The boys were ages 5, 7, and 9 when my daughter Summer and son-in-law Josh brought them home to America—three brothers from Uganda who had known significant trauma. I love these grandsons even though they don’t carry my DNA.
In the eight years the boys have belonged in our family, Summer has shared books and helped me become more aware of early childhood trauma. I still see the side effects of trauma in my grandsons, but I’m amazed at the healing God is producing and how far these three have come.
I believe it’s important that we who are on the fringes of adoption and foster care have a better grasp of the journey—we being the family, friends, and church family members. And so, I interviewed several foster/adoptive moms, and this is the collective message I heard: “Look at your motive and really check your heart. This is not a puppy. It’s hard. But if God has called you to foster or adopt, He will equip you.”
My hope is this piece will provide some understanding and inspire ways to support those who are on the frontlines of caring for vulnerable children.
Meet the Adoptive Families
Yvonne and Steve
While on a trip to China, Yvonne and Steve visited a few orphanages. Because Yvonne is a physical therapist, she was allowed into some of the rooms that were off-limits to most people. It was eye-opening to see how children with disabilities were treated.
“They had a crying room for babies they deemed terminal. They put them in there and let them cry and die.” With these images in their minds, Steve and Yvonne were compelled to adopt from China. Individually and about two years apart, they welcomed four children with disabilities into their burgeoning family that began with two bio kids.
International adoptions can be expensive, but the couple received checks in the mail exactly when funds were needed. “The financial assistance was huge and made us feel loved and supported,” Yvonne says.
She appreciated when people offered to do something with the older children. “That made them feel special since the new child was needing extra attention from the parents.” (The idea of taking the older child to do something special was mentioned by several of the adoptive moms you’ll read about here.)
Equally important to Yvonne was connecting with people who had adopted and experienced similar challenges. “They understand and won’t judge you.”
Yvonne talked about recruiting prayer warriors that they leaned on (and still do). “It was a huge thing as they prayed for everything—the process of adoption, the travel out of the country. Everything.” Yvonne reminded me that we should never underestimate the power of prayer. “When you say, ‘I’m praying’, then pray. Prayer is so powerful, and we do not give it enough respect.”
Emma and Jason
With two biological kids, Emma and Jason adopted two boys from Haiti who came from a hard place. In the beginning, there was plenty of support with the expense of international adoption, with clothing and food. “But nobody has offered to help in a very long time,” Emma says. “It would be nice if there was some sort of respite care. Even now.” (Along with meals, offering to watch the kids while the parents run errands, keep appointments, or simply get away alone together was at the top of the list of best ways to offer support to adoptive families.)
When I ask Emma if she would do it all over again, she hesitates. “It depends on the day.” And then she adds, “I’m joking… but not. Sometimes I question if we did the right thing for our original family and in the best interest of the boys.” Jason and Emma are concerned about the boys’ ability to succeed as adults. “There are days I have hope they’ll make it… and then days I wonder if they will.” What keeps this family going is remembering the reason they adopted and the commitment they made to the boys.
Michelle and Jack
When Jack and Michelle’s second biological son turned two, they began the process of adopting a child from China. “We really had no idea how we were going to pay for it, but it all worked out. We never got a bill we couldn’t pay.”
We should never underestimate the power of prayer. “When you say, ‘I’m praying’, then pray. Prayer is so powerful, and we do not give it enough respect.”
Michelle pointed out that parenting is totally different with kids who have been through trauma. “When other people say, ‘That’s totally typical,’ or ‘My kids do that too,’ they think they’re commiserating, but what they’re doing is minimizing.”
People have told Jack and Michelle—in front of their adopted children—how lucky the kids are. “It’s not great for our kids to hear that. They aren’t lucky. They’ve had to endure all this. We’re the lucky ones.”
Michelle remembers her son going through grief, which is a normal process for adopted children. “It feels like my skin is ripped off my heart because I miss my birth mom so much,” he once said, even though he’d lived with Michelle and Jack much longer than in the orphanage.
After their first adoption, the couple approached their church about starting an adoption ministry. They wanted to be advocates and host fundraisers for others who might be interested in adopting. “It was very different with ,” Michelle says, “because we had this super web”—a super web she and her husband helped create.
Michelle and Jack are grateful that their children think adoption and kids with special needs are typical. “Their worldview is changed because of our family’s adoptions. Part of the reward is being stretched and grown and humbled in ways I didn’t expect.”
