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Foster care: A model in Costa Rica for the US?


When Americans think about the foster care system, it’s unlikely a positive image pops into their minds. Instead, they may think of a tragic story of abuse they’ve heard on the news or about a troubled teen in their community ready to age out of the system. It’s tempting to believe that foster care is a broken concept, doomed from the start.

But there are more than 5 million children in orphanages around the world in need of safe and loving families. This astronomical number must stir us to invest in some kind of system that can sufficiently serve these children. But what does that system look like?

I’ve been knee-deep in that exact work in Costa Rica for the past two decades, and what I’ve witnessed is that foster care can be a beautiful option for vulnerable children and families, but not on its own. When we consider all the potential downfalls and limitations of foster care, I’ve learned that the solution in the U.S. and around the world isn’t to throw the system out — the solution is to bring Jesus in.

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Foster care works when the motivation is Jesus

Psalms 68:6 speaks clearly about God’s heart for the lonely to be put in families, and there’s no mistaking that caring for orphaned and vulnerable children is a part of our calling as Christians. In Costa Rica, hundreds of families have followed this call to provide a safe and loving home to vulnerable children who would otherwise be placed in orphanages, by becoming foster parents. Casa Viva, the organization where I work, currently partners with 50 churches to train and support volunteer foster families, who then must be approved by the government.

And our support doesn’t end when a placement is made — our professionals continue to visit and train families throughout the entire process. Whether a child is with a foster family temporarily, until they can be reunified with their biological family, or until an alternative permanent family placement is available, our professionals make twice-a-month site visits. We like to joke that we “have a seat at the table” in each family’s home.

This system only works because it’s filled with people at every level motivated by their faith. God invited us into his family, and in response, we must work to see all of His children find famililes too.

The alternative solution is broken

Of course, foster care is challenging work. It requires a unique plan for each family. But we know that this Christ-centered, individualized approach to foster care is worthwhile because, in Costa Rica, we have to deal with the tragic effects of the alternative care model — orphanages. Unfortunately, many still exist in our country, and we are working to change this.

Research shows that an orphanage is a difficult place for a child to grow and learn. Children who grow up in institutionalized care are stunted physically, emotionally, and cognitively while in them. Without the individualized attention and nurturing that naturally happens within a family, they can have significant delays and struggle developmentally, and sometimes these effects are permanent. That’s why getting these children back into families as quickly as possible is critical.

One child we worked with, James, was placed in an orphanage at the age of six, and by the time he was a teen, he was angry and troubled. But Sandra, a Christian woman and potential foster mother, felt called to take him in. She said to Casa Viva, “If you are with me, then I am with him,” and proceeded to welcome him into her home.

The transition wasn’t easy, but after a year of support from our organization and her church community, James’s behavior began to change. Eventually, Sandra and her husband formally adopted James. Now that he’s grown, he’s often seen doting on his mother and has even started his own business. Family redefined James’s future.

They will know you by your love

When it comes to caring for vulnerable children, “pure and undefiled religion” is the key. Foster care, whether bridging a gap for biological family reunification or giving children stability during a time of transition, is a beautiful display of God’s desire for children and the transformation that happens in the hearts of believers. The motivation to become foster parents that comes from obedience to God’s will, not money or benefits, will be noticeable to others.

Years ago, a neighboring government official came to observe our program. It was clear from the start that he was skeptical of the partnership we, as a faith-based organization, had with the government. But after a week of meeting with foster families, seeing the children thriving, and hearing from the parents about their motivation to foster coming out of their genuine love of God, his mind was changed. At the end of his time with us, he shared that a program like ours could only happen with God.

Jesus is at the center of everything we do, and it shows. 

While foster care may have a bad reputation in the U.S., there is a way to do it well rooted in Jesus. American Christians must understand and support this expanding option for children in other countries. Foster care is an essential alternative in a system caring for vulnerable children, and it’s clear that Christians who partner with organizations that love Christ can be examples of how to do foster care the right way — in America, Costa Rica, and all around the globe.

Hazel Cedeño is the Casa Viva Solutions Director at Casa Viva.

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