I'll never forget the day it all changed for me. My greatest fear, like so many others who are considering venturing down the beautiful yet tumultuous path of foster care, was not whether or not I could love a child that was not my own but whether or not I could handle letting a child go that I have grown to love as my own.
I couldn't get beyond this concern, and couldn't move forward because of it. I shared my fear with a friend who was a foster dad at the time, and his response both challenged and settled me. It revealed to me that my concerns were backwards, centered on me and how I might feel rather than on the child and how they do feel.
He said that for him and his wife, they were committed to experiencing the pain of loving a child they might lose if it meant a child who has lost so much could experience the gain of their love. A profound concept at the time, but one filled with a purity and simplicity that respostured my concern - away from what I stand to lose and towards what a child might stand to gain. In the simplest of terms I realized, it's not about me, it's about these kids.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF FEAR
As my wife and I began the foster care process with a three day old baby girl we had to make the same decision for ourselves - that we would rather experience the pain of a very great loss if it meant this little girl placed in our home, and any others to follow, could experience the gain of a very great love - no matter how long they stayed with us. We would embrace the heartache of having to let them go if it meant they knew, if even for a short time, what it meant to truly be held onto. We resolved to not let the fear of loving a child who might leave deter us; but to let the fear of a child never knowing our love drive us. A different kind of fear. A better one.
Most foster parents have heard it said to them - I don't know if I could fully love a child knowing I might have to let them go - and every foster parent has had to wrestle with the weight of that statement in themselves. It's an inherent tension that comes with loving a child that is not your own - a tension that often deters people in fear from getting involved. We all know the end goal of foster care is to provide safe and loving permanence for a child, and we also know that permanence for them might not mean permanence for us. Our motivations are severely challenged by this very real possibility, often exposing a posture which is more concerned about what it will cost us to give love to a child rather than what it will cost a child to never receive love from us. Yet then, as we weigh in balance what we stand to lose against what they stand to gain, the answer is simple - not always easy to do - but simple to see as worth it in the end. We can't let the fear of loving a child who might leave deter us; we must let the fear of a child never knowing our love drive us.
GIVING OUR FAMILY FOR A CHILD
Foster care is less about getting a child for your family and more about giving your family for a child. A slightly different statement with significantly different implications. Our first responsibility is to give, not receive; to open our families to a child whose world would otherwise be closed off to the safety and security of knowing a nurturing and loving home. That's not to say that a family can't grow through foster care - it sometimes does lead to adoption - or that a family doesn't receive endless amounts of blessings and joy through foster care - they no doubt can. It is to say, however, that our first call is to give, not receive - to recognize that true service of others almost always involves true sacrifice of self.
FOSTER CARE AND THE GOSPEL
In the end, our call is to fully love these children while we have them and accept the costs we may incur as worth it for the gain they may receive. This is nothing more than what Jesus has done for us. He joyfully laid down the infinite value of His own life so that we might know the immeasurable worth of being fully and unconditionally loved in Him. Foster care is a beautiful expression of the gospel. It demands a selfless, costly and potentially painful love for the sake of a child gaining much as you willingly give all. As we labor to love with the love we ourselves have received from Jesus, we do so in a cloud of uncertainties and unknowns, but with the confidence of one guarantee - it's always worth it. Always.
By no means do I diminish the very real and raw stories of families who have loved someone else's child as their own and after eight days or even 18 months been required to let them go. Through sobbing we have felt that pain deeply along with you - a pain that will always feel raw when revisited, and will never fully go away.
There’s a particular night that will always be seared in the conscious of our family. Emma (name changed for privacy) was a beautiful eight year old girl staying with us. She fit our family and we loved her deeply. Even in her short time with us we had begun developing a long-term vision for what our family would look like with her in it forever. But everything changed unexpectedly (which should probably be the tag line for foster care – “Foster Care: Everything Changed Unexpectedly").
That day was not unlike any other – she headed off to school with our other daughters with plans to come home, play outside and attend a theater performance for one of our other daughters that evening as a family. Sometime shortly after lunch I received a call from our agency, notifying us that Emma would suddenly be leaving that night. Our agency director was confused. We were shocked, and after contacting multiple people at the state office we learned that a closed-door deal had been made between case workers, lawyers and the judge earlier that day. The decree was issued to place her back near her home with a family friend – someone she was familiar with but not related to, and someone who lived so close to her home that many of the things she was removed from for her safety reasons would now have direct access to her again. We knew this wasn’t right and dreaded the conversation that was to come just a few hours later when she got home from school.
She bounded off the bus and immediately grabbed a scooter to play outside. She had a great day at school – meeting new friends and settling into her new rhythm of life. Our hearts ached for what was to come – not because of how difficult it would be on us to tell her, but because of how crushing we knew it would be on her to hear. She had to leave, we had to break the news to her and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
As expected – she wept. So did we.
There's nothing quite like putting a little girl that you've developed a deep love for in the back of a case worker's car at 10:30 at night knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that where she's going is not good - while through her cries and tears she is begging us not to make her leave.
"Please don't make me go. I don't want to leave."
We don't want you to either, sweetheart. With everything inside of us, we want you here.
It's gut-wrenching, frustrating, devastating and yet never without meaning and purpose. And yet I've found that the stories of those who also have these moments branded into their souls all consistently on some level sound the same; I know ours does - It was devastating to let them go but worth it to have had the opportunity to love them. Hard? Yes. Worth it? No question.
The pain is worth it.
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