Foster Care Should Matter to You

Foster Care matters to me, and I think it should matter to you too.

I never wanted to be a foster parent. It’s not that I was against it, but it’s something I just never considered. My wife, before we were even married, shared her desire to help children and families through foster care and adoption. Again, I wasn’t against it, but I didn’t put much thought into it after that conversation. Fast-forward a few years, and my wife brought it up again. “What if we were houseparents?” She showed me a few places online, and I ended up being on board. We packed up all our stuff and our dog, and moved from Burtchville, Michigan to Clinton, South Carolina. Almost 3 years and 67 foster kids later, foster care is my life. We loved being houseparents and loved the privilege of caring for so many amazing kiddos.

That’s why it matters to me, but why should it matter to you?

As of September 30, 2015 there were 427,910 kids in foster care nationwide, a number which has been rising for the past few years (for more national statistics, go here). That’s about the same as the populations of Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, Charleston, and Rock Hill combined. That’s a really big and scary number, but I’ll try to simplify it. As of last month, there were 4,227 kids in foster care in South Carolina. Overall, South Carolina needs about 1600 additional foster homes to meet the current need (to see county-by-county numbers, go here). Wherever you live, there is a need for foster parents. There are children in your community who need a safe, stable, loving home.

Children who age out of foster care without a forever family are much more likely to end up unemployed, in prison, or pregnant as a teenager. This should matter to you, because if someone can help these kids and change some of these statistics, our communities will be much better off. Less crime, less unemployment and homelessness, less unplanned pregnancies, and many other societal issues that can be improved by a strong foster care community. Being willing to help those in your own neighborhood who may be struggling can have so many benefits beyond just helping a child (which is totally worth it on it’s own). You’re helping a family heal, and a community come together.To put it dramatically: if you care about your community, you should care about foster care. When people come together to improve the lives of children and families, communities improve, families are healed, children have a chance at successful adulthood.

So how can you help? You can become a foster parent. Contact a local agency (I’m partial to Thornwell, since I work there and it’s awesome) and get more information about how you can begin the process. If you can’t become a foster parent, then support foster parents. Find out who in your church, school, or neighborhood are already fostering, and ask them how you can help. Ask your local foster care agency (like Thornwell) or foster parent association what needs they have, and do your best to meet those needs. There are dozens of ways that you can help foster parents around you. If you want more ideas, contact me and I’d love to help!

Long story short: Foster Care matters to me, and I think it should matter to you too.

 

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.

Family Teacher

Heidi and I started this blog so we could share our lives and our job with family and friends that we moved away from. This has allowed us to talk a lot about our thoughts and emotions while doing this job, as well as share some experiences and lessons we have learned during our time here. But I don’t think we have actually talked about our job, and why we are called family teachers. We mention being family teachers, or FT’s, in a lot of our posts but we haven’t explained what it actually is that we do with the kids in our care. Because of the high turnover in our house, we have to explain this to our kids pretty frequently.

There are 2 parts to being a family teacher, and they’re right in the name. Our job is to be a family as well as be a teacher. Most of the kids that come to our cottage have families somewhere out there. Most of our kids were taken suddenly from their families, so it’s understandable that they miss their parents, siblings, and whoever else was important in their life. Most of them no longer have the only family that they have known, so it’s our job to be their family, if only for a short time. What we tell the kids is that we know they have families and they have mom and dads already, but for whatever reason, they can’t be with them right now. So until they can be back with their families, we will be their substitute mom and dad, and Bryan Mac will be their substitute family.

We do our best to communicate this with words, but the concept of family is something that’s better to show than to say. We do our best to demonstrate to them what a family is, and what a family should be. If they are with us, they probably didn’t have a very strong family, and they probably have a distorted view of what a family should be. It’s tough for some kids, especially ones who were an only child, to adjust to life in a big new house with new authority figures and a bunch of other boys. But with consistent love, food, shelter, discipline, and laughter, relationships are formed, trust is built, and a house of unrelated boys becomes a family. One of the best compliments we’ve ever received by one of our supervisors was after an observation. They told us that our house full of foster boys (who had been all together for less than a month) didn’t feel like a house full of strangers, but of brothers.  A lot of times it’s amazing how fast that process happens. Kids are quick learners, and they understand what they need and can sense when someone really cares about them. When they recognize that they now have the physical, emotional, and spiritual support that they need, it’s easier to accept where they are and who they’re with.

Family is the obvious part of our job. We work at a children’s home with foster kids. Our job is to be a family for kids who don’t have families. Mostly true. Family is the easy part, but teacher is arguably the more important part of our job. Using the Teaching Family Model, we teach kids social skills that they need to be successful in their life after Thornwell. In the assessment cottage, we observe and assess where kids are at with certain social skill when they are first admitted to Thornwell. We start by looking at simple skills like following instructions, asking permission, and getting along with others. All of those can be broken down further or modified if need be, but we want kids to be able to master those simple skills before they move on to more specific skills, like taking initiative and personal hygiene.

Teaching social skills is complicated under normal circumstances, but when kids have to unlearn years of bad habits, it can be even more difficult. Kids have had to learn skills like stealing and lying in order to preserve their own safety at home. Some of our kids were left all by themselves, so they take what they want when they want it. When you’re 4 years old and have spent most of their time alone, you don’t know how to interact with other kids. We don’t just teach the importance of positive social skills, we teach why negative social skills are negative. A big part of our teaching interactions are rationales. We have to tell the child why a positive skill will help them, and how a negative skill can be harmful. One of the great parts of the Teaching Family Model is that it is very child centered. The Family Teachers get to know each kid and select target skills that they specifically need to work on. With older children, the goal is to get the kids to a point that they can recognize their own positive and negative behavior, and they can have a hand in choosing what skills they think they need to work on. All of the kids that are old enough for the model are tasked with choosing goals that they want to accomplish. We encourage a mix of long and short term goals. Some of the goals for our current kids range from throwing a football straight to attending college. Some are simple and silly, others are more substantial. These goals are what we use to teach skills. The FT’s come up with rationales to connect their target skills to the goals they want to achieve. This helps the kids learn because it helps them understand how the target skills specifically chosen for them can help them accomplish the goals that they set.

Our job is so much more than just parenting someone else’s kids, or getting paid to be stay at home parents. Heidi likes to say that our job is more like doing 3 full time jobs at the same time: parenting 8-10 kids, housework, and paperwork. Those tasks and more keep us pretty busy, but we love it. We feel that Family Teaching is perfect preparation for when we have our own kids, and we feel that our lives before this prepared us perfectly for Family Teaching.

-Mr. Jon

P.S. This song has been stuck in my head for a while, so I figured I would share it with y’all.