I sometimes use my author interviews to help educate people about various issues without getting preachy. So I’ll begin this interview with TJ & Jenn Menn, authors of Faith to Foster by saying I know families who have fostered kids and adopted kids. Additionally, I have worked with kids with special needs who were fostered. Partly from those experiences, but more from general knowledge, I think our foster care system in the nation can certainly use improvements.
So when I was contacted by a publicist asking if I’d be interested in interviewing a couple who have fostered 22 kids into their home, from multiple states across America, ranging in age from birth through high school, I quickly agreed, both curious about their story and seeing an opportunity to educate readers about how things “really work” in the foster care system, as well as help shatter a few urban myths about fostering in the process.
This interview about the book, Faith to Foster, is the result of reading their engaging, excellent and eye-opening book and asking them questions some of which came from the heart and some from the brain and some, of course, from both.
Why did you decide to write a book upon your foster experiences?
As we fostered we encountered lots of people with questions about foster care. It’s just not talked about much, besides the newsworthy tragedies of a child dying or other catastrophes. By writing Faith to Foster, we hope to motivate people to act out their faith and love others in their communities, whether it’s through foster parenting or some other way. Foster parenting isn’t something you’re going to wake up one day and jump into. It takes a sense of familiarity and we thought a book could serve as a starting place for exposure and answering questions through storytelling.
You talk a lot about how your backgrounds as Christians compelled you to do this work. Can you give some examples on how your faith helped you do this work?
As Christmas approaches I anticipate seeing the catchy phrase, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” In the same way, Jesus is the reason we foster. Our realization of His grace to us makes us want to show grace to others. When we married, we wanted this extension of grace to be something we could do together. We knew there was a Biblical basis to love our vulnerable neighbors through foster parenting.
After a few difficult experiences, our faith provided guidance on how to love children when they acted out and how to show kindness to birth parents when “co-parenting” got hard. Our faith also brought us into fellowship with a community of people eager to support us with physical needs and help remind us of God’s plan when children left our home.
Do you think the fostering work would be even harder and more challenging for those who have different faiths or no belief system?
The difficulties and joys of foster parenting deepened our faith in ways we never anticipated, so it’s hard to imagine fostering without faith in Christ—but we feel that way about day-to-day life. It’s hard to keep from despair without the Gospel. We do believe a set of wholesome principles and relationships can help ground foster parents to meet the needs of children, and understand people can find these roots outside of Christianity.
Caring for another person’s child, or multiple children, for an uncertain amount of time, takes a commitment beyond mere desire. In theory, we desired to be foster parents. But some days, we do not desire to calm down another tantrum or sibling fight. When children have left to return to their families, we have rarely desired for them to leave. So desires can’t be the guiding factor.
You touched on one of my pet peeves which I’m going to ask you to help dispel, specifically the myth or urban legend that people who foster can make enough fostering that they don’t need to work. How do you respond to those who believe this?
The reimbursement we receive is usually less than the cost of boarding a dog in many places in the country, so we would not recommend becoming a foster parent for the reimbursement. The government intentionally keeps it low enough to prevent wrongful motivation but high enough to ensure the needs of the children are met. Unfortunately, we have encountered foster parents who bring children into their home for the reimbursement, but this is certainly not the goal of the system, and we do not think this practice is wide-spread.
Professional therapeutic foster families do exist, who are compensated at a higher per diem rate, but that’s more like a treatment plan approach for children with special needs.
In my personal experience I’ve encountered many foster kids with intellectual disabilities, which can make the experience even more challenging both for the foster parents and the foster kids. Has that been your case too? Did you feel adequately prepared for that?
Yes, our experience is that many foster children have special needs of some sort. It may be a gap in development, or an injury or illness. Sometimes it’s the result of abuse of neglect. We certainly don’t want to generalize and say all foster children have disabilities though.
If handled correctly, foster care can be a time of great opportunity for the family and the child. Four year old Jasmine came to us with raw wounds and unable to speak independently. We endured nearly two years of multiple speech and occupational therapies per week to get her on track. Watching her progress was one of our greatest joys.
