May is National Foster Care Month, and a big concept for anyone who knows anything about foster care is reunification. Reuniting a child with their birth parents or parent is a beautiful thought and a positive goal, when it’s possible. The organization Safe Families is all about people (of faith, typically) stepping in and helping a family out for a short term. This is a relationship that is not adoption-minded, but simply about keeping a family together.
The foster care system is another story. Here, reunification reigns, to a fault. I held in my arms recently a baby who was taken in and loved by a temporary foster family. But the fate of this boy who needs a forever family is going to be unclear for a long time. While it is, of course, often preferable for a child to be raised by their birthparents, sometimes that isn’t possible. Drug abuse wrecks lives, people are imperfect and staying together is hard, especially in a world that seems to offer so little support.
Sarah Zagorski, now 31, was once a child in the foster care system. She spent time with a loving couple, but for the sake of reunification, was sent back to her mother and siblings to survive by eating insects off the floor. Her mother wanted to provide for her, but poverty, abuse and mental illness made it impossible.
Zagorski recently wrote about her past for the first time, calling her situation “a familial war zone.”
It took almost eight years for her adoptive parents to be able to give her safety and stability. Sarah was confused as a child, as it seemed no one truly loved her. “Why didn’t you come to get me?” she would later ask her adoptive mother.
Her foster parents, who became her parents, saved her life, she’s come to realize. One of her blood sisters overdosed on drugs and died. That could have been her, had she not been released from the prison of poverty, abuse and mental illness.
Zagorski is now an advocate for foster care and adoption, and a champion of foster parents. And so, she reflects: “My story didn’t end in drug addiction, exploitation or suicide because foster care provided me the support I would need for a lifetime.”
We live in a culture that celebrates individual autonomy, and in the shadows are all kinds of stories of the damage that kind of attitude can bring with it. Birth mothers in troubling circumstances who choose adoption for their children are heroines. We need to celebrate mothers who make that choice.
Darcy Olsen, president of the nonprofit Generation Justice, has seen in her own life the damage that meth addiction can do to a child who is returned to his birth mother; one of the children she has fostered over the years died in the process of reunification. Sometimes, reunification is the worst possible outcome for a child, especially if serious drugs and abuse are involved.
We’re awaiting a Supreme Court decision that involves a travesty — Philadelphia’s decision to sever ties with Catholic Social Services there. The city wants Catholic principles about family to be thrown out. One of the fundamental things we are losing today is a robust pluralism. Even Catholic beliefs ought to be defended and welcome. And why wouldn’t they be when they provide a most-needed service?
More than 400,000 children are in foster care, and we don’t even fully know the impact that COVID-19 has had on children in vulnerable situations. The pandemic was difficult enough for those of us in the best of situations; how about the child in foster care, suffering a far more devastating pandemic of being separated from the love of a family?
We’re living in a time where differences about fundamentals — adult arguments that are not going to get resolved tomorrow or maybe in our lifetimes — are hurting the most at-risk children. The good of these children should be common ground for us. And that’s going to require more choices, not fewer. Children need better than we’re giving them.