Nov 162012

She stood at the front of the room, feeling very small and conspicuous.  A half dozen people stood in a semicircle behind and beside her.  Most were unfamiliar, but she thought she recognized her case worker, although they had only met a couple of times.  A large wooden table separated them from the judge, and she could barely see him as he sat perched on the elevated platform behind it.  No one talked – the only sound was the shuffling of papers from behind the desk.  After what seemed like an eternity, the judge spoke, raining down questions on the group.  Was mom attending parenting classes?  What were the results of her psychological evaluation?  Did she have a reliable job yet?  One by one, the others in the room – attorneys, therapists, child advocates, case workers – shuffled through their own papers, attempting to capture in brief answers their opinions on who she was as a person and as a mom.






Some of the answers were accurate.  She did struggle with depression and loneliness.  We all do at times.  It had been hard for her to find work.  She hadn’t ever finished high school, and most of the jobs she could land wouldn’t come close to paying the bills.  The one job she found that paid well put her in a spot to be taken advantage of by others – not exactly a career you are proud of or want to tell your case worker about.   But many of the words spoken in that court room seemed to carry a different kind of judgment.  The kind that comes when you are looked down on.  When others don’t think you have any value as a human being.  The kind that make you realize you are disposable – that no one would even notice if you didn’t exist any more.  Or maybe they would even think the world was better off.

She felt paralyzed.  Suffocated.  Unable to speak or to defend herself.  Humiliated.  Worthless.  Uncertain.  She loved her kids, but maybe these experts were right.  Maybe she was a terrible parent.  A terrible person.  As quickly as it started the hearing was over.  Head down, she shuffled out of the room.

It is extremely difficult to weigh the needs of a child against the ability of a parent to meet those needs.  But as we do it, we must be careful not to judge the heart.  To lift up and not to crush.  To recognize that every single one of us was made by the same creator.  Made in the image of God.  Realizing that changes our own hearts towards a broken mom, and provides an opportunity to show her who she was really meant to be.






“So God created man in His own image, in the image and likeness of God…”  Genesis 1:27 (Amp)




Nov 192010

It doesn’t rain much in western Oklahoma.  The wind blows all the time, and the soil gets dry and crusty and cracked. Rows of winter wheat seedlings struggle to survive.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who experience drought.  Pediatricians do too.  So do case workers.  And foster parents.  And judges.  Not enough help.  Not enough time.  Not enough resources.  Not enough good judgment.  Not enough compassion.  Not enough hope.  Not enough.  And when the foster system experiences a drought, the children and families who are touched by it suffer.  Mightily.

That’s where I have been living for a few months.  Operating out of a mentality of scarcity.  Consumed with the flood of children shifting from their own homes to a stranger’s house, or worse, to nowhere.  A temporary place.  A shelter.  An office.  Depressed by the collective sadness of their stories, and at the same time worried that many people they meet aren’t even interested in listening to them.  Fatigued from sleepless nights and exhausting days.  Dry.  Cracked.  Struggling.

A long time passed.  Then God’s word came to Elijah.  The message:  “I’m about to make it rain…”  (1 Kings 18:1, MSG)

Really?  I’ve been doing this a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  I can’t tell if there is any progress.  Kids who I saw 10 or 12 years ago as preschoolers come back under my care as teenagers.  Struggling.  With no healthy, meaningful relationships.  No mentors.  No one speaking into their lives.  No hope.  No opportunity.

(The servant) looked, and reported back, “I don’t see a thing.”  “Keep looking,” said Elijah, “seven times if necessary.” (1 Kings 18:43, MSG)

Occasionally, some encouragement.  A mom reunited with her kids who is doing awesome.  A foster family who is tickled pink to be adopting.  A case worker who is busting her tail to get a kid to football practice.

And sure enough, the seventh time he said, “Oh yes, a cloud!  But very small, no bigger than someone’s hand, rising out of the sea.”  (1 Kings 18:44, MSG)

A small non-profit supporting foster families.  A pastor teaching about the importance of mentoring.  A news reporter telling the behind-the-scenes story of foster kids.  A business owner hiring a dad who needs a job to get his kids back.  A mechanic repairing a car for a mom who needs to complete some parenting classes.  A neighbor providing respite for a grandma who is raising her grandkids.  A Bible study group praying every week for wisdom and courage for the case workers and police officers and district attorneys and judges who are faced with gut-wrenching decisions every single day they get out of bed.

