We Must Love the Families of Children in Need

We Must Love the Families of Children in Need

A panel with Rosaria Butterfield, Regina Robinson, Dennae Pierre, and Sandra Hardy

Transcript

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Rosaria Butterfield: This is the Word of God: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them and those who are mistreated since you also are in the body.” Let’s pray. Our gracious God and heavenly father, you have given us a command that is it majestic. It is powerful. It is at the center of the Gospel. And I pray, Lord, that as we talk today and as we share today, that you will leave us better equipped to seek out the stranger and to make that stranger a neighbor and to seek out our neighbors and to welcome them as family of God. Lord, help us to stand with those who are mistreated, help us to know who they are. And I pray, Lord, that you would be given all the glory and all the honor and that you would fill your kingdom, Lord, with people who desperately need to know you, who love you. And Lord, we just thank you for the opportunity that you give us to be used in this way. In Jesus, I pray. Amen.

I have no idea what happened to the lights. I have no idea. So in my Bible against right next to the margins here and Hebrews 13:1-3 is a name and that name is Jessica Ashley Gibson. And Jessica is the girl that we didn’t adopt. She was troubled and she was troubled. When I met her, she was 16 years old and she was in a group home and I was her mentor and she would come to my home for pizza. We crocheted a granny square blanket together. She helped me one year with VBS. She came to me and she said, “Rosaria, how are we going to control these people without straight jackets or medication?” It’s actually a very good question. Now we had adopted other children and at the time we had just adopted a teenage girl, also Jessica’s age. We were not able to adopt two teenagers at the same time. We also had a little 16-month-old baby, and it was a busy house.

But we learned something important about what happened when we didn’t adopt Jessica. When she turned 18, they moved her into an adult center where she was abused and then we lost touch with her. We got a phone call a couple of years…she moved out of the state. Because we didn’t adopt her, we actually had no legal rights to either her whereabouts or her wellbeing. And then the very saddest thing of all was that as we were adopting our second teenager, a social work worker whispered in my ear that Jessica had hanged herself on her 21st birthday in a homeless shelter in New York. I share this with you because that’s what’s written in my Bible. I share this with you because I, like others on this panel, are here at this conference and it’s a little surreal. And it’s a little surreal because the people we love most and care for the most could no sooner be at this conference than they could walk on the moon.

So as we talk today about loving whole families in Christ, we’re going to remember just a couple of important, important things that it’s very risky to say yes to people and it’s even more risky to say no. And that the commands that the Lord has given us, that we can fulfill. The Lord actually gives us no command without giving us the grace to obey it. And that’s true whether you’re dealing with sin and temptation or whether you’re dealing with mercy. And so what we’re going to do today is to share some of the ways that the Lord has blessed us to pursue the stranger. And you know, as soon as a stranger walks through the threshold of your doors, you know what happens? That’s not a stranger anymore. But to pursue, to seek out the category of stranger and to live as neighbors, and then to, by God’s grace, become family of God even with those neighbors.

So we know that we’re not going to be talking about do-gooderism here and, you know, I mean, we like doing good things, but this is not works righteousness. We know that every single human being on the planet is going to swing somewhere on that pendulum between human dignity and human depravity. We know that people need more than just care. They need more than a kind of liberal communitarianism. They need the gospel. But the gospel comes with more than words. The Gospel comes with deeds. The Gospel comes with even more than the word of God. It comes with the hands and feet of Jesus, and that would be us. So we are a fragile people, and in this room, I know that we have lots of people who are adopted children. We have lots of people who are mothers by adoption. We have birth mothers. We have post-abortive moms, post-abortive women we have. So we’re going to talk openly and kindly about one another remembering that Jesus always leads from the front of the line. So what’s happened? God is more merciful than we are. We know that.

So I’m Rosaria. I have had the pleasure of being in the foster care and adoption world for over a decade. By God’s grace we were able to adopt two teenagers and two babies and my babies are now middle school and high school and one is sitting up here crocheting and the front row. I’ve officially adopted people who stand a foot taller than I do. You know, I’m five foot two, so that’s okay. We currently work with a program called Safe Family, which is a Christian alternative to foster care. And I’m a pastor’s wife. And over the years of our ministry iand our life, there’s one thing that keeps coming back and it’s Hebrews 13:1-3 for all of the hardships, for all of the hassles, for all of the challenges, for all of the ministries that we’ve lost and the ministries that we’ve gained, The Lord has always kept us very close to these verses and it has been a real challenge and a blessing. And so what I would like to do now is just ask each of our panelists to introduce yourselves and just share a little bit about what brings you here to a panel called Loving Whole Families in Need. What dog you got in the race?

Regina Robinson: I’m Regina Robinson and I live in Boston, Massachusetts with my husband and four children, 12,10, 8 and 5. And the reason I’m here today is because I’ve been in higher education for 20 years, been a church planter for 12, and 11 years ago when we moved to Boston, I became pregnant with our second child. And no surprise there. It’s what you happens when you’re married. And having already knowing what to expect when you’re expecting, a routine ultrasound went south very quickly when the doctor told us something is wrong with your baby, and then showed us on the screen the different things that were wrong with him and told us to terminate the pregnancy all in one sentence.

