Learning statistics, meeting foster parents, familiarizing myself with case worker lingo and hearing from those who had been in the system provided me with valuable information as I prayed through this possible route for my own life.
One afternoon I attended a session that was led by a panel of teens and young adults, all of whom had aged out of the system. Their stories had failure and victory, hurt and healing, rejection and love. I’ll never forget one young man who said, “By the time I was 17, I had been in over 20 homes. The last thing I wanted was to be adopted.”
I didn’t understand why he would say this, until he explained, “Adoption to me was just one more piece of paper – one more person from the state telling me what to do and who was in charge of me. I didn’t want that.”
I’d never viewed adoption from this perspective, and it left a mark. He went on to say that one of his last placements in his teen years was a couple who wanted to adopt him, but he emancipated instead. Over the years, he came back and forth to this home whenever he needed help. They never kicked him out when he got in trouble with the law, were never angry when he lost a job, and never told him he was a failure when his account was in the red. Quite the opposite: they welcomed him back each and every time he showed up at their door, needing yet another second chance. (After years of unconditional support, he finally accepted their offer to adopt him. By that time, he was in his late 20s.)
These young adults, now grown and independent yet still without parents, told story after story about the adults who were present in their lives throughout their teen years. They reminisced about how proud they were when, at 16, they made their first meal … spaghetti. They spoke of feeling respected and significant when someone taught them how to do laundry the right way, open a bank account, buy a car, navigate a dating relationship, build a resumé and practice for a job interview and budget for their first apartment.
The realization came to me slowly. We think of foster care as temporary. We think of orphans as only small children. But orphans sometimes grow up into people who never, ever have parents.
As the panelists finished their stories, the conclusions were often realizations that those adults who welcomed them back time and time again had taught them more than budgeting and cooking. They were teaching family. They were teaching unconditional love. They were teaching what it means to be Jesus … to be the Church.
It shook me that, here in a state-funding building through an event funded by a secular nonprofit, this group of ex-foster kids were telling not just their stories, but their testimonies. Their stories were no longer comprised only of abandonment, abuse and year-after-year of not being adopted. They were also telling stories of redemption. Those foster parents who promised to always welcome them back – who called them son and daughter even without any biological or legal right – became the real, permanent family they once feared could never exist.
Please don’t skim this next part. Don’t let your eyes glaze over as I share numbers. These are souls who have become very real statistics:
• 8 percent of the kids in foster care will age out. Never adopted. Permanently orphaned. (23,000 children per year)
• 30 percent of kids in the foster system will go on to repeat the cycle and will be abusive or neglectful of their own children.
• 50 percent of kids who age out will develop a substance dependence or be homeless within a few years.
• 70 percent of girls will be pregnant within the first 18 months of being emancipated.
So … what can we do?
Be willing to develop a relationship with them.
Be willing for your life to get messy and your heart to be bruised.
Be willing to fight for victory.
Be willing to enter the darkness so they can see the light.
Be willing to till the soil and plant seeds, without any promise of harvest.
Be the hands and feet of Jesus in simple, practical ways that include spaghetti and laundry detergent.
That’s how you reduce statistics. That’s how you become family. That’s how you build a testimony of salvation.
Cassie Binkley is the director of administration for United Way of the Ozarks. She lives in Springfield, Missouri with her family and is a licensed foster parent. With years of nonprofit work experience, she continues to study nonprofit and civic leadership at Drury University and holds a bachelors in religious studies from Missouri State University.