Elijah said… “Up on your feet!  Eat and drink – celebrate!  Rain is on the way:  I hear it coming!” (1 Kings 18:41, MSG)

It’s coming.  The rain is coming.  Right now there is a drought.  There is scarcity.  Only a tiny little cloud of hope in the sky.  But that tiny little cloud is growing, in the hearts of people who are just beginning to hear about foster kids as well as those who’ve done this for years.  There is a sound, the sound of a few voices beginning to mention foster care from stages and pulpits and podiums.  It’s coming.

A long time passed.  Then God’s word came to Elijah.  The message:  “I’m about to make it rain…”  (1 Kings 18:1, MSG)

Aug 062010

It was a balmy 95 degrees on the San Antonio river walk. As the boat drifted along its half-hour sightseeing voyage, I took in the sights, smells, and sounds of a city that was founded a century before the American Revolution. The captain was commenting on points of interest, and then he said something that caught my ear. He said, “Here in San Antonio we don’t like to get rid of things that are old. We prefer to rehabilitate them and make them into something that is new.”

The rest of the tour was lost on me, as my mind’s focus shifted to foster kids. I thought of a girl I met once. At 16, she was used to taking care of herself. From the few stories she shared, I knew that life had been chaos, and I suspected that what she spoke barely scratched the surface of what childhood was actually like for her. Her family tree included generations of substance abuse and domestic violence. I asked how she coped, and she laughed a little. “I used to smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day – started when I was 7. By 10 I was drinking alcohol every day, and by 12 I was on meth. But all that is in the past now – been clean for a year.”

My usual poker face must have failed me, because she laughed again. “How?” is all I could muster. She went on to tell me how most people just saw her as yet another chapter in the old story of a broken family – a kid with no hope and no future. But then she met a teacher who was different. Who paid extra attention to her. Offered to help her after school so she could catch up with her peers. Believed in her. Told her how she could be different from her family history, how she could be somebody new.

I leaned back in my chair, unsure what to even say. The truth is that sometimes I see teens in foster care who I don’t believe are fixable. Who I don’t spend much time with because the yield seems so low, so unlikely to be worth anything of value. Who I don’t love as much as I should because I don’t think it will matter. And yet the truth is, we are not in this field to throw out kids, to deem them as old and useless, but rather to REdeem them, to give them opportunities to be made new and useful.

I need new eyes today – ones that can see what is possible.

May 062010

“He’s having trouble with his schoolwork”. She waved in the general direction of the boy in the room. At 12, he didn’t look particularly worried about her comment. “He doesn’t do his homework – doesn’t even get home with it sometimes. By the time I get there it is late, and he can’t seem to find it. And he got kicked out of school today.” He still looked calm. I hesitated, wanting to escape the room before this got too messy. “And my daughter is struggling too – she is seeing a counselor.” Too late. I sat down. “What is really going on in your life? Tell me the story of your family.”

For the first time in the entire encounter, she looked at me. Eye to eye. As if she wanted me to prove my level of interest. Then she closed her eyes and began to share. Molested as a child. Kicked out of the house at 13. A drug addict at 16. Twice a mom by 19. In and out of jail and rehab and terrible relationships throughout her 20’s.

Clean for 3 years. A stable job and a stable place to live. Night classes to get her associates degree.

“You have been through a lot, but you are achieving some amazing things.” I said. “How did you survive?” She sat up straight and lifted her chin. “You just have to keep walking in the fire – keep moving,” she replied. “You can’t stop or you will die.” Her face looked a little softer now, and there was a touch of pride in her eyes, as if telling the story helped her realize just how much she had already overcome. We talked a little more, and I offered what encouragement and suggestions I had. And she agreed to try them, and to come back in a few weeks so we could talk more. As I watched them leave, I found myself really hoping that she would.

There is still fire, but she is still walking. And now, maybe I will get the opportunity to walk with her.

Are you willing to walk in the fire with someone today?

Apr 302010

At 16, she clearly had more street smarts than I do at 38.  On the surface, she was really kind of a mess to look at.  Her skin bore the evidence of darker days, as numerous superficial scars covered her wrists and thighs.  She had hoped that causing pain on the outside would alleviate the pain on the inside, but it did nothing of the kind.  She also sported a couple of not-very-well-done tattoos, and several piercings that I could easily see.  She grinned a little and mentioned that there were others, but I left that subject alone.  

