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Called to difficult places

Faith-based foster families

Many Canadian Christians are welcoming foster children into their homes, including Louise and Gary, teachers from Surrey, B.C. who began fostering a child for the first time in the summer of 2015. Gary had been a “missionary kid,” and Louise had volunteered in rural Kenya for six months. She commented, “We imagined that we would spend time overseas sharing God’s love with others when several years ago, a friend of ours encouraged us to share that love that we have with so many children in our local community that really needs it.” When Gary and Louise began their Home Study process in November of 2014, their local foster system had approximately 800 children in need of care and about 400 foster families available.

Rachel Threlkeld, the Coordinator of Homes for Kids and a Foster Care Recruiter at the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Hamilton, Ontario agrees that many children are in need of foster care. CAS Hamilton has approximately 550 children in care and 150 foster families. Rachel noted that there is a critical shortage of homes for infants and toddlers. Part of the difficulty of finding homes for preschoolers in Hamilton is the requirement that at least one parent be home most of the time. Rachel observed, “People foster for many different reasons, but ultimately it is a matter of choosing a lifestyle that places children and family at its very core.”

Recruitment initiative

Rachel represents Homes for Kids, an organization that recruits foster parents for 12 child protection agencies in Ontario. Homes for Kids has observed that foster parents are the most effective recruiters and that a faith commitment motivates many families, who may see foster care as a way to fulfill the James 1:27 directive “to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (NIV). 

In the Hamilton area, an initiative to sign up new faith-based foster families called “Children Need Families & Families Need Communities” began in September of 2014, and it is gaining momentum. A catalyst for the movement is Al Karsten, a former CAS supervisor who went on to work for Christian Reformed World Missions. After his retirement from CRWM, Al approached CAS and several local churches to spread the word about this ministry opportunity with the view that CAS and churches share a common vision: protecting children and strengthening families.

The initiative consists of foster parents who meet for encouragement and planning; they take on the role of Foster Care Ambassadors. Ambassadors are available as resources to people who are interested, and they approach other people to ask if they would consider fostering. Ten congregations from several denominations have joined the initiative so far, including Al’s church, Immanuel CRC in Hamilton. So far, the group has held one information session at Bethel CRC in Waterdown on November 11, 2015, and more sessions are planned for this year.

Support from faith communities

As foster parents complete the lengthy application and training process and then welcome children into their homes, other church members can offer support in many ways. Louise appreciates the support of the church she and Gary attend, Southridge Fellowship in Langley, B.C.: “I personally love words of encouragement from those in our community; whether it’s a text or face-to-face it allows me to know that they are thinking of us and cheering us on.” She suggested prayers, meals, clothing and toys as practical ways to help.

Hannah and Phil Cavey are also new foster parents as of the summer of 2015. They are members of McDermot Ave. Baptist Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Hannah affirmed, “Our church family definitely has been supporting us in this. Big time.” One of the members of their church is a relief foster parent for them with the agency. Mary Jane and Jim Tigchelaar of First CRC in Hamilton also have had members of their church apply to be relief parents who can care for their foster children overnight if needed.

Support also comes from sharing the journey with other parents. In the Hamilton area, a group of Christian foster parents meets once a month, which began when Mary Jane and Jim started fostering over three years ago. Mary Jane invited a friend who was also a foster mom out for coffee, and the informal group has continued to grow in numbers since that first coffee break. Caring for children who come from hard places is difficult, but, in Mary Jane’s words, “we don’t claim to do it on our own.” She emphasized that the group is inclusive, not exclusive, and that new people are always welcome.

Mary Jane said that the informal group has made a conscious commitment not to complain but rather to be prayerful about the challenges they face and the injustices they observe. One of the difficulties of fostering, she notes, is the tension between delighting in the child and hurting for the birth parents. The brokenness and loss inherent in the situation can be hard to bear. Mary Jane said the group prays for compassion: “We continue to ask God not to make us bitter, but to break our hearts.”

Letting go

One of the biggest challenges of fostering children is the challenge of letting go. The child may return to his or her birth family, go to a new placement or be adopted. As Mary Jane said, “saying good-bye is hard. You grieve.” She and Jim have the unique experience of having an ongoing role – “like Grandma and Grandpa” – to two siblings who lived with them and were adopted by a couple who are members at Dundas CRC, a church very near their home.

The grieving process may be especially painful if the child has been with the foster family for a long time. Al Karsten commented, “It’s painful, it’s hard work; it’s painful, it’s worth it. You want people who have a passion for this particular ministry to reach out to children in our community.”

Al noted that in the past, the standard process was to rotate children to new homes every few months to prevent the bond with foster parents from jeopardizing the bond with birth parents. The trend now is for children to have the least possible amount of disruption, which can result in longer placements, even lasting several years. These longer terms help to build the capacity for deep connection in the child, and that deep attachment can be transferred to the next caregiver, which is ultimately in the best interest of the child. (See The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis et. al. or watch the videos on empoweredtoconnect.org for more insight on attachment and children who come from hard places.)

Hank and Michelle de Jong, Foster Care Ambassadors in a PCA congregation called New City Church in Hamilton, have recently experienced saying good-bye to two foster children, one of whom joined their family as an infant and had been with them for over two years. A friend saw the news that the child was leaving and wrote to Hank, “That would shred me to pieces.” Hank responded, “Trust me, it shreds us to pieces, too.” Creating the deep connection with the child is vital, and it makes for a painful parting.

Hank affirmed, “We love because God first loved us,” and he said the children who have entered their home have been a blessing. Foster care has its joys and its challenges; in Hank’s words, “sometimes God calls us to difficult places.” Navigating those difficult places is easier with help. Hank emphasized the importance of faith and a strong support network, which in Michelle and his case includes the informal group Mary Jane Tigchelaar began, the “Children Need Families & Families Need Communities” initiative and the Foster Parent Association, in which he serves as an executive member.

A calling

Foster parenting is a complex role with great challenges and great rewards. On Friday, July 10, 2015, as Louise and Gary were preparing to welcome their first foster child, she posted this reflection on her blog, talknerdytomeblog.com:

What do you want for your kids? Whether it’s the children you currently have, the ones you hope to, or even those you know and love – what do you desire for them?

To be loved? Known? Happy? Successful? Safe?
To make a difference?
To love others?

There are many children whose basic rights (fed, clothed and nurtured) are not being met for a variety of reasons. We can invite those children into our homes so that their families can hopefully get the help that they need. We can provide those basic needs (and hopefully more) in a safe environment where love is abundant.

As individuals, as families and as churches, may we all find our role in caring for vulnerable children in their distress. If you feel you might be called to serve as a foster parent, contact your local child protection agency for more information.

 

Foster parents urgently needed in Hamilton area

Children Need Families & Families Need Communities!

On February 3, 2016, there will be a foster parent information meeting at Immanuel CRC in Hamilton, Ontario (61 Mohawk Rd. West) at 7:30 p.m.  

Please come and bring  a friend.

Hear how you can make a difference in the lives of children in our community who are not able to be with their families. 

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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