We’ve never parented outside of fostering, so we have a hard time comparing the challenges of parenting in general with those specific to fostering. Every foster parent goes through training that we felt equipped us to handle most of the situations we encountered as foster parents. In areas where the training fell short, we relied on the Holy Spirit for discernment and community resources.
How many total kids have you now fostered and how long do you plan to keep fostering?
We have fostered twenty-two children, to include three newborns directly released from the hospital, and most every age up through adulthood. We currently have a sibling group of four who arrived last December, ages nine, eight, three, and two. We don’t know how long we’ll continue foster parenting, but trust God to tell us when He wants us to move on to something else.
We took a long break during graduate school, which was refreshing, but it also gave us perspective to see the impact the church could make in society through foster parenting. When it comes down to it, every child needs a family. Currently, there are more children than certified foster families. We hope that equation reverses, and is one of the primary reasons we wrote Faith to Foster.
You speak, in the book, of the moment when people in your community learned Harmony was not adopted, but fostered. Can you talk about what that reaction was like and what you took away from it?
Many communities seem much more comfortable with adoption that fostering. We get that. Our life IS uncomfortable. Many acquaintances responds, “I couldn’t foster, I would get attached and then it would hurt to say goodbye” when they hear we foster parent. And that’s not fair. Initially, I would wonder, “Do they think I don’t love as well as they do?” or that we have a magical shield from grief?
As I reflected more, I realized people tend to adhere to this belief, “If something is going to hurt, I shouldn’t do it.” But that’s a misconception. It weighs only the cost without considering the benefits, and the benefits of foster parenting make the farewell worth its pain.
Take Harmony for example. We raised this tiny drug- exposed newborn into a healthy, happy, and giggling baby. We have countless sweet memories with her, and feel gratified knowing she could’ve failed to thrive if she stayed in the harmful environment she came from. So did we weep when she left? Of course we did. But after 18 goodbyes, and with 4 more likely pending, the pain of lost children does not define us. It’s their lives we shared in.
Did you guys make a decision not to permanently adopt any of the kids you fostered or is that just the way it worked out?
It’s just the way it worked out. In fact, the vast majority of foster children return to some member of their birth family. In our experience, the children’s case managers knew we would adopt the children, but it was always seen as the back-up plan, and it’s never been needed. A couple of times we had to move out of state due to Army orders, otherwise we probably would have adopted a few of the children we have fostered.
Foster families can choose to only care for children who are available for adoption, but we decided against this option in order to help kids when they first enter the system and it felt like the greatest need in our county at the time. We’d like to adopt, but so far the timing and circumstances have not worked out. We try our best to trust God’s will for us in this area.
What would you do differently if you did have a permanent child either biologically or through adopting? Would you still foster?
We probably would not have cared for some of the sibling groups we’ve welcomed into our lives if we had other children in the home. However, we know families who foster while raising their biological kids and it seems to work well. When someone is already in parenting mode, it’s fairly easy to add more to the mix. My (TJ) parents had foster children in and out of the home, and the time I spent as a foster sibling was a powerful and positive experience.
Many I know who work in the adoption and foster fields have concerns about how the new Trump administration may affect things. Do you share those concerns?
Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are certainly vocal advocates for child welfare, so those in the field held high hopes of foster care being a priority in their administration. Donald Trump’s intentions related to child welfare are largely unknown. Sixto Cancel, CEO Of Think of US, said after the election he’s “Feeling the uncertainty I would feel every 1st night of a new foster home.”
Honestly, we doubt it will change much, because so much of foster care is based upon the state level of government. Rather than worry about what might happen, we try to focus on ensuring the eight little eyes looking at us feel peace. Success in foster care is a result of what happens within each individual home more than what goes on in the White House. Quality foster and adoptive parents can bring progress under most any political circumstance.
Lastly, is there anything you wanted to say that I neglected to ask you?
I’d encourage readers to keep gathering information about foster care. It’s always useful and provides forward momentum towards figuring out what’s right for you and your situation. We both had exposure to foster care during high school, and it made the leap to becoming foster parents a smaller step of faith. I’ve never met a person who’s read about foster care or gone through training and regretted it, even if they never became a foster parent.
Thank you for this opportunity.