Supporting safe harbors
The hard work of foster care takes a toll on families and children, but churches and ministries can help foster parents persevere and help birth parents stabilize their lives
Rebecca Bauer, a lawyer in Oklahoma, is a foster mom who has provided long-term care to 15 children over seven years. Despite her experience, when she received a text telling her that her 12-year-old foster daughter Ava had threatened suicide at school, she felt overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation. She told her caseworker about the “red alert,” then called a counselor with a simple plea: “Help me.”
While Bauer felt sad over Ava’s suicidal thoughts, Ava feared Bauer’s reaction. Would she get in trouble? Would Bauer beat her? Ava had already experienced one failed adoption after she told a teacher her parents beat her.
Ava is one of tens of thousands of children removed each year from their families because of abuse or neglect. In 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 251,359 children entered the U.S. foster system and nearly the same number left. Altogether there were almost half a million children in care in 2019—a number that has risen during the opioid epidemic.
Each of the children has experienced trauma that affects the way they behave and react to stress. Foster parents willingly take on the care of these children but need training to recognize and deal with trauma. They also need practical support and an understanding community, something churches can help provide. And since the goal of foster care is to return most children to their birth families, those birth families also need help—but rarely get it. Some Christians are trying to change that.
WORLD throughout the summer of 2021 interviewed 21 people with experience and expertise in foster care. These are some of their stories and insights. (We’re using pseudonyms for the children in this story to protect their privacy.)
Ava had bruises all over her body when she arrived at Bauer’s house for what was supposed to be a weekend, until a more permanent placement opened up. She ended up staying for more than two months.
School was hard and Ava had trouble making friends. Her past left her struggling with what Bauer calls “big emotions.” Ava often had dramatic responses to frustrations at school and cussed out other students.
Responses like these are common for children with past trauma. Trauma makes the amygdala, the brain’s threat detector, more sensitive. Under stress, the brain jumps quickly to one of four threat response modes: fight, flight, freeze, or faint. Children often don’t know how to handle these strong emotional responses and revert to age-inappropriate behavior. When parents respond in frustration—towering over children or raising their voices—conflicts can escalate.
Bauer attended a monthly foster parent support group hosted in a local church. She appreciated the atmosphere of grace and humor among the parents: They were able to acknowledge and laugh about their mistakes. They joke about how they will “pay for therapy out the nose” someday.
People tell her fostering is God’s calling, but some nights Bauer believes she must be insane to keep bringing strangers’ children into her home. She bonded with another single mom who was also crazy enough to do it.
DAVID AND TIFFANY CORTRIGHT decided after two decades of marriage and four children to become foster parents. They were unprepared for their first placement, two severely malnourished toddlers—a brother and sister ages 2 and 3. Both were nonverbal and a year behind in development.
Within the first two weeks, the boy developed a septic bacterial infection, which required doctors to drill into and drain his hip. For the next two weeks, he received antibiotics every eight hours through a direct line running up his arm, down his shoulder, and into a port in his chest. He tugged constantly at it, trying to rip it out.
Caring for the girl was no easier. Although she was only 3, she already had eating problems. She played with her food, rolled it into a ball, and refused to eat. When she did, she made herself throw up.
Tiffany’s time was taken up by appointments, three for each child each week: speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. They had visits with a psychologist and a weekly weigh-in at a hospital in San Antonio.
By the time Child Protective Services (CPS) sent the toddlers back to their family, the Cortrights were exhausted and discouraged. Their church gave them emotional support, treating them as heroes, but did little to meet their practical needs.
Since none of their family or friends had taken the necessary training to watch their foster children, the Cortrights were constantly on duty. Tiffany remembers crying on her friends’ shoulders because of how difficult it was to parent the toddlers nonstop.
Looking back, David Cortright says they should have done a better job communicating their needs, but most days the immediate challenges of life took all their energy. They wish someone had stepped in to help without being asked.
The Cortrights didn’t give up fostering. After the toddlers left, David Cortright said, “We’ve experienced the worst. Let’s go from here.” They fostered nine more times, with their last placement turning into an adoption.
Many foster parents do quit. The National Council For Adoption (NCFA) estimates more than half of foster families give up during their first year. The University of Chicago estimates the median length of service to be 10 to 12 months. Major reasons: lack of support and lack of a say in what happens to the children.
Tara Thornton and her husband Luke started the foster-to-adopt process in 2012. They attended a small church with members who were willing to help with meals and babysitting. Yet, Thornton resisted the offers to help because she did not want to be a burden: “We signed up for this.”
Eventually the paperwork, rules, and parent visits took a toll, and the Thorntons stepped back from fostering.
In 2016 they began reading about the need for more foster parents in Texas. By this time the Thorntons had moved to Georgetown, Texas, and were attending First Baptist Church of Georgetown there. They decided to begin fostering again, but Luke Thornton told his wife they wouldn’t do it alone.
