly off someone’s tongue. And to be honest, I say effortlessly because it is a shockingly casual remark considering the circumstances of the children in foster care.
Children are almost always in foster care due to abuse or neglect. Even when they’re not, they were thrown into a system that often isn’t moving quickly enough. (“Moving quickly” is a description that all participants agree is the minimum standard of action constituting the child’s best interest while in care.) The children are removed from the people they love the most and placed suddenly into a home with complete strangers.
Even if they are being abused at their home, they still fiercely love those who are abusing them. The abuse is all they know. Removing them from the one thing they know and placing them into something they don’t creates instability. The only thing worse than the instability and insecurity of removal is the abuse itself. We know that. Kids don’t. They have no idea why they have been taken away from what they know and placed in a situation completely foreign. And for many of these kids it will be many years, maybe a decade, before the reality of the situation is clear to them.
Our response comes to a few simple points.
1) Understand that when the child leaves to go home, this is called reunification, and this is a hopeful sign that the family is healing. The parents are addressing the problems that led to the foster placement. Rejoice! Rejoice with tears of joy knowing that not only was a child cared for today, but a family was strengthened for tomorrow.
2) Stability through attachment is critical. If you don’t attach to the child you are not doing your primary job as a foster parent. These children need healthy attachments and loving adults. All children need the stability of healthy attachments to loving and protective adults.
3) You are the adult and they are the child. You can and should sacrifice your heart for these children. Regardless of the age or developmental stage, all foster care children require shelter, bed, food (preferably meals with a family at a table), and clothing. But those things are not what make a GREAT foster home. They contribute to, but do not create stability and development. You must love. You must provide emotional, relational, and spiritual security. Yes, without love you can meet the minimum standards of foster care. But without love the child will go home just as traumatized as the day he entered care, or more so. (We think this is why most people reflexively reject foster care the way it is advertised; your heart tells you it’s not worth the pain to simply provide three squares and a cot!) It is much better for you to suffer emotionally a little now, than for the child to suffer emotionally, spiritually, physically, academically, and relationally for the rest of their lives. Take an arrow to the heart for them.
4) Did I mention attachment is critical for children? Healthy attachments lead to healthy adults. The only way to break a cycle of foster care is to intercede now, for people you don’t know and children you didn’t birth, and attach your heart to the children in your care.
5) Foster care is a ministry you can engage in at home and in your community. It doesn’t require approval from a mission board (although support from your church is preferred) or a passport. You have the opportunity (and responsibility) to help a child when they are most in need. If you are called–all Christians are called (see James 1:27)–then you should/must act. Open your home. Get licensed and get involved. Support others who are directly involved. Ask your church about how they are, or can be, involved. Seek out organizations that are helping (e.g. Go Foster!). Donate money. Pray. Pray some more.
Yes, it’s hard. I’m not going to lie and say reunification is easy on the foster parents or the other children in the family. It’s not. But foster care teaches us to love a child, to sacrifice ourselves and to step in and fulfill a real need. (And that’s something I want myself, as well as my own children, to learn.)
It’s also a blessing. Meeting a child, having them fill your home with laughter and tears, helping them cope and understand what is happening, investing in their life. It all makes sense. And it fills your heart and home with many, many memories.
If you have considered fostering a child but have had doubts due to the pain you may suffer when the child leaves your home, please understand that attaching to a child is positive thing. It should be seen as blessing, and not as a hardship. And more importantly, reunification with their family is the primary goal.
Over the last seven years we have fostered 15 children and today four of those children are currently in our home. We grieve the day a child leaves. But as the days and years pass, we remember all the fun and all the laughter and we look forward to knowing that we made a difference during that time of their life when they were most in need.