Read Part 1 of this story, Separation, Part 2, Re-Placement, Part 3, Connectedness, and Part 4, Describing

I think about emotional suffering a lot. No, I don’t have any morbid fascination with it. There’s just so much of it plainly visible in every direction that I have to work to harder to ignore it than to think about it. What about emotional suffering in the context of foster care? I don’t mean another race-to-the-bottom-of-despair childhood exposé. I mean let’s broaden our view and acknowledge the emotional suffering across the whole spectrum of foster care.

I think of emotional suffering relationally because it’s virtually always a result of unfulfilled expectations between people. Maybe it’ll help to visualize suffering as a bridge between two people. Sometimes that bridge is one-way and sometimes it’s two-way. Either way, suffering is a bridge built and buttressed by unfulfilled expectations. Let me offer two simplified examples:

A foster child expects dinner but it doesn’t materialize that night. She suffers not because she’s hungry over a missed meal, but because that missed meal is now an unfulfilled expectation that’s easy for her to emotionally perceive as a symbol of her being rejected.

A social worker goes to great length to rescue a foster teen from a jam he stupidly got himself into, and the expected “thank you” doesn’t materialize. The social worker suffers not because of the extra work, but because that teen’s lack of courtesy is now an unfulfilled expectation that’s easy for him to emotionally perceive as a symbol of him being unappreciated.

Can you see the relationship between unfulfilled expectations and suffering? That’s what I mean by emotional suffering being relational. This also looks like the right time to remember that universal truth: Perceptions may not be real, but they are real in their consequences.

So what does emotional suffering look like across the whole spectrum of foster care? How do the various players and stakeholders suffer? A complete answer isn’t possible here, but I’m okay with asking that wildly expansive question and responding in broad general strokes so that we can at least set out the contours of a dialogue going forward. In this way we help shape the framework for more sophisticated thinking about foster care.

Envision the basic and usual foster care relationships like the concentric circles that ripple from the spot a rock is thrown into a quiet pond. A child is removed from a dangerous situation and put into foster care, the first ripple. The child meets her social worker, the second ripple. A foster parent is introduced, a third ripple. The adult(s), presumably her natural parent(s), together with a reunification plan are reinserted, the fourth ripple. Circumscribing all these relationships is the state foster care system, the fifth ripple. Riding the crest of the farthest ripples are the hordes of critics, most with their curious recommendations and solutions for a foster care utopia.

Based on my foster care experience and observations, I pose a few questions: Should a child expect more than to be removed from a dangerous situation and provided basic shelter, food, clothes, and age-appropriate education? Should a social worker expect more than to burn out from a constant state of crisis management? Should foster parents expect more than to be minimally reimbursed for opening wide their homes and pouring out their hearts? Should natural parents expect more than an emotionally damaged and scarred child to be returned to them? Should the state expect it is any better at housing and raising children than it is at housing and rehabilitating prisoners? Should the critics expect more from the state than frosty silence in response to their lawsuits?

In our state foster care systems, any of the players or stakeholders expecting more than I suggest above should not be surprised by their unfulfilled expectations followed by suffering. In fact, absent an acceptance and application of at least the Christian concept of agapé love as the spiritual model and journey for selfless relationships and emotional stability, we shouldn’t expect any more than to continue with unfulfilled expectations and wholesale emotional suffering. Because, honestly, that’s about the best our present foster care systems can offer. To expect more would just equate to adding another layer of suffering.

I almost wish there were an easier way—some research-based and evidence-supported program that everyone could rush to and fund, rather than a spiritual model and journey, because programs are so much easier to accept. But speaking from the perspective of one who knows what it is to journey down a long road of foster care suffering and recovery, there isn’t another way. And until we recognize that opaque reality and respond accordingly, we will all continue to suffer, some more than others.