“Let’s be honest,” my friend Joe told me, “I will probably never be a foster parent. I admire what you do, but that’s not for me.”
I had suggested foster care after hearing him describe his volunteer service as uninspiring. Joe’s response bothered me, but I understood. He had seen enough of my family life to know that it often wasn’t pleasant.
Over a decade ago, my husband and I welcomed three siblings, ages one, two, and three, as foster children. We later adopted them, feeling equipped for our “adoption journey” with specialized parenting methods and a strong support network. The children were sweet and smart, seemed to attach well, and hit their obvious developmental milestones.
Yet throughout their elementary years, there was a low rumble of troubles: extreme outbursts, surprising dishonesty, and atypical peer relationships. When they reached adolescence, the rumble became a roar.
We tried to fill “normal” parent roles while piling on more and more “extras” to help them adjust: sports, tutoring, therapy, individualized education programs, social worker visits, doctor’s appointments, and medications. Then we nearly drowned in a swell of psychiatric evaluations, police reports, hospital stays, insurance appeals, and out-of-state residential treatment for two of our three children. It was a mental health “tsunami” of the kind Julia Duin described in a 2022 Newsweek story about adoptive families who find out the hard way that children with early trauma often have overwhelming developmental needs and behaviors.
My friend Joe was in ministry at his church, and his definite No thank you made me sad and a little indignant. Shouldn’t we Christians be the first to take in foster kids? But if foster parenting seemed too hard, I reasoned, it was right of him to say so. Maybe I was sad for the children who never find a family and age out of foster care at 18 to face greater odds of going to prison than college. Or maybe it was different altogether—a regret that Joe might miss meeting the Jesus who is present with the weak and unlovely.
Or, as I finally realized, maybe I was feeling alone.
I am used to feeling alone as a foster parent. My family rarely fits in and often needs special accommodations from our neighborhood, school, church, and friends. Even long-standing relationships with other family members have deteriorated because spending time together is awkward given our children’s current behaviors.
I am used to feeling alone as a caregiver to multiple children with very high needs. The neglect our children experienced manifests now as developmental disabilities, and we spend most of our time trying to figure out what will help them. It is often difficult to get enough sleep and show up to work, let alone see friends.
And I am used to feeling alone as a constant companion to children from hard places. I am not literally alone, of course, but the relationship is not mutually gratifying. I pay a moral cost as a first responder to the deceit, manipulation, learned helplessness, carelessness, and violence often practiced by those whose early childhood broke their trust and sense of self. There’s no other way to say it: “Hurt people hurt people.” Children bearing such pain will inevitably share it regularly with their caregivers.
As my conversation with Joe ended, I had a sickening sense of standing on one side of a chasm, with church people—my people!—on the other side, the cord of communion between us snapped.
The chasm between US foster children and the church is very real, not only for adoptive families like mine but more starkly for the approximately 400,000 kids in family limbo. For these vulnerable members of our society, the church has little to offer. A few families are heroic or reckless enough to wager everything to foster, but children are falling through the cracks, and most of the church stands at a distance.
That distance is growing. It’s true that churchgoers foster or adopt at higher rates than non-churchgoers. But personal connection with foster children within the church is still rare and has become rarer in the last five years, according to a recent Lifeway Research study. Between 2017 and 2022, the percentage of Protestant churchgoers in America who know someone in their church who fosters children dropped by over a third—from 25 percent to just 16 percent.
That number suggests the experiences of foster children are not particularly on our minds, and concern for them is not shaping our congregations. I consider this a problem, because from the giving of the Mosaic Law (Ex. 22:22, Deut. 24:17) to the establishment of the early church (James 1:27) to the Christian almshouses of the Middle Ages, providing for orphans and strangers has been an established command and privilege of belonging to the Lord. Caring for vulnerable children is characteristic of the people of God. It is also formative: Caring for such children makes us more his people.
Moreover, caring for foster children is crucial to a consistent life ethic, which was well articulated within the evangelical orphan care movement of the early 2000s. Advocates calculated that that if one family per American church adopted a child, the foster care system would stand empty. That movement peaked around 2009, when the Christian Alliance for Orphans observed the first “Orphan Sunday.”
Fifteen years later, energy has waned, and foster (including foster-adoptive) families are reckoning with the huge challenges of caring for their children. “I feel like we’re being destroyed,” I told my sister-in-law at several critical junctures, like when my son had violent outbursts but insurance refused to pay for residential treatment, or when both my daughters were hospitalized for behavioral reasons one Christmas.
Destroyed is a strong word, but I do not qualify it. I have heard well-resourced and compassionate foster parents tell how they lost their health, marriages, or jobs while caring for their children. I know several who bought lottery tickets in hopes of paying out-of-pocket medical expenses of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I just attended a farewell party for a family who decided that leaving their tight-knit community and moving cross-country offered the best chance to care for their children. Fostering has brought damage to our own home, health, livelihood, reputation, relationships, and financial position.
