Foster Care and the Backward Kingdom
“Jesus used paradoxes to help us see the kingdom of God. His paradoxical statements turned the secular world upside down. As we have already noted, He said that 'whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.' He said that 'the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.' He said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' He said that 'Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” -Kent M. Keith
In my kindergarten classroom the students love to sing a song called “The Backwards Kingdom”, where fish fly and birds swim, where the police is a thief, 2+2=3, and where cats bark and dogs meow. It’s a funny song, and I never really understand why the students love to sing it so much. But the last time I sang along with them, the words sunk a little deeper, reminding me of another “Backward Kingdom”, a place where very little makes sense to the human brain, but yet brings a peace that passes all understanding to the human heart.
The world of foster care and adoption has been for me much of a backward way of living. I didn’t start out as a typical person registering for the foster care class in my small town in Iowa. I wasn’t married, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment, lived off of my teacher’s salary (or what was left of it after my student loans from college), and was used to a very independent lifestyle full of adventure, spontaneity, travel and sleep. But for years, my hearts deepest longing was to provide a safe home for little ones in need. I became licensed in August almost three years ago, and since then have had my world turned upside down--or backward--by the joys and pains it has brought.
In the past three years I have housed six foster children. The purpose and need of the foster care system means that for someone’s family, things are already backward. Moms and dads might not be parenting the way they should be. Parents might be risking their children’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing by the decisions they make. Babies are born into grief, pain, addiction and illness. Children are used as bribes, threats and money making. Children are being abused in horrific ways that most of us would never think of. The stress of living in poverty is making it impossible for people to both parent and earn a living. Things get broken. People get broken. Children, get broken.
The beauty and the irony of the foster care system is that we, as foster and adoptive parents, get to join the backward chaos that comes with taking on a child from a broken place, which in turn ends up breaking us, and can sometimes lead us to a place of eternal backwards living. Which is where I am, and where I hope to stay.
The journey of foster care has led me to invite in people addicted to drugs, employees of drug dealers, prostitutes, single parents who do not know the father of their child, married parents who decided parenthood wasn’t for them. People who I might not have sought out to befriend, but who ended up being a source of humility and compassion as we bonded over our commonality--a child in need. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.” John 3
I’ve picked up babies from the hospital and held them through the first hours of drug withdraws because of their birth mom’s choices. I’ve helped a baby affected by meth learn to suck milk from a bottle when her body would rather sleep off the symptoms of withdraws. I’ve taken babies to endless doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, medical evaluations, speech therapy, physical therapy, supervised visits with parents, and visits from attorneys and DHS workers. I’ve picked up young children from visits with their parents in tears and fits of rage that it isn’t time to live with Mom again yet. I’ve tucked them in at night, hearing them call me “Mama” for the first time as they ask for one more story and a kiss goodnight. I’ve found myself at Wal-Mart all hours of the night for emergency formula and diapers, gone to work with formula spit up and poop stains on my shirt and bags under my eyes from long nights of no sleep. I’ve packed up babies on an hours notice so they can be reunited with their family. I’ve picked up babies on an hours notice because they were removed from a home full of drugs and bugs and had been neglected since their birth. I’ve heard judgmental comments about their color, their appearance, their ability or disability, how they don’t look like me or don’t look like each other. I’ve had to give up most of the things I was used to before I became a parent and sacrificed the freedom for the sake of a child who might live with me for a month, or forever. It’s not easy work, but it’s Backward Kingdom work with eternal rewards and endless lessons in selflessness.
“Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9
I have seen the court system make what seems to be backward decisions. It sometimes feels backwards when the judge, after reviewing every detail of a child’s case and life, decides it is best for them to return to their biological home, seemingly regardless of the pain and danger from their past. It sometimes feels backward when the judge makes the decision to permanently and legally remove the rights of the biological parents, forever erasing the bond that was once formed. It feels backward to hear a judge grant six more months to a parent who has yet to make an effort to visit their newborn child. It feels backward to be “just” the foster parent, who has no legal rights and cannot make any decision for the child without pages of permissions signed and judge approval, but know that at any time the birth parent can make the calls they want for their child and family. It even feels backward to experience emotions like joy and relief at court dates where the judge decides to grant ME the forever gift of a child through adoption. Because their loss is my gain. The nightmare of losing their child is now my dream of becoming their mother. From places of great pain and hurt comes new life and new family. But all at a cost. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:25
I hope and pray that new words to the “Backwards Kingdom” song can be written for the lives of the children in foster care today. In the Beatitudes Jesus reminds us that BLESSED are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. He says the big are little, the last are first, the weak are made strong. No matter what kind of chaos and pain brings a child to my door, I know that He has equipped me for the hard work of letting the children come to His healing, everlasting arms of love.
The road that led me to foster care & adoption was not the road I had planned for my life--in fact, it couldn’t have been planned or orchestrated by anyone but God. As an adolescent and young adult I was sure that my future held nothing but mommy-ing. I was voted “First to have ten kids” by my high school class, and was beyond devastated when my high school flings didn’t result in marriage at age eighteen. My parents convinced me to give college a try, and although I was hesitant to commit, I took the plunge. College ended up being an incredible chapter; full of learning, new friendships, traveling and deepening my faith in God as an individual apart from my family. Also in college, I developed a more serious passion for the Spanish language and the Mexican culture. I spent about a year living in different parts of Mexico as a student, volunteer, interpreter and missionary. During my time there it was confirmed that my hearts’ biggest yearning to become a mom was also a way to minister and care for the orphaned, abandoned, neglected and abused children. I grew to love my afternoons at the orphanage and became involved in orphan care groups, read a lot of books and studied as much as I could about the “least of these”. But my focus was mainly in overseas orphan care. When I became a teacher I was exposed to the world of foster care through some of my students. After praying about it for a couple years I took the class to become certified. My plan was to start out doing respite care for friends who did foster care, but within a month of being licensed I got a phone call for my first placement, a newborn boy. Although some people shared their discouraging opinions about my choice to become a single mom, most of my friends and family were very supportive and helpful along the journey. When I’ve heard comments like “You shouldn’t be doing that alone” and “Shouldn’t you be looking for a dad for these poor kids?” I usually bite my tongue, breathe a prayer, and respond that in a perfect and sinless world every child would have two loving and committed parents. But this is a broken world, and if a single mom can rally up a village of people to love on and support a child going through trauma, than I am happy to be the one to do it.
How it all happened…
My second placement was considered “abandoned” after 3 months of very little parent involvement. Her parents struggle with many mental health issues, drug addictions, homelessness and frequent incarceration. When the court and social worker agreed that there was not a safe place within her family or extended family, they asked if I would be willing to adopt her. It was my first experience with the bittersweet emotions of knowing a child is being taken away from their family, but able to be part of my forever family. I was able to adopt Mercy on her first birthday, 360 days after she came into my home as a newborn struggling to eat and stay alive. She’s now a very busy and active toddler who keeps me on my toes. While Mercy was in foster care I had three other placements come and go. Last summer I had been sensing God preparing our family for another addition, whether short term or long term. I had heard that a baby was born over the holiday weekend at the local prison and was going to need a home. I prayed that morning that God would give me a clear sign if I was to say yes to a phone call, if I should receive one. Later that morning a song came on the radio while Mercy and I ate breakfast. The lyrics were “We are all God’s children, we are all loved by God...” and I said, “Mercy, do you know how much God loves you? And loves all the children in the world?” and little Mercy, only eighteen months old, said to me, “Yeah mom, and the baby too. My baby sister.”
I knew it was God showing me that I would take in this little nameless, homeless baby as our own, whether it be for a few months or the rest of our lives. Several times the court has told me she would be leaving with relatives, but she has never left our home.
Now eleven months later, I am happy to say that this precious child will be adopted soon this summer and we will become a family of 3. Having two under age two is busy, but the rewards are far greater than the stresses and challenges. Even though my marital status is “single”, I am never alone and my friends and family have shown me the real meaning of “it takes a village to raise a child.” I am daily humbled and grateful at the provisions and support I receive.