So having just moved from Virginia (my mom is here), and a loving family. I’m a preacher’s kid, preacher’s wife, been in the church all my life. And at that moment I had no verse. I had nothing. I just had a moment of despair because they said termination. And it took a second to recognize what they were telling me. And then he left and brought in another radiologist, and she said the same thing. And they said, “Yeah, it’s too sad, too early. You need to terminate the pregnancy.” So we said no because we wanted to see our son and meet him. And it took us down a very challenging journey in the city of Boston because Boston is where Harvard is, actually, Cambridge is where Harvard is. They like to remind us of that. And we entered into the world of Harvard Medical School and all of the elitist and specialists around the world, the best and the brightest, who we saw and who just really disregarded our walk, our journey. Never spoke to us about our son only talked about the management option and then the shame of the choice that we made.

And upon having him a few days after he was born, neurologists confirmed he did not have the initial diagnosis that they told us he would have that was the cause for the termination decision. And when I tell you that I was on the verge of either one or the other ABW moments, either an angry black woman moment or an articulate bold woman moment, and I’m grateful for the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the spirit, that I was able to have an articulate bold woman moment to simply ask the neurologist, “How did we get here? How did we get to this point?” So that opened up our eyes and our hearts to the journey of disability. Our son has Down syndrome as though that was the second death sentence that they were giving us. And if you’ve ever met someone with Down syndrome, right, you talk about a dance party waiting to happen on any given day, on any given day.

And so our son is turning 11 next month. He’s the mayor of his classroom. But it really opened up our eyes to the disparities in the world of disability. And even more so the disparities among people of color impacted by disability. Boston has 57,000 students in Boston public schools and 11,000 students with IEPs, Individualized Education Plans. And on a monthly basis only about 100 parents come to Special Education Parent Advisory Council meetings. So there’s a huge gap and parent education, parent advocacy, parent agency, and 40% of our youth are English language learners. So when you have English language learners who also have special needs, the gap is even wider.

So enter into the ministry, the Robinsons who were thinking they were planting a church and impacting medical students and God says, “And you’ll impact medical doctors, physicians, specialists around the world who will wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you can still manage to have a smile,” on a good day. So I’m here because loving the stranger sometimes means when you thought you were going to the mission field to be a missionary and God said, “No, that’s person-centered, you’re going to be missional, which is purpose-centered. It’s processed-centered.” And in the process of our journey, he did more in me and through me then I intended to do in Boston for Boston. So I’m here to just share a lot of the journey of what it’s looked like in Boston the last decade to love families because you can’t impact kids without really striving hard to impact their families in creative and complex ways.

Rosaria: Yeah. Thank you.

Dennae Pierre: So I’m Dennae and…all right, there we go. I’m Dennae and I have four children. So we live in Phoenix, Arizona. My older two, Marcel and Maya, we were gifted to foster and then adopt when they were eight and five years old. And then our younger two kids are biological, and in between the growing of our family, we’ve fostered three teenagers and two babies. And in our journey began to get to know different birth parents who were the parents of our foster children. And as we began to journey with teenagers, especially, God just opened up our hearts for family reunification, family reconciliation. A lot of members of our church began to foster and adopt and we just began to quickly see how easy it is to kind of jump into foster care with the desire to rescue or save and the judgment placed on families who have child welfare involvement didn’t seem to reflect the heart of God.

And so as we started, you know, working with families who are fostering, adopting and also walking alongside birth parents and starting some of different ministries and nonprofits related to that, we just realized there was this huge cultural gap. Like the church was like charging the hill, we’re going to wipe out the foster care system and adopt a bunch of kids. And God did some beautiful things. Lots of churches mobilize, lots of people got involved. But the language around birth family was very dehumanizing and very judgmental and very othering. And so that was a big part of our journey. And then, in addition, three years ago as we were…maybe it was four years ago now. As we were engaging in our city, the initial kind of the new stories that are breaking right now about unaccompanied minors sleeping in these gated little rooms. That was breaking four years ago when there were just hundreds of kids specifically in our Arizona borders that were coming up through Honduras and Central America.

And so we were able to be a part of…it’s really a beautiful opportunity to help gather 30 foster families and begin to offer short-term foster care. And so I got to spend a lot of time with those kiddos in middle schooler age anywhere from four up to eighth grade age. And again, God just kind of broke open our hearts for the systemic nature. You cannot look at a child and not understand all the systemic pain and injustice that started years and decades and generations back that led to this moment in which a mother and father and child are all separated. And so that’s kind of been our journey. I’m a pastor’s wife in downtown Phoenix and I really just love seeing reconciliation and families in our church. It’s just so a key to the gospel and just such a beautiful picture of what God has done for us. And so as much as we’re talking about adoption and foster care, and I am really thankful that the church is talking about it so much more, I wanna see us put the majority, like 90% of our energy towards working upstream preventative, you know, helping families not get to that place or walking with families in that place.

Rosaria: Thank you.

Sandra Hardy: Hello, my name is Sandra Hardy and I currently live in Birmingham, Alabama. We moved there in 2012. My husband is a church planter. And so we moved to Birmingham from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was born and raised to plant the church in a city called Fairfield, which is just a little bit west of Birmingham in Alabama. And so we moved there. Prior to moving to Alabama, I was the director of a nonprofit organization. So I have a lot of nonprofit experience working with people mostly in urban, low-income areas, primarily with education, job-related placement and just helping people really get on their feet to be self-sustainable.

And so when we moved to Birmingham, we started the church in 2012 but we also started a nonprofit. The church is called Urban Hope Community Church and we started a nonprofit called Urban Hope Development. And so most of my work has been with Urban Hope Development in educational-related initiatives, primarily working with middle school students, low-income middle school students in the city of Fairfield. And I don’t know if you know anything about Fairfield, but it’s a city that has had a lot of businesses pull out. So there was a big steel mill there that pulled out, Walmart pulled out. It’s kind of a shell of a city. And so it used to be a place where it was drawing place, people look forward to coming there. Now, businesses have left. And so that’s where our church is. Many of the people are unemployed. The educational system it’s getting better, but most of the students are below grade level, particularly in reading and writing.

