1. It is worth it. 

“There is no such thing as other people’s children” –Glennon Doyle Melton

I’d typically place this point at the bottom of the article, as the wrap up, but I thought it important to begin by confirming: Yes, it is worth it.

The two overwhelming responses to foster care from outsiders are 1) I could never do it. I would become too attached. 2) Foster kids are “bad kids” who steal, lie, and ruin the lives of people who are just trying to help them. Be careful!

The truth about foster care and the children in the system cannot be conveyed through generalities or clichés. Every case, every child, and every family is unique; therefore, every experience and outcome is unique. The only certainty is this: There will be scars.

Some foster care advocates tout that the rewards of caring for hurting children outweigh the challenges. The propaganda also implies that there will be redemption and solace at the end of the dark periods, but in foster care there are no guarantees. Being a foster parent is, by far, the most difficult thing I have ever done. But it’s worth it for the same reasons men and women, in public service or the armed forces, put themselves in harm’s way everyday.

Foster care is worth it is because the kids—our children—are worth it. They have experienced the worst of humanity and their parents have failed them. More than anyone, they deserve grace, and those basic  human rights: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For me, a Christ follower, living out grace and love is a calling on my life that I cannot ignore.

2. The system &?%*@!# sucks.

As a rule, I do not curse but I find the f-bomb necessary when describing the state of the foster care system in the United States. I have experienced the brokenness of the system within the walls of my home and I believe there is an argument that the institution that is meant to protect broken and displaced children is intrinsically abusive.

What outsiders don’t know is that even those who work in the system agree that it is irreparably flawed, but most of them are tiny cogs in a massive machine: they are locked in, with no power of their own. Often the checks, balances, laws, rules, policies, and paperwork meant to protect the kids are responsible for inflicting more trauma on them.

We put millions of cases with unique complexities and facets into a rigid box that has little to no give. The rigidity at different levels in the system prevents those on the ground from addressing the distinctive needs of the child, the biological family, or the foster family. Because displaced children need care immediately, time is a relentless adversary in the system. Children suffer both because decisions and moves are made too quickly or too slowly.

I am convinced that we cannot reform the system from the top down. Instead, it will require a coup rising up from the bottom—a committed army of foot soldiers that includes foster parents, biological parents, former foster children, advocates, and social workers. I don’t have a strategy or answers, but I’ve enlisted in the fight and I’m recruiting others for the battle.

3. Social workers are normal people. 

Either social workers are demonized as jaded government employees who don’t know how to do their jobs or they are portrayed as overworked underpaid martyrs who should be canonized for sainthood.

In reality, I’ve seen neither. What I’ve come to realize is that social workers are just like everyone else. They are employees in an organization. Some of them are great at their jobs and some of them should have never been hired. Some are on top of every detail and know their cases well, while others are disorganized and lack adequate communication skills. Most workers are overwhelmed, but that is the nature of the job. The stakes are high every day. They work in triage and I.C.U. for families. It’s rough in there!

Those I’ve worked with genuinely care about the kids. Generally, they are undertrained, good-hearted people who are operating in constant fear of making a mistake that could lead to the loss of their job or the death of a child. They are doing their best. Unfortunately, sometimes, their best isn’t good enough.

4. Boundaries are essential. 

During the home study, potential foster parents are asked to determine the parameters of the children they are willing to accept into their home. The case worker will typically make suggestions based on their observations. Families who do not have parameters are a Godsend to case workers because they can contact the family for assistance with the most difficult cases and they know the next child who enters care has a home waiting for them. But most of us do not have the training or endurance required for the medically fragile or severely emotionally broken children. Therefore, we must be honest with ourselves about the children we can care for best.

It can be difficult to set boundaries because it means saying no to children who are in desperate need of a home, but perspective and patience is crucial in foster care. There will be countless children, every day, who need someone to love them. It is not only the best interests of the foster family, but also the children’s, that they are placed in homes that can provide them with the highest level of care and long-term stability.

Social workers need to find homes for kids fast and they will do what it takes to place a child. Sometimes their methods include withholding information. They might employ guilt. And, like all people, there are social workers who will straight-up lie. It is up to the foster parent to gain as much information as possible about the child and his case then hold firm to the decisions they made thoughtfully, outside of the heat of the moment, without guilt, coercion, or emotions in play.

5. Support is everything. 

As someone reporting from the trenches, I want to give an accurate account of our experience, to tell the truth, and to recruit the best of the best who are willing to make noise and speak for the voiceless. The kids in care are beautiful. They are survivors. They have stolen my heart and their stories have shattered it. Falling in love with the children is easy; it’s the everyday grind and the vast unknowns that cause doubt and fear at the end of the day.

To not just survive, but thrive, foster families must have a solid support system. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village, constant communication, and a team of experts to raise a child who has experienced trauma. A strong support system can provide respite care, give emotional support, offer advice, help with day-to-day tasks (appointments, visits, transportation, paperwork), mentor the child, and be the foster family’s greatest advocates, encouragers, and cheerleaders.

I am grateful for the friends and family who have rescued us, more than once, when we were drowning in the system. We could not have gone on without knowing they were behind us. Their love and support was the fresh air we needed to breathe again, find our footing, and recover. Our community loves our kids alongside us and they are committed to serving as our safety net. Most importantly, when we want to give up, they remind us that it is worth it.