Rock County foster parent Shawna Sjaarda recently wrote about being a foster parent and about the need for others to fill the role of foster parenting.
Foster care is defined as “a situation in which for a period of time a child lives with and is cared for by people who are not the child's parents.” Sjaarda said this definition barely scratches the surface of what foster care actually means for all involved.
“To a child being placed in a foster home, it means anxiety, distrust, fear, grief, anger, and for some, hope,” she writes. “They have just been taken out of their ‘normal’ and no matter what bad choices their parents have made, they remain fiercely loyal to their parents.”
She said foster children can present challenges to biological children of foster parents. “It means anxiety, distrust, joy, anger, jealousy, frustration and love,” Sjaarda said. “A stranger has just moved into their house. He/she plays with their toys, takes away their parents’ attention, and might even sleep in their room.”
To foster parents, Sjaarda said, it means love, anxiety, grief, frustration, mourning, hope, patience, perseverance and joy.
“Will this child harm our bio children? Will he/she sleep at night? Will he/she allow himself/herself to be loved?” she writes.
“What a tangled web of emotions a child can spin when he/she is placed in a foster home. What an incredible opportunity to provide a stable home for a child in desperate need.”
Children are removed from a home for a variety of reasons including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, parental drug use, unsanitary living conditions, incarcerated parents and other reasons.
Sometimes children stay in a foster home because they need a place in an emergency until a family member is able to care for them. Other times, a child may stay while a parent receives treatment for an addiction. Still other times, a child may never return to their biological parents.
For Sjaarda and her husband, foster parenting is a calling. “God commands us to care for the orphan and the widow in their time of need (James 1:27), and we felt that we could do that, with God’s help,” she said.
Over the years they have had over 25 foster children in their home. “Some have stayed for a couple of hours, some for a few days, while others have stayed for 18 months. We have had a 2-day-old-baby placed with us, a 17-year old and nearly every age in between.”
She said each situation is unique in its challenges and joys.
“Being a foster parent isn’t easy, convenient or even fun at times, but when a child returns a hug, remembers to speak with respect, confides in us or progresses in positive behavior, we are reminded why we do this,” Sjaarda writes.
“Each child that enters our home is made in the image of God and we can show him or her God’s love for a short period of time. We don’t know the eternal impact of what we are doing, but we can faithfully plant seeds and shower each child with love while they are part of our family. We may never see the fruit of our labor, but if we can provide a safe, loving home for a child in need, that is reward enough for us.”
Six counties in southwest Minnesota work together under Southwest Health and Human Services, and there are currently 47 licensed foster homes in these respective counties (four in Rock County).
Sjaarda’s full story appears on the Star Herald website, www.star-herald.com, and she encourages others to consider foster parenting. "It’s a choice with eternal significance. Will you accept the call?”
By Shawna Sjaarda
I sit at the kitchen table next to a little girl I first met five hours ago.
The clock reads 10:30 p.m. Huge tears collect on her long, black eyelashes. Her Happy Meal, which the social worker picked up for her on the way to our house, has long grown cold. She has been tucked in twice already. She picks at her chicken nuggets as her bottom lip quivers. “I miss my daddy and mommy.”
“I’m sure you do, sweetheart. Hopefully you will be able to go back home soon. You get to stay here for a little while so your dad and mom can figure some things out. You are safe here. You just need to try to be brave.”
“But I don’t know how to be brave.” She starts crying. And I do, too.
Foster care: “a situation in which for a period of time a child lives with and is cared for by people who are not the child's parents.” That straightforward dictionary definition barely scratches the surface of what foster care actually means and the definition differs depending on who defines it.
To a child being placed in a foster home, it means anxiety, distrust, fear, grief, anger, and for some, hope. They have just been taken out of their “normal” and no matter what bad choices their parents have made, they remain fiercely loyal to their parents.
To the biological children of foster parents it means anxiety, distrust, joy, anger, jealousy, frustration and love. A stranger has just moved into their house. He/She plays with their toys, takes away their parents’ attention, and might even sleep in their room!
To foster parents it means love, anxiety, grief, frustration, mourning, hope, patience, perseverance and joy. Will this child harm their bio children? Will he/she sleep at night? Will he/she allow himself/herself to be loved? What a tangled web of emotions a child can spin when he/she is placed in a foster home. What an incredible opportunity to provide a stable home for a child in desperate need.
