Foster Care is hard

For my Family Teacher colleagues and anyone else involved in the foster care world, that title is an understatement. Especially today, especially in our cottage. There are many parts of foster care that could win the title of worst part, but saying goodbye is very near the top of the list. Often when we are talking to people about our jobs we hear things like “I could never do what you do. I would get too attached. It would be too hard to say goodbye.” Guess what folks, we get attached to the kids in our care. I don’t think it’s possible to become ‘too attached’ but if it is, we get too attached. It’s hard to say goodbye. Really hard. Too hard sometimes. But we do it.

Foster care is such a bittersweet ministry. Ideally, foster care would never be needed. In a perfect world, all children would be able to experience a safe, consistent, unconditionally loving family. Kids should always have adequate food, water, and shelter. They deserve the opportunity to get an education and have access to appropriate entertainment and recreation. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. Children experience things they never should, and need systems and people in place to provide what they need when their family can’t or won’t. We love being those people and we are happy to be part of that system. It doesn’t mean we are glad when a child is abused or neglected, but we are glad to be there when they are. I would tell patients on the ambulance that I’m not happy that they got sick or injured, but I’m happy I could be the one to help them. I tell kids the same thing. I’m not happy that you got taken away from your family, but I’m happy that you are here with us now.

Foster care is hard. All Heidi and I know is foster care in a group setting. I’m sure there are a lot of differences between what we do and private foster families, but there’s also many commonalities. We take care of good kids going through really hard stuff. In our house, we have of 8 kids going through 8 different traumas. That means 8 different reactions and opinions, 8 different parenting styles and attachments. It’s hard to manage. Each child is so different and it requires so much time and energy to develop and maintain positive relationships with each of them. We’re lucky to have 24/7 support if needed and scheduled time off, which is something foster families don’t always get. That has to be hard. Foster care is exhausting.

Saying goodbye is the worst. Especially when you’re ‘too attached’ to them. Especially when you’re not sure what they’re going back to. When people say “It would be too hard for me to say goodbye to them” they imply that it’s easy for us. Nope. Not even close. We had to say goodbye today to a boy who cried inconsolably when he first moved in with us because he wanted so badly to go home. Last night when he was told that he was going home he cried because he didn’t want to leave all of his friends. To quote our teammate who was charged with telling him the plan: “What do you say to a little guy being discharged tomorrow who is crying in his bed because he may never see everyone here again?” There’s no good answer. You tell him how much you love him and that you won’t stop loving him even after he’s gone. You fake excitement that he’s being reunited with his family, even when you’re screaming on the inside because you know it’s a bad idea. You sit and cry with him, telling him how thankful you are for your time together and for the impact he’s had on your life. You pray with him and ask God to protect him and for him to feel God’s love. You give him your contact information and tell him to call you whenever he needs something. You don’t know what to say or what to think. You want to be optimistic and hope that everything works out for the family. Sometimes though, horrible and selfish as it is, you secretly hope that something else happens and they come back into foster care so they can live with you again. You feel like that’s their only chance to be properly loved and provided for. Then that actually happens, and all over again you don’t know what to say or how to feel.

Foster care is hard. I’ve used 755 words to scratch the surface of the difficulty and unfairness of the foster care system. So why do we do it? Why do people like us choose to be a part of a system that often ends up harming the ones they long to protect? Why would anyone willingly enter the brokenness, frustration, and exhaustion that comes with caring for foster kids? Because that’s what Jesus did. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).” We can do hard things (like foster care) because Jesus did hard things. We choose brokenness, frustration, and exhaustion because that’s what Jesus chose. We love because we are loved.

