My name is Brian. After spending two years locked up in a juvenile detention center, I went to live in a foster home with Scott and Hanne Larson. While I had big dreams for my future, I had no idea of how to get there. Everything I tried only turned to disaster. More than anything I was in need of a stable family that could support me and love me.
After I moved in with Scott and Hanne, we had plenty of hard times. But they never gave up on me. I know it hurt them to watch me make bad decision after bad decision. Yet, in the end, it was their unconditional love for me that got me through this time. As I saw their love for me and their love for God, I began to see that God loved me, too.
Today I am a graduate of Wheaton College and I finished law school at Seton Hall University last spring. Living in Scott and Hanne's foster home, I felt the love, mercy, and forgiveness I'd never felt before. I'm certain that without them, I never would have gotten beyond my past and reached my dreams of being a lawyer to help other kids like me.
Raised by a single mother, initiated into manhood by a local gang, and in trouble with the law by the time he was 12, Brian was just like lots of other kids all over the United States. He was on a path that had already led him to juvenile hall and most likely would have eventually landed him in jail, if he lived that long.
The U.S. government estimates that one out of every four children in America is at risk for serious problems and a dangerous lifestyle, mostly because of being raised in dysfunctional homes. Perhaps you've heard these kinds of statistics before. Perhaps you've prayed for these children, offered financial support to an agency that cares for them, or even gotten involved in the life of a child through coaching or tutoring. But there is a way of reaching out to these children that will change their lives—and yours—more than you can imagine: foster parenting.
Many parents, moms in particular, feel like they need to wait until their children are grown before they can be involved in any sort of significant ministry. But one of the most powerful ministries for children and youth can happen right in the home as you raise your own children. In fact, the most relevant strategy for reaching today's hurting young people was penned by the Apostle Paul more than 2,000 years ago: "For though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul's words provide a foundation for the ministry of foster parenting.
It was 17-year-old Thomas who first opened my eyes to the need for re-parenting young people through foster homes. I met him at a detention center where my wife, Hanne, and I led a weekly Bible study. Thomas was getting ready to be released and was very concerned. "Is there a place I can go when I'm released where I can grow in my faith?" he asked. "I feel like if I go out there again, I'm just not gonna make it. I need a place where I can learn to live as a family, something I've never had." After weeks of searching, we had to tell Thomas we couldn't find any place like what he had described.
"Hang in there, pray, and try to find a good church," was about all we could offer him.
A few months later, buried in the back of the Boston Globe, were a few brief sentences about Thomas. His body had been found shot in the back of the head by a rival gang member.
"God, why aren't there places for kids like Thomas?" we cried out. "He really wanted to make it!" Filled with feelings of hopelessness and anger, we kept hearing the echo of Thomas's question in our minds: "Is there anyplace I can go?"
God began to put into our hearts that we were to open our home for boys like Thomas. Over the next eight-and-a-half years, we took in more than 30 foster children, all of them teenage boys who were being released from juvenile jail. Some, like Brian mentioned at the beginning of this article, turned out great. Others have stories that are much more discouraging.
While there is scarcely any ministry more significant than foster parenting, it's not for everyone. Nor is it something to be ventured into without a tremendous amount of thought and prayer. But if you feel a pull toward touching the life of a child, here are some important considerations:
Do we all share the sense of calling?
Because foster parenting is not simply an 8-hour a day job and it involves the entire family, it is imperative that every member of the family feels called to it. As the parents of young children, Hanne and I wanted to make sure this would be a good decision for all of us.
We talked with adults who grew up in families who took in foster children to find out how the experience affected them. Some felt blessed by it while others felt cheated. The key seemed to be including the biological children in the decision-making process.
Talk with your children and give them the freedom to express their concerns. Don't sugarcoat the potential changes. Make sure they understand that the children coming in to your home will need lots of love and attention. Help them recognize that they are part of this ministry as well.