Charlotte and Rob
Charlotte and Rob each had a niece with a child who was not in a good place. There was a chance these girls would be taken from their homes, and if so, the couple wanted to care for them. The girls ended up staying with their moms, but Charlotte and Rob’s foster care training planted the seed for them to take in other children.
The couple was assigned their first foster child. At 8 years old, this was the little girl’s fifth foster home. There was a honeymoon period, and then some of the behaviors the couple were told about started happening. “Fostering is an inner conviction,” Charlotte says. “Knowing that these children got to experience what a ‘normal’ family feels like, that we worked through things and didn’t leave just because there were disagreements or big mistakes.”
Rob and Charlotte fostered several children through the years. “We continue to pray for them, even though we don’t know where all of them are currently. We may be the only people in their lives who pray for them.”
To a point, Charlotte and Rob’s family and church were supportive. “Once people started seeing the acting out behaviors, though, they backed off.” Charlotte wishes that there could be training for extended family and other support people, “so they would know how to respond (or not) with various behaviors they may see.”
When it comes to offering support, Charlotte says, “You can’t be passive about it—’Let me know if you need anything.’ You have to be specific.”
Of all the children they took in and loved, it was that first little girl who stayed in their lives. “We see her still struggle at times with things from her past. But she values her years with us, and now she has grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins she considers her own. Would we do it again? Yes. It’s what we believed God wanted us to do.”
Susan and Frank
Susan and Frank retired after 19 years as missionaries. They planned to support their unmarried daughter, who cared for the two children she had adopted, as well as periodic foster children. Their daughter had a delightful set of three siblings who were returned to their mom but then needed to be back in foster care. Frank and Susan’s daughter couldn’t take them back at the time, but the couple knew these siblings and already loved them. And so they immediately volunteered. And that’s how foster care—and eventually adoption—found Frank and Susan.
Susan wishes people could understand that acting up unexpectedly is normal for kids with trauma. “It’s not the foster/adoptive parents’ fault,” she says. “When a child is taken from their parents, they’re going to act out because they’re absolutely terrified. Even if the situation they’ve been taken from involved neglect or abuse, it’s what they knew.”
Susan was in a grocery store once with a 2-year-old foster child who threw a temper tantrum and knocked over a display. A man came up and put the display back together and quietly said, “I’ve been there.”
Susan and Frank agree that the reward is seeing the change in the children firsthand. “We saw children who were scared and neglected relax and thrive. We saw children who were destined for failure succeeding in life skills.”
Beth and Michael
Beth and Michael, after trying for years to have a child, decided to adopt. But on the road to adoption, they took a state-sponsored course that planted a desire for fostering deep within their hearts. “It felt like a new calling,” Beth says. “This was our path to parenting.”
“ is hard,” she adds. “You don’t have a long-standing relationship with them. They don’t love you.” Which makes respite care a beautiful way to offer a break to someone who is daily in the thick of things.
Michael and Beth’s church hosted a monthly Foster Parents’ Night Out, giving them three hours all to themselves where they didn’t have to pay the $70 for a babysitter. “Little breaks like those are godsends.”
“We are blessed with the opportunity to grow ourselves and rewarded with a full and active home. The JOY of kids!” Beth writes. The couple recently fostered a 5-year-old boy who returned to his mom. “There was joy and hope in knowing that both were changed by the experience. We can see the good.”
Megan and Shane
Megan and Shane didn’t want to have a biological child while there were children in this world who needed parents. Megan would have appreciated if people showed genuine interest and wanted to learn more. “It didn’t feel great to be questioned.”
“We had to learn a lot about the open adoption process and how adopted kids need to grieve the loss of their biological family,” Megan says. “Even if the child seems well-adjusted, it would be helpful for friends and family to understand and acknowledge that grief is part of their journey.”
Megan loved how people treated their daughter as if she wasn’t adopted. “She was totally welcomed into the daily routine and considered one of us. No matter what, we would definitely do it again.”
LeeAnn and George
LeeAnn and George lost two of their three adopted children as adults after they picked up their biological parents’ addictive lifestyle (these two were the youngest of a family of 11 children who had been substantially abused by alcoholic parents). They did well while growing up in George and LeeAnn’s home—they attended youth activities and volunteered for mission programs—but they didn’t live past their forties. “No one can understand how hard it is until they’ve experienced it.”
