Foster (v). - to encourage or promote the development of something or someone; to cultivate, nurture, strengthen, enrich, support, champion.
It was just after 8:30 p.m., when I pulled in to the McDonald’s parking lot on a drizzly, early October night. It seemed as convenient a place as any to meet, a halfway point between where we lived and where the CPS office that initiated the call was located. The social worker had told me to look for a white Suburban, and with little competition for space on a Monday night, I saw it right away parked at the edge of the lot. My friend Kelly—who had dropped everything to make the 90-mile drive with me so my husband could stay home and get our other kids to bed—offered a quick prayer for God to be near, and then we got out to meet the four-day-old baby girl who had brought us there.
I will never forget that first look. She was so little, and so precious.
The social worker had just finished giving her a bottle in the backseat of her car and, wasting no time with superfluous instructions, handed me an empty cooler and a clipboard with papers to sign, promising more information would come in the morning. Kelly quickly took the baby to put her in the warm car, and in less than five minutes the white Suburban pulled away, leaving me only with a few parting thoughts: she would need formula, and diapers, and new clothes, and basically everything. What we were being handed—a baby and a small, empty cooler, was all she came with.
I got back in my car and sat down with both adrenaline and shock. “I think I need a coke for the ride home,” I said. “And not a diet.” It was the strongest drink and best option at that point.
“Yes, I think a coke is merited right now,” Kelly chuckled back.
The Foster Care system has a long and complicated history in the United States. It wasn’t until 1875 that the world’s first organization devoted solely to the protection of children was created—The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Prior to 1875, the safety of a child was dependent on parents, neighbors, churches or community members; and while some criminal prosecution did take place in instances of gross abuse, neglect or maltreatment, by and large there were no safety nets for children, only the subjective intervening and bravery of bystanders who had little to no law backing their intervention. A child without any parents - as many as 30,000 of them on the streets of New York City during the height of immigration - may find an almshouse to take them in, but many were subject to the worst of conditions. Foster families replaced the role of orphanages by the mid 1850’s, but with no oversight and no attempt at family reunification where possible, foster often simply meant control, and with no formal oversight too many foster children were treated as mere indentured servants to their hosting families.
The Social Security Act of 1935 was the first law to create formal channels of aid for poor families, as well as the legal right of the government to cooperate with state-welfare agencies to help families and children in need - a step that formally brought the role of child protection under government control. Almost three decades later, in 1962, with the cooperation of the medical field and pediatricians across the country, the nation’s first child abuse laws were enacted.
The 1970s and 1980s were tension and debate filled years in child welfare—interracial adoptions were generally unsupported, and critics of the government’s emphasis on family reunification became more and more vocal. And while neither of these issues, with their many layers of context and specificity, have any resolution today, we can say that - while they are flawed and overwhelmed and imperfect—in the last few decades there are historically unprecedented levels of child welfare and protective services available.
And I know this, because for the last six months I’ve talked with someone from the Department of Children and Youth Services nearly every day—a social worker, a guardian ad litem, a visitation supervisor or some other stakeholder—who wants the best for the baby girl in our home.
Our first few weeks of foster care, adrenaline kept us going, and kept us hopeful. Within 12 hours of bringing home a newborn, two social workers had completed a quick inspection to verify the safety of our home. Within a week two more had visited to do health checks and developmental assessments. Then the paperwork arrived (oh my word, the paperwork!). Then the court dates and the visits and the parenting assessments got added to the calendar, but they changed three or four or five times and I learned quickly to write anything on the calendar in pencil. The biological parents—two young adults with very little scaffolding of support in their own lives—wavered, as many do, in their efforts to do what is required of them. And I can tell you very honestly that with our adrenaline gone, our hope wavered, too.
Every change of plans became a frustration. Every no show another point of bitterness. Every court report a source of anxiety. And meanwhile, we have a growing baby girl—still so little, and so precious—whom we are falling head over heels in love with. She knows us. She smiles at us. She loves being around our kids and they love tickling her feet until she giggles. The more deeply we fall for her, the more we cannot imagine our home without this little girl in it. And then, the more the word foster changes to control—and with no oversight of my own heart, I go from encouraging and promoting the development of something or someone, to keeping score and being sure we are known and seen as the superior choice to raise her. After all, we’ve showed up, we’ve done what we said we would do, we haven’t wavered.