Taking the time to work through these issues early on will save you a great deal of trouble down the road. Though Hanne and I were united in our commitment to take in kids, we still became polarized in the beginning. I wanted to kick kids out when they broke house rules; Hanne wanted them to stay. After a while we couldn't discuss anything pertaining to our homelife without it becoming a major battle. We both felt alone at a time when we needed each other more than ever. Eventually, we resolved to never allow issues with kids to polarize us like that again. Had we not been united in the decision-making up front, we would have never been able to work through these issues and continue taking in kids.
Is the timing right?
If you have young children, you may think you need to wait until your children are older before seriously considering taking in foster children. While that's legitimate, keep in mind that young children are often more adaptable to the changes that a foster child can bring to a family than teenagers.
You'll also want to consider other things happening in your life and in the lives of your children. Are you starting a new job? Are any of the kids heading to a new school? Is your family experiencing other stresses that are taking a toll on everyone? No family is perfect, and waiting for life to settle down may mean waiting forever. But it's important to make sure that your family is emotionally and spiritually ready to give to a child with tremendous needs.
The needs of your own children must always be considered of utmost priority. And because family needs will change, foster parenting may be right for a period of time, and then not for another period. When family members feel their needs are being protected, they are more willing to open their hearts and their home to a foster child.
Is this the right child?
There are many children in need of foster homes, but it is important to first carefully consider what sort of child (age, sex, background, special needs) you are in a position to best serve. Saying yes to anyone and everyone in need doesn't help anyone in the long run. Family members become embittered and foster children only experience further rejection and abandonment when the living arrangement doesn't work out.
Families should always avoid bringing in foster adolescent boys when they have teenage girls at home, and vice versa. Far too many have become sexually active or been sexually abused by foster brothers or sisters—a scenario that could have easily been avoided through more careful consideration.
In the beginning we believed that "with a little love and Jesus" we could change anybody. But after our first foster teen we discovered that some children have needs that we personally were unable or unqualified to meet. If we were going to continue taking in young people for the long haul, we needed to more carefully consider the type of teens that were a good match for us. A good foster care agency can help you determine which children are best suited for your family.
Do we have adequate outside support?
The next step is selecting an appropriate agency with whom to work. You can work directly with the state or through any number of agencies (see sidebar below). To make sure the agency will offer the help you need, consider the type of children they refer, how much outside support they provide (counselors, caseworkers, training, on-call support), what type of expectations the agency has, and how much they remunerate foster parents.
Even more important than a good foster care agency is support from a local church. Having a supportive children's ministry or youth group that will embrace foster children, as well as a small group fellowship to prayerfully share the burdens of such a ministry, is critical. Most of our foster kids had never been exposed to church. But because of the loving and embracing experience they had in our church, they were much more likely seek out a church after leaving our home.
Once you feel God is calling you to go ahead, it's important not to waiver in that decision. You might be tempted to take a child in on a trial basis. But most foster children suffer from the feeling that they don't belong anywhere. Being continually transferred from home to home when things don't work out only adds to their sense of worthlessness. These children need to feel they belong in your family, even as they test the limits of your love, so don't open your home unless you are ready to be fully committed to the children who come to live with you.
This ministry of foster parenting is not flashy or glamorous. In fact, it can be downright discouraging. But while it has given us some of our greatest disappointments, it has also given us our most exhilarating highs. I don't think we would have known as deep a pain, or as much joy, if it weren't for some of these kids. But one thing is for sure, they have captured our hearts.
If you feel God leading you into the ministry of foster parenting, he has granted you a high calling. Not only will the lives of children be touched, but yours will be touched as well.
Scott Larson is president and founder of Straight Ahead Ministries, a national organization focused on reaching out to juvenile offenders. He and his family have cared for foster children for more than nine years. For more information on working with troubled youth, go to www.straightahead.org.
If you're interested in becoming a foster parent, contact one of these organizations for more information:
Christian Child and Family Services: www.ccfsa.org
The National Association of Christian Child and Family Services: www.naccfa.org
The National Foster Parents Association: www.nfpainc.org
The Child Welfare League of America: www.cwla.org
You can also find an agency in your area through your local yellow pages, or by talking with your pastor. Any agency you use should be accredited by the Council on Accredidation for Children and Family Services. You can find that information on their Web site at www.coanet.org.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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