11/24/15

What Foster Parents Aren't



We are not baby sitters.  I am not a nanny, a childcare worker, or an in home daycare. For one, those are all paid positions.  Foster parents do receive some money from social services which is intended to cover the expenses associated with caring for a child.  If I were to consider this income a wage it would work out to about 90 cents per hour, considering we get no weekends off and I am on duty 24 hours a day.
We are not hired babysitters.  We are parents. There is no clocking out at the end of the day.  We parent children, sometimes for a long time and sometimes for a short time.  Too often "the system" can treat foster parents like they are contracted staff, and children are put on ice until they can come up with a game plan.  But then pesky emotions and deep relationships get in the way of policy and bullet points...and that complicates things.  Some social workers appreciate that complicated reality, some don't.

We are not immune to heart break.
"I could never do that"
"I would get too attached"
Those are the most common response I hear when fostering comes up.  I understand it's meant as a compliment but it also assumes that somehow we are a different sort of human.  Getting attached is what we do.  It means that we have loved this child well.  Kids in the foster system deserve nothing less.  There is a difference between a strong love for a child (that can be just as deep as the love we have for the children born from our bodies) and unrealistic expectations.  We expect loss and grief.  We constantly push ourselves forward knowing that just around the corner the little world of safety we've created for this child might come crashing down.  Again. We do it because they're worth it.  Choosing to love and pour myself out completely for a child who may never remember me, who may never love me back or who even resents my role,  has given me a much more tangible view of Christ's love for me.  We aren't stoic saints or calloused robots.  We love, we hurt, we love again.

We are not neglecting our "own" kids.  In all honesty one of the biggest fears I had about fostering is how it would affect my own children. We are a foster family, not just foster parents with other kids.  We are in this together, the excitement of getting a phone call for a new placement, the anticipation of shuffling to make room for the new arrival, the adjusting everyone's lives to accomodate a small stranger, the learning to love and the walking through loss.

This touches every one of my kids.  I would be foolish not to tenderly consider and assess their own hearts every time we say "yes". In fact the thing that breaks me the most when facing a child leaving or a "transition" to a new home is knowing it will hurt my kids.  Watching their little hearts break is worse than having my own torn to shreds.  I carry that heavy burden with each step we take as foster parents.  We have been fostering, typically one infant at a time, for 8 years now.   From this vantage point I can see that this thing we do as a family, this ministering to tiny vulnerable humans, has not ruined my kids.  I sense no resentment from them at all at this point.  Right now one of my children is displaced from an actual bedroom because a baby with horrible sleep habits moved in a year and half ago.  He sleeps on a camping mat, last night it was located on the living room floor. Sometimes it's in the toy closet. Yet, he loves her fiercely and doesn't complain (or at least rarely complains about the arragmements). Their lives are disrupted in every possible way, and yet these disruptions have the potential to forge character.

 I see how they each have a deep sibling bond and love for their little foster sister.  All five of them have their own unique and very sweet relationship with her.  Having little ones around has brought virtues out in my big kids that I'm not sure would have been this developed otherwise.  Watching a 12 year old boy nurture and tenderly care for an infant or toddler is precious site.  By being a foster family they have had ongoing practical life lessons in flexibility, responsibility, compassion, empathy, sacrifice, patience, generosity, and gentleness.  No, it's not always easy.  Siblings are siblings.  But if fostering has changed my kids it is for the better.  If it has ruined them, its for a superficial and selfishly lived life.  

We are not the enemy.  Fostering drops us into the middle of someone else's nightmare.  We are thrust into stories of heartache, brokenness, failures, and loss. Our role is to help pick up the pieces for a child who has become collateral damage in a family's crises. Sometimes that crises has gone on for generations, other times it might be a brief bump in the road.
By nature this role puts us in an awkward position.  As we strive to advocate for and protect the child in our care, this can potentially put us at odds with some biological family members (It can also put as at odds with social services).  This is not our desire or intention.  In fact, I find that with each new foster baby I welcome into our home, my heart is broken with compassion and expands with love for this child's birth family. Even in their addictions, brokenness, illness, and poor choices their biological family starts to feel like an extension of our own. Even if they don't have a relationship with or visit the child they are never far from our prayers and thoughts.  We want success for them.  We want healing and transformation in their lives. We long for that, we pray for that, even once the option of custody has long since passed.