So my focus has been to work with those students and their parents. We do, and actually, we’re in the process of doing it right now, a summer camp in the month of June for the students. I work with 40 students and then I also work with the same students year-round. And so our focus is math and reading. Most of the students, as I said, are at least three or four grade levels below on both of those subjects. And so our goal is to help during the summer, stop summer learning loss. If any of you are familiar with that, it’s where students, particularly if they are in low-income areas, they lose knowledge during the summer. And so when they go back to school in the fall, they’re that much further behind. And so my focus is not just on those students but also on their parents. Their parents, a lot of them didn’t finish school.

So we also have a program where we help their parents or adults, other adults in the community, get their high school diploma. And so once they get that, we also help them get employment. So there’s a lot of different factors that we try to address not just the student, but we know that the students go home. And so there’s a lot of issues that within the home that if we can’t help the parents, that we really aren’t being as effective as we can be for the students. And so that’s really my focus. Those students who are in need, those parents of those students who also are in need, and try to come alongside of them and work with them so that they can be self-sustainable and to be all that God created them.

Rosaria: Yeah. Thank you. So as we talk about loving whole families in need, we are talking about some different categories and different needs and different issues. When we talk about adoption, we’re not talking about coveting other people’s children. We don’t adopt children to fulfill us. That’s not why the church adopts children. So I mean that may be one of the narratives you hear, but that’s not why the church does it. The only people eligible for adoption are orphans. And when we’re talking about foster children were not talking about orphans. We’re not, we’re talking about, at this point, children who have a relationship with parents and unless the civil magistrate is involved for cases of abuse or neglect or unless a parent tragically dies of an illness or terminates his or her own parental rights, that child is still a member of a family that’s not ours.

And we’ve also talked about the need to partner with, and in, and you know, Sandra’s case, actually create agencies that allow you access to children, that give you the right and the responsibility to know people by name, to wipe their tears, to put their hands on the pencil properly. And we’re also talking about the way that disability and race and class work together in ways that are not part of our imagination and are in ways that you simply can’t just wish away. They’re there for us to grapple with and deal with. And even in the most important and powerful medical establishment in the country, guess what? They’re not God. They read an ultrasound, they read it wrong, and they give you the worst advice in the world and yet God overseas and protects because he loves us.

Regina: As I like to say, I would tell the Harvard medical students when I speak, my title is “MD doesn’t equal GOD.”

Rosaria: Yeah, that’s right. Absolutely.

Regina: And it baffles them.

Rosaria: Amen. Amen. And you know, I really like Regina’s acronyms. I’m thinking that we just need…we need a little, you know, like sometimes you do a book afterwards or like…I just need the acronyms. I really like that.

Regina: Yeah, it’s coming.

Rosaria: It’s coming. Okay. Very good. Very good. Forthcoming. So I’m gonna just throw some questions out and we’re all going to take a stab at it and then we’ll leave some room for these fine women here to ask questions of us. And then I’m gonna close us with some calls for action. So let’s begin. Sandra, I’ll begin with you if I may and we can all take a stab at this. What are some of the myths about poor people as it relates to education and their children? And is there some way that small churches can get involved without being invasive and without being part of the problem and not part of the solution?

Sandra: There are several myths that I have encountered as I work with parents as it relates to their children. And oftentimes, one of the myths is that even though they’re low-income parents, that they don’t care about education, that they don’t care about their children learning. Oftentimes there are extenuating circumstances within that family or within that home that may lead to that perception. But these parents care about their children, they care about their children’s academics. They want their children to learn. They want the same things for their children as other middle-upper-income families want for their kids. And so that’s a myth that parents don’t care about education or don’t want their kids to learn.

Also that they don’t see education important. They do see education important. Many times parents haven’t had the education that they would have liked or wanted to have. Oftentimes there are, again, different situations that have either caused them to drop out or not complete school. And so for that fact, they know the value of education and so they want their kids…and they know the value of education so they do want their kids to get educated. And then also many times, and I know that this is true and parents have to be encouraged in this, is having the ability to advocate for their child. So often parents don’t feel like they can approach the school or they maybe don’t know the wording or the terminology or the process to get for their child what their child needs. They may know that their child is behind or underperforming, but they don’t know how far up the chain they can go or just how to navigate that process.

And so those are just some of the myths. And in terms of how small churches can come alongside, with our experience, we’re a small church, church plant, we probably have 30 to 40 people on an average Sunday. And what we have been able to do is we have a lot of church partners. In Birmingham, if you’re familiar with Birmingham, there’s what’s called Over the Mountain. Anybody familiar with Over the Mountain? Birmingham has a history. Historically, ’60s civil rights. And so there’s Over the Mountain where there’s a lot of more affluent churches, middle-income churches, versus where Fairfield is. And so, we have been able to partner with Over the Mountain Churches. They’ve become our church partners where they help to support us, not just financially, but also with experience, with expertise. And we have been able to shape our program to be able to address many of the needs of our families, of our students, of their parents. The word and deed model is what we do, not just we give the word, you know, word of God, but we also come with deeds to help encourage and, you know, help the parents along.