They spoke to two groups within their church, asking, “Who wants to go with us?” Another couple agreed to train as foster parents with the Thorntons, and others said they would bring meals and become certified for babysitting and respite care.
Over time, more people in the church became interested in supporting foster care and adoption. With the help of the children’s ministry pastor, a small group met together to plan ways to serve. The church hosted a meeting at a city park and advertised in a community Facebook group. Several new families attended the event. Afterward, Thornton invited people to connect with certified babysitters and meal providers from First Baptist.
Thornton said that even if churches cannot fund an official foster care and adoption ministry, they can pray consistently, ask other churches for advice, and find unofficial ways to serve families. She said churches need to remember they might not have 20 families sign up right away, and that’s OK. Growth such as First Baptist experienced cannot be forced: “It’s all God.”
Foster care support requires compassion and an understanding of what foster parents are doing. Foster families may find it hard to attend church. They may be embarrassed by their foster children’s bad behaviors and frequently feel judged by other congregants. The resulting isolation can motivate the foster parents to quit—meaning another transition and still more trauma for their foster children.
TRACEY FIELDS is the youth director at Crosspoint Fellowship in Greenville, Texas. She has served on staff for a year and a half but has been involved with foster care and adoption for 18 years. She and her husband Greg have two biological daughters and three children through adoption, two of them from the foster system.
Having a youth director with an intimate knowledge of foster care and trauma is an advantage for Crosspoint. Nearly half of the 40 regular attendees at its Wednesday evening youth group have some background in foster care or adoption. Those include children from the congregation and 15 young people who live in a nearby group home.
Foster children need predictability, so Crosspoint only cancels an event or Bible study when absolutely necessary. Leaders avoid having frequent transitions between activities because a 16-year-old who experienced early trauma may respond to stress—and transitions are stressful—with the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old.
Over the summer, the youth group celebrated themed nights, including a secret agent night where the kids discussed aspects of true and false identity. Fields said disorganized thinking, such as confusion over gender identity, can be a particular struggle for teens from difficult backgrounds. She reminds workers to look past behaviors, and she reminds teens that God created them and loves them: “Our true identity is that we’re in Christ.”
FOR A LONG TIME, Christians have overlooked birth parents—and that’s a mistake because most foster children will return to their birth families. It’s in everyone’s interest to help the biological parents learn to be better moms and dads.
State governments often lack resources to support birth parents as they work to get their children back. Help often comes in the form of hurdles: checklists of rehab, employment, housing, therapy, and education requirements that can seem overwhelming to parents caught up in the system.
For Josh Thornton (unrelated to Tara Thornton) it felt like everyone was against him. He and his wife Mandy lost their 2-year-old and 3-month-old sons after a tumultuous marriage and drug addictions led Mandy to file a domestic violence report against Josh—a claim he denies. CPS investigated both parents and removed the boys from their custody.
Determined to get his sons back, Josh Thornton entered a drug rehab program and convinced his wife to enter one also.
The Thorntons’ CPS case was a legal maze. The domestic violence report made it especially complicated. To Josh it felt as though the lawyers and social workers made up their minds against him as soon as they read the case file. He felt overwhelmed by continually changing rules and information.
Amid the conflict, a few people—Josh calls them his “little angels”—stood by him. One of these was Tonya Foulkrod, a mother of four who advocated for him in court. She and her husband, Jay, run a ministry called Family Restoration Coalition to train and support parents in crisis. They believe the way to break the foster-care cycle is to fix it at the root: “The best service to an orphan is to help them never become an orphan.”
The Foulkrods created a Biblically based parenting class called Three Strands, which the Thorntons attended on their judge’s recommendation.
For Josh, Three Strands was the turning point. A couple with two young sons mentored the Thorntons for hours each week. Josh found that getting down on his hands and knees to play with his mentors’ sons and jumping on the trampoline with them helped ease his pain. It kept him from relapsing.
The Foulkrods say most parents in Josh’s position are capable of being good parents with the right support and training. They base that on their experience with more than 100 parents in crisis.
In December 2020, the Thorntons moved into an apartment after four months of living with friends in an RV. The couple owned very little. With the help of their church, the Thorntons’ Three Strands mentors paid for a U-Haul, collected donated furniture, and helped cover rent.
On May 12, 2021, the boys came home. Josh and Mandy prepared for two to three weeks in advance. They threw a welcome home party with Spider-Man and PAW Patrol balloons, cake, and kazoos. Their Three Strands mentors and closest friends came to celebrate.
The boys are 4 and 2 years old: When they came home, all Josh wanted to do was hold them. Now, the Thornton house is filled with “Nerf guns galore,” and Josh plays with his boys even though the projectiles can hurt. Sometimes water guns make it into the house accidentally, or the boys run screaming through the house “like gorillas,” but he doesn’t mind.
