We met her for the first time in a downtown courtroom - the same place we would see her for the last time nearly one year later. And even if we never see her again beyond that, a piece of her will always be a part of us - literally.
It was the first court hearing since her baby girl had been removed from her custody by Child Protective Services and placed in our care a few weeks earlier. Given the particular circumstances of the case, the judge would soon inform her she was on track to losing her parental rights over her child. While the law was right and just that day, the emotions were equally raw and real. She was devastated - the strongholds in her life she could not get out from under were deep and destructive to both her and her baby. We were overwhelmed - wondering how our world could be so broken that an entire legal system must be set up to protect children from those who seem to love them yet still harm them. Files lined the courtroom that day, each representing a case in which a child needed to be protected and a parent needed to be disciplined. Stacks of broken stories filled the room. We were there to participate in just one.
A COLLISION OF TWO WORLDS
Difficult doesn't describe it - standing for the first time with the mom of the baby the state had placed in our home and we were now loving and raising as our own. Wondering what she was thinking and feeling, what her life was like that led her to that point and bothered by the fact that nothing, and no one, had been there or been capable of preventing her from being in the position she now found herself in.
Our worlds couldn't be more different. The contrast between the two was magnified that day as they collided for the first time. One of relative ease and privilege and opportunity now standing with one full of brokenness, struggle and now tragedy.
How could we live in the same world but come from two very different ones at the same time? Why was this cold, sterile courtroom the first time our worlds were ever intersecting?
These questions haunted us. Not simply because they reveal something wrong and broken about the world we live in – but because they also revealed something wrong and broken about us. The question wasn't how come no one was there for her to help prevent this from happening - but instead, how come we weren't there for her, or there to help any of the other hundreds of stories stacked around the room that day from ever getting to that point? Who was doing that? Why weren’t we? How do we do that? What kind of small, insulated, isolated and comfortable world had we created around ourselves that allowed us to live in such a divergent, disconnected world from hers?
Two worlds collided that day, and we saw in real and raw ways how really, at the end of the day, we’re all a part of the same world – in this thing called life together. Or at least, we should be.
THE OTHER SIDE OF FOSTER CARE
Fostering abused, neglected and vulnerable children is by nature reactionary - a necessary response to circumstances often requiring swift, immediate and sometimes severe measures to protect the rights of the vulnerable. It is a good and right and just solution to a very real problem - but it is not the only solution, neither is it the ultimate one.
On one side of foster care is the need for us to respond to the plight of vulnerable kids and intercede on their behalf. It's right and honorable and a reflection of the heart of God to secure and protect the rights of the helpless. On the other side of foster care is the need to proactively respond to the brokenness of families and intercede on their behalf to prevent their children from ever becoming foster kids in the first place. This too is right and honorable and a reflection of the heart of God to bring healing to what is broken and hope to what otherwise is headed towards destruction.
In 2012 we stood in a cold, sterile courtroom for the first time on one side of foster care; four years later we would sit in our very own living room deeply entrenched in the other side.
It started with a text, and then more texts, a series of phone calls and ultimately an impromptu meeting at our house. Close friends had been keeping us up to speed on an emergency situation as it unfolded. A young girl they had known for quite some time was now 23 years old – we’ll call her “Kay”. Kay is the strong and brave product of a very hard and difficult life. With essentially no home, now no job, and virtually no support she sat in a hospital room having just given birth to beautiful twin baby girls. Child protective services had already begun delivering their ultimatum - find a job and a place to live or you’re losing the babies.
The question between our friends and us that evening in the living room was not should we do something - that answer was clear - under no circumstances are any of us allowing these babies to go into foster care. It was really more a question of how. That was a bit more complicated. Where would Kay live? For how long? Are we crazy for doing this? Can we really handle it?
The longer we discussed potential solutions the more clear the inevitable became – neither of us could care for Kay and her babies alone, but maybe, just maybe, if we banded together we could handle it together.
So that’s what we did. Kay and the babies had a room in each of our homes. A meal calendar was set up that friends, acquaintances and even total strangers from our church helped provide for. We took turns with middle of the night feedings, running Kay to different appointments, helping get her social services set up, a new apartment secured and a plan of action for transitioning back into her new normal as a single mom of newborn twins on her own. Some days were as sweet as rocking precious little newborn twins to sleep in our arms. Other days were quite the opposite – messy, complicated and downright bad. The kind of hard we could have never handled on our own. But in walking this journey out in the context of community we knew we could love and care for Kay and the babies better together than we ever could have alone.
Kay is not without struggle today. She continually needs the support of the community around her that was forged on her behalf in the midst of a potentially catastrophic situation. It’s by no means a happily ever after at this point, but those baby girls have not spent one second of their young lives in foster care. That alone is a success worthy of great celebration. We are forever indebted to our friends for inviting us into the gift of caring for this brave mom and her precious girls.
It was our privilege together to welcome Kay and the babies into our homes for several months, give her the time she needed to adjust to life with two newborns, get back on her feet and ultimately stand for herself. Our lives are inextricably linked now forever - and I'm convinced we're all better together because of it.
This is the “other” side of foster care.
A JOY NOT VOID OF HEARTACHE
The new reality of our family, having now adopted that little girl that was once a file on top of a stack, is that we live with the forever joy of her calling us mommy and daddy – a joy that is never void of the heartache that maybe, just maybe, all of this in an ideal sense could have been avoided in the first place. The first time we met our baby girl's mom should not have been in a courtroom chaperoned by lawyers and standing before a judge. Perhaps long before our worlds collided that day our worlds should have collided in a different way on a different day - perhaps in our living room as well, or better yet, in hers. Then, maybe, just maybe something could have been done to prevent that day from ever happening.
Perhaps rather than simply responding to the consequences of other peoples brokenness we have a responsibility to proactively engage them in the midst of it - to help bring healing and hope and to help minimize, if not render null and void all together, repercussions perpetuating themselves any further. Church happens in those places - not just in our Sunday spaces.
In the end, perhaps the call of the Church is not just to foster kids but also to help prevent them from ever becoming foster kids in the first place. Let's be both the back door response to the need for children to be placed in permanent families while at the same time proactively work to close the front door on any new children being removed from their homes and adding to the stacks of files that, I absolutely believe, should never exist in the first place.
This is the “other” side of foster care.
There's no easy solution to this; but maybe that's the point. It's not supposed to be easy. It's not a fairy-tale. It's a tragedy. One that at a minimum demands we consider the other side of. A joy not void of heartache - this is where the Church thrives.
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