Foster parents see the worst of what broken adults can do to children (and what this broken world can do to adults), we know all too well that reunification attempts can be a disaster and the a child's best interest is not always put first.
That being said, if a parent or close relative is stepping up and working hard toward gaining custody we will do all we can to help that transition to be a success even if our hearts are breaking from the personal loss.  I can honestly say that I love nothing more than to have positive relationships with a child's family of origin.  In some cases foster parents are co-parenting, even after a child has gone back to their family of birth. They become part of a birth parent's support network.  Some former foster parents switch from the role of active parent, to being a loving Auntie and Uncle that gets to be involved in that child's life.  It's not an "us" vs. "them mentality. It doesn't have to be.  Birth parents, foster parents, and case workers are all part of a team that is trying to salvage a childhood, and build a positive future.

We are not trying to strip a child of his heritage.  

In fact we try very hard to do the opposite.

This topic is pivotal and a focal point for social services in the area I live.  In my opinion tragic actions of the past have triggered opposite over reactions of the present.  Like a driver who hits ice and starts to slide off toward a steep ditch, who then over corrects by quickly turning the wheel in the opposite direction....which then puts the car into a dizzying out of control spin.  The pendulum has swung from having no consideration for a child's ethnicity or culture of origin to making that the apex of decisions being made. Being moved to "their own culture" (even to live with a non relative and stranger) can  trump things like current strong family bonds, permanency/adoption, a child's current community and support network, and a consideration for things like trauma and attachment.  It's a very sensitive mine field that we walk as a multi-racial family.  Policies of racial segregation are one of the biggest frustrations I have with status quo.

 I believe that it is important for an adopted or foster child to grow up being connected to her roots, her culture and family of origin, and to have her ethnic background be part of her positive identity.  I'm sure we won't get it right all the time, but we really do try. We make that effort and naturally incorporate those things into our family life. My husband and I are as white as Wonder Bread and we have children from four distinct ethnic makeups.  Our home is a patchwork quilt of various cultures.  Traditions that were passed onto us, ones we combined when we got married, some we create on our own, others we adopt into our unique family culture. So many things make us who we are and build our identity....our families, our values, our faith, our ethnicity, our experiences.  These are all so much more nuanced and complex than the dividing lines of colour that the world likes to draw.

I love all the children that are cared for in my home. As such, we start to identify with and have a deep appreciation for all those various cultures of origin...in our own way. Our family is a eclectic mix of Canadian farmer, American city, Chinese, M├ętis, Saulteaux, English, Scottish, Scandinavian, ....and Mexican because we love Mexico and thoroughly appropriate their culture any chance we get.  One of my blonde children actually convinced he was Mexican for quite a few years.  We have family members and close friends from many more fascinating cultures. Anyway...you get the point.  It's complicated.  Colour coded dividing lines get blurry.

We are not strong.   Don't get me wrong foster parents are a passionate breed.  We love deeply and protect fiercely.  We resist very intense Mama bear fight or flight impulses regularly.  We get our hearts battered and bruised and then we are crazy enough to sign up to do it again, and again.  Don't let that fool you though.  We aren't always strong.  Sometimes we just make it through each day.  Sleep deprivation, toddler tantrums, various doctors appointments, visitation schedules, dealing with chronic behaviors stemming from damage that was done in utero, trauma, abuse or lack of healthy parental attachment at crucial points in development....they do take their toll.  The stress of never knowing what's around the bend or what news the next phone call will bring can make a heart and body weary.  I'm not strong but I lean hard on the One who is my strength. A God who rescues, pursues, and who binds up broken hearts. 

