Courtnay Phillips will never forget the day she made two elderly men cry at the grocery store—on two separate aisles.
As she filled her cart, each man commented on the five young children she had in tow, all close in age. Phillips explained that she and her husband, Tyler, had been foster and adoptive parents since they were 26. The men complimented Philips repeatedly, but one aspect of her story really impressed them: her age.
“If I could go back and do my life differently,” each told her, “I would do what you’re doing. But now it’s too late.” Then came the tears.
“They went on to explain how life had been so much about them and not enough about the hurting, and that looking back, that was one of life’s greatest regrets,” Phillips, now 32, tells Citizen. “Everyone knows—even these two darling old men—that the orphan crisis needs to end. But who is stepping up?”
The answer, at least in part: the ultra-young, including some men and women across the country barely old enough to rent a car.
According to the Christian Alliance for Orphans, a national coalition of more than 190 organizations and 650 churches nationwide headquartered in Virginia, at least 153 million children worldwide have lost one biological parent, while nearly 18 million have lost both. (These statistics vary somewhat from organization to organization.) And though the United States’ numbers aren’t as daunting, they are still substantial: 400,000 children languish in the American foster care system, with around 107,000 waiting to be adopted, according to Focus on the Family’s Wait No More campaign.
Rachel Mills, a 23-year-old Minnesotan, saw these statistics several years ago and knew she couldn’t ignore them. It didn’t matter to her that she was (and is) unmarried, young enough still to be on her parents’ insurance and without a college degree; she simply “knew that having a very young mom who tried her hardest would always beat having no one,” she tells Citizen.
Her eyes were first opened when she nannied for a family that was adopting through foster care.
“I always had a huge desire to serve orphans, but I was convinced I had to travel across the world to find them. I occasionally heard of the foster system, but I had a very stereotypical view of it,” Mills says. “I was under the impression that only teens were in need of foster homes. I had no idea that there was a huge need for foster homes for children of all ages and I was completely clueless that these kids were the ‘orphans’ in America.”
But once Mills witnessed the need for foster parents, she “couldn’t turn around,” as she says. So she got to work, taking classes through the state to become a licensed foster parent license on her 21st birthday—the first possible day one can typically foster as a non-relative in this nation.
In addition to her birthday chorus, Mills heard the phone ring that day. It was her first placement call, asking if she would take an infant boy withdrawing from drugs. She said yes.
“I woke up every two hours in the middle of the night to feed him and rock him back to sleep,” Mills wrote in an October 2015 Facebook post that went viral. “Oftentimes, as he laid on my chest in the middle of the night, I would tear up in disbelief at this tiny miracle God put me in charge of.”
Her foster son eventually returned to his biological parent, showing Mills (a pediatric nurse technician) that orphan justice wouldn’t “be about me; it was all about the kids.” Soon, there were others to take that baby’s place, staying anywhere from three days to several months.
And Mills couldn’t help but notice something at her church as 13 more foster children came and went.
“I knew of so many couples [who] were praying for more kids or had extra room to spare [who] would make wonderful foster parents,” she says. “It drove me a little crazy going to church every Sunday and seeing hundreds of these ‘perfect’ families and then Monday would roll around and I would get call after call for kids needing a home.”
So, like most Millennials, Mills took to social media to do something about it.
Her resulting Facebook post—accompanied, of course, by a selfie—took off. Nearly 100,000 people shared the post, with more than 11,000 comments.
“My Facebook inbox was filled with everything from marriage proposals to people who were always thinking about getting licensed and the post was the last thing they needed to take the leap,” Mills says.
The Bold Few
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t keep statistics on foster parents, and since there is no central database on the nation’s adoptive parents, there’s no way to determine exactly how many Millennials are fostering or adopting children. Anecdotally, it seems 20-somethings who do so are rare, given that a significant portion are still in school or experiencing inconsistencies in their careers and housing situations.
Still, a child welfare officer from the Pacific Northwest who asked not to be identified says that while Millennials are held to the same rigorous eligibility requirements and background checks, there is certainly room for them in the orphan-justice arena.
“Plenty of kids can benefit from having a young family; (Millennials) certainly have their place,” he says. “Every kid has their own unique needs, and it takes unique families to meet those needs. Young families are absolutely a need, especially when it comes to global adoption.”
Allison and AJ Routhier of New Hampshire felt that need was far more important than their ages (21 and 22 when they started pursuing foster licensure). They decided both to foster and adopt, despite feeling “nervous for the unknowns,” as AJ tells Citizen. But as Allison points out, everyone—no matter the age—feels that way about parenthood, especially at the beginning. So they pressed on.
“I want to help these children break the cycles their families may be in,” says AJ, an Air Force firefighter. “I want these kids to know their worth.”
The Routhiers (now 23 and 24, respectively) so far have opened their home to four foster children alongside their biological son and daughter. Additionally, they are adopting a daughter with Down syndrome from Eastern Europe.