Rosaria: So there’s a lot of restored dignity that goes into helping parents advocate for their children. And that’s one really important takeaway. And the other important takeaway is that poverty is not a sin. So a church is quite capable of helping, but often we’re also quite capable of hurting. And I think we’re all familiar with the title of that book, “When Helping Hurts.” For those of us who have been on the helping side, helping always hurts. And it always hurts because it means getting involved in people’s business and then managing secrets well. So we wanna always be careful how we want to restore dignity. And so if it’s hard to restore dignity and to help parents advocate for their children when there’s also a lot going on. In our experience in living communally with a Christian family displaced by homelessness recently, we came to learn that it is very, very common for posttraumatic stress disorder and homelessness and poverty to go together because of the enormous, daunting, unending stress of not knowing if you’re going to lose your child, of not knowing where you’re going to sleep now that you don’t have a home, of watching all of your solutions fall apart, of seeing people take advantage of you. Those are all really hard things.

So if it’s hard for parents who are struggling with poverty to advocate for their children who are falling behind in school for, again, good and understandable reasons, Dennae, how much harder is it for parents whose children have been removed and are in the foster care? Can you tell us a little bit what that’s like from the parents’ point of view and also from the children’s point of view?

Dennae: Yeah, I think what makes foster care really challenging is, one, the way the system is set up is most of our cities, the people they recruit to foster are in a complete different part of the city than families who are needing care. So we do Safe Families too and even that’s been a challenge in our city because you have a family an hour away who is able to host a child, care for a child, and the family so far. So the lack of proximity is a huge challenge and that’s rooted historically to how our city…you know, injustices in how our cities and neighborhoods were set up. But with foster care, you know, when you think about these parents, from day one that the government removes their children, they’re fighting a lot. They’re fighting uphill.

So it’s not a system that’s built to help provide opportunity for a second chance and healing and restoration and maybe be able to overcome addictions or have a pathway out of a violent relationship. And a lot of the parents that we work with are kids who were raised in the foster care system theirself, so we’ve had multiple teens now who become parents pretty young and their kids end up in the system. And so you see how the effects of a whole generation of kids being in group homes and aged out and put into the streets or into the prison system also like replicates this, multiplying this brokenness. And so I say this as someone who’s also worked with parents who have done a lot of harm to kids. And so, I’m not wanting to romanticize it, but it’s just so complex.

And what happens with the parents of the foster care system is everyone is seeing them from a deficit lens. Like they see them as hopeless. They kind of have “The Scarlet Letter” A on them, like how could you do…especially if you’re a mother, how could you do this to your children? And even in the church, a lot of language…and as we walk with foster families, we will start to hear what a child might be offered in a middle-class suburban home as opposed to their family of origin and there’s just this deficit. Like what does that family not have to give their children? And so when you think of all those dynamics, I think the gospel, Jesus, God looks at us not through a deficit lens because of Christ. He’s able to see us, through this abundant…you know, we’re given all these abundant gifts, our life stories, God mining those things in us and in healing us and restoring us and using us beyond what we…and for us to be able to do that to others is a really powerful thing where we’re not so much necessarily only helping families or walking alongside them an unlocking what God’s already placed in them.

And in that, there is just the normal, any kind of brokenness you’ve had in your family, a family who has addictions they need to overcome or, you know, a very destructive relationship that they need to have space from. Like in general, that is painful. It’s all-consuming. And you have grandparents and aunts and uncles and people you can pull on. But when you’re talking about the foster care system, you talking about a lot of isolation, a lot of brokenness and not necessarily having access to those family members, by the choice of the government. Sometimes families are very much wanting to be involved, but there can be all this delayed…systemic delay in getting to a grandma or getting to an aunt.

So just, it’s kind of this, when I do teaching in churches, I’ll have people have someone come up and hold a soccer ball and someone else hold a medicine ball and I’ll start talking and it’s like, you know, 15, 20 minutes later, the person with a medicine ball is like…I usually pick the big guy and their arms are like…you know, they’re so exhausted. Like that’s what you’re talking about, the challenges of poverty and generational brokenness and then displacement from family and then not having transportation. And then challenges for jobs because of, you know, a minor drug charge 18 years ago. It’s like there’s all these complex things that you’re asking someone to hold all these weights and then do calculus. It’s like, it doesn’t add up without community and help.

Rosaria: Yeah, no, that’s really helpful. And then, so another thing to think about that Dennae’s bringing to our attention is that for every…probably for most of us, we have many circles of support. So if something happened, like I lost my health, there’s a support team that’s going to come in. If I lost my job, there would be a support team that would come in. But in families that have no circle of support, families who have recently immigrated to this country, families who are not part of a church, the welfare state approach is to remove the child from that home. And, you know, Denae and I, we are not being Pollyanna. We can tell you stories that you don’t wanna hear and that we don’t wanna tell. But we also know, I mean my oldest daughter, we adopted at 16 and I was her 11th foster mother. She has been in the foster care system since she was six weeks old. That was not helpful. There were a lot of other situations also. But for the child, the foster care system talks about having goals and the goals tend to be reunification or adoption. And, again, for many people, it would be easier to walk on the moon because there are a lot of barriers.

Now, some of those barriers are involved sin and those are serious, that’s serious stuff. Some of those barriers and involve abuse and we’re not being Pollyanna about it. But some of those barriers involve lacking a support system and being poor. And you know, often I hear Christians feel like, “Well, you know, the welfare state has it covered. You know, it’s working fine.” It’s not working fine. It’s not working fine. And in fact, we’ve seen opportunities where a church, families in the church can support a family in need and that child never goes into foster care. And you know, the less agency involvement, the better, and not because agencies aren’t helpful and good, but because the more agency involvement, the more that that person’s going to lack dignity, the more the helping’s going to hurt because the more invasive the help’s going to be.

