Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Good Drawback: The Complications of Reunification and Evangelism in Foster Care

It is often said that reunification of families is the goal of foster care and that Christian foster parents should pursue restoration, not only by loving the kids, but also by sharing Christ with the birth parents. 

This is a good goal, and easily achievable in a imperfect-perfect world (one broken enough for foster care to exist, while tidy enough to make the task simple). The real world of foster care is a bit messier than that.

Foster parents often see more clearly than anyone the dangers of pre-mature or hasty reunification. They know their foster children well, and they quickly get to know (through personal experience and public social media accounts) the child's birth parents, perhaps even better than state agencies, who frankly seem less adept at “private investigation” than concerned foster moms. Concerns for the child's well-being often arise from this knowledge and experience, and not usually because the birth parents are bad people (like most outside the foster system assume). More often, birth parents are loving, but simply unable to provide adequate childcare for one reason or another. Still, foster parents may have legitimate reasons for concern when it comes to reunification in spite of that stated goal.

These concerns result in an internal conflict for foster parents who mentally affirm the goal of reunification while holding (at times) serious reservations in their hearts when considering the welfare of the child. It is hard to love a child and not adopt a “child's best interest” mentality over against the “family's best interest.” I challenge anyone to try it.

Add to those concerns the odd relationship that can exist between birth parents and foster parents. Let's admit it – it's odd. We foster parents are caring for another person's child against that other person's will in most cases, and though we treat that child as our own in terms of care, there are boundaries we want to respect. We don't want to overstep our authority in a way that unnecessarily offends the birth parent. Everyone involved in a foster care case knows that something has gone wrong in the life of the birth parent to land us all in this situation. It is humiliating (or must be) to have to meet up with a stranger to see your child because the state thought they were more fit than you to care for her. In many cases, these are temporary circumstances and not always the personal fault of the birth parent – does that make it any easier? So as foster parents, we hesitate to do or say anything around the birth family that might smack of superiority or ridicule.

This hesitancy makes sharing the gospel with the birth parent more complicated, at least until it's clear that the child is in the process of reuniting with the birth family. Despite our best intentions to help birth parents by introducing them to Christ, we are likely already giving them plenty of help they never wanted and may not feel like they even need. It's a bit like a foreign government coming in and commandeering the externals of your life and then expecting you to believe in their religion, too. Who wouldn't resent that at least a little?

None of this is to say that foster parents shouldn't share their faith with birth families. Far from it. It is precisely because we love the children in our care that we should desire for their families to know the peace, love, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. But we can't assume this evangelistic calling is easily occasioned simply because of relational proximity to our children's birth families. Much thought and prayer for wisdom must happen before we assume we know the best way to broach the subject of faith with birth families. In fact, this is a conversation that's very much needed in the foster parent community, one that will be avoided until we can openly admit to our conflicted feelings about reunification and the complicated nature of our relationships to birth families.

In the end, foster parent hesitations about reunification, and the complications that creates in relating to and sharing the faith with birth parents, is a drawback to placing children in foster homes. It is possible for well-meaning foster parents to get in the way of what might be best for a birth family. We foster parents need to realize that our own emotions and impulses can be a drawback, and we should question our own biases so as not impede the rightful goal of family reunification.

But if these emotions are a drawback, then they are a good drawback. Our concerns are not only for our own hearts, but for the hearts of the children we love. And loving these children is a good thing which far outweighs the complications it creates. Above a safe home and healthy meals, love for these little ones is the best good we have to offer. Besides that, we can't help ourselves. But as we continue to love unapologetically the children in our care, we will leave it to the judges (and ultimately the Lord) to decide (with our two-cents considered, we hope) what will best serve their futures and the future of our society.

So yes, let's aim for reunification when at all possible. Let's seek to use foster care as a means of saving souls, both of the children in care and their parents. But let's also allow for this process to be messy. Let's allow for foster parents to feel how they feel. Let's not begrudge a good drawback. Let's pray for wisdom to navigate odd situations and relationships. And above all, let our hearts remain as open as our homes to a God who uses broken people in spite of themselves.

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