At a time when the emphasis on the nuclear family has noticeably weakened, thousands of children face the prospect of growing up without ever having established permanent family connections. There are more than 400,000 children in the American foster care system who have no permanent home. Some of those children will eventually be reunited with their birth parents, but more than 114,000 are legally free to be adopted. Many of the children and youth who are waiting to be adopted are at risk of aging out of foster care at 18.
The Children’s Bureau has designated the month of November as National Adoption Month, in the hope of increasing national awareness of adoption issues. In particular, the goal is to bring attention to the need for adoptive families of teens in the U.S. foster care system.
Lisa Ann Wheeler, founder of Carmel Communications and an adoptive parent, understands from personal experience how the foster care system in America is broken. Lisa and her husband Tim have joined the effort to provide a loving home for foster children in need. The Wheelers are the proud parents of five children, ages 13 to 6, all of whom were adopted through the foster care system. The Wheeler family now live in Texas, but as a resident of Georgia for many years, Lisa ran a program in Cherokee County which provided resources for foster care families.
The work continued year-round; however, especially at Christmastime, they would pair foster children with churches, businesses, or individuals to provide for the child’s needs and wants. Perhaps a foster child would like to play a sport but could not afford the uniforms and travel required. A musically talented girl might hope to purchase a guitar or a violin – and of course, there is the added cost of lessons.
“Not everyone can be a foster parent,” Lisa acknowledged, but added that even if taking a child into your own home is not practical, there are ways you can help. “All foster parents need support,” Lisa explained. “This can come in the form of mentorship in education or life skills. You can also support by helping with the needs of foster children and foster families, making sure they have the equipment they need. Perhaps a foster child would like to play on a baseball team; but there are expenses involved in that particular sport. Foster parents – especially those fostering babies and younger children – need cribs, strollers, car seats and diapers.”
As a Catholic with personal experience in the foster care system, Lisa worried that Catholics are really missing the mark in the area of foster care. “If we really are pro-life,” Lisa says, “and if we are really about caring for the child in the womb, the unborn, the mother, then we have to be looking at the crisis of foster care. So many of these children are in the system for the reasons why women choose abortion. It’s important for Catholics to recognize the need, and to support foster families, or become foster parents for these children. At the heart of the gospel is the knowledge that every child belongs somewhere.”
What steps can you take to help children in crisis situations? As Lisa notes, the foster care system is not a cohesive system around the country. How you can help depends on where you live, and on how your particular state advocates for foster care. Lisa encourages concerned Catholics to seek out their state’s Department of Children and Family Services, to learn whether there are information sessions to help citizens step in, either as a foster parent or as a resource.
One concern raised by potential foster parents is whether they are permitted to lead the children in their own faith tradition. Lisa explains that Catholic foster parents can take younger children to Mass and to religious education classes, as long as the birth parents don’t object. “You have to understand when you become part of this child’s journey,” she notes, “that while he is in foster care, he is not your child. You have to walk with him in the place that he is. It doesn’t have anything to do with your faith; your job is just to be the caregiver for him.”
It’s more of an issue for older teen children, however, since they’ve grown in their faith. Lisa reported that a personal friend of hers fostered children who had been raised in the Mormon church. One requirement imposed by the biological family was that the children be permitted to attend Mormon services and to be mentored by members of the LDS church. They could also take them to their own family’s church, unless doing so meant missing a service at the Mormon church.
While encouraging Catholic couples to consider foster care and adoption, Lisa is not unaware of the challenges posed by the hurtful events in a child’s past. “Parenting is hard,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether your family is biological or in the situation that I’m in (my family came together through adoption). But raising children in foster care is next-level hard, because you’re dealing with the traumatic circumstances that marked their early life.”
Lisa’s children, like other adoptees, came from homes where they faced deprivation, neglect, and drug use. Her daughter’s birth mother was a lifelong drug addict; exposure to that lifestyle affected her early years. The younger boys, three brothers, came from a home where they faced physical abuse; in fact, their biological parents are incarcerated for child abuse.
Unfortunately, Lisa reports, the foster care system does not always work: Caseworkers are overworked, their caseload is so heavy that there’s not always sufficient time to evaluate a particular situation. There is a systematic emphasis on reuniting families, which takes precedence over the best interests of the child. The result is often a “revolving door” – children go back home to their biological families, only to be back in the system within a few months.
In the case of Lisa’s family, for example, her three youngest children were once returned to their family of origin, despite the incidents of abuse which had led to their being placed in foster care. Within three weeks of reunification, the middle son ended up in the hospital.
Catholics who are considering foster care will be encouraged by the warm adoption story told by the Kendrick Brothers in their recent film “Lifemark.” When “Lifemark” was released in theaters in September 2022, it was enthusiastically received by viewers – earning a 97% approval on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, and a 100% critic score on the site. Movie critic and talk show host Michael Medved described it as “Undeniably moving… with universally capable performances creating a range of sympathetic characters.”
“Lifemark” stars Kirk Cameron as the father in an adoption success story. Eighteen-year-old David’s birth mother, who had become pregnant while still in high school and who gave him up for adoption, reached out hoping she might meet the son she’d held only once. There is some tension, but David decides to accept the invitation to connect. The end result is heartwarming: Birth parents and adoptive parents meet, and express their love and appreciation – to the birth parents for choosing life, and for allowing their son to be adopted into a loving home; and to the adoptive parents, for nurturing David and giving him the opportunities he might have missed.
Following its successful theater run, “Lifemark” is now streaming exclusively on Pure Flix. Executive producer Alex Kendrick said of the film, “We’ve loved hearing stories of the life-changing impact this movie is having. That’s why we’re excited for even more people to see this inspiring story when it comes to Pure Flix in time for Thanksgiving.”
And in case you’re interested, “Lifemark” is based on a real-life story, told in real time in a shorter (30-minute) documentary, “I Lived on Parker Avenue.” That documentary is available on YouTube.
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