 Foster parents need community that "gets it", they need encouragement that what they are doing day in and day out actually matters.  An image from a story in the Bible just came to mind. Joshua and other Israelite men went out to do battle with the Amalekites.  Moses, Aaron and Hur stationed themselves up on a hill.  As long as Moses had his arms raised with the the staff in hand, the battle was being won.

 "But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun."

That is a fairly accurate depiction of why we need our brothers and sisters standing along side us. We are not doing "battle" against flesh and blood, but the battle is real just the same.  Our arms grow weary as we stand in the gap for each child that enters our home. Exodus 17:12

We are not in control.  I have very little say (none really) in what happens to any of the foster children that come into my home.  I do not make the case plans nor do they need my approval or permission to move a child.  I love these kids as my own but they are not my own.  When you are fostering you have no option but to contend with the feeling of helplessness.  Like a little boat tossed around in a big ocean.  We just hold on for the ride.  We are not in control but we are trusting a God who is.







11/16/15

Living with a locked door and an open heart.





There seems to be a misconception in our culture that having boundaries equals a lack of love.

This spills out into many different aspects of relationships, family dynamics, and our society in general.  One way I've seen this explode to the surface is in regards to actual national borders and immigration policy.  There are huge debates right now on how "open" our borders should be, especially in light of the recent horrific Islamic terrorist attack in Paris and the Syrian refugees.

On one side you have people insisting that anything but dissolving national borders, and rolling out large welcome mats to anybody and everybody that wishes to relocate from the country of their birth is "xenophobic". These people often smugly insist that people who disagree with them are hateful, bigoted, racists. Because when you lack a logical argument name calling is an effective way to discredit and silence others.  There is also the assumption that if you have a more nuanced opinion you must lack compassion and are certainly being "unChristian".

On the other side of this issue we have people who feel that that borders need to be slammed closed, that people shifting around puts their way of life, their jobs, the economy, or their own comfort level at risk. Governments should only ever spend money on their own citizens and the world can burn outside the safety of their little bubble of serenity.

I find myself wandering through the murky grey area between.

 As Christian I am compelled by certain principles of generosity, grace, mercy and sacrificial love. I also believe that every human being is an image bearer of God and are inherently equal in worth. As such I will treat you with respect and dignity regardless of who you are or whether I agree with you on any particular topic.  As a Christian I also believe in justice and acknowledge the reality of evil in the world as well as the darkness nestled within the hearts of mankind.

Because of the reality of human depravity and sin,  I lock the door of my home at night. I am a realist with solid hope, not an idealist with pixie dust.

I lock my door, not because I hate everyone on the outside of my home, but because I love and want to protect those who are sleeping peacefully within it's walls.

I lock the dead bolt of my door knowing full well that there are some people in the world who callously choose to harm others.  It may be simply a small deterrent, but it's something.  There is some security in knowing it will be difficult for someone to enter unexpected and uninvited. I do it because that is the loving thing to do.

Some might say that locking my front door is hateful because someone might be in need of a home and they have every right to mine.  My home might have a nicer computer than theirs which really isn't fair.  Not allowing them free access is heartless and not compassionate. One might even justify home invasion and theft because the perpetrator might have felt disenfranchised or marginalized. Maybe it's a cry for help and we should put up signs on our doors saying "home invaders welcome" or "free hugs for burglars".

If you want to do that, more power to you.  You either lack good sense or are far braver than I.  Maybe you don't care about the safety of those you love or being a good steward of what you have been given.

My guess is that most everyone who wails against a cautious immigration procedure or secure border, locks the doors of their own homes. To me it's a very similar thing.

