Two Plus Three
It’s Tuesday June 25, 2013. The phone rings. It’s the case worker inquiring of a temporary home for an 11-month-old boy. The answer… “Yes, there is room for him here.” Within an hour, the doorbell chimes and standing there are two case workers, one holding the baby boy. He is barefoot, dirty and wearing his onesie on backwards. His hands clutching onto a stuffed dolphin and his eyes hold nothing but fear.
In the state of Arizona there are about 17,000 children in out-of-home care and from April 2014 to Sept. 2014 only 1,552 of those found a permanent home through adoption. Out of those in out-of-home care, there are only about 4,000 children with a case plan goal of adoption.
From the most recent reporting period alone, about 6,500 children entered out-of-home care, a 13.3 percent increase from the last reporting period. According to the Semi-Annual Child Welfare Reporting Requirements, this increase is not unexpected, however, at the same time reports of abuse and neglect increased by 9.1 percent. The amount of children entering out-of-home care remains high because the number of reports received by the Hotline continues to increase.
Benjamin (Ben) 34 and Rebecca (Becky) 33 McLennan of Phoenix, Arizona discovered the devastating news they would not be able to have children on their own without help. They debated In Vitro Fertilization and insemination but decided not to follow through with seeking medical assistance. They felt it wasn’t necessary to put themselves through such “emotional taxation” when there are kids in need of a home right in their backyard.
“God will allow certain couples to experience infertility to open their hearts to the orphans,” Ben recalls a quote he once heard.
The McLennan’s began their journey into the Arizona foster care system in Nov. 2012 with the phrase, “We want to rescue and redeem kids.” It started with their first foster orientation in Dec. followed by their interview a month later. In 2013, they completed a five-week training session through their agency, Arizona Baptist Children’s Services. The couple became officially licensed to foster on June 12, 2013.
Currently there are roughly 4,500 licensed foster homes in the state; and from April to Sept. 2014, about 760 new homes opened while roughly 800 other homes closed their doors.
The Call, the Journey
Being new to parenting, they felt they could only handle a younger child. On June 23 they received an emergency call on a sibling set, a 5-year-old girl and an 11-month-old boy. Although Ben and Becky wanted to open their home, they did not feel equipped quite yet to foster an older child. They had to say no and hung up the phone.
Two days later, they received another call asking if they have room in their home for an 11-month-old boy; with a quick yes and the passing of an hour they met their first child Braxton. The scared baby boy with a dolphin in hand.
With only a crib, the three of them took off to Target at 9:30 that evening and left with a baseball sleeper pajama, red slip on tennis shoes, additional clothes, formula, baby food, bibs, and bottles.
“So many unknowns and such adrenaline. It felt like Christmas. Pure bliss. Our hearts were so full,” Becky says.
The first night Ben and Becky laid awake in wonder of this new journey. Laying down on the floor next to his crib, Ben prayed over Braxton.
“It was probably one of the most exciting, scary, exhilarating moments of our lives,” Becky says.
They soon learned he is the other half of the sibling set they received a call about just days earlier. His 5-year-old sister was temporarily staying with her grandparents until another arrangement could be made. Immediately Ben and Becky found themselves asking, “How can we get this little girl home to us?”
They were in a battle with another foster family, one who had been caring for the 5-year-old girl for a week. Not only did the other family want to keep her but also hoped to raise Braxton. On July 15, a court hearing was held and the decision was made. Two days later their second child Riah stepped through their front door and reunited with her brother.
The McLennan’s received news shortly after. The biological mother was pregnant with her third but would not be guaranteed her parental rights. Unfortunately, this new child would be born a baby of substance abuse and on Nov. 26 he entered the world. Not long after on Dec. 3 the McLennan’s brought home their third child Brooks, completing the sibling circle.
In the months that followed, the children had a couple visits with their biological mother while she was trying to piece her life back together. Although given almost two years to gain her rights back, she lost any possibility of future custody.
From the first decision, to the waiting period, and to the countless court hearings the McLennan’s experienced both moments of despair and moments of joy. Despair in the means of seeing the children come from a place of brokenness and heartache but joy in the brilliant blessing of a child.
One lesson they learned throughout this process is how important it was to remove themselves and their desires from the equation. “It’s not about us anymore. It’s about these kids who don’t have a solid home,” Ben says.
By humbling themselves and placing the needs of the children first, they have been given a new perspective on life.
“We have learned life is fully rewarding when you take a risk and follow your what-if wondering’s. We push our insecurities out of the way quicker than we ever have. There is a great need in this world and we are the answer to that need,” Becky says.
