all God's babies: a few thoughts on foster care
This past week I started to get some creeping pregnancy anxiety--something which I had been prepared for, sure that it was bound to happen--but I had expected it to hit me later on (closer to the time I developed HELLP the first time, 30 weeks-ish). I just had a few normal pregnancy symptoms collide: round ligament pain, dizziness and faintness, insomnia. But the combo of all three for a few days led to me huddled up on my bed, wishing that I would never ever have to leave--at least for the next 3 months. This is not my normal, and it was important for me to just say that aloud, take a deep breath, and eat another bowl of Lucky Charms.
But the more I thought about it, the more I mourned how different this pregnancy is, how the first time around nothing stopped me or slowed me down at all. I didn't have anxiety, I charged through my busy life like a bull. I didn't know things could go wrong back then. And now I do.
It's the same when I think about foster care. I promised you all I would write about our family's decision to step back from adopting through foster care but that is a tough subject to pull off (trust me, I have a few very long and agonizingly dramatic essays I have written, most of which will never see the light of day). For me the subject is tied up with so much--systematic injustices and cycles of abuse, white savior complexes and addictions, lament and grief and doubt that a good God could possibly be watching over all of this stuff. Like I said: intense stuff.
But I think I can write briefly and outline the reasons why we stopped, if only because our story is a minority and I don't necessarily think it should be. I want to be clear and say I most definitely believe that people should adopt children through foster care--there are real and clear tangible needs. I have mad respect for the people I know who have done this, and it is a picture of the kingdom of God that makes me weep--but not because it is a happy ending for all. No, it's a messy, complicated, traumatic business, and it is one of the worthiest ones there is.
But I do find it problematic that it seems the primary way the larger Christian community endorses supporting children in extreme situations is by adopting them. Rescuing them. Snatching them out of the hellish life they were born into. I can say this is problematic because that is what it became in my life: I had a crystal-clear idea that I wanted to help save a baby and thus get a squishy baby in return; it seemed like such a win-win. And for me, thinking about anyone else involved in this situation just proved to be a total insurmountable downer, and so I didn't want to think about it at all.
Over the past few years, just as we were starting to go to trainings and get fingerprints done and all that for fost-to-adopt, we slowly began to realize that many of our neighbors had either been in foster care themselves or had their children put into foster care (and sometimes both). This is what changed me: hearing the stories firsthand. I also got a sense of how the power dynamics look to people who disproportionately make up the numbers in the "system." It looks like white people taking babies.
It became clear that adopting through foster care might actually put up some relational barriers between us and our neighbors (nothing that couldn't be overcome by the Holy Spirit, but a serious barrier all the same). Again, I know a handful of people who do this well--who are able to adopt and remain in the communities most affected by the foster care system. But these tend to be the minority stories, and the amount of work and humility it takes is astounding. As we started to second-guess our decision, it quickly became clear to me that what I really wanted was a baby. And really, really wanting a baby can wreak havoc on the ol' internal ethical system. And by that I mean that I knew going into the system that I would be the person of privilege, that I would have more resources and access to support and know how to navigate the courts to my advantage compared to most of the birth parents. In the gray and complicated world of trying to do best by the children in our communities, did I trust my own deceitful heart to want the best for ALL of God's children? Did I really want to be in that position? How did that fit into the larger call I felt God had put in my heart to love my neighbor as myself? Did I just want to love the babies and the toddlers, or was I committed to loving them all?
Once I was able to be honest and say that I truly wanted a baby because I just wanted a baby (something I did feel guilty about, believe you me), I started to realize that adopting through foster care would not be the way for us. But our short journey into the peripheries of the complicated system as well as our friendships with birth families have blown open the door for me in regards to what it means to support children and families in crisis. We have seen with our own two eyes how the systems are imperfect and prejudiced (and we are the recipients of privilege and power). We have also seen traumatic situations where re-unification with the parents will never be possible. Again, it is complicated.
I guess I just want to say that God's heart is that no child would ever need to be removed from their parents. Adopting through foster care is treating a symptom, not the original wound (and again, I still believe it is necessary, and can be a beautiful picture of how the redemptive nature of the kingdom of God in the here and now). But still, the majority of information I hear from the church is specifically from the angle of encouraging privileged people to adopt. How is the church addressing the bigger issue at hand? How is it encouraging us to be helping families in crisis stay together? How is it supporting long-term relationships with marginalized peoples, extended mental health services, and offering alternatives to state intervention? It's true that these sorts of long-term efforts are complicated and take a lot of time and work (and doesn't look as good on a Christmas card). But I believe keeping families together as much as possible has to be a central theology of ours.
We are starting to explore alternatives to the system in regards to helping entire families. Our biggest priority will be looking towards a sustainable lifestyle where we can be a safe and stable family that our neighbors and friend can rely on, especially as they go through times of crisis. And others are doing the same. Programs like Safe Houses are inspiring. I know that Imago Dei church in Portland, OR, has a multi-faceted approach to a foster care ministry, including an emphasis on caring for birth parents--offering mentors and playdates, and hosting visitations at their church building. If you know of any other resources or stories of families pursuing this hard, messy work of loving entire families and communities, I would love to hear them.
In the end, this journey has been a part of our birth story. As it became clear that we were being called to keeping families together, I started to feel as though I might be able to navigate the waters of entering into another high-risk pregnancy. After all, I was continually finding out that no matter the situation, there is trauma to be had when babies are born into this world. But there is also radical, beautiful redemption to be found as well. And even as I grieve, I hope for all that is to come as well. God is the one who is in charge of growing our families, and it goes far beyond flesh and bone. We are all his babies, after all.