I just had to know more about her, and she was kind enough to humor me with her story.  Her parents were drug addicts, high on whatever they could buy or steal most of her life.  At age 7, she was living with them in a tent by a lake, and it was at that age that she would sneak leftover cigarettes when her folks were passed out.  By 10 she was an alcoholic, and by 13 had used nearly every street drug known.  At some point she could no longer self-medicate her reality, and she began to think about ending her life.  The thought of death was somehow much more peaceful than the thought of continuing to live.  By anyone’s standards, her life was a mass of shattered pieces. 

Then she met this boy.  A really good boy.  Who told her she was smart.  And funny.  And beautiful.  And who believed in her.

One by one, with patience and care, he began to glue her life back together.  Piece by shattered piece.  Until she was off drugs.  And alcohol free.  And in a GED program.  And thinking about the future, and marriage, and being a mom someday.  “My life is a mosaic,” she told me.  “There are still a lot of pieces, but now they fit together to make a picture.”

Not just a picture.  A beautiful work of art.  A masterpiece. 

There are lots of broken and shattered people living in our neighborhoods, in our communities.  Works of art that are unrecognizable until someone takes the time and effort to glue the pieces together.  Are you willing to play a part in creating something beautiful?

Mar 082010

Recently my daughter and I had a date night.  I had a couple of ideas for the evening, but when we drove by a local bowling alley, the sign caught her attention, and our plans quickly changed.  We grabbed shoes and got her the lightest ball they had, and soon we were ready to play the game.  I am competitive by nature, and while I understand that it is inappropriate, I really wanted to a) get lots of strikes and spares, and b) not be beaten by a kid.  So, I picked out just the right ball, bowled a warm-up frame or two, and figured out just exactly where I needed to aim to knock down the most pins. 

Let the games begin!

Somewhere around the 5th frame, I remembered that this was supposed to be an opportunity to build relationship with my kiddo, and that I should not focus quite so much on getting the pins down and a little more on enjoying time with my daughter (embarrassing to say, but unfortunately true…).  So I began to watch her a little more closely.  She was a terribly inconsistent bowler.  One ball would be right down the middle of the lane and knock down several pins, the next would be in the gutter.  But the more I watched, the more fascinated I became with her reaction, no matter what the result.

Celebration.  Exuberance.  Excitement.  Joy.

Gutter ball or strike.  Didn’t matter if she knocked down one pin or all the pins.  She was excited about every small achievement, every tiny improvement on her score.  It was being in the game together that made her happy.

I spend a lot of time with parents whose children are in foster care.  And I have lots of ideas about what they should be achieving and how they should be behaving.  You need to get a certain kind of job.  You need to have a better home.  You need to get yourself mentally healthy.  You need to be a better parent.  You need to be more responsible.  You need to visit your kids more reliably.  You need to pass your drug screen all the time.  And while those things may very well all be true, what is also true is that I don’t celebrate with them nearly enough.  I complain about the visit missed and don’t celebrate the one made.  I gripe if they don’t parent as well as I want them to.  I write them off if they struggle with relapsing into their addictions.  I judge them on every aspect of life, and I do not stop to celebrate what is accomplished.  In the face of terrible odds – poverty, poor social supports, addiction, depression, hopelessness – we should be amazed that some moms and dads can manage to get out of bed in the morning.  Perhaps I should learn to celebrate the fact that we are even in the game together. 

And for those who are interested?  105-103 – mom wins:)

Feb 232010

We are not morning people.  No one enjoys getting out of bed – not even the dogs.  Because of that, getting everyone dressed and in the car is filled with emotion.

Stress.  Anger.  Anxiety.  Frustration. 

In the middle of  that mess, my kids have adopted a morning tradition.  Once the car is rolling, they want to hear music.  Not just any music.  They want to hear “Mighty to Save” by Hillsong.  They want it turned up loud.  And they want to sing at the top of their lungs, even though neither of them can carry a tune in a bucket.  And they want to pretend to be part of the band.  One plays the keyboard, the other an air guitar, and me?  Drums, of course!  I have to keep my hands on the wheel, after all.   Plus by that time I am usually ready to beat on something.  As we sing and “play”, something amazing happens. 

Stress disappears.  Fighting resolves.  Anger dissipates

She was 14, and she really