So Regina, add special needs issues to this question of poverty and race and also geography. That’s another thing that…I don’t wanna lose that thread that if we all live according to the privilege that we have, may tell you something, you will be of no use to the people who most need you. So if your idea of looking for a home is, let me find a home that allows me to be in the nicest neighborhood I can, given my income, you’re not gonna be really able to serve in the way that these children need. I’m just putting that out there

Regina: And moving to Boston, we wanted to be very intentional of living in the city. And Boston has different components of the city geographically where you can live among the affluent if you want to and you can live among fixed income or lower income. We knew that we were starting a church in Boston so we wanted to be among the people in Boston. What we realized very quickly though is there’s cultural pride in Boston and those who are in my listening session last night I can see some smiling already because I shared a story where my eyes were opened to the fact that black people weren’t black and white people weren’t white. And TJ Maxx, because I was looking at a dress, it was super cute. And a woman came towards me. I thought she was black and she was Haitian. She told me where she was from. I heard her talking on her phone, and not an English, in Haitian Creole. And so we started having a conversation and it was a lovely conversation.

And then a few minutes later, a white woman comes towards us and I say, “This is a cute dress.” We were all looking at the same cute dress, great fashion sense. And she said, “It really is.” And as she continued talking, I said, “You have an accent. Where are you from? Tell me. I’m from Virginia.” And we just started talking. She said, “I’m from Eastern Europe.” And so we continue to have a conversation. And it was a lovely afternoon. But when I went into the car and I called my mom, I said, “Mom, I just saw a woman, I thought she was black and she wasn’t. And I saw a woman and I thought she was white and she wasn’t. The black people aren’t black and the white people aren’t white.” Because in Boston you go into different communities and you don’t ask someone are you X, Y or X because it could be very offensive. There’s cultural pride. You don’t ask someone who looks like they are from a Latin American country and you just assume that they’re Cuban or you assume. No, you want to just get to know them. You ask them what their name is, you ask them about themselves, you ask them about the style that they’re looking at with you. You have a conversation. And I learned very quickly to bring dignity to people because there’s such cultural pride in the city.

Well, I also learned in the world of disability that there are a lot of cultural challenges and different cultures accept or don’t accept disability in certain ways and how it plays out into the school system. So I heard a couple of words that you all mentioned, and you do have to forgive me, I’m a preacher’s kid so when I hear things and I see themes, I just go for it. But the three As that kind of come to mind that were a part of my notes is how do we become agents of change? You talked about being an agent, how do we become ambassadors, and how do we become advocates for the particular populations that God’s calling us to? And so geography really matters because unlike the foster care system where proximity is a challenge, in the world of disability, proximity really does matter. You are more likely to want to serve in certain populations with certain students with disabilities in the school system more than likely if you’ve had proximity.

Our one-to-one paraprofessional was amazing. And one of the reasons she chose the field right out of grad school was because she had a relative, a distant relative with Down syndrome. And she knew what her life was like and how her life was impacted by this relative. Now everyone’s not going to have a relative. Prior to having our son, I didn’t have much contact with people with disabilities. But upon getting pregnant, my eyes were opened and I started to see things that I’d never seen before. That’s the beauty of proximity. You start to see things. I can walk into a room and I can tell if a kid’s on the autism spectrum. I walk into schools, I’m looking for a wheelchair, let me find a wheelchair, you know. I’m looking for the kids who are different, who are learning a little differently. I’m looking for the kids who are working independently. And then the kids who seem to have a little more oversight, they need a little more oversight. And so proximity really does matter. And it does matter in geography. And I believe that churches, even if your church is in the suburbs, every church is in a city that has a school.

And last night in our listening in session, we talked about the importance of churches and church leaders, youth leaders, pastors, elders, women’s ministry leaders, getting to know the principals in the school system. So then you can ask the principal, ask what…Do we have any principals or teachers in here? Ask a principal or teacher the top 5 things they need in their classroom and get ready to sit for 15 minutes. They’ll tell you and then be prepared to meet those needs. And that’s what happens when you have proximity with marginalized populations.

Rosaria: Yup, yup. So I realize that all four of us are pastor’s wives, and one of the things that that might indicate to people out here is that to really be an agent of change, you need to be a married woman. And I want you to know that that is not true. There are so many…and this is just my plug. So I have a real heart for teenagers. I love teenagers. In fact, all of my mom sensibilities came into fruition when I am around an angry teenager, you know? And that was premenopausal too. It isn’t just like, you know, like you might think, well, it’s hormonal, sorry, but no, no, it’s always been that way. There are so many teenage women, teenagers, female teenagers who will not be placed in a home with a mom and a dad because of sexual abuse. They will only be eligible for adoption by women.

So let me tell you what that means, church. Okay. Let me listen up, church. If you don’t believe that single women are capable and competent of adopting teenagers, if they’re called to do that, I’m not imposing this on you, but if you’re called, your church needs to be there for you because you know what? If not, then let me tell you what the church is saying. The church is saying, “Well, of course, same-sex couples should be adopting all these teenage girls.” All right. So we need to think about this. You, every person in this room, I believe, I hope is a member of a Bible-believing church. That means you’re part of a family of God. Is it hard to be a single parent? Sure, yes, absolutely. But your church will be there, your church will be there.

