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The hard, unquestionable goodness of foster care

The hard, unquestionable goodness of foster care

“We have a kid that needs a bed tonight. What do you think?”

I remember the strange feeling of that first call from the social services worker. I remember my wife and I talking after the call, asking each other the same question — “should we do this?” And I remember how quickly the uncertainty shifted to an unquestionable “yes.”  

May is National Foster Care Month, and it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on.  

About a year and-a-half ago, my wife and I decided take the foster care training. I had some firsthand experience, as my parents had a couple short-term foster kids, tossed in among myself and my five siblings. My wife and I knew it was, in theory, a noble endeavor. We knew there was a need. We knew that there was a direct biblical injunction to care for orphans.

But it took us a while to overcome the concerns about practicality, which were finally allayed at a doughnut-laden meeting in our church basement on a rainy Saturday morning. And I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that while we had one 3-year-old son, the three following miscarriages certainly expedited our decision to open up our home to kids in need.

After saying yes to that first call, we walked slowly up the stairs in the Department of Social Services Building. We’ve learned that it’s common to know almost nothing about a child you’re about to take, often because the case workers may just be learning about the situation themselves. But sure as the sun rises, it also sets, and kids that come into care need somewhere to sleep when that sun sets.

Upon entering the office, we happened upon a small-framed, charming little 1-year-old girl, toddling in and out of the cubicles. We signed papers for about 30 minutes, and then the social workers handed us the child — “here you go.”  

Over the next six months, I became incredibly attached to this little girl. As did my wife and son. She became a beloved part of our family. She was extraordinarily friendly, could be very loud, and tangled with our son in the best ways — she would even outmatch him from time to time, at least in determination if not in strength.

Fostering looks very different for different situations. Different ages, issues, relatives — the challenges and rewards can vary widely. Apart from this 1-year-old girl (as well as her sweet infant sister later on), we’ve fostered another baby who was born very early, at 33 weeks. He’s still with us today — goes by J. He came to us at 37 weeks, after four weeks in the NICU. Though he was doing well, the slightest thing could send him back to the hospital, as he was so small and underdeveloped — especially his lungs. 

When cold season came around, despite our best efforts to prevent it, he did indeed get a cold, which was a traumatic experience for his tiny lungs. I hate the sight of seeing doctors rush into a room, but that’s what I saw when J couldn’t effectively breath on his own, and they had to intubate him, without much time to spare. Thankfully, he was eventually stabilized, but we were there for about eight days in total. Sometimes, like in this case, being a foster parent simply means sitting for days on end in a hospital, just being present with a kid who may not have anyone else to be there.

Foster care is supposed to be about folks stepping forward to take care of kids in need — people who are willing to take on extra work, extra parenting, extra time, extra tasks to help these kids — to sacrifice, and by doing so, to bless the children. And this is true. However, a funny thing happens in the midst of that. The supposed blessers become the blessed. It’s a topsy-turvy thing, but I have no doubt that the kids we’ve fostered did more for me than I did for them.  

In giving care to a child like this, the caregiver is blessed — joy and wonder is revealed, in things big and small. Grace is observed, felt. And don’t we know this to be true? Don’t we know that it’s in giving that we truly receive, that it’s in sacrificing that we gain?

Throughout my Christian walk, one thing I’ve always struggled with is practical service.  I’ve started many things but have failed to sustain them — service to the homeless, tutoring, mentoring, picking up a volunteer slot here and there — nothing has lasted. 

Fostering has changed that. It’s ironic. Somehow, I was unable to keep up with topical, periodic service endeavors. But fostering, this full-time, round the clock service somehow seems less burdensome to me — it’s odd. There’s something so clear about this endeavor. Unlike much of life, it’s just straightforward — a kid needs a home to go to, food to eat, a bed to sleep, someone to talk to, someone to pay attention to them.  I’ve come to love this sort of full time, comprehensive care ministry.

After six months of having that little 1-year-old girl (who all the sudden became an 18-month-old girl), something very difficult happened. She left. There one day, gone the next. Putting her to bed the last night was one of the more painful nights of my life. 

The pain was not because we were worried about her future situation. It was clear she would be with a loving relative. So this was a good outcome, a success story. But not a story without pain. No one had identified her father. She had not had a father before she came to us. Then I was that father figure for six months — and wanted to be forever. And while she was going to be in a good home, it was still a fatherless situation. That pains me now as much as it did on the day she left. I also feared that she would think we abandoned her, that we just left her.

I struggled with this thought at the time — wondering whether it was worth it to love someone for a short period of time, if you won’t be able to love them forever. Is it worth the pain? Hard as it is, the answer is an absolute yes. As they say, ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  

Fostering is a messy world. An inherently sad world. A hard world. A world with children that have been abused, neglected, or perhaps just have parents that are going through rough spots in life. It’s often a world that involves uncertainty and pain, and yet great joy.

But here’s the point. While we can’t control the difficulty and uncertainty of all that comes with fostering, we do have control over one thing — whether or not we put ourselves in the situation at all. We have the potential to have an extraordinary impact on kids, parents, and communities.

The only question is whether we are willing, is the Church willing, to care for these children who don’t have anyone else willing or able to care for them? Are we willing to step into the fearful thing that James called pure religion?

It’s not safe. It’s hard, but it’s unquestionably good.

Mark Lawrence Earley Jr. is a graduate of Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia School of Law. He practices law in Richmond, Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Mary Alice, his son, Abraham, and his foster son, J. @MarkLEarleyJr