You see, my humble home is filled with people I love.  So filled up that we are in the middle of a construction project to add a couple extra rooms.  Our house is full because we have open arms and open hearts.  We have welcomed the weak, the unwanted, the rejected, the disabled and the wounded into our home.  We have become family. My prayer is that our arms and hearts will remain open and ready to embrace those in need.

Whether it's someone who's vehicle has broken down on the the bitterly cold Saskatchewan highway, or someone who has recently moved to our country...our kitchen table, as small as it is at the moment, is always ready to be set with an extra place.  Even if it means some of us have to eat on the floor or in the living room.  We will make room.  We will give you what we have.  Whether you are rich or poor, whether you are refined or so rough around the edges we have to remind the children not to stare, you will be treated with dignity and kindness.

This is our home.  This is the home I strive to create.  A place of warmth and welcome.  A place to belong and to be welcomed as you are.  A place where grace is lived out.  That grace is important because I am very aware of that not one of us who live here is without desperate need of it.

Here's the catch. We get to choose who we allow through our front door. We should and do swing it wide open to people in need, to neighbors near and far, to friends, to orphans, to widows, even to strangers.   On the other hand if someone is outside our home yelling death threats it is not unkind to close that door, lock it and call the police... Maybe even apply for a restraining order. 

Not only do I secure the door of my warm and welcoming home at night but I also have general boundaries regarding who I will share my home with, and who will be permitted to dwell within these walls.

 If I know that someone is a heightened risk to harm my children, for example they are known to have raped children in the past, they will not be seated comfortably on my sofa or curled up in one of our beds. If I feel compelled to minister to that person in any way, it will be outside the walls of my home. Some might consider that mean or ungracious, but it is something that my family has had to navigate.

I will not only protect my children but I will model that strength for them so they learn to develop their own healthy boundaries.  Love does not equal "tolerance" of anything and everything.

Those boundaries are not a fortress and our home is not a bunker where we hide. I teach my children to leave their comfort zone, and the relative safety of these walls, and go out into the world.  Love draws people in and it also means going out and meeting the needs of people where they are.

 Yes, as Christians we are called to love and forgive, even our enemies, but forgiveness doesn't delete consequences or equate trust.  Love doesn't ignore reality.  Sometimes love means saying "no".  Sometimes it means allowing someone to experience the consequences of their own choices or experience the just reward for their crimes.  Even if our heart breaks for them.

Loving those within my home requires my vigilance and scrutiny.   It requires that I carefully consider who I allow to babysit, and who I trust to spend time alone with my children.  It requires that I might offend, I might hurt feelings, and I might seem unwelcoming or overly cautious.  This is me loving those who are entrusted to me.  Those within my little flock will always come first.

I can promise you this, if someone does breach the border of my front door uninvited, and with malicious intent, they will not meet a passivist they will meet two fierce parents who would rather sacrifice their own lives, or end someone else's, than allow their children to be harmed.

Bottom line is this.  Loving parents do what they can to protect their kids.  Good shepherds protect their flocks. A responsible government protects it's citizens.  That is first priority.

In the past few days people are spouting all kinds of smugly absurd things all over social media.  One of the most troubling patterns I see are those people scrambling to deflect, distract from, or downplay the actions of the vile terrorists who massacred roughly 130 unsuspecting people. Many more were injured. The world, especially those who live fairly insulated lives in the west, doesn't know what to do with that.

 My theory is that people pretend violent Islamic jihadism isn't a threat because they don't know how to reconcile that sort of barbaric undeniable evil with a humanistic world view that claims everyone is essentially good. When something unimaginable happens they scramble to prop up rhetoric, like a corps with rigamortus.  Anything but call it what it is.  Anything but look evil squarely in the eyes.  Anything but believe that there are people in the world, who with a clear mind and passionate sense of purpose, have schemed, studied and planned ways to brutalize people they hate.

Christian doctrine accounts for that kind of evil.  It angers and saddens me, but it doesn't pull the carpet out from under my assumptions or beliefs about humanity.  We contend with sin, while proclaiming God's extravagant mercy and scandalous grace available to the vilest repentant sinner. We don't pretend evil doesn't exist.  We also don't pretend it doesn't exist in our very own hearts as well.