It’s very easy to get burned out working in foster care. It’s a calling that’s incredibly physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. But, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). Sometimes that harvest is a kid knowing what it means to be safe. When a kid says yes when you ask ‘do you know that I love you’, that’s the harvest. It’s easy to become weary, but a random hug from a kid who’s had a bad day gives you hope that your work is not in vain. Foster care really is a beautiful ministry. It’s a system that both meets a short term need and has long term benefits. It’s the hands and feet of Jesus in the trenches of an eternal battle. It’s not glamorous or popular, but it’s needed and rewarding.

I’ll end on an upbeat note. 1 John 4:19 says that we love because He first loved us. We are so loved, beyond anything we can comprehend. Know that you are loved, and there is nothing quite like the love of God. Listen to this song and be happy because of how loved you are.

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Monday

For the first time since we began working in Bryan Mac, we currently do not have any toddlers or preschoolers. Our youngest boy right now is 8 years old, and the others are 10, 11, 11, 12, 12, 13, and 13. Our days are a lot less busy when we don’t have to chase around a 5 year old and cut up food at every meal. Our boys now can entertain themselves, shower without help, and sleep in. We feel like we have nothing to do.

So with a new group of boys, I have to again figure out what my role is as a father figure in their lives. They don’t need me the same way a toddler needs me. They have fathers and father figures that have raised them and influenced them. Many of them will be going back to those men at some point. So where do I fit in? Am I just a babysitter until they can go back home? Can I do something in the short time they are with me that will stay with them when they leave? It’s pretty easy to determine what a smaller child needs in order to feel loved and cared for. That’s a more difficult task with older kids, who are a little more set in who they are and have a better idea of what they need. Little ones are quick to tell you what they need and when they need it, older kids not so much. Our boys now talk a lot, but rarely do they tell us what they want from us.

I typed those first two paragraphs a few days ago, and I had a rough outline for where I wanted to go with this post, but I was struggling to come up with the words. I read some articles about being a dad, and was trying to put a bunch of random thoughts together to make some sense, mostly unsuccessfully

Then Monday happened.

A couple of things happened Monday that blew my mind in the best way possible. Monday was an affirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. One of our teenagers wrote us a letter thanking us for his Christmas presents, but mostly for being there for him and helping him make good choices and providing a substitute family while he is away from his biological one. Shortly after reading that I had a conversation with an 11 year old. It started by talking about why he hates going to counseling, and turned into an impromptu counseling session where he shared with me the story of his short but traumatically eventful life. He told me that he liked some of the other places he had lived, but Thornwell was his favorite. Even though he’s only been here for a couple weeks, he said he can tell that we love him and really care about him. Heidi is the emotional one in our relationship (She even wrote about it here), but that got me. I could lie and say that the room was dusty but I’m an honest person. I teared up. I’ve thought a lot about and written a lot about my role in the lives of our foster kids (here and here). My primary job as a foster dad, I think, is to be present for kids who have never experienced that. For a lot of our kids I am the first consistently positive experience they have had with an adult male. No pressure.

It’s a really good thing that Monday happened, because it’s been a long week. We’re at the end of a stretch of us being on duty 21 of the last 23 days, most of which was a rainy Christmas break. My original plan for this post was to talk about the challenges of living with teenagers. Like I talked about before, in a lot of ways it’s easier than having a house full of toddlers. For instance I’m wrote most of this at the dining room table while boys entertain themselves with video games. But, like I said when we interviewed at Thornwell, I prefer working with younger kids. Little ones are more straightforward with their needs and behaviors. It’s easier for me to relate to and connect with younger kids. My fake excited faces work a lot better. Adolescents are exhausting with their drama and attitude. Whenever I think about working with teenagers, I think about Ephesians 6:4 – Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Sometimes I feel like no matter what I do, the kids are provoked to anger. That seems especially true when I discipline them, even if it is the instruction of the Lord.

Presence is something that is demanded by younger kids. They require a lot of attention and energy because they can’t do things by themselves. With older kids, they need you to be just as present as you are for the littles, but they are more independent and don’t demand it the same way. So presence has to be intentional. Sometimes it’s easy, like when they want to play Xbox with you or throw the football. Other times, like when they’re being super annoying and talking back every time you tell them something, its a little harder to be present. It’s not right, because the times they are acting out are usually the times they need it the most, but I’m human.

