My mother-in-law, Kathy, and father-in-law, Rich, have taken in foster children for as long as I have known them. I lose count of the number that have come through their care. Some stayed only a few weeks; others lived in their home for years. Through adoption, two of the girls have become my sisters-in-law.
The circumstances surrounding a new arrival in their home are more than heartbreaking; they are terrifying. Drug use, homelessness, abuse, violence, abandonment — all of mankind’s most profound evils lurk around children when their family falls apart. Some birth parents are able to get their lives turned around and get their children back after a period of time, but most of the children never go back. The state does everything possible to reunite children with birth parents and many end up with relatives, but happy endings are rare.
Reunification and adoption are the only real hope for these young people. Rich and Kathy provide a loving home for every child that comes to them, and the children in their care make incredible transformations, but their time is limited. Once foster children reach 18 years of age, they are no longer in the custody of the child welfare system and they face the profound risk of venturing into adulthood without a support system. Some studies have found that as many as 40 percent of young people who leave foster care battle homelessness. Foster families provide temporary security for children coming from the most broken homes but they cannot fully replace a mother and a father and an extended network of family members working together to support a person over a lifetime.
The fundamental importance of the family is central to our faith for very important reasons. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church points out: “The solidarity of the family nucleus is a decisive resource for the quality of life in society.” More than the profound connection between God’s love for His children, and parents’ love for theirs, the Church frames family as a “decisive resource.” This characterization is the bridge over the political and ideological chasm that tends to form at that intersection of family and faith. In 2016, the left-leaning Brookings Institute and the conservative American Enterprise Institute joined in publishing a bipartisan study on poverty in the United States which resulted in 12 recommendations under three main headings. The first four of those recommendations were:
1) Promote a new cultural norm surrounding parenthood and marriage.
2) Promote delayed, responsible childbearing.
3) Increase access to effective parenting education.
4) Help young, less-educated men and women prosper in work and family.
The 88-page report goes into detail around all of these recommendations, justifying the need to end the cycle of generational poverty and pointing to a basic financial reality that two incomes are better than one. It is one of the best blueprints out there for solving poverty in America, precisely because of the focus on family.
In the context of our faith and reports like the one referenced above, it is important to recognize that, while the two-parent family is the most supportive environment, it is not always the reality. Single parents, divorced parents and extended family raising children need help and support, rather than condemnation. It is equally important that we keep this understanding in our approach to immigration policies and enforcement, which tend to tear families apart and vilify families in the characterization of them as “chains” of migrants.
Starting in the Book of Genesis, Sacred Scripture makes clear that God’s plan for mankind hinges on the family. “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Care for our brothers and sisters begins with care for our sons and daughters; it is the first and most important work of charity that we can practice. While it takes a special kind of love and energy to provide foster care for children, we must all work to foster care and support for the families in our parishes, neighborhoods and communities. It is our best hope for ending the spread of poverty and its debilitating impact on our human society.