Children are removed from a home for a variety of reasons. Some of these include: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, parental drug use, unsanitary living conditions, incarcerated parents, and the list goes on. Sometimes children stay in a foster home because they need a place to stay in an emergency until a family member is able to care for them.
Other times, a child may stay for a length of time while a parent receives treatment for an addiction. Still other times, a child may never return to their biological parents.
There are six counties in southwest Minnesota that work together under the umbrella name of Southwest Health and Human Services.
Currently there are 47 licensed foster homes in these respective counties: Lincoln- 3, Lyon- 19, Murray- 4, Rock- 4, Pipestone- 7, Redwood- 10. There are around 175 children in out-of-home placement, which means they are not currently living in their biological home. This includes children in regular foster homes, with family, residential facilities, independent living, etc.
When a child first enters a foster home, foster parents often know little more than the child’s name. (And sometimes foster parents don’t even know that! We had an emergency placement that lasted for about 12 hours. We didn’t know the two children’s names and they were too little to tell us!) Social workers try to tell foster parents as much as they can, but they are not able to tell what they, themselves, do not know.
There is a pretty sharp learning curve for the foster child AND the foster parents the first week. Many foster children are not accustomed to structure, predictability, unconditional love or regular meals. Some thrive on a “new normal”; others buck everything that’s different from their “old normal.” It can be stressful, but over the years we have found that most children slide right into our family and call it “home” rather quickly.
For Corey and Renae Van Stelten, the desire to adopt led them to the foster-to-adopt program. They first joined the Domestic Infant adoption program through Bethany Christian Services and one year later they joined the foster –to-adopt program as well.
They fostered two children in the five years they were licensed, and after 2 ½ years, the adoption of those two children was finalized. Corey and Renae both clearly felt called by God to adopt and see his hand in every step of the process. “Being able to love them and a build a relationship with them and some members of their birth family,” was the best thing that happened in their experience.
On the flip side, the hardest thing was “waiting 2 ½ years before we could finalize their adoptions.”
Working with the county social workers was a positive experience for the Van Steltens because they genuinely care a lot about the kids.
Unfortunately the social workers are overworked because they are short-staffed. The legal process tends to take a very long time. Their advice for anyone considering foster care is: “It is going to be one of the most challenging things you have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding!”
Jason and Shanna Snyder have been foster parents for 10 years and have had a total of 27 different children live with them.
They were unable to have children of their own, and when they realized adoption agencies were not the right avenue for them, they thought, “If we can help children for one day, one month, or one year, we would do that.” And they have! They have had placements that range from one day to forever. God seemed to push them in the direction of foster care pretty strongly, but they also knew there were many more kids in the foster care system than there were families to help.
When children come to live with the Snyders, Jason and Shanna continue to live their lives the way they always do. They have learned that “just because something seems ‘normal’ to us and our family, doesn’t mean it is ‘normal’ for everyone. And that doesn’t always make their ‘normal’ wrong or bad. It has really helped us see things from a different perspective. It helps us appreciate things people are doing differently and making it work. It’s also important for us to remember that as children come to live in our home.”
Getting kids out of a dangerous or unsafe condition is a positive aspect of the foster care system. They have worked with excellent social workers and note that they work harder than many people realize for the kids they serve. On the flip side, some of the laws seem frustrating and geared for failure. It is difficult to have one law for millions of different situations. They seem to allow mistakes to be repeated at the cost of children. Social workers have way more cases than they can handle in a typical work week.”
A highlight for the Snyders was when one young person who frequently came to their house for respite care asked Jason if he could be his dad. A different situation brought them grief when they heard that a child they had cared for lost her life after leaving the state.
Jason and Shanna offer this encouragement to anyone considering becoming foster parents: “People always tell us that the kids are so lucky we are here for them. We feel we have been blessed to know every single one of them. They have each taught us something. If you have any interest in becoming a foster parent, talk to someone who is. The children need you.”
Greg and Caty Arp have been foster parents for six years. The eight children they have welcomed into their home have stayed varying lengths of time: from three days up to a year. They love doing it and note that many people worry about attachment or “getting too attached”, but that is exactly what all kids need. They need to feel attachment to somebody! “And as hard as it is saying goodbye to them as they leave, just knowing in the end you made a difference is the main reason why we do foster care! Even in our small Minnesota corner, there is such a need for it!”