But so are they.

They get frustrated just like I get frustrated. They think I’m annoying just like I think they’re annoying. They don’t understand me just like I don’t understand them. They hate being in foster care just like I hate that they have to be in foster care. They are broken just like I am broken. They are loved by God just like I am loved by God. They are given grace and mercy just like I am given grace and mercy. They deserve compassion just like I deserve compassion. They need help just like I need help.

Lord help me to see these boys how you see them, as children of the King. Give me patience, strength, and compassion to be present for these kids when I want nothing to do with them. Help me to love them like you love me. Thank you for putting me in a position to be a father to the fatherless, even if it is only for a short time. I am humbled and undeserving of the awesome responsibility it is to care for your children. Lead me so that I may lead them.

Amen

-Mr Jon

Uncomfortable

We know that saying goodbye to kids we have loved is a part of the job. We know that sometimes we only have a few hours notice when a kid is leaving. We also know that when kids go home, there is often a great deal of uncertainty about the situation they are returning to. But simply knowing those things isn’t enough. Knowing you’re a part of a broken system doesn’t make it easier when the system fails. Yesterday was an uncomfortable day. We got about 2 hours notice that a boy we love very much was being returned to an uncertain situation with his mother. We were blindsided by a perfect storm of the foster care system. 2 weeks ago we were told that his mother was working on a treatment plan, but DSS (Department of Social Services) was likely going to recommend termination of rights. Thursday we were told that the judge did not listen to DSS recommendations, and did not see enough evidence to keep the child in the foster care system. They outlined a transition plan that would have him moving home for good around Christmas. Yesterday the judge decided to change their mind, and ordered that the child be returned to his mother later that day. Caseworkers were surprised, supervisors were surprised, and we were obviously floored by the news. So we left the training we were at, picked him up from school, and explained to him and his teacher what the new plan was. Everyone cried. Then we came home and I helped him pack his clothes while Heidi collected paperwork and toys that were scattered around the house. We got some pictures and lots of hugs. Our teammates came over to say their goodbyes. Then the transporter showed up, we loaded all of his things into the van, and then it was goodbye. Hopefully not forever, but now there’s an empty bed at our house and an empty seat at the table. While I was doing bedtime with our other kids, I called 2 of them by his name. I’m going to miss him.

Our job is often uncomfortable. Kids are uncomfortable when they first meet us because they are unsure who we are and where they are. We hear a lot of uncomfortable stories from kids about past traumas and current issues. We have to answer a lot of uncomfortable questions, and tell kids a lot of uncomfortable news. Family Teaching, and foster care and adoption in general, are inherently uncomfortable things. Children are removed from the only comfort they have ever known, if they’ve ever been comfortable, and are placed with you. Too many times they find real comfort with you in your house just to be moved to a different house or reunited with family and their concept of comfort shifts again.

Uncomfortable, as unpleasant and painful as it can be, isn’t always bad. If you are uncomfortable, that means you are aware that things are not as they should be. Feeling uncomfortable means you want something to change. The reason we became Family Teachers, the reason we are passionate about foster care, adoption, and orphan care is that the thought of children who aren’t being provided for made us uncomfortable. Just because we responded to that uncomfortable feeling doesn’t mean it went away though, if anything it made it worse. Every child that we interact with has an uncomfortable past, so we are surrounded by it and immersed in it. But the more we learn, the more uncomfortable we get, which makes us want to work harder to change whatever we can.

