When I recount the number of people who have had a great influence on my life, it nearly brings me to tears. I was blessed with dozens of role models and mentors who encouraged me throughout my childhood and adolescence. A handful were family members, but most of them were outsiders—teachers, friends, and even employers—who helped shaped me into the opinionated, confident, sometimes insufferable woman I am today.
As a child, I was surrounded by a church community, and in high school I found a community of my own—the drama geeks. In both, I encountered trusted adults who were different from my parents. They offered me access to viewpoints, life experiences, and advice that Mom and Dad could not provide. Those respected guides taught me that the world was infinitely bigger than I had imagined and that the fences on either side of the narrow path I thought lay before me were only imaginary.
Role Models and Mentors
We know displaced children have experienced trauma and that their parents have not provided a stable environment in which they could thrive, but what we often forget is that these kids—our kids—have likely not had any positive role models or mentors in their lives outside of school. Every child needs someone to love them unconditionally and encourage them. While foster and adoptive parent-child relationships can be complicated, divisive, and fraught with confusion (especially in the beginning), sometimes an outsider can find it easier reach the child and gain his respect and confidence.
Last summer we had an older child in our care who was desperate for attention and love, but she also had a number of challenges that complicated our relationship with her. While forming a healthy connection was difficult for us, a friend of mine stepped in and welded a strong bond with her. Their relationship has continued even though the child was removed from our home and, for her health and ours, we no longer have contact with her. My friend did something that I was unable to do as her foster parent, and this child now has a dependable adult in her life who not only cares for her, but can speak with her honestly and openly without the messy tangle of emotions that accompany foster care, adoption, parenting, and the titles of “mom” and “dad.”
Support for Parents
I recently read that an agency working with refugee families immigrating to the United States recommends that at least six families support one refugee family. While the refugee family lives with only one of the host families, the other families commit to supporting both the hosts and refugees with transportation, babysitting, education (language, culture, life skills), job searches, and friendship throughout their transition to a new country and a new way of life. I immediately thought, “That is how we should approach foster care.”
Religious and cultural traditions throughout history and the world believe that takes a village to raise a child, and scientific studies are backing up that wisdom. We are short-changing our kids, even the healthy ones living in a two-parent homes, by not living in community with one another. I believe the isolation of families in our society magnifies the loneliness and rejection a child feels when she enters foster care. If the foster family does not have a healthy support system and well-adjusted adults outside of the family with whom the child can bond, both parent and child are at a disadvantage from day one.
Community in Foster Care & Adoption
In an ideal world, the support system for all foster/adoptive parents would look like this:
- Friends and family who support the decision to care for children in need.
- At least three friends or family members who have been cleared to provide respite care at any time, should the need arise.
- Solid couples who can model what a healthy relationship looks like and how to resolve conflict in a positive and constructive manner.
- Friends or family with children the same age as the child in care.
- Friends or family who are the same race as the child, especially if the foster parents are not. (A foster child should never be a foster parent’s first interaction with any race or culture!)
- At least one role model of the child’s gender who is willing to spend time with the child and give them regular breaks. (Being in a new family is hard!)
- Friends, family, or a support group of other foster parents who can empathize with the foster parent’s struggles and provide advice and emotional support.
I realize the list above is a dream for many and is not possible for everyone, but it is something to strive for. Authentic community does not happen by attending monthly PTA meetings or by hanging out at the Little League fields. Like all relationships, building community requires intentionality, effort, patience, and time. It takes courage to trust others, as well as fortitude and forgiveness to not run away when they let you down (because they will!) For me, community is not an unattainable ethereal idea or a block party that happens once a year. It is the hard work of sharing our real life and weaknesses with others.
Everyone needs a tribe to call their own, especially those who feel unloved, alone, and uncertain of their future. Giving a child more than a family, but a community, in which she has a sense of belonging and the opportunity to find herself is a gift that can change her entire future.
The relationship between sense of community and subjective well-being: A first look. (Davidson & Cotter, 1991).
Studies on the interaction between youth engagement and positive development (Brennan and Barnett 2009; Brennan, Barnett, and Baugh 2007; Brennan, Barnett, and Lesmeister 2007; Brennan, Barnett, McGrath 2009; Crooks, Chiodo, Thomas, and Hughes 2009; Ludden 2011; Pearrow 2008)