Fostering Love

by Bethany Wagner '14

It all started with a phone call Friday afternoon from a social worker: “I have a little girl here with me, and she needs placement in a home before the end of the week. Can you take her?” Robert Duke, Ph.D., professor of biblical studies, and his wife, Jenny, foster parents since 2011, said, “Yes,” without hesitation. Little did they know that when they picked up Mariah from the social worker’s car, they were meeting their future daughter who would make a permanent place in their home and hearts.

Months later, Duke developed the Interfaith Foster Care Summit conference, encouraging families of all faiths to consider their response to this plight. Slated for May 14 at the University Synagogue in Brentwood, the conference seeks to educate religious leaders about the foster care system, identifying specific programs for their congregations to support and ultimately encouraging them to consider fostering.

The conference draws on the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” “Tikkun olam reminds us of our God-given responsibility to preserve and protect the world, healing the places that are broken,” said Duke. “Fostering cuts across many boundaries. The call to help children connects across cultures and religions.”

Duke points to the staggering number of children in the foster systems as a call to action. More than 638,000 children are in the United States foster care system (AFCARS 2012). In Los Angeles alone, the county system involves 18,523 kids ( 2012), and in California, 13,091 foster children need permanent adoptive homes (Children’s Bureau 2012). Most suffered neglect in their original homes and many endured abuse. “You hear the background stories and wonder how children could go through some of these situations,” said Cahleen Shrier, Ph.D. professor of biology. Shrier and her husband Paul, professor of practical theology, fostered children and now care for their adopted son and daughter.

Shrier frequently glimpsed the effects of past neglect during her time as a foster mom. When fostering three young brothers, the oldest would approach her and ask whether or not they would have dinner that night, showing concern for his younger siblings. “I reassured him, ‘You get to be the child, and I’m going to be the parent. In this house, we will never miss dinner,’” Shrier said. “Every child needs and deserves a nurturing home in which they are wanted and loved.”

Sarah Adams, Ph.D., professor of [English] (/clas/english/), also felt called to respond to this need by registering as a foster parent last year. “I dreamed of adopting most of my life. I’m not married, but in the last couple years, I still felt the desire from God to be a mother.” Last November, she took home her 19-month-old foster son and has cared for him ever since.

Taking a child home brings a multitude of challenges. Time becomes an even more precious commodity as parents face sessions with social workers, court appointments, doctor visits, and large amounts of paperwork alongside meeting the demands of a job, caring for biological children, and making meals. “Fostering requires full-time commitment and changes your entire family situation,” said Duke. “Involving another person in your family shifts your priorities, schedule, and everyday life in huge ways.”

Tom Dunn, professor of art[, and his wife, Jan, know firsthand the challenges brought on by fostering. Twenty-one years ago when their biological son moved to college, the Dunns found themselves at the time in their lives when most parents look forward to retirement and fewer responsibilities. But instead, they saw the extreme need in the foster care system and decided to take up this new journey, receiving their first foster child—a 5-month-old baby named Detri, hospitalized due to prenatal drug abuse. “We decided to commit to the foster and adoption process for life,” said Jan. “We prayed for each child who came through our home and imparted our faith, sharing Christ’s love with these children.”

Over the next year, the Dunns helped Detri grow into a healthy, extroverted, laughing baby and planned to adopt him, but one day an aunt stepped forward and claimed him. After several months of emotional pain and worry, the Dunns received the call that Detri was again available for fostering—but this time, he came with his two sisters. They welcomed all three children into their home and family, eventually adopting them.

“Fostering is difficult emotionally and physically. Just like parenting, it transforms your life,” said Tom. “It truly is one of the hardest things anyone could do; you commit to unconditionally love a child for six weeks, six months, or—in the case of adoption—for the rest of your life. But even so, we would not trade it. Our kids are the biggest blessings in our lives.”

In the midst of unique challenges and difficulties stemming from troubled backgrounds, foster children share the same need all humans possess. “The needs of foster children are deep, but they are still children, and like all children, they really need love,” said Adams.

And with this, Adams strikes at the heart of fostering. Anyone with the capacity and desire to care for these children can help spark tikkun olamhealing in the foster care system. This May, hundreds of leaders from many different cultural and religious backgrounds will join together at the Interfaith Foster Summit with the common mission of loving these children. “Fostering is not reserved for certain groups or socioeconomic classes,” Duke said. “Anyone with a passion for helping children should consider becoming a foster parent. That call from the social worker one Friday changed our reality and blessed our lives forever—this is what life is truly about.”