Last spring, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced the state’s new goal “to partner the faith-based community and the state to help find foster care and adoptive parents for children.” According to an article written for the Associated Press, “the goals are to establish a network of churches to support foster care and adoption needs, recruit certifying families who can care for foster children with increased needs, and build pathways for children under full Department of Children’s Services custody to find permanent adoption.” While a partnership like this can be beneficial in recruiting families for fostering and adopting, it may also open the doors to a whole new world of trauma for children and youth — so, in the end, is it worth it?
About a year before I entered foster care, I started going to church and identifying as a Christian. I always say that being able to go to church and be involved in their community and activities is what kept me from completely falling apart those years I was in the system. It was even in my fourth foster home (at the church I was attending) that I met the family who would become my fifth foster home and eventually my adoptive family. When I moved in with my adoptive family, though, what I thought would be my new “forever” proved to be yet another failed attempt at permanency.
I feel that some individuals who are deeply involved in the inner workings of a church have an arrogant sense of enlightenment and a feeling of being “better than.” In my adoptive home, I can recount numerous times I was told that I was the one who wasn’t trying hard enough, that I wasn’t putting in the right amount of effort to make it work — everything that was wrong with the situation was always because of my actions or lack thereof, never the other way around. The message I received was that there was no way it could have been the fault of my adoptive parents, because they were so above me and my background. At one point of epic frustration on my adoptive mom’s part, she even told me I’d end up “just like [my] pitiful, drug-addicted mother.”
After living with my adoptive family for a little over a year, I began to have intense panic attacks again. They had sort of gone away when I first moved in, but I soon found out I was just suppressing them. The very first course of action taken was to sit me down in front of the pastor’s wife, who simply told me I wasn’t “fully giving myself up to God.” I was devastated, both because I thought I was trying hard to be a good Christian and daughter, and also because I felt so utterly unheard and unsafe. So simply based on my own experience living in a faith-based household, I can say with confidence that there are numerous pros and cons to the approach Gov. Lee is suggesting.
The beneficial aspects of this plan are undeniable and quite evident. Most faith-based communities regularly hold church functions and activities to bring attendees together, often centering events around healing, loving yourself and loving others. This is a great thing for children who are coming from traumatic upbringings to be involved in. Additionally, churches tend to have a lot of eagerness to become involved in things that do good for the community, so this new goal could end up accomplishing exactly what it set out to do and be super beneficial to the Department of Child and Family Services, maybe even setting an example for the rest of the country.
On the other hand, it’s no secret that there are many religious fanatics and those who deviously incorporate ways to be selfish and manipulative into how they practice their religion. Because of this, a breeding ground for a whole new world of traumas can be born. A child might have different religious beliefs and practices than those in the home that brings them in. Some religious individuals will see this as an opportunity to convert someone rather than loving them regardless of their religious affiliation.
The Foster Children’s Bill of Rights states that a child has the right to practice any religion, but when a child is put into a home that practices something different, conflict is usually inevitable. An additional misfortune that may arise is how a faith-based home might view foster children who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. In the end, a foster child’s right to choose and simply be themselves could very well be at risk if religious households aren’t given strictly individualized training to ensure they fully support a youth’s identity. Training geared towards teaching compassion, humility, and understanding even when it goes against one’s personal views can help coach caregivers and give them a better feeling of being prepared. Therapy services offered to caregivers who are finding themselves struggling to accept a child for who and where they are could also be a beneficial tool in ensuring a fully supportive and nurturing environment for the youth in their care.
So, is the goal of combining faith and foster care a good idea? Regardless of the pros and cons, ultimately — yes, it is. It’s critical to acknowledge that nothing and no one is perfect, and with all new things come mistakes and lessons to be learned. With the addition of properly updated training and readily available resources for both the foster parents and foster children, though, this could end up being a really great plan. If reaching out to faith-based communities brings in more people who are able and willing to foster and adopt any of the nearly 438,000 kids in foster care (in the U.S. alone), then at the end of the day, that is most definitely a good thing.