Widening your family circle through foster care: Five things you need to know

Written by Jillana Goble
Published on May 24, 2022

“Hey, I hear you’re a foster parent. I’d like to do that one day,” she says eagerly, almost whimsically. 

She looks about twenty-six, the same age I was when I became a foster parent. She says this while filling her coffee cup at the back table at church, about to head into the service as the first song starts to play. 

As she splashes in the cream and swings her purse over her shoulder, she asks, “Has it been hard?” Her eyes are bright and earnest. I smile—“Yes,” I say. “But has it been worth it?” she asks, flipping her long brown hair over her shoulder and already taking steps away from the coffee table and into the sanctuary. 

There’s just too much to say to respond with any kind of accuracy. So I settle for “It’s hard and it’s worth it,” trying to sound hopeful without implying it’s a breeze. She mouths a voiceless “Thank you” as she slips into the service. 

5 must know truths about foster care

In an ideal world, we’d begin our conversation in a coffee shop, but drinking a pot of coffee and taking up space at a cozy table in the corner still wouldn’t be enough to convey how much my foster care journey has transformed me as a person. 

An article entitled “Fifty things you need to know about widening your family circle through foster care” could easily be written, but to hold true to this title, I will limit myself to five. 

1. The goal of foster care is to reunify children with their biological families.

The preference is for children to be placed with blood relatives. If no blood relatives can be found, the second preference is to be placed with someone previously known to the child, like a neighbor or Sunday school teacher. The third preference is to place kids with a stranger previously unknown to them. 

Foster care is intended to be temporary. The length of stay for a child in foster care varies greatly, depending on many factors, but in my home state of Oregon, the median average is eighteen months. 

The national median age of a child in foster care is nine years old, and most children enter foster care with siblings. 

2. Most kids in foster care have parents. 

James 1:27 (“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” NIV) is often cited while talking about kids in foster care, but we need to remember that the vast majority of kids in foster care have parents. 

Nobody dreams of one day being a parent who will abuse and neglect their children. It’s easy to judge and point fingers at child welfare-involved parents, but it’s still important to remember that the great majority, despite dealing with issues such as substance abuse, untreated mental illness, domestic violence, or incarceration, still really do love their children. 

In getting to know the stories of the parents of some children I have fostered, I have realized that if I had faced their trauma and adversity without a healthy community around me, there’s a good chance I could have been standing in their shoes. 

While engaging with your foster child’s parents is not the main purpose of foster care—it’s rightfully focused on the child—when we remember that the goal of foster care is to reunite families, there’s often opportunity, when safe and appropriate to do so, to engage in relationship. 

Being in proximity to those whose burdens are often more than they can bear, while caring for their children in foster care, has molded me into a more compassionate person. 

3. Foster care is a zigzaggy road with hairpin turns. 

If you like your future path carefully paved before you in a straight, predictable line with plenty of clearly marked signs alerting you to every slight bend, this fostering journey will be especially difficult. 

All kids from foster care, no matter how little, have loss written into their story. It’s not a matter of if the going will get tough, it’s a matter of when

For this reason, you need to know and cling to your “why.” In my dining room, I have a meaningful handmade gift from a friend. Simple white letters on a wooden sign say: Do Justice. Walk Humbly. Love Mercy. (Micah 6:8 ) 

Every time I look at it, I am reminded of my “why,” and that in spite of what we see around us, I am invited to show up in this world in real, earnest ways. Contrary to the images you have heard, being a foster parent does not ask you to sound the trumpet, gallop onto the scene on horseback, and save the day. 

It’s a quiet invitation to intentionally open wide your front door to kids whose lives have gone awry through no fault of their own. 

Kids need many things, but chief among them are safety, security, and someone who won’t give up on them. 

4. Single people can absolutely foster. 

People with no previous parenting experience can foster. In marriages, however, it’s not uncommon for one spouse to be eager to start the journey while the other is dragging their heels. 

This isn’t something you should arm-twist your spouse into doing. While foster care is certainly for more people than are currently engaging in it, if two people are not buckled up together on this wild ride called foster parenting, it’s not going to lead your family toward health. 

There are many things to discern in widening your family circle, and at the top of the list of concerns for those who already have kids is this: “How will fostering affect them?” The best answer to that question is to seek out those who are currently doing it and learn from their experiences. 

5. Foster care is an invitation for the very things that break the heart of God to break your own.

One of the number one questions I have received as a long-term foster and adoptive parent over the years is “How do you love and let go?” Many people clutch their hand to their hearts and proclaim, “I could never do it. I’d get too attached! My heart would break.” 

At the core of foster care is an invitation for the very things that break the heart of God to break your own. If you think you would cry when a child leaves because you’d be attached to them, congratulations—you may be a great candidate for the privilege of this difficult parenting road less traveled. 

A child in foster care has likely already walked the road of having a caregiver that can’t be fully present or attached due to their own issues. Attaching yourself in a healthy way to your children in foster care is exactly what’s needed for their healthy development. 

A vulnerable child’s need for attachment should trump a healthy adult’s need for protection from potential heartbreak. 

Walking a tightrope

When it comes to foster parenting, there’s so much more that deserves to be talked about, but if I were sitting across the table from you at a coffee shop right now, these would be among some of the first things I’d share, with many more equally worthy considerations to come in subsequent conversations. 

But before we left our coffee cups on the table and walked out the door, I’d want you to know this basic truth: When engaging parents and children who suffer unquantifiable losses in life, foster parenting is a constant invitation to walk a precarious tightrope between reality and hope. 

Consider a few extra resources:

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Jillana Goble

Author and speaker Jillana Goble has been a foster mom, birth mom, and adoptive mom—in that order—since 2003. She holds a master’s degree in teaching and is passionate about prospective foster parents approaching foster care with eyes wide open. She expands on the concepts in this article in her book No Sugar-Coating: The Coffee Talk You Need about Foster Parenting. Jillana’s new memoir, A Love-Stretched Life: Stories on Wrangling Hope, Embracing the Unexpected, and Discovering the Meaning of Family, is a worthwhile, engaging read for anyone who cares about vulnerable children. You can order it wherever books are sold or directly from Tyndale House Publishers

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