Denying how deeply depraved humanity is, is a false sense of security.  Metaphorically speaking, it's not us with our secured front doors and careful screening of babysitters that are clinging to false control, it's those of you who pretend that at is well while you "lovingly" welcome the devil into your children's bedrooms.

Some cling to the hope that they can appeal to, appease, and reason with stone hearts and blind eyes.  I believe heart transformation is something only God can do.

Some move forward with the hope that if they can make evil small, manageable or explainable...then they can prevent those horrible things from happening.

This world will be dangerous and unsafe as long as it continues to spin.
My hope doesn't begin or end here.

 I  have the assurance that, despite the raging chaos in the hearts and minds of mankind, Jesus is still on the throne.  Our God is sovereign and He is both the beginning and the end.

Terrorist don't win,  Jesus does.

Until that day, I will continue to have open arms and a secure door.





11/8/15

If your church's only response to the orphan crises is sending groups to an orphanage, there is a problem.

I'll explain the strange title of this post eventually, but first I want to tell you about something we had the privilege to witness.

Last night our church family rallied together to help bring a beautiful 11 year old girl home. She is currently in an orphanage in China and has cerebral palsy. The family leaves next week! This is a complete miracle and amazing story in itself. From their first home study visit to their travel time was 3 months. That's crazy fast enough to leave their heads spinning and funds drained. 

All we did was organize the fund raiser...it was everyone else that showed up with big hearts and open hands. We had 72 people show up for the steak night dinner. I'm not sure of the exact total amount collected was since there were some donations in envelopes and some that came later but over $5500 was raised. That's not bad for one small church family and a handful of other family friends.  We had dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, we could come away from the evening with $2000 to give this family.  
God is so good. 
I know I belong to a very generous church family that lives out the gospel they preach but sometimes I'm still just blown away. The room was packed with young families living pay check to pay check, college students, immigrants, other adoptive and foster families, limited income retired folks, some who have more, some who have less..... all came to joyfully give, knowing all they have comes from and belongs to the Lord.
This is Jesus' people.
I'm brought to tears over it still.
Not everyone can adopt or foster but everyone who takes the name of Christ has a role in caring for our worlds most vulnerable.
Now we are all excited to welcome this newest child home, and welcome her into our church family. 
My heart is swollen from last nights display of love and generosity.  My heart still constantly aches for all the children still waiting to be loved.  Two very conflicting emotions that leave me inspired and driven to keep beating this same drum that all children deserve to be safe, protected and loved.

I will be living out that mantra, and waving that flag, until the day Jesus takes me home.

I've written about orphan care in the past and how I think that the Church needs to do better than we have.  That's not to say that churches around the globe aren't mobilized and filled with people who are bringing children into their homes, speaking on behalf of the voiceless, and working tirelessly to affirm the value of each child's life but there is still a long way to go, a lot of Christians sitting on the sidelines, and one specific paradigm that needs to shift.  
Please take some time to watch this documentary on orphan care methods and how we can address the crises of so many vulnerable children wasting away in institutions, bouncing around foster care, or at risk of abandonment due to poverty.  Please listen as experts in orphan care from around the world discuss their dream of a complete paradigm shift in how we, as the Church living out the gospel within local church communities, care for vulnerable children. 
The dream is that orphanages would become a relic of history and that every child would have a family of their own.... Preserving their own biological family unit, placement with a close relative, or a permanent loving adoptive family or guardianship.

The practice of putting kids into orphanages stopped a long time ago in North America. How can we justify exporting, or even just supporting, that outdated and harmful method of childcare to other nations?
Warehousing kids just needs to stop.  Although I don't want to focus as much on the mantra that orphanages need to close as much as we need to challenge our brothers and sisters around the globe to step up to the plate and care for vulnerable children.  Children need a family.  Period.  That's the way God designed children to be raised.  
I couldn't agree more passionately with this video regarding orphan prevention and permanency.
The Church needs to be on the front lines of "best practice" when it comes to caring for at risk children.... not a century behind clinging to detrimental residential orphan care practices.  