One story Caty shared involves a little boy who stayed with them for four months. After he was able to return home with his mother, she reached out to them a few months later. They were able to send pictures, communicate back and forth, and meet each other a few weeks later. They still keep in contact with them. They have even had the little boy stay overnight on a few occasions. They are doing great and it is reassuring to the Arps and their children that the little boy is doing well!
Greg and Caty joke, “We are a busy family of six, so what’s one more kiddo?” That being said, they have turned down placements when it wasn’t the right time. Whether it was moving, Caty didn’t have enough room in her day care at the time, or they had a current placement and received a call for another child to be placed with them.
“So I always tell people who are considering foster care, if it doesn’t work for you at the moment, you can always say ‘not now’. We’ve had our license ‘on hold’ for a few months when we had our last daughter and when she was older, we started back up again.
I don’t think people really see the need around here, but it is so great! And even if you can’t do foster care, think about providing respite care.” The Arps believe God called them to be foster parents. They were very hesitant at first, and even after a few classes, they questioned if this was the right decision. “But it’s been so great! Not only for our own kids, but hopefully for those who have come into our home.”
Dan and Ann Full have opened their home to 15 children over the last 10 years. Some children have stayed for a night or two, but most have stayed for 1-3 years. Five of them have stayed forever!
After losing three biological children early in their marriage, Dan and Ann realized they needed to be open to the plan God had for them. Their "we're married now it's time for a baby" plan was not working. A member of their church approached them about caring for a little boy whose mother was unable to care for him for 6 months.
They said yes even though they were sure it was going to break their hearts. They knew that “Yes” is always the best answer when God is asking the question. The little boy ended up living with them a lot longer than six months; they’re going on 10 years now. The situation led them to pursue licensing as foster parents for Pipestone County.
“We realized during our training it was something that felt so right, and we decided to be open to placements of younger children at first. We say now we ‘fell into our calling’. Even though it was something we never set out to do, it has been the greatest blessing in our lives. We continue to do it because Jesus said, ‘Whoever receives a child such as this in my name, receives me, and not just me but the one who sent me.’ We do it because we have loved these children and see how greatly they need a family to love them and see them for the unique, important souls they are and speak up for what's best for them.
We do it because it has opened our eyes to what goes on here in our small towns right underneath our noses that you are completely unaware of until your phone number gets on that social workers list. Now that I have seen it I can't un-see it. I can't close my door to a child that has nowhere else to go. I mean, I don't think anyone actually would slam their door shut if a child stood outside asking for a place to stay. And yet, 120,000 children in our country are waiting to be adopted, waiting for someone to open their door and more than 400,000 are in foster care.”
The Fulls believe that foster care is faithful obedience to God’s commands AND a civic duty. Ann explains, “It’s absolutely a requirement of the gospel, to care for the orphan, to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked. Are we really Christians at all if we are UNWILLING to do any of those things for a child?” Foster care is all of those things. Sometimes people think Dan and Ann are saints because they do foster care, or that they are such outstanding Christians. According to them, though, caring for children who don't have a home is one of the most basic things we can do as Christians.
From a civic perspective, Ann explains, “we all understand that the ‘village’ around us affects us, our children, our community and our world. The children I'm caring for today might be in your son or daughter’s class, they might be your daughter’s prom date someday. They might be the kid that bullies them at school. They might grow up to be the star of your high school play or they could be the next kid to bring a gun to school. They might be the aide caring for you in the hospital next time you visit and someday they might be your doctor, your kid’s teacher, or they could become the drug dealer that sells your grandchild their first gateway drug. They could become our next governor and they will become a voter. When a community takes care of its children and loves them well, the whole community and the world benefit. When the community neglects any member of the community, the WHOLE community always suffers, which in turn causes the country and the world to suffer. Sometimes it takes a long time to see the results of this, but it's always true.”
Dan and Ann have been blessed to be able to love and serve the children that enter their home with the love of Christ. They are encouraged to bring children to church and get them involved in youth groups or children’s activities if they are not already. Social services still views religion as a positive thing for child development.
It has also given them the opportunity to share the gospel message with many birth parents who have become Christians during their recovery. “It is an incredible blessing to walk beside someone on that difficult journey and to get to give them the hope of Jesus they are longing for.” The Fulls have also been able to invite birth parents to their home. This allows birth parents to see families and good relationships at work. They have also been able to invite them to church or Bible studies to see the source of their joy.
