Our preconceived notions don’t always line up with reality. Rather, they are often fraught with exaggeration or underestimation.
I’ve met many young men who desire to go into ministry. They look up to their pastor with respect and admiration. They witness his prominence and influence on Sunday mornings. They are moved by his sermons and impressed with his knowledge. But these snapshots miss much of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. If unfamiliar with the pastor’s purpose (and daily schedule), a desire to follow in his footsteps may be misguided. Just as implicit bias is caused by lack of exposure, an underlying misconception of foster care is a result of the same.
As I’ve had many conversations about foster care over the years, it quickly becomes apparent that most people misunderstand its purpose. Some have known families torn apart and believe it is a horrible system designed only to separate. Others have seen it result in a beautiful adoption and believe it is a guaranteed route to grow their own family. Due to a lack of exposure, both are ignorant of the system’s fundamental goals. Most don’t understand the distinction between foster care and private adoption—whether international or domestic. Overall, the foster care system exists to reunify families who have been upended by abuse and neglect so they can thrive again (or for the first time). Removing children from parents is not the purpose of foster care, neither is adoption.
The Immediate Objective
In 2018, 678,000 children were abused in the U.S. with neglect being the most common form. Most occurred in the home with 78% perpetrated by one or both parents. 1,770 children died as a result of abuse and neglect. Roughly 5 children died each day because of this pervasive problem. So a report of abuse or neglect—in the home or in the womb— must be taken seriously and investigated. When it is substantiated, the children are temporarily removed from the parents who have caused them harm and from the home which has been determined to be unsafe. This is to secure the wellbeing of the children and to provide the parents the opportunity to reform their behavior and get their life in order. Although this is traumatic for all involved, it is strategically compassionate with hopes of bringing the family back together in a more vibrant and healthy way than before.
Children who are removed from their parents are temporarily placed with a family outside their home. Because they have faced the harrowing trauma of abuse and neglect—now exacerbated by separation from the only parents they know—a safe, stable, nurturing environment is needed where they can begin to heal mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Families who volunteer to invite these children into their homes are foster families (or resource parents). In order to be a foster parent, one must undergo a rigorous certification process that includes training, a background examination, and a home study. This process is designed to ensure that the reality of trauma is understood in order to prepare foster families to adequately empathize and connect with these hurting children who so desperately need love, security, connection, and healing.
The Ultimate Ambition
While the children are in another home, the biological parents—who are the perpetrators of the abuse—are given ample opportunity to reform their lives. Whether the endangerment was physical or sexual in nature, the result of drug or alcohol addiction, inadequate/unsafe housing, incarceration, inability, or negligence—the consequences must be faced. While removal is the first step, course correction is the ultimate aim. In order to support parents with the difficult process of reforming their lives, the county provides family services. This wide range of services includes therapy/counseling, rehabilitation programs, employment/housing assistance, and parenting classes. Throughout the process, biological parents have the right to an attorney, to receive information about their child’s development, to attend court hearings, to receive updates in the proceedings, and to visitation (oftentimes monitored). The county provides these services at no cost with the goal of reformation and reunification.
This is what most people miss—the system as a whole is actually pro-parent and pro-family. While protecting the wellbeing of children is the vital, immediate objective, the ultimate ambition of foster care is reunification—getting families safely back together. Foster parents are trained to think this way. They are taught not to have any expectations about adoption. Rather, they are required to initially adopt this pro-family, pro-parent mindset. When biological parents willingly take part of the opportunities afforded them, their children will be returned in due time. When they are faithful to follow through with these services, they demonstrate they can be a functioning and responsible parent capable of caring for their children. Then their family can be reunited and together continue on the trajectory of reconnection, healing, and flourishing. Hopefully, in hindsight, the time of separation was a short, but necessary, reboot to their family’s welfare wherein people from the community gathered together to support them.
The Contingency Plan
Unfortunately, for various reasons, biological parents often do not (or cannot) take advantage of the opportunities the county provides for them to pursue rehabilitation and reunification. This is either due to pride, shame, an enslaving addiction, incarceration, or mental illness. Some begin the process and do not follow through. Others continue on the unhealthy course of their life with no attempt. Some disappear. By refusing help, avoiding accountability, and shirking responsibility, they essentially forfeit their own children. If the parents do not follow through on the services provided, those services will eventually be terminated. The parents are duly notified of their potential loss of parental rights and offered multiple chances. Biological parents are prioritized. But when the road to reunification is blocked, the plan will be rerouted to find permanency elsewhere. The termination of parental rights (TPR) will be ordered by the judge as a necessary next step. A concerted effort is made to keep siblings together and with extended family members, but this is not always possible.
Adoption is not the purpose of foster care. Although beautiful, adoption is an unfortunate—and always tragic—last step if the process doesn’t work out as planned. A hammer’s purpose is to drive a nail. But when a nail bends in a way not intended, the hammer can be turned around and used to remove the nail. You wouldn’t say you need to purchase a hammer to remove nails. That is a supplemental and subordinate benefit of the hammer, not its main purpose. This is what distinguishes foster care from private adoption—it primarily exists to support families in our communities so they can flourish. Foster families are prepared to temporarily care for abused children, and they stand by to provide permanency if necessary.
Without a clear understanding of the system’s purpose, you will be unprepared to support families separated by abuse or families involved in foster care. Those who desire to become involved must remain committed to keeping families together. Although adoption is a possibility and, foster parents must never develop expectations as there are never guarantees. In 2018, 56% of children who left the foster care system were reunited with their families; 25% were adopted. Out of these, 51% were adopted by foster families; 35% by a relative. Adoption is a real possibility and an honorable pursuit; but it’s simply not the main purpose. This distinction must be grasped in order to be an effective in supporting children, parents, and families in the community. Foster parents willingly give their whole heart to bring healing to a hurting child. Meanwhile they are also willing to be hurt by sending a piece of their heart to be reunited with their biological family. This is the vulnerable tension foster families live in—they are wholeheartedly committed to the child and the parents; they celebrate adoption and reunification.
For more information about getting involved, visit Koinonia Family Services or a Foster Family Agency near you.