Allison, a stay-at-home mom with a bachelor’s degree in special education who frequently gets mistaken for a nanny, knows her age often raises eyebrows, even officially. A foreign government rejected the Routhiers’ adoption application, citing their youth.
But “age doesn’t make you a good or bad parent,” Allison tells Citizen, though she agrees that not every situation is well-suited to the rigors of foster care and adoption. “A lot of young people don’t have a stable house environment and are still dating, and having someone come in or out of a kid’s life can be really traumatic. Plus, a lot of young families aren’t financially secure. But I think most everyone is capable; it’s just whether it’s a good situation or not at that time for the child.”
So how does one know when “that time” is the right time?
Tyler Phillips, a 32-year-old photographer in Central Oregon, says that in some ways, any time is the right time for orphan care for those who are legally eligible.
“Anyone who is willing to care for children, at whatever age they are and whatever capacity they can, should,” he tells Citizen. “If we wait until we are smart enough, wise enough, rich enough and ready to care for others, we never will. We are never going to be ready enough, but that is what God calls us to do, even when we aren’t ‘ready.’ He bridges the gap and calls us to do things that are impossible in our eyes.”
Mills agrees. “Nowhere in the Bible will you find God saying [about orphan care], ‘When the time is right for you’ or ‘If you feel like this child will fit into your family.’ He gave a very simple command to every one of us: care for the orphans.”
Caroline Ruhl, 26, of Massachusetts, certainly has encountered the belief that one has to “have it all together,” including several decades of life experience, before parenting someone else’s biological children. She attributes this idea partially to the lack of information and formal research on young people choosing to foster or adopt, and wishes more Millennials knew those are options.
“It’s not easy to foster and adopt at a young age, and you definitely face a lot of skepticism and scrutiny, which I think can turn some people off,” she tells Citizen. “It is not something that would be right for every young adult—but I do think there are many who would be capable! I think hearing from other young foster/adoptive parents can help dispel some of the fears one may have going in.”
Ruhl knows firsthand what that’s like.
While volunteering in a Romanian orphanage as a teen, Ruhl met Raul, a four-month-old boy with a severe form of epidermolysis bullosa (an extreme skin condition that can be fatal). She brought Raul home on humanitarian parole as his legal guardian when she was 20, then began fostering other kids (28 so far) a year later. When she was 25 and still single, she adopted her daughter, now 1.
Last year, Raul, 6, passed away from complications stemming from a bone marrow transplant. But Ruhl wouldn’t trade the heartache or hard work she’s experienced for any “normal” 20-something life.
“People may tell you you’re too young, that you should be doing something else at this stage in your life,” Ruhl says, “so you need to have thick skin and determination.”
Mills shares that resolve. “I’ve had days where I wish I was passionate for something a little easier and more ‘typical,’ but the days my heart is on fire for the kids far outnumber those.”
Besides mere chronological age, many well-meaning
people questioned not only whether orphan justice would affect the Phillips’ biological children (a given), but how negatively. Shouldn’t they be put first?
“All these Jesus-loving, Bible-reading people immediately jumped on the fear-and-hesitation train, instead of rejoicing that someone was stepping up to ﬁght for these kids,” Courtnay Phillips says. “My response: If I am able to teach my own kids at such a young age what it looks like to be the hands and feet of Jesus—to be doers of the Gospel, not just hearers—then I am putting my kids ﬁrst.”
Each Millennial interviewed for this story stressed that the decision to foster and/or adopt was not done flippantly, out of guilt, in isolation or without the necessary legal and financial preparations. And it’s not a one-man or -woman show, either; Allison Routhier’s parents, for example, are “very supportive and have helped a lot,” while Mills is “surrounded by people with huge hearts” who give practical and spiritual assistance when needed.
And yet when the night falls and kids are screaming for physical, mental or emotional relief, all the pressure falls on their young parents—and God, the first adoptive Father.
“[Christians often] think the ‘sent’ part of Christianity is for the person in the pew behind us. Or we say we’re waiting for our own speciﬁc, individual calling, and we stay put until His voice speaks loud and clear,” says Courtnay Phillips. “But He calls us all oﬀ the shore and into the dark waters. To care for orphans, love the widow, clothe the naked, feed the homeless—to shine Jesus. That message was to us all! You can wait safely until He yells at you, or you can live sent knowing He already spoke.”
Tyler Phillips agrees. “We will all always think that for some reason, we can’t or aren’t in the right place to care for orphans,” he says. “At the end of the day, our life won’t end because of a tight budget or a crammed house. But these kids’ lives very well could end if there isn’t someone willing to care for them.
“Our comfort shouldn’t be more important than the kids’ needs.”
For More Information:
To learn more about becoming a foster or adoptive parent in your state, visit icareaboutorphans.org. For more information on the orphan crisis worldwide, log onto the Christian Alliance for Orphans website at cafo.org.
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.