Dennae: Actually, even on that note, so there’s all these studies done on who…disruption is the word used for kids placed in a foster home or an adoptive home and the family’s saying, “We can’t do it anymore,” and the family’s choosing to have the kid moved. And single woman are the least likely to disrupt their placements of three or more children. So there’s a lot of reasons for that. A single woman actually do, like statistically, the best at raising a raising and adopting families.

Rosaria: Right. Thank you for adding that. So that’s another.

Regina: And look at the advocacy world. When you look at the IEPs, when you look at who’s showing up at IEP meetings, when you look at who’s teaching kids in the school system, women make up the majority. And so the advocacy piece, that’s why it’s really important to understand the belief that you can help speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves until they’re able to speak for themselves. And that’s where we have to move towards. And I’m glad you pointed out the importance of single women, younger women, because unfortunately, our church culture is waiting for you to move to that next season. And God is saying, “No, what about the now season? You can be used and you can serve and you can change the world in this now season.”

Rosaria: Absolutely. And you’re not somebody who needs to be fixed or fixed up. But I often wonder, in the world of orphans, if the missing link isn’t the church supporting single women who want to serve in this way. I’m not saying you have to. I am very prescriptive about some things, but that’s not one of them. You know, that’s so not nice of you, Rosaria. Don’t tell us we have to change our lives for the Gospel. I mean, come on now. Just to know that yes, we’re a bunch of married women here. We’ve got all got a story or 10. But for the single women in this room, I think you’re the missing link. And if the church wants to give you pushback, I would be more than happy to defend you.

So let’s open up our questions to you. Do you have any questions for us? We’ve talked about a lot of things. We’ve talked about disability, we’ve talked about race, we’ve talked about class. I’ve suggested that if you wanna be a good helper, you need to live perhaps below your means and move elsewhere. That’s kind of obnoxious maybe. I’ve introduced the idea of safe family. We’ve talked about the difference between foster care and adoption, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder. Come on people. There’s a lot to talk about. Questions. Yes.

Woman 1: Have any of you done Safe Families or foster care with biological children? I have three that are getting older and having…we’ve done some of having children in their home. And how have you handled those conversations with your children?

Rosaria: With your biological children? Okay.

Woman 1: Yeah. Different opinions.

Dennae: Yeah, so we had our permanent family in place before we started doing, so we had the three kids that were ours. I’m like, how many? And then we started fostering different teens. They were all teams that we knew ahead of time through our church and did Safe Families, which were kids we didn’t know. And so we treated our family as a family with talk and pray through each placement, each season. And we’re constantly assessing for where we’re at, taking our temperature. Are we healthy and in a good place, do we have something to pour out? Is this what the spirit is calling us to?

What’s changed…when I was in my early 20s, I was just like a diehard foster, I’m gonna foster 30 kids and this is gonna be my life. And as I’ve gotten older, I just think this is a constant conversation between like assessing where your kids are at. So I think some people are too cautious out of like idolizing their kids and their safety and some are too, what’s the opposite of cautious, careless. And so I do think, I always tell families in our church, like, don’t say no or not do it out of fear, but there’s also wise reasons to say no. And that’s the thing that you discern in community with people who know you well and it’s unique person to person.

Rosaria: And I would say that sheltering your children is not necessarily protecting them. So we were adopting teenagers and we had babies. Now all of our children come to us through adoption and foster care, but I think it’s kind of the same principle. In some ways, it’s almost easier because teenagers and toddlers, they both just grunt syllabically at you throughout the day, first of all. And they just…it’s like a lot of parallel play, you know, one is in the nighttime sphere and the other is in the 5 a.m. sphere. And you know.

Sandra: I will say our four kids are…because of our foster care and adoption, our foster care and Safe Families. And then we have my best friend, their aunt has a daughter who was born deaf, our life…they are so empathic. It is shaped them so much more than any like devotional I bought at Gospel Coalition Conference and done with them nightly. Like I do those things too, but it has shaped them in ways I never would have dreamed.

Rosaria: And that’s because it’s clear to your children when you do this that Jesus is not some prop you pull out for a conference or for church or for youth group.

Regina: Also focus on disability because if you have children with disabilities or you’re fostering children with disabilities, you need to pay attention to your boundaries and your margin. There is a difference. Boundaries are what you’re placing around something. Margin is the space that you need to create. And so you need to pace yourselves with the needs of your children. And then choosing the school environment, public, private, homeschool. But you have to know your wiring. You have to know your needs, you have to know your margin. The seasons of life make a difference, which is why I’m glad we brought up single women, younger women, because your pace and your season of life looks very different than when you maybe have one child, two children, one with the disability. So because the needs of disability are daunting at times depending on the disability, you really need to be wise and prayerful and led by the Holy Spirit ultimately.

Rosaria: One more question from this side, please. Yes. Would you stand up to ask you a question?

Woman 2: I’m a foster mother of a daughter entering the teenage years who are we’re headed towards adoption. Can you speak to how you would talk to her about her birth mother in a way that does proper honor to her birth mother while also sets warnings of not following in her footsteps?

Rosaria: Oh yeah, that’s a great question. I’m happy to take a stab, but if you’d like too…So my daughter, my oldest daughter was in that position, very much so. And what seemed to be the best thing was to let her take the lead and to do a really good job of listening, and to the best of my ability to remember that I’m a conduit, that this is going to be a slightly different parenting relationship than, say, I might have had if I had known her from infancy. But it’s an advocacy parenting and I’m gonna walk alongside her, but to be very careful about speaking negatively about or are appearing to presume that you are wiser or better than the birth mother, especially for a teenage daughter who’s really working out identity issues. She needs to be somewhat in the front of the line of that. Dennae, do you agree?