THE FOULKRODS get to see happy endings, but most foster parents don’t.
After the Cortrights had their toddlers for 5½ months, CPS decided they could return to their biological family. Although both children had gained weight, the Cortrights did not feel it was safe for them to return home yet. It’s hard not to see results: “We don’t know what kind of impact we’re having on these kids in the long term.”
Ava, the 12-year-old who threatened suicide, went to summer camp—and got kicked out. When she returned to Rebecca Bauer’s home, she shocked Bauer by saying she didn’t want to live with her anymore. So Bauer went to work, fighting for Ava to be able to live with an older biological sister, despite the sister’s minor marijuana-related record.
Bauer knows she may not see Ava again. She texts with the older sister and hopes to stay in touch. Even though the placement didn’t work out, Bauer sees purpose in it: God used her to get Ava back with her family. She hopes to help ensure the prosecution of the adoptive parents who abused Ava.
In addition to 15 long-term placements (lasting from a month to a year), Bauer estimates 10 children have stayed with her for a night or two. Sometimes, she gets a call at 2 o’clock in the morning to pick up a child with nowhere else to go. After these children move on, she may never hear from them again.
Bauer holds out a stubborn hope for these children, despite their terrible experiences: “I know things will work out the way they are supposed to.”
For now, she remembers them by hanging their initials on a remembrance wall in her home and displaying their pictures by the window.
—Grace Snell is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute
Processing trauma through play
Some families have the resources to hire private therapists like Elizabeth Pennington, a play therapist near Houston. She works out of a repurposed Sprinter van equipped with a sink and toy-filled cabinets. Red plaid curtains hang on the windows, and an assortment of small toys and figurines for sand tray therapy line the wall. Fake log benches provide seating near a crackling plastic campfire.
When Pennington pulls up to a house, she often sees children waiting by the windows. Parents lead their children into the van and receive a monitor so they can watch the session. Kids can explore anything but the driver’s seat. Pennington says the small environment feels safe and helps children process hard memories. She tells them, “Here we can make messes and it’s OK.”
Pennington, 40, says many children from traumatic backgrounds learn to ignore their senses to numb pain. She uses “buzzies”—vibrating tappers in kids’ hands, on wristbands, or in pockets—to teach children to pay attention to their bodies. She walks them through good memories: (“Tell me about a time when you felt loved”) and helps them put “yucky” memories into context. Pennington says she views her work as giving children tools to use for the long run.
Therapy takes time, and foster children often lack the stability to see a professional for as long as experts recommend. That’s why it is important to include foster parents in the process.
Foster parents should also be informed about the impact of trauma. Karyn Purvis, the late Texas Christian University professor and trauma researcher, worked extensively with organizations in the area of Austin, Texas, to raise awareness about how trauma affects children. Her primary legacy—Trust-Based Relational Intervention—teaches parents to help children feel loved and secure before trying to correct their behavior.
Julie Kouri, an adoptive mom of three, partnered with Purvis to bring trauma-informed care to churches around Austin. Building on Purvis’ ideas, Kouri believes children need stable families and relationships, more than therapy or medication, to cope with trauma. Fifteen years ago, Kouri started an organization called Fostering Hope to support and equip foster parents.
Kouri works with foster parents to develop strategies and tools “that work in the living room.” Her training programs suggest “time-ins” rather than “time-outs” so children know they won’t be abandoned for messing up. When correcting children, parents should get down to their level and look into their eyes. Parents learn to give children something active to do to calm down: blowing bubbles, doing stretches, breathing deeply. One foster mom trained by Fostering Hope had her son work out his frustrations by chewing on a stick of bubble gum before she tried to address his misbehavior.
Kouri stresses playful engagement with children since the brain can’t be fearful and playful at the same time. When asking her own children to pick up toys threatened to turn them into “little terrors,” Kouri made it a game and offered prizes. She gave instructions in her special Harry Potter accent to keep things
lighthearted. To help her children regulate their bodies, Kouri bought an exercise ball: The kids could flop on it and get some energy out before dinner.
Churches can be a vital support to foster families, but well-meaning church members can also be hurtful by speaking thoughtlessly. Kouri said people often tell foster parents, “I could never do what you’re doing,” which can be discouraging. It paints parents as heroes when they probably don’t feel like it and suggests their motives are unfathomable to others.
Foster parent Rebecca Bauer noted people often talk about her foster children in ways they wouldn’t about other kids. For example, her 14-month-old foster son has a “wonky eye” and people regularly point it out.
Instead of airing opinions or passing judgment, Kouri encourages congregants to ask foster parents how they’re doing and to keep asking that even when the answer isn’t positive. She reminds people to keep “inviting the foster kid to the birthday party,” even when this means dealing with rowdy behavior. —G.S.
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