When I ask LeeAnn if she would do it all over again, she pauses. “That’s a difficult question to answer.” But then she says, “Yes, I probably would do it again. There were definitely a lot of good times. And I feel we made a big difference in their lives.”
From this place of sorrow and loss, LeeAnn realizes the importance of prayer. “I look at families in church who are adopting now, and I pray for them.”
Summer and Josh
“It was a heart issue,” my daughter Summer reminds me. “We were drawn to adoption for unexplainable reasons—a calling maybe. We had excess. We had an extra bedroom, extra food in our pantry, access to good health care and education. We felt like we had the ability to share our resources and it would almost be irresponsible not to.”
I was staying with my daughter’s three biological kids in New Jersey while her and her husband, Josh, were in Uganda for six weeks weeding through the required paperwork and appointments for bringing three young brothers home. One of the Life Groups at their church provided a $500 grocery card. I went shopping for food and school snacks and household items, and it was hilariously fun to stock their pantry shelves in their absence.
Also, with a new school year on the horizon, members of their church purchased backpacks and filled them with supplies (at the time, the school district provided a list of school supplies for the year that tallied to about $200 per child). With my daughter and son-in-law’s family doubling in size—from three kids to six—it was a super kind gift.
Summer—who didn’t want advice from those who have not parented children with trauma—confirmed the importance of being integrated with people who’ve also experience some of the same issues. “I think there are people out there who are doing this alone and maybe they think they’re doing something wrong… because it’s hard. It’s nice to be seen and heard.”
Ava and John
Ava was left infertile after treatment for breast cancer, but she and John wanted their son to have siblings. In time, they adopted a little boy. “Trust the deep faith of the adoptive parents. Know that a lot of prayer and thought has been put into each decision.” Ava’s mom admitted to her after their first adoption, “I was so afraid, but now I wish I could go back and say, ‘I trust you.’”
Ava suggests that we ask families about their stories. And then just listen. “Listen because the story means something to the person you’re asking.”
Ava noticed that sometimes people feel burdened about what they think they should do to help. “Instead, look for what brings you joy and give in that way. Are you an organizer? Then organize a small fundraiser. Are you good at planning kid’s activities? Then take their kids to the park with a picnic lunch and squirt guns.”
John and Ava adopted a baby girl a few years after they adopted their son. “I love anticipation. I couldn’t wait to see who God would bring into our lives! It was like waiting for Christmas times 100!”
My niece, Heidi, works at a nonprofit that raises awareness and advocates for foster children and foster/adoptive families. She offered these tips on how churches can provide support:
1. Raise awareness by speaking about foster care and adoption from the pulpit. Adoption and reconciliation are the gospel.
2. Build community by hosting a support group that offers connections and encouragement for the families. If you can provide childcare, even better.
3. Sponsor a clothing closet for new placements. Oftentimes, kids come with only the clothes on their backs.
4. Host a Respite Night so parents can get away for a few hours. This is also a great way to engage the youth group and young singles in your church.
5. Provide training—what is referred to as being “trauma informed”—that allows the youth and children’s ministries leaders to have a deeper understanding of the kids in their care.
What if we could seek to learn more about the effects of trauma, and lean into the uncomfortable, and pick up the toppled store display because maybe there’s a backstory for the child’s behavior?
What if we could ask how to pray specifically for a foster/adoptive family, and ask what night to bring pizza, and ask if we could take their older child(ren) to the park instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help”?
What if we could recognize that fostering and adopting children who are dealing with the fallout of trauma can be incredibly challenging?
What if we realized we had the means to support an adoptive family?
How You Can Support an Adoptive Family with What’s In Your Hand
Heidi, my niece, spoke at a TEDx event in California. She reported the statistics and the need for more foster homes while recognizing that not every family or single adult has the capacity to take in an extra child.
Toward the end of her presentation, Heidi challenged listeners: “If you’re not able to foster or adopt, then what’s in your hands? How can you use it to support and encourage those families who are caring for vulnerable children?”
She illustrated this with the example of her sister, Angie, who loves to cook and regularly delivers a hand-crafted meal to a family with foster children.
In his letter to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman empire, the Apostle James wrote practical instructions for people of faith: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27).
So, what’s in your hand?
Let’s face it—motherhood is messy. So how do we learn to work with it and ignore the pressure to be perfect? We cover that in this podcast episode: How do We Handle the Messiness of Motherhood? with Laila Schell – 168