Residential, institutionalized child care is fraught with so many problems. Even the "good""reputable""Christian" ones.  Whether we call it a group home, a children's home, or an orphanage it's all still various shades of the same spectrum.  This documentary discusses many of the problems that come with residential orphan care.  They're right.  As an adoptive parent, a mother who has been fostering for 8 years, and former orphanage staff I whole heartedly agree. 

 I've seen these issues played out before me while I lived and worked at an orphanage.  Every problem addressed in this video, and all the problems I addressed in my blog post here were a major problems there. My own observations, and experiences, are not at all isolated but normative with institutionalized care. The more I inquire, talk to people, observe "aged out" children, and study orphan care methods the more I'm utterly convinced of this.  

As Christians we need to do better.   We need to do better with our money and the ministry/orphan care models we choose to support.  I would even dare to suggest that in many cases our well intentioned donations to "orphan care" ministries actually make the orphan crises worse.  

We must not do nothing....but doing something wrong isn't acceptable. 

This is a discussion those who care about vulnerable children need to be having.  These are changes that must be made in the way we think about caring for children.  

In Canada we have a dark stain in our history.  It's called "residential schools".  I think there was some shred of good intention that created them but they are a tragic example of why institutions raising children is a horribly devastating idea.  Of course there are some differences between Canadian First Nations children being taken from their families and placed into residential boarding schools and current orphanages around the world but many of the motives, methods, and harmful consequences overlap.  In Canada, the effects of that breaking up of family units still lingers. When a system decides that children who are perhaps living in poverty or who may be lacking educational opportunities with their families of origin, would be better off living in an orphanage, group home, or other institution....something vital has been missed in the equation.  Children must have love, nurture, stability and a family to call their own.  Without that any food, clothing and education means nothing.

   Taking (or luring) children from vulnerable families to fill up orphanages or residential schools is reprehensible.   Of course there are occasions when a child is being abused, severely neglected, or is totally abandoned.  Not every biological parent is able to parent. As a foster parent, I know the painful reality of this well.  When dealing with real world brokenness and vulnerable children there are no real cut and dry answers but rather a lot of nuanced partial remedies to complicated and tragic individual circumstances. 

What we do know needs to remain constant as we weave our way through the mess of this sin wrecked world, proclaiming life and redemption into the darkest corners.   

Children need families.  They need to belong and they need to be loved.  That's foundational to every aspect of child development.  That's how God designed children.  That's why he instituted family.  

There is something new happening within the church, and in many countries that are beginning to realize that something must change.  Fledgling foster programs are beginning in places like Mexico and Belize as well as around the globe.  The Church needs to be on the front lines of those changes.  Local national churches must be taught, equipped and challenged to view children differently.  They are not someone else's problem...they are ours.  

The North American Church, where so many resources exist, needs to consider how we can care for "orphans" in our own cities as well as how we can help globally.

We must evaluate where our North American resources are going and pursue ethical movements to keep children in families of origin, or to have them placed within a healthy, loving family units.  Let's choose to support families that are on the front lines of new in-home, family based initiatives in developing nations.

If your church's only response to the orphan crises is sending groups on mission trips to an orphanage there is a problem. 

It's not malicious, just short sighted and narrowly focused.  You may be missing out on so many opportunities to create a culture within your church that proclaims that every child deserves a family.  The Church must affirm a self sacrificing, gospel centered, willingness to open our own homes as well as support adoptive and fostering families.

Children are worth it.  They are worth getting out of our comfort zone for.  It's important enough to ask the hard questions and dig for answers.  






Also watch this because it will give you the happy cries.


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