For the Fulls, the best thing that has happened on their foster care journey is that “for a while we got to love and be loved by some really incredible people. We got to adopt five amazing children that we get to share forever with. We have so many others we still see very often and get to watch grow up. We are made in the image of God. Therefore when Jesus said, ‘When you receive a child like this you receive me,’ He wasn't kidding. Each child shows us another side of Him we don't know yet and it is one more opportunity to love Him and be loved by Him. The greatest blessing in the entire world is to get to love a child.”
Dan and Ann encourage anyone considering foster care by saying, “It's the greatest blessing in the world. It is also very hard. Seeing kids hurting is hard. Dealing with behaviors from that hurt is hard. Not having any control about what happens to them is hard. Watching them being hurt over and over again will almost break you. And saying goodbye will break you. I have loved tiny little people for years and been the only mom they've known and I have said goodbye. Broken is not what any of us want to be. And yet, isn't that exactly what Jesus says we have to be? ‘Unless a grain of wheat shall fall upon the ground and die, it remains just a single grain, with no life. But if it dies it bears much fruit.’ I wouldn't trade one day or one minute to save myself the heartache at the end. They are worth it!”
The Fulls originally didn’t seek out foster care because it was unknown and from a distance it did seem too hard. Sometimes, as Christians we get so focused on the burden or the sacrifice. When we do this we actually turn and walk away from a really great gift the Father wants to give us, simply because it looks like too much work.
“I can't imagine the blessings we would have missed. I can't imagine our lives without the children we have loved over the last 10 years. Sure I would have gotten so much sleep, really advanced my career, and we'd probably even have a really nice lake house, but wow, it would be empty!”
Is foster care a calling? A duty? A good deed? Or just plain insanity? After 16 years, I can definitely say it’s a calling. Before Nick and I were married we both felt called to be foster parents. God commands us to care for the orphan and the widow in their time of need (James 1:27) and we felt that we could do that, with God’s help. Over the years we have had over 25 children enter our home as foster children. Some have stayed for a couple of hours, some for a few days, while others have stayed for 18 months. We have had a two-day old baby placed with us, a 17-year old, and nearly every age in between. Each situation is unique in its challenges and its joys.
Being a foster parent isn’t easy, convenient or even fun at times, but when a child returns a hug, remembers to speak with respect, confides in us or progresses in positive behavior, we are reminded why we do this. Each child that enters our home is made in the image of God and we can show him or her God’s love for a short period of time. We don’t know the eternal impact of what we are doing, but we can faithfully plant seeds and shower each child with love while they are part of our family. We may never see the fruit of our labor, but if we can provide a safe, loving home for a child in need, that is reward enough for us.
Many people have told me they have thought of doing foster care, but it would be too hard to let the children go back home. They say they would get too attached. To anyone who has had these thoughts, I would tell them what I tell myself: “It’s not about me. It’s not about my feelings. Think about the child. He/she came out of an awful situation. God has blessed me in ways that allow me to be a blessing in that child’s life. Yes, it can be very hard to let a child go, but while he/she lives under my roof, I get to provide for their physical needs. I can shower them with unconditional love.
I can show them (quite possibly) the only example of what a marriage is supposed to look like. I can show them how parents are supposed to treat their children. I can help develop skills and talents they didn’t even know they had because no one cared enough to show interest. And most importantly, I can plant seeds that may one day mature into a heart that knows and loves God.”
Dan and Ann share a final challenge: “It is hard, but it is worth it. You don't have to adopt five or take in 15. Someone once said there are a billion Christians on the planet. If every Christian would just care for one extra child, there would be no more children waiting to be adopted, no more children starving to death, no more homeless children on the streets. Just one.
And if you can't be a foster or adoptive family, then could you support one? They need meals, and hugs, and prayers, and extra clothes, and a gallon of milk and a pack of diapers in the middle of the night sometimes. Our church and family and friends have greatly supported us in foster care and that makes us able to do it.
And if you are a teacher or a coach or a mentor or a social worker or a youth pastor or something else to a child in foster care or a child who is hurting, I hope you never underestimate the power of your relationship. They say just one, just ONE consistent, positive person in a child’s life who cares about them is all it takes for them to have a chance to be successful no matter what situation they live in. Walk beside them. Care about what happens to them. Be their family. You and I can't fix the whole world, but we can make it great for one child. You can and I hope you will. “
Foster care: it’s a choice with eternal significance. Will you accept the call?