Dennae: I would say too, I think that if you have even an adoption in America, most often your kids are not orphans. They still have living parents and grandparents that they grew in their mother’s womb and they’re blood and DNA. And there’s history and story that matters to God and it matters to them. And so I tell my kids, as they’re able to hear it and ready, that I think I have one of the closest links, besides them, to their mother because we’re both mothers to them. And there’s a lot of pain and brokenness and sorrow I have over their life, the lives of our different kids’ birth mothers. But I’m praying for her like I pray for nobody else because I do believe that God wants to redeem and restore her. And even though I get the privilege of raising her children and being a mother as well, actually God…like I think because part of their healing journey, this has been true in my own life, that when you’ve had brokenness with the mother, God doesn’t just give you one mother to replace that.

He gives you like 20, and my kids need more than me and they need more than their birth mom. They’re gonna need a lot of mothers in a lot of fathers as they…and that’s why they need the family of God. And so I would say, like I would be careful not to place any fear of following in her…like I would be more fearful of them following in my footsteps. Like be more aware of your own family patterns and sins and just speak life into the story and like hope for redemption and restoration, as much as they’re able to, and let them take the lead in setting that pace.

Rosaria: And I think also to be prepared for the rejection of the birth mother, which happens a lot too because birth mothers need to move on and that’s okay. So there’s a lot of things that need to go on. Should we just take a few more questions? I’m sort of at a loss for what time it is, so forgive me, I don’t know what…should we end at 4:00? Is that correct? Is that what we’re supposed to do?

Regina: The next session is 4:30.

Rosaria: Right. But I think we have to…we’re supposed to leave the room. Okay. Let’s take one more question from this side and one more question from that side.

Woman 3: I have a couple of friends that are single who’ve mentioned adoption and I will never forget being surrounded by other friends who were just like, “But your single.” And so it’s like, okay, so this small conversation takes it to like the larger community of the church and never makes it to leadership. I’m curious like from a kind of an upwards approach but also from a top-down approach against that.

Rosaria: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So the question is I’ve had single friends who are called to adoption and fostering but, you know, at the micro level, the culture of the church so rejects that, that the conversation never really gets to maybe a theological discussion or, you know, what do the elders thing or that sort of thing. And so was that the question, how do we in the church demystify this and are we dealing with myth? Are we dealing with stereotype? How do we confront that? Is that your question?

Woman 3: Yeah. And actually, how is the leadership then enter in?

Rosaria: Okay. And how do we get the leadership to enter in? And I think some of us are probably here quaking thinking, but what will the leadership do when they enter in? I mean…

Regina: Go ahead and tell the truth. Tell the truth.

Rosaria: That’s right. All right. What do y’all think?

Dennae: Yeah, I mean, in our church we just take extra, like we do videos and stories and we have women, single parents who are fostering. Like a city, so citywide we’ll do…we’ll share, we’ll pray for…we’re very intentional about honoring the stories of single parents who have chosen to foster and adopt, and kinship care is another one. That a lot of times we forget once a grandparent or an aunt or uncle is raising their kids, that there’s not always the financial and therapy, counseling support or, you know, special needs advocacy, all those things that you get as a foster parent. You get all these extra privileges that a lot of kinship families do not get. And so a lot of storytelling I think is the best you can do. I think it’s always better to approach it positively when you’re doing culture change, like let’s be praying and excited about what God is doing through these women than to be like complaining and, you know, that seems to work better in our case.

Rosaria: All right, one question from here. Yes.

Woman 4: My daughter is very young, not school age yet. But she most likely will need special services because she has a brain disorder that affects a lot of things. Our older children, and two of my children are adopted, but we have them in the public school system in Detroit, which is not the best system, but we’re there to advocate for the public school community and the community in our neighborhood. My hesitation is with my youngest and being like afraid to send her to our schools because I know the special education and other services for kids with special needs are very minimal and they’re in the basement with [inaudible 00:56:00] kids and I hate that. But I want to advocate for my child with special needs as well as for my community children who may or may not have special needs. And there a ton of special needs in school, they’re just not all being cared for. But my question is what was like your first step moving forward…and I don’t know what Boston public schools are like as far as advocacy for special needs but I know what they involve. What was your first step in pursuing that?

Regina: My first step was pausing because life was happening and I had to really grapple with the new normal. But I remember…and I usually share names with the positive stories instead of sharing names with the negative stories. There’ll be a book one day with the names of the negative and then you all will know all of those medical doctors and their peers. But I remember a mom named Roxanne who was heading a parent advocacy group for kids with Down syndrome. And she heard about our story and she met me and she said these words, “When you are ready, we are here.” I didn’t understand it then because I just knew I needed to care for this baby and grapple with what is next. But what I learned, in the three years prior to public education, was the power of advocacy.

So you already said you have a heart to advocate. God has given you that heart to advocate. He will also provide the resources, the support, the guidance. But you first must just take that step of faith. If you would’ve told me a decade ago, “Regina, your advocacy is gonna lead to networking and mobilizing all of these parents, and then one day the mayor is gonna call and have a seven-minute phone conversation, you’re gonna think it’s a prank and it’s actually not, you’re not being punked, and he’s gonna tell you that he wants you to help impact the city of Boston,” I would have laughed. I would have had a Sarah moment and I probably would’ve said, “No thank you” because leading up to that, it was very dark.