Regarding the McLennan’s personal experience, the toughest aspect of the foster care system is the voice, opinions or desires of fostering parents are not considered or valued in most cases. The system decides what is best for the children and the wishes of the foster parents can be irrelevant.
Becky refers to a foster parent as a “glorified babysitter,” given the challenge to love the children with the chance they could be removed from your care.
“You have a voice but they aren't always going to do what you say,” she says.
According to the system, as a foster parent you are given the title of a “Resource Parent.” You have no control over what happens to the children placed with you, but you are expected to give them what they need and treat them as family.
“You are a resource parent to kids who their parents are unable or unfit to take care of them. Your job is to give them a loving and safe home until they are given a permanent place,” Ben says.
Licensed foster parents, Shane 41 and Angel 38 Bishop have two biological sons and two daughters adopted through foster care in 2005 and 2008.
“You grow attached but have to know in the back of your mind there is a good chance they won’t be staying,” Angel says, “We have to realize as hard as it is on us, its so much harder on them. They are scared, angry, hurt, confused and have just lost everything they knew.”
Throughout the process, Angel says a foster parent is faced with a lot of different emotions and uncertainty’s; but whatever the circumstance they are consumed by the hope they are making a difference.
“It’s impossible to do the job on your own because you’re suppose to love them, pray for them, support and help them work through whatever challenges they’re facing and then be willing to let them go,” she says.
The Bishop’s turn to God for patience, understanding, strength, peace and wisdom. Angel believes whether a child stays with them or not, they know as much as their family may love the child, God loves them more and has His hand on them when they leave.
“That is why for us we’re so thankful to know for every child we’ve had or have had contact with, God has a plan for,” Angel says.
If given the opportunity to improve flaws in the foster care system, the McLennan’s believe some changes could be beneficial for everyone involved.
First, releiving some of the pressure from the case workers through a stronger employment system and increase in funding. According to the McLennan’s, their case worker was handling almost 50 different cases while the average is supposedly 15. Becky says they are the most caring, genuine people but become overwhelmed when given more than expected of them. Bottom line is the case workers are overloaded.
Secondly, the biological parents are given chance after chance to “prove themselves.” While the McLennan’s strongly believe children should never have to be separated from their family, without a time constraint the parent(s) ends up “dragging their feet.” This is an issue because it delays children their right to find permanency.
“It causes all kinds of havoc with the kids,” Ben says.
The McLennan’s battled with the court’s favor towards the biological mother for the two years they fostered the children.
They consider the source of the system’s problems and increasing numbers lies within the church ignoring their role. As firm believers in their faith, the McLennan’s feel if the church family were to see a need and fill it, the system wouldn’t be in the shape it’s in today.
Ben says families could be restored if the church body were to step in and take care of one another in their time of need.
Luckily, there are individuals and families who are taking initiative in raising awareness of the current foster care conditions. The Bishop’s, advisory board members for Arizona Baptist Children’s Services have been speaking at churches across the state since 2013.
“This has been amazing. We’ve not only been able to connect churches with local agencies so they can help; but we’ve also gotten foster families to sign up at every church we’ve visited,” Angel says.
With the growing number of children in foster care, Angel says the biggest need now are more homes and places for these children. “We have so many we’ve now run out of places for them and each week we have children sleeping in CPS offices,” she says.
The biggest change she would like to see happen is for every church to come forward and get involved. Angel believes if every congregation in Arizona took care of 1-to-2 children, every child would have a home.
Where the Will Meets the Need
Fostering has changed the McLennan’s entire world, “Well we have children! Our home is chaotic and we wanted chaos. We prayed for chaos,” Becky says.
At first, Becky claims she was terrified she would be illequipped to adopt but now she’ll admit absolutely anyone can. She says all it takes is getting outside of yourself.
“It has given me a bigger picture, a bigger worldview,” Becky says.
Going forward, the McLennan’s see themselves fostering again in the future. Through the life they endured within the last three years, their eyes have been opened to an urgency. Becky finds herself asking, “How do you say no now?” Where there is a broken, faulty family and a child in need of a home, they will be there to serve and fill that need.
“However I am willing, there is always a need. We will eventually go through it again. You think about the outcome and it’s just worth it,” Becky says, “There is nothing more pure than caring for the orphans.”
Benjamin and Rebecca McLennan, foster-to-adopt parents
Angel Bishop, ABCS advisory board member, foster-to-adopt parent