Dr. Sharen Ford noticed a change in her newsfeeds a few years ago.
As the program director of Adoption & Orphan Care at Focus on the Family since 2014, Ford’s eyes and ears are deeply attuned to headlines about America’s foster care system and its children. Often, the news is discouraging—but something has been different over the last year.
Her home state of Colorado, for example, put out a call in 2017 for a thousand new foster families; partly due to America’s opioid crisis, there simply aren’t enough willing and qualified foster caregivers to handle all the kids flooding into social services offices. Colleagues in other states, meanwhile, told of social workers renting out hotel rooms for new foster children until suitable families were found; of traumatized children sleeping in government offices; of opioid-affected little ones being left in abusive or neglectful homes for longer than usual because the state simply had nowhere to put them.
Ford has seen and heard all about these young victims from the 3,719 people who have initiated the process of becoming licensed for foster care or adoption through Focus’s 10-year-old Wait No More program. She knows from their stories that entry and exit into foster care is neither simple nor pain-free.
“Any time you have trauma to the brain, it impacts that child’s neurological system,” Ford tells Citizen. “And any negative impact to their brains impacts how that child communicates and behaves.”
Spoiler alert: Those trauma-impacted communication styles and behaviors opioid-affected foster children display often aren’t pretty—meaning that not only are foster families hard to find, but hard to keep.
That’s an issue Kelly Newcom, a board member of Vault Fostering Community (VFC) in Boerne, Texas, addresses almost daily.
“[Foster parents] are not trained well enough to deal with the trauma these kids come from. That’s the hardest part,” the adoptive mom of seven former foster children tells Citizen. “Some of these people who are addicted to opioids are maintaining a semblance of life, but their kids are suffering in silence. [The children] might not be physically abused, but they are neglected in love and care. So when they come to us, [we’re told] it’s a ‘basic-level child,’ but they actually have a host of issues. You have a family who takes a young child, doesn’t know how to deal with it, then says, ‘I can’t do it.’ They pull out and quit.”
VFC exists partly to address that lack of support and physical resources. Since launching in 2015, the group has provided necessary items like beds and bedding, car seats, strollers, high chairs, bottles, clothing and diapers to more than 150 Hill Country-area families and their approximately 300 foster children.
VFC Co-Founder and Executive Director Rachel Russo says meeting the practical needs of exhausted, under- resourced foster families can go a long way.
“I consider Vault’s greatest success to be the relief these families feel when they hear what we have to offer,” she tells Citizen. “They arrive at our warehouse wild-eyed and frenzied, and always leave feeling relieved and ready to welcome their new child.”
To that end, VFC hosts a monthly support group for adoptive parents of teenagers, including those affected by opioid abuse. The stories shared there, Newcom says, would most likely sound unbelievable to anyone who hasn’t fostered or adopted—but they’re real, and involve a very isolated, lonely, overworked section of the Church (as well as people of other faiths, or none).
“We celebrate and cheer when we have a week go by when we haven’t had death threats from one of our children, or someone’s not been arrested,” Newcom says. “These are really hard traumas [the families are dealing with]. Most everyone in the group will say [this] is our one lifeline.”
That sort of cold-water reality often scares would-be foster parents away, Ford says—but it doesn’t have to.
“Are you a caring, loving individual with the capacity to give, to bend and not break when things are hard? Can you press though, be an advocate for someone you didn’t give birth to? Can you address your fears by being realistic, open and honest with what you believe your shortcomings are?” Ford asks. “I tell people it’s OK if you really believe in your heart that you can’t [foster]. You can’t do anything you don’t believe you can do.
“But if you believe what the Word says, that even in my weakness He can take that and allow me to do phenomenal things …” Ford trails off, her voice growing thick with tears.
“Are you [fostering] under your own strength, or are you willing to let your weaknesses be made greater through Him to do what you wouldn’t otherwise achieve? If I believe He called me to the work, then all things are possible with God, and He’ll guide me through it step by step.”
Besides the sheer mismatch of numbers between foster parents and trauma-impacted foster children—especially, as Ford points out, for foster children of color—one of the biggest challenges is the lack of support from non-foster parents and other adults who don’t understand the multiple variables foster parents of kids affected by opioids face with every placement.
“When [foster kids] come to you, you never know what the future will hold,” says Elisa Winter, an experienced New Jersey foster mom of children affected by opioid abuse. “You won’t know if that child will live a ‘normal’ life. You never know the truth of what drugs they were really exposed to, and how much. You never know what diseases they were exposed to, and how many times. The feeling of the unknown is the biggest challenge.”
Here’s where people who can’t foster or adopt children of the opioid crisis can step in.
Churches can play a front-line role through prayer ministries. “Pastors and church leaders can also raise awareness of this critical need in sermons or illustrations to promote answering the call to foster, or the need to support a family who is answering that call,” says Margie Nielsen, the director of Foster Care & Adoption Ministries at Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home (LBCH). Additionally, churches can open their campuses for parental training and foster licensure.
VFC’s Newcom agrees, saying the Church is the answer to the opioid crisis, especially its impact on foster care.
“Our call as Christians is to love the least, which is these children who are helpless in this situation,” she says. “If we can do the smallest little part to better [their] lives, we can change an entire generation. And if we can change several of them, we can change the Kingdom.”
Practically, Ford says, this involves corporately and individually helping biological families get and stay clean, forgiving those struggling with opioid addiction, giving financially to opioid- and foster-related ministries, bringing a meal to or housecleaning for foster and adoptive families, babysitting, running errands or simply lending a listening ear.
“It takes all kinds,” she says. “And we sure don’t need perfect people, because there’s no perfect kid.”
Winter knows this truth well. She fell in love with one opioid-affected foster baby in particular before his mother regained custody—only to relapse and lose parental rights permanently after her opioid use and neglect caused her son to end up in the hospital with severe health crises. That boy is now with another family who is pursuing his adoption. More kids have come and gone in the Winter household, including an opioid-affected baby girl who was eventually—and with Winter’s blessing—reunited with her biological mother.
“We all make mistakes; some are bigger than others,” Winter says. “I’ve always believed in second chances, and I also believe you can add another chapter to your story.”
Ford believes there’s another chapter to the American church’s story—and its thousands of Christians around the nation asking themselves how they can help foster children in their community.
“We want people who are flexible, who can be mama bears. We want the crazy woman who’s willing to run down the sideline to cheer the kid during the game, the dad who says, ‘Hey son, you showed up and played,’ ” Ford says. “We want the people who see the four-leaf clover amongst all the three-leaf clovers in these kids.
“We have an opportunity here to make a difference in someone’s life—not by cloning ourselves, but by sharing ourselves.”
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Originally published in the August 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.