Even though it seems counterintuitive to do something that makes you more uncomfortable, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We don’t enjoy hearing the stories and answering the questions, but we do it because we can. I know that not everybody can do our job. You need to be a special kind of person to work with the kids that we work with. Heidi and I feel like we have been blessed with the empathy and energy that it takes to work directly with kids, and we are part of a community of like minded people at Thornwell that do incredible work every day in the face of a mountain of uncomfortability (I don’t think that’s a word). We do it because we can, and we do it because we have access to the ultimate comfort.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.[a] If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-6 ESV)

What makes you uncomfortable? It’s not the same for everyone, but everyone has something. We were at an orphan care conference last weekend, and one of the speakers pointed out that every Christian is called to do something. If you follow Christ, you have a duty to better the kingdom in some way. Is the kingdom better because you’re a part of it? Orphan care, foster care, and adoption are close to our hearts, but for you it could be something different. Figure out what that is and do something about it.

Father Figure 2

The first post I ever wrote was about my struggle to find my place in the lives of these kids. I wrote:

I struggle with the fact that even though our kids are in foster care, most of them still have fathers, and if they don’t, they have a father figure already in their life. Where do I fit in their life, and what is my responsibility to them as a man? I change diapers, I do time outs, I discipline, I help with homework, I laugh with them, I comfort them when they’re sad, I pray with them at bedtime. I do all the things a dad should do, but I don’t feel like their dad. I feel like a long term babysitter. I don’t even know if I should feel like their dad. They already have dads, even if they’re crappy ones.”

     That was 6 months ago. Now with Fathers Day upon us, I feel like I have been able to settle in and find my place as a ‘substitute dad’ for the kids that pass through Bryan Mac. We have started to use that term more with the new kids that we get. We tell them that we know they already have a mommy and daddy, but for a variety of reasons, they can’t be with them. So as long as they are with us, Ms Heidi and Mr Jon will be their substitute mom and dad.

     I haven’t been doing anything different, my motivation hasn’t changed, I just feel like I have a better understanding of what I’m doing. There are definitely still days that I feel overwhelmed and lost, but more and more I’m feeling comfortable in my role as a Family Teacher and foster dad to a bunch of great boys. I am blessed to work with a lot of strong Godly men that have, whether they know it or not, greatly influenced me on my path towards confidence. They share what has worked, what hasn’t, what they have enjoyed, and what they have struggled with. I have been lucky enough to live life with some amazing fathers. I have been able to observe their interactions with biological and cottage kids, and share my insecurities and triumphs. 

     I have also been very fortunate to be surrounded by strong examples of godly men my entire life. My father is the hardest working and most selfless man I know. He has dedicated his life to serve others as an ER nurse, and has been a leader in our church for as along as I can remember. His example of how to be a good husband and father while helping others is a big part of why I am at Thornwell doing my best to help these kids. 

     We daily see the ways that not having a father impacts the lives of kids. I recently finished reading Father Fiction by Donald Miller, a great first hand account of how growing up fatherless can change you for life. Fathers are the first teachers. Kids aren’t born with hatred, kids aren’t racist from birth. Comedian Dennis Lears says “Racism isn’t born folks, it’s taught. I have a 2 year old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.” Fathers, or Father figures, are vital to the success of children. We build the foundations, start them on a course. Not to diminish mothers, because their role is equally important, but every child has a mother, not every child has a father. 

     Most of what we do in the assessment homes is tearing down false foundations. We don’t get to start at the beginning with our kids. We have to help them unlearn habits and language that they may have learned at home so they can begin to build healthy foundations for their future. They often move on to a more permanent cottage, where the Family Teachers do a fantastic job of teaching kids the skills needed to make a positive impact on society. 

     I feel like I say this a lot, but I love what I do, and I love where I work. I’m so thankful for the great fathers and father figures that I have been blessed to learn from. Thornwell is a blessed placed to have so many men willing to do what it takes to advance Gods kingdom through his children. 

–Mr Jon

A side note on Charleston. Incomprehensible evil and brokenness, just 2 hours away from us. But there’s hope. Those 9 souls are dancing in heaven. The doors of the church were open for worship this morning. God is still God. There is a spirit of brokenness in that community, but there is strength. There is forgiveness. There is unity. The young mans mission was to divide, but this will only make them stronger. 