In the Old Testament, the leader of the Israelite people, Moses, went up to Mount Horeb to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The book of Exodus accounts the story like this: “When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us who will go before us because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him.” *
And so, Aaron, Moses’ brother, did. Just weeks after the Lord had brought more than a million people out of slavery in Egypt—raining down plagues on their adversaries and parting the sea so that they could safely cross—they forgot. Their faith rested purely on their current circumstances and even though they had seen the miraculous, the in-between and the waiting became too hard. They wanted a new god, one they could see, and they wanted him quickly. So they brought together all of their gold jewelry and watched Aaron as he melted it and made it into a statue of a calf.
This has always been laughable to me. How on earth could a people be so myopic? How could they forget that an ocean was split in two on their behalf? How could they question a God who had clearly been so present that they would so quickly take matters into their own hands?
In the Book of Acts, written about 1,500 years later, Luke writes of this very day in Jewish history, and he says, “They even made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and were celebrating what their hands had made.” **
How could they so easily forget what God had done, how he had orchestrated so many events for His glory and their good, and replace their faith in Him for something their hands had made, for something they thought they could take all the credit for?
But then I look at the baby girl in my arms, and the sudden jump from faith in a miracle-working God to confidence in what we have done makes sense.
It’s easy to forget how God has been in all the details, it’s easy to forget what it means to foster, and it is, in fact, all too easy to prefer to put your confidence in something you can see.
From the minute we drove away from the dark McDonald’s parking lot, our family said yes to foster care, to encourage the development of this baby and her family, to promote, cultivate, nurture, strengthen, enrich, support, and champion her life—all the people and pieces of it. We’ve been tempted with a hundred reasons to be frustrated, to scoff at “the system” and the way its inconsistencies are so inconvenient, and to grow bitter at the biological beginning to a baby girl’s story that we did not write. And as we do, we add tallies to our side of the score—as if some sort of competition is taking place between a family that is whole and a family that is terribly broken.
Yet the moment we do that, we have forgotten God: the God who orchestrated everything, who brought this birth mama in to our life just when He did, who somehow made our name come to her mind first when she went into labor, and again a few days later when it became apparent she could not keep the baby. God did that; have I forgotten? It is God who has given us everything, even his own life. When we start to admire what our hands have done—we forget they could not have done anything at all without the power of a Savior who rescued us first.
I thought this baby girl came with nothing but a small, empty cooler. But she came with so much. She came with the Imago Dei—the image of God that is in every person, every miracle that is a human life. And she came with parents and grandparents made in that same image, all of whom have lived painful stories of poverty and abuse. She came with people who love her, but who lack so much of what they need to take care of her. She came with a story. She came with all the broken, unjust, things that would lead to her only having an empty cooler, and every single one of these things matters. I’ve been tempted in my frustration and fear to think we have done everything, that we are the ones rescuing this little girl. The truth is, we have only lived from the provision God gave to us; and we have only acted in response to our great rescue.
When we forget what God has done for us, we forget to foster; we forget to encourage or promote the development of something or someone; we forget to cultivate, nurture, strengthen, enrich, support, and champion. We forget, perhaps most importantly, to “keep trusting that what’s completely out of [our] control is absolutely in His.”
May all of us given this beautiful gift of fostering remember first what God has done for us, and whose hands have made the life we’ve been entrusted with today.
“You may not see it now—you may not ever see it fully in this lifetime—but what you’re doing is of eternal significance. Fix your eyes there—on eternity—but be faithful here, today, ... and tomorrow, and then next week, trusting God with the outcome as you experience the beauty and pain and struggle and wonder of walking with Him along the journey. Daily, faithfully keep walking, keep making deposits into their lives, and keep trusting that what’s completely out of your control is absolutely in His. His sovereignty is our sanity ... and our faithfulness is enough.”