Welcoming the stranger through fostering
By Ria Evans
I was about 12 when I made friends with Josh at a trampoline club. He talked a lot to me and my mum and anyone really that smiled at him. Initially I thought he was just very friendly but as time went on I noticed that others got irritated by him and begun to shun him. He missed social cues, talked over people, and laughed when someone shared something sad and completely misunderstood sarcasm. He seemed to need to be talking constantly, oblivious to the natural rhythm of a conversation or the fact that he needed to stop and listen to the other person.
Josh didn’t live far from me so one day he invited me to see where he lived. I didn’t think much of it. I walked up this leafy drive to a huge house and initially though wow. I knocked on the door and was shocked to find that no only did Josh live at the house but there were about 16 children from the age of 9-18 living there. I couldn’t get my head round it. At first it seemed a bit exciting but then I asked “where are your parents?” very matter of factly Josh said, “my mum likes having babies and there’s so many of us she can’t cope so I have to live here.”
I went home in shock. I hadn’t really come across children being fostered or adopted or children’s homes. I asked my mum if Josh could come and live with us and I got very angry when she said no. I just didn’t get why Josh couldn’t live with us, we had a spare room and plenty to go round. It was that moment that I decided that one day I would welcome children into my home that couldn’t live with their own families.
Today we have been fostering for 14 years and it has been a rollercoaster of a journey but I wouldn’t change it. Welcoming a child into your home isn’t as simple as I initially thought, especially children who have suffered loss and trauma. You are a stranger and the child is a stranger yet you are thrust together and you, as the adult, are thrust into a parenting role, which the child may or may not want. Their experience of being parented will be full of positive and negatives but it is all they have known and most often they would rather be with a birth parent despite the parenting not being the best. There is a grieving and a loss process. For a child to be told that the person they loved most in the world is not a good enough parent is hard to grasp. It is not just parents that a child is leaving but sometimes their siblings, school friends, home, possessions, neighbourhood and sometimes their school too. They enter into your home where they have no idea if you are kind or cruel, they have no idea of the rules, the ways of doing things in this new place. Often a child arrives scared, sometimes resentful, sometimes unwilling to engage but mostly sad and anxious and fearful. They have just been removed from everything they know and often not by their choice. It is a confusing and disorientating process.
As foster carers we do our best to abate fears and to get to know each child. We share some of our family rituals: baths with bubbles, hot chocolate and cookies, stories and cuddly teddies before bed, but we also learn from the child if they like the light on or off, curtains open or drawn, peas or carrots. The first month involves constant reassurance and messages of welcome, acceptance, showing concern and interest. We must always communicate: ‘We are interested in you. We want to play games with you, cook with you, read with you.’ Each child is different: some get stuck into family life, whereas others need more time, so bonding is much slower. Some children are withdrawn and others are ‘in your face’. Some are terrified of the dark or of water, others talk to every stranger as if they were their best friend.
As Christians, our faith teaches us to welcome the stranger, and that is often easy when we like the person and they are grateful and kind to us, but is much harder when that person or child is not like us, constantly pushes us away, or is aggressive to us or completely ignores us for months. This is where grace comes in. This is when we are called to recognise that each child is a gift from God and is made in God’s image. God welcomes us with our messes, our hurts, our anger, our grieving, our anxieties and fears, and so this is how we welcome children. We say to them, ‘You are enough as you are’. We say ‘You are welcomed and accepted no matter how you are feeling or acting. We will show kindness and love and grace to you no matter how you are to us.’ Faith means we do not give up on a child. Our welcome must be like the welcome to God’s table- it does not have an end.
A foster or adoptive family is in fact similar to the church community. We are called to learn to be with one another and, just as we as Christians are adopted into the church family through baptism, we adopt children into our nuclear families. When we enter into relationships, we go on a journey. It is the same in our own families as it should be in the church family: we cannot welcome someone in and then demand they change everything about themselves to fit in with the way we do things. With each child our family changes and adapts. Each child brings something to our family, and all of us work on finding a way of living together that is hopeful and life-giving.
Ria and her husband Tim have been foster carers for 14 years and live on an estate in Birmingham where they attend a supportive Anglican church.