The Birth Parent Challenge

Birth Parent Challenge

I’ve had something on my chest for a long time. A really long time. And I was once guilty of it too:

Judgment for people whose kids are in foster care.

I used to think, “Seriously? How could you let stuff get that bad that someone had to come take your kids for their safety? Don’t you even care?”

I was wrong. They do care.

They care tremendously and most of the time carry deep shame over the situation. Most birth parents of foster kids love their kids intensely and want them back. It took walking into the halls of CPS as a foster parent to see it. It took looking into the eyes of bio parents to realize how profound their pain is. And I realized that in order for the situation to get better for my foster babies, I needed to care about their bio parents too. 

The problem is that, as people, we are naturally short-sited and we tend to look at the situation as an outsider. It is much easier to think they are radically different than accept that we might be in the same situation if our circumstances were different. Blaming and saying “I would never!” only preserve our illusion of control.

Most of us are privileged enough to come from good, stable homes.

Imagine what life would have been like if we didn’t: maybe abuse, alcoholism, drugs, or neglect were the norm. I’ve seen first hand how those things radically shape personalities and influence our trajectory in life. Trauma at a young age actually impacts brain development making attempts to break the cycle that much more difficult.

I’m absolutely not saying that everyone who came from a difficult background is a bad parent nor does every birth parent of a foster child come from such a dark place. Generalities don’t like that don’t apply in foster care. But, it is more common than not. And it makes it much easier to understand.

For the most part, these are just profoundly hurting people themselves who let life get out of control.

They often don’t have the resources that most of us do which give us a safety net to prevent a spiral. Most of them don’t have family that is willing or even capable of stepping in and helping out. They can’t pay babysitters to give them the breathing room that would allow them to take care of their own challenges. And if there is money, it often needs to go to food if it isn’t being swallowed up by addiction in the home.

These challenges aren’t small either. Mental illness, addiction, selfishness, poverty, ignorance and their own histories aren’t easy to beat. And sometimes, they are literally fighting a battle for their lives.

My oldest nearly got into a fight at school because a boy was taunting him about his sister saying she must be horrible because everyone in CPS is. Ethan was furious since he’s seen the truth and some of my daughter’s bio family has become our family. As he told me the story, I was proud of how Ethan ended up restraining himself, but even more proud of how he decided to stand up for love and acceptance for those that our society considers less than worthy.

It’s what Jesus did.

He broke all sorts of social taboos by eating with the undesirable people of his day. It was a huge deal to sit and eat with someone who wasn’t “good.” What’s more, Jesus called those who acted in a “holier than thou” way towards them “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27).

We all have the capacity to cruelly ostracize those we think are worse than ourselves.

Yet, Jesus cared for everybody so much that He died for them, for us. You, me, and these birth parents.

I see nowhere in scripture that gives me permission to think I am better than these bio parents are. It bothers me profoundly that we have decided that some sins are worse than others; usually, we have the tendency to believe the sins that we commit are the ones that aren’t as bad or are at least justifiable.

Comparison is a deadly poison for the soul because it allows us to rationalize our own sin or, on the flip side, feel inadequate next to someone else’s perfect facade despite Christ’s equal gift of redemption.

Truthfully, all sin is the same and has the same effect on our hearts. It is a wedge between us and God and keeps us from being the people that He designed us to be. The people who Jesus called out were the elite of His day, the supposed spiritual good guys, the Pharisees. And if I do the same thing they were guilty of, what does that make me?

I’m still pretty new at this; we’ve only had two placements and it has been 9 months. I still cry leaving meetings because the things I’ve learned are heartrending. It isn’t really possible to shock me anymore, but if I ever get to the point where I’m so jaded that I don’t cry, I probably shouldn’t be doing this. I need to be able to care to be a good foster parent and someone who brings God’s grace into dark places.

Birth parents desperately need this compassion.

We might be the only place where they get it. I am absolutely not giving them a pass on what they have done because all actions have consequences, but we need to learn to separate that from their worth as people. If we can’t come alongside them and help them, love them, respect their personhood, and give them the support that they need to learn from these mistakes, they might never be able to break the cycle that they are so mired in. And that’s the true tragedy.

I don’t think that all kids should go back to their birth parents, though. While kids do best with their biological families, statistically speaking, some things just aren’t fixable. Sometimes things have just been too horrific and these poor kids will be dealing with those demons for the rest of their lives. We owe it to them to be there and give kids some stability in a precarious world. I think most people can agree on that — if a society isn’t willing to help its most vulnerable, we have lost something critical.

But, in our willingness to help the kids, we balk at helping the adults.

Ironically, some of these same bio parents were in foster care themselves and these challenges they are facing originated from the same trauma as kids. Their hearts are still broken and they haven’t found the life-changing grace that they so need. But, somehow because they are grown, it is socially acceptable for us to judge them.

I know, I’ve been guilty of it too in the past, although I hope that God has changed my heart enough that all my interactions with bio parents don’t feel condescending or forced. I want them to know that I still care about them personally, regardless of what happens with their kids’ legal limbo in foster care. At the end of this process, they still have to live and I pray they can do better for themselves, as well as for their kids.

Grace needs to permeate these situations and if we can’t give it, it’s possible that we don’t understand the gravity of grace at best, or at worst, haven’t really received grace ourselves.

The lack of grace is an elephantine weight that rears its head when people who know nothing about the situation (which is very private, privileged information that is not mine to share) start hating on my foster daughter’s parents. Oftentimes, in front of her. Luckily, she is a baby still and is able to be blissfully ignorant, but it needs to stop. It is a travesty that our lack of grace can add to the scars these kids carry. We shouldn’t have the luxury of ignoring our brokenness while being indignant about others.

After all, life isn’t a contest to see who is better – we would all lose without Christ’s grace.


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