It has also battered our faith. After almost 15 years of purposeful caregiving, we see our children at risk of dropping out of school, entering the justice system, being permanently estranged, and stuck in chronic mental health crises. They possess life but seem caught in perpetual hardship that destabilizes our whole family. Despite our fervent prayers, healing seems far off, leaving us painfully confused over just what it means for God to be concerned for them—indeed, for all of us.
I would like God’s people to consider two questions: How can we improve care for these children? And what would have to change for us to actually do it?
We can improve care by devoting ourselves to mending the enduring harm to a child caused by early neglect and abuse. Children live with disorders of the most basic levels of cognition and development that currently cannot be characterized accurately or treated reliably.
This may seem beyond the scope of what local churches can directly address, but I believe that when congregations are closely connected with these children’s experiences, they will pivot their energies to discover and develop effective ways to tend to their needs, whether as individual doctors, ministers, teachers, therapists, lawyers, advocates, and social workers, or as collaborative groups.
Congregations can also contribute to the well-being of foster children by supporting their households here and now. The challenges of “normal” parenting have an outsized effect on foster families. The expected tasks of supervision, transportation, housekeeping, coaching social-emotional skills, education, and maintaining community ties are greater for foster families because their children’s needs are greater in frequency, duration, and intensity compared to kids with healthy early childhoods. Church members will meaningfully share these burdens while being spiritually attuned companions to families in the throes of ambiguous grief.
The commitment I am describing is long-term and multi-layered, far more than a meal train for a few weeks. It must become part of the general concern and rhythms of the church.
Financial support is also very important for children to access appropriate mental health care. Psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental health providers participate with insurance networks at significantly lower rates than other medical practitioners. About 55 percent of psychiatrists, for example, take insurance, compared with 89 percent of other doctors. An even lower proportion accept Medicaid, which is the sole insurance available to many foster kids.
This means specialized care for complicated disorders may only be available for “private pay,” leaving families with an untenable choice: endanger their finances or go without. Kids with untreated trauma disorders may wind up in hopeless cycles of unfinished school, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, and crime—but a local church could finance care and even develop therapeutic ministries that an individual foster family cannot.
My second question—about what would have to change for us to actually provide this care—is even more complicated.
On one hand, we know that following Jesus entails difficulty and self-denial (Matt. 16:24). And the theological case for caring for orphans and other disenfranchised strangers is compelling. One of Jesus’ starkest sermons taught that God expects us to personally clothe the unclothed, visit prisoners, welcome strangers, and care for the sick—and that failure to do so leads toward eternal punishment (Matt. 25:34–40).
On the other hand, the hardships of foster care are real. Foster children can be incredibly disruptive to the stable, secure, nuclear family that American Christians—those in the orphan care movement included—tend to idealize. Foster care is necessarily risky and often uncomfortable, and a desire for security and predictability is natural. As followers of Christ, we need to pay attention to unnatural or, rather, supernatural reasons to take that risk.
When we can consistently understand family as a place of biblical hospitality toward biological and foster children, God’s people will have the supernatural and practical reasons to move toward children from hard places rather than retreat into private comfort. By imitating God in valuing risky hospitality, families and their accompanying churches can welcome and offer permanency to children who will likely bring and share great pain within their homes.
The call of God is rarely without suffering, and I suspect that, at bottom, our failure to care for foster children has to do with wanting to avoid suffering. One result is that foster children, who are precious in the sight of God, grow up without being wanted and loved by someone in particular. But another result is that we Christians miss out on key insights about the suffering God we worship—the one who sacrificed himself to reconcile us to himself forever. That sacrifice gives us the strongest possible motive to lovingly care for these children. Christians have the most to give.
But the converse is also true: Christians have the most to gain. As followers of a God who describes himself as a father to the fatherless, a friend to the stranger, and a defender of the weak (Deut. 10:18, Ps. 10:17–18, Ps. 68:5), we do not know God as we ought to if we do not become like him in whom and how we love (1 John 4:7–21).
God is near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18); he sent his Son to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18); and where they are, Jesus is (Matt. 25:40). The lives of foster children are a great gift, and from their place of weakness and dependence, they offer us another gift: a chance to encounter Jesus and to know at our heart’s core some of the most profound realities of God’s love.
This is the paradox: There is real hardship in caring for children from hard places. But in that hardship, we can come to better know the one who overcomes all hardship, mourning, crying, and pain (Rev. 21:4). Caring for foster children is devastating—and it is a revelation of God’s healing, friendship, and love beyond what I could ask or imagine.
Wendy Kiyomi is an adoptive parent, scientist, and writer in Tacoma, Washington, whose work on faith, adoption, and friendship has appeared in Plough Quarterly, Image Journal, and The Englewood Review of Books. She is a 2023 winner of the Zenger Prize.