So what I’m saying to you, if you already know what the conditions in the school are, that’s something to advocate about. You need to educate yourself on the federal laws. You need to educate yourself on the least restrictive environment. Educate yourself because an advocate and a parent with a voice of advocacy is just an unstoppable force and they’re not ready for you when you walk in the door. Roxanne said to me, “Regina, you know a lot. You speak up all the time.” My mom said I was a public speaker in Virginia, but she said, now I’ve really got something to say. Leave it to your mom, right, to tell you the truth about yourself. But what she told me at the time was, “Regina, when you arm yourself with information and you continue to strengthen the advocacy muscles…because they are muscles that must get strengthened and they don’t get strengthened on your own, they get strengthened in the community.”

So whatever disability your daughter has, you find that support group, you get them that support group. Other parents start to help arm you with the advocacy muscles and you go to the school. Always email when you have questions, always leave a paper trail. If you don’t like the answer, you ask them who are their bosses and you ask them how to spell their name because then it lets them know you’re serious. And Roxanne said, “You will become that mom and you need to be prepared for that.” And I said, “What does that mean?” She said, “That mom.” But because I had that southern flair, I can still say, “Thank you. I love your shoes. Cute dress, girl,” while I’m also saying, “I’m not here to play around because my child needs X, Y, and Z.”

But here’s the thing you always have to remember too, and I had three or four of parents who taught me this. Everything I know I learned from other parents and I only did what they told me to do. One parent said you treat your child as a client,” because if you go into IEP meetings or you go into any advocacy meetings, you see an attorney talking about their client. They’re not sitting there crying and boohoo-ing and hoping that you want to help their poor child, and no, your child is the client and you are there to represent your child. That’s what being an ambassador, right, being kind of that attorney. So you walk in, you’re armed with resources, you know everything there is to know about your child, the disability, and the support networks that you have. You become that parent that they say, “Okay, she’s here. We may just need to either give her what she wants,” because they know what you’re coming for because you’ve already sent the paper trail, or they will try to push back. Districts will sometimes do that and play the delay game and, “Well, let’s see if this will work and let’s see if this will work.”

But then when you do like I did, “Well, we don’t know if there’s a seat in the school.” Oh actually, this morning I called and you still have six seats for kids with special needs in that classroom. So excited. I visited it last week and it looks like the perfect environment. “Well, Mrs. Robinson, that’s not actually how we choose schools for your child.” “Really? I thought you have tours for every child in the district and public education is for all students and all means all and that’s all all means, right?” So you go armed with resources and you have a couple of girlfriends who’ve gone before you. And I’m serious, you guys, because it is a daunting, isolating, exhausting battle to advocate. But you need to have your girlfriends to say, “This is about to happen. Help me, prepare me, and they will and you’ll be able to move forward.

Dennae: And I would just say if you’re not like wired Regina’s way, find a sister in your church who will do that with you.

Regina: Yes, have an advocate. Exactly. You’re right.

Dennae: Like, I can’t even picture myself like giving back the wrong food order at McDonald’s let alone…Like you don’t have to do it alone, you know.

Regina: That’s the community. You’re absolutely right.

Dennae: But the other piece I want to say I think is really important in this conversation is when we get into walking with foster care, you know, working within neighborhoods that are really disadvantaged, special needs, anytime the word “should,” like I don’t think you said that, but like this feeling of like, “What should I do?” is we have to be praying and seeking God for what that looks like. And so, you know, we have kids who are in public school and we have kids who are not and we’re praying through each decision. And having a kid in the public school allows us to advocate for all kids. Not all four of my kids need to be in that public school for me to be very present in my local public school. But all four of my kids have very different stories and very different needs. And so I would just say when it comes to being a single parent and all these questions, prayer and community has to be such…the right community that’s gonna maybe be a little…that has some courage. You know, will be in prayer with you and that you’re discerning and listening to the spirit and stepping in together with that.

Regina: But don’t do it by yourself. Yes. Community matters.

Rosaria: Well, and if we would stop backsliding on this issue, community would be there. You see, the church has been backsliding. Again, that’s a term we tend to use for individuals in their personal dealing with sin. But I think that when you look at something like, and we don’t have time to do it because I’ve got to get to another panel, but later today, look at Jeremiah 3:21-4:04, the Lord makes a promise there that when we deal differently with the Lord, he will heal our backsliding. You know, we wouldn’t have to be creating superstar moms who, you know, have attorney personalities, and I mean, we love it, but I mean, not everybody has that, right? But if the church were not backsliding on this issue, that would not be the case. All right, we’ve gone way past our time.

Regina: Wait, one more verse, one more verse because she started with Hebrews 13. You need to continue reading Hebrews 13 because it says the Lord will never desert you. And it says that the Lord is your helper. So you have to hang on to his word. More than anything, no matter who your child is, gifted and talented, foster care, kids with special needs, the Lord is your helper, depend on Jesus.

Rosaria: Amen. Thank you.

“There are several myths I’ve encountered as I work with parents. One is that low-income parents don’t care about education, that they don’t care about their children learning. Often there are extenuating circumstances within the family or home that may lead to that perception. But these parents care about their children; they care about their children’s academics. They want their children to learn. They want the same things for their children as other middle- and upper-income families want for their kids. And so it’s a myth that parents don’t care about education or don’t want their kids to learn.” — Sandra Hardy

Date: June 15, 2018

Event: The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 Women’s Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here. Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.

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Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.

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