Father Figure

First, a little about me. Like Heidi said in the first post, we aren’t writers. Words and I have never been best friends. I am a horrible conversationalist, and I dislike public speaking more than just about anything. I feel like I’m better at typing than talking, so that’s the only reason I’m a little bit confident about this blogging thing. I love Jesus. I love my wife. I love my family and friends. I like to laugh. I like sports. I like music. I like being outside. I’ve always had a heart for kids, and I often say that I like kids more than I like adults. I find it easier to have a conversation and develop a relationship with kids, likely due to my childishness. I can relate to them a lot better than I can relate to most adults.

I wanted to call this post ‘Who’s your daddy?’, but I’ll do my best to keep my immaturity at bay.

We were thrust into a very strange (unconventional, to use Heidi’s word) situation. We have been married for 2 and a half years, and have no kids of our own. In the span of 6 months, we decided to look for a new adventure, moved to South Carolina, and were entrusted with caring for 10 kids, ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years old. Every stage of childhood and adolescence in one house, with 2 people who have babysat and worked with kids, but have never had to raise kids on their own. Overwhelmed, unprepared, lost, and scared would all be accurate adjectives to describe how we, or at least I, felt the first few weeks.

It’s been difficult for me to figure out what my role in the lives of these kids. We’ve been at this for 6 months now, and I’ve never considered myself to be a father to these kids. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a foster parent, and I consider myself to be a father figure, family teacher, and friend (unintentional alliteration, I swear) to the kids, but dad is not on that list.

Psalm 68:5 says that God is a father to the fatherless. When I think about being called to foster care and adoption, I believe this is at the heart of that calling. I struggle with the fact that even though our kids are in foster care, most of them still have fathers, and if they don’t, they have a father figure already in their life. Where do I fit in their life, and what is my responsibility as to them as a man? I change diapers, I do time outs, I discipline, I help with homework, I laugh with them, I comfort them when they’re sad, I pray with them at bedtime. I do all the things a dad should do, but I don’t feel like their dad. I feel like a long term babysitter. I don’t even know if I should feel like their dad. They already have dads, even if they’re crappy ones. Add to that the fact that I live and work in a transition cottage. We are the buffer between the horrible situation and a long term home. They only spend a few weeks up to a couple months with us before they either move back with their parents/guardians or move to longer term housing on campus.

Maybe it’s just my own insecurities about the fact that I have never raised kids before, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I jumped into the middle of it all. I didn’t get the opportunity to start from the beginning like “normal” parents. I went straight into a situation where I was potty training one kid and talking about rules for boyfriends with another. I’m helping kids learn their colors and learn algebra. I often wonder what I got myself into, leaving a stable job that I liked to move 800 miles away, to a place where we didn’t know anyone and the insects try to kill me, to a job parenting someone else’s kids.

Luckily, there are many more moments that confirm that I’m doing the right thing. I know that this is where I should be, and I trust that God is using me to positively impact these kids. I know that God put kids on my heart, and led Heidi and I to Thornwell. I feel very blessed to serve a God who makes children a priority and commands his people to care for them. There are a lot of examples of this in scripture, but here are a few of my favorites:

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. (Psalm 82:3 NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17 NIV)

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV)

My (most recent) struggle is this: What is my role in the lives of the kids that come through our cottage? The struggle is real. If you are struggling with the same stuff, I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but I hope you know you’re not alone. I am blessed to work in an incredibly supportive environment filled with people who are cultivating a culture of Godly community. If you’re reading outside of Thornwell, I hope you have that or can find it, because it has been invaluable to our survival down here. If you are a part of Thornwell, thanks for being a part of it.

–Mr. Jon

Soundtrack to this post: Relient K – mmhmm