• I Am But I'm Not

"You're like an Angel!"

When Shalisa and I decided to foster, and later adopt children into our homes, we realized very quickly that we chose to define our family in a way that would be strange and even uncomfortable for many. While we realized this before any kids came into our home, we had a long road to travel before we understood, to any meaningful degree, how uncomfortable our family would make others.

Commonly, I experience people’s discomfort with our family in the form of a compliment I have cringed at since the first time I heard it. “What you guys are doing is so great! You are like angels to these kids! You are amazing!” Why do I view compliments like these this as an expression of discomfort toward us? Keep reading.

Almost every foster family I have encountered, whether at conferences, trainings, or in my personal interactions, all share similar sentiments to these all-too-common compliments; it’s cringy because we don’t view ourselves in this light. Foster parents are no angels, and those that think they are are often some of the worst. In fact, with a problematic system that foster care proves to be in its many iterations here in the United States, I think even the best of foster parents should constantly scrutinize his and her role in perpetuating many of the terrible and hurtful things done to families in poverty and families of color in their communities in the name of foster care. It’s a deeply troubled system that can do good for children and their families, but also damages families everywhere quite regularly. The reality is, if we, as a people, really thought that foster parenting was one of the most noble and meaningful things we could be doing, why aren’t there more of us? Most states in the US struggle to recruit foster parents to provide an adequate number of homes for the children placed in care every year, but let’s look at one example that gets at the core of this problem.

Texas, where I currently reside, is home to the highest population of Evangelical Christians in the country, and is also known as one of the strongest and stalwart defenders of the pro-life agenda in the Union. An open Christian identity is infused into the Texas culture. Many Texans proudly exclaim their faith in the workplace, the supermarket, and the university plaza. Politicians of every stripe, unlike much of the rest of the country, often flaunt their God-fearing identities because it’s a basic and positive identifier amongst their constituents. And in spite of this seemingly dominant moral base, a Federal Court found the State of Texas guilty of violating its foster children’s constitutional rights to be free of physical and psychological harm in 2015. One major contributing factor in this ruling was Texas’ utter lack of foster homes, which meant that many children spent their time in abusive group homes and psychiatric wards.These are children who did nothing wrong, did not choose to go into the system, and were systematically forgotten in situations more dangerous and/or damaging than the ones they came from.

With that as our contextual backdrop, I get particularly distraught when I think about how there are approximately 27,848 church congregations in Texas according to a 2010 census. In 2016, there were approximately 28,732 children in foster care. If just one family from each of those congregations from 2010 were to foster a single child, there would be over 800 empty foster homes across the state. But no matter how ironic Texas’ relationship—or lack thereof—is with child welfare policy, I don’t think this is a uniquely Christian problem. I’m not seeing amazingly notable differences among other groups or religious affiliations in this regard either. It’s apparent that foster parenting is universally scary to everyone (and I can’t always blame them).

But I want it to be clear, I do not think that everyone should be a foster parent. In fact, I don’t think that foster parenting is anywhere near the best solution for children from disadvantaged situations, generally speaking. If we were doing things right, less children would need a foster system because there would be a greater focus on preventive care for families, including greater access to therapy, counseling, medical care, affordable child care, drug rehab, education, vocational training, and affordable housing (just to name a few).

In light of this, I can’t help but believe there’s a subtext to many of these compliments foster parents get. It says, “I feel bad that families are falling apart in our community but I’m also glad someone else, like you, is doing something so I don’t have to.” It has become apparent that in many cases, my family is an inadvertent and subliminal reminder to many that our communities struggle with very real problems that they don’t want to have to think about, and while it’s a burden I can handle, I worry about the effect it has on my kids.

- Barry