“The goal of fostering is reunification whenever safe for the kids.” That is the typical answer when asked “What is the purpose of foster care?” Most people in the foster care space hold this stance, and I do as well. But to grasp a life focused on reunification is weighty in itself. It is an uncomfortable calling that ushers someone into the unstable and unknown, away from comfort and assurance.
Fostering, as I see it, is mainly a form of stewardship. Similar to the way we steward time, treasures, and talents, the children that enter resource family homes have been entrusted to us as parents for a season. A lot of times, the end of that season is unknown at the start, but that should encourage us to greater love in service, knowing the days are limited while not knowing the limit. Every moment is meaningful. Each meal can be a memory. Daily mercies matter more and more. With a perspective of “being parents as long as we are needed,” we can shift our focus from the “as long” part to the “are needed.” Instead of dwelling on a future time when the kids have been reunified, we can love them as much as possible today, for tomorrow will worry about itself.
Admittedly, this is no easy task, especially as time goes on. There is a real possibility for thoughts to creep in that are not inline with stewardship: “What if they stayed with me forever?”, “These kids deserve the life I can give them,” or “I could do such a better job than their actual parents.” While they seem good-natured at first, wanting what we believe is best for the kids, they disregard one of the key elements of the foster system: coming alongside a family in crisis. Foster families have the privilege of being on the frontline for a family impacted by the foster system. With a mix of emotions running through their minds, one of the last thoughts biological parents need in these vulnerable times is to have to worry about a resource family trying to replace them. And likewise, regardless of the circumstances of removal, the children should be reassured that their placement home’s number one priority is for the children’s well-being, not whether they are a possible “forever placement.”
Some might assume if the kids are going to be reunified, then they should not get “too attached” because it will be too painful when they leave. While I do not believe many will argue with the very real grief that comes after kids are reunified, to not love them to one’s fullest extent would be a disservice to everyone involved. Viewing foster care as a time of crisis for a family, how could we withhold attachment to a child that just had their world turned upside down? Are we really going to invite youth into our homes but not into our hearts? We should hold the cross in high regard as a symbol of sacrificial love, laying down the fullness of our lives. We love in preparation for loss, not to avoid it.
If we were to take a step back and think about the notion of limiting attachment because of a lack of permanency, we might find that there are other areas in our life where we would not do the same. Part of that might be due to an assumption of permanency that is not really there, but we just pretend it is. When it comes to fostering, we are given notice up front, tempting us to begin guarding ourselves. But we don’t have assurance that our best friend will be in our life 2 years from now, yet we aren’t preparing for that friendship to fizzle. We rarely have guaranteed employment 18 months from now, but does that mean we should enter our workplaces every day, greeting co-workers with our walls up? We might not like to think about it, but there is no promise of loved ones being present a year from now. And yet we are comfortable investing attachment into all of these areas. Granted, that is what makes the loss of them feel weighty, but I ask again, are not the kids in foster homes worthy to be invested in the same way? Loss is inevitable, so let us love as much as possible until reunification, then bring the loss before the cross.
So we’ve stewarded our time with them well, loving unconditionally along the way, but what happens after they leave? The closet is emptied and the last mess is cleaned up. Despite all of the training for certification, there is nothing that prepares a foster parent for the return to quiet after a placement, no matter how long the duration. The rhythms of making meals and tucking in are no more, even if the desire persists. You take the time you think you need to process, then you take a little more. You continually ask yourself why you do what you do, and hopefully come to the conclusion that you’ll do it again, at least once more.
Not every placement continues with contact. I’ve been truly blessed that I am still in contact with the two girls who entered our home almost a year and a half ago, staying for just 4 months, but I know that is rare. People say fostering shouldn’t be about growing your family. I say yes and no. Yes, they were reunified and no longer live with us, but I do believe our family grew regardless and continues to grow in reunification. It grew when they showed up to our baby shower, their mom included, to celebrate with us. It grew when we were invited to “Special Friends’ Day” at their school. It grew with every overnight and spur of the moment visit, knowing there was a mutual joy with seeing one another again. And in it all, we have loved them, near or far.
For the times in between visits, and the time we wait for the next one, if it comes, we have to continually fight to trust that they are in good hands, neither ours nor their parent’s, but God’s. That is pretty much the only way reunification works. God places the children in our life for us to give everything we have, relying on Him for grace. And we continue to rely on Him once the kids have moved out. When we let go of the need to influence the situation and stop believing they are only safe or happy in our homes, we are freed to trust a King with an ever-watchful eye. If I continually worried about their wellbeing every moment since reunification, I couldn’t bear the weight of helplessness. It is only when walking in the faith of a Savior who was working in their lives long before I showed up, and will continue to do so long after I am around, that I can rejoice in reunification. I don’t do it perfectly, and I can stand to do it more often. For my sake. For the kids I have reunified. And God willing for the next ones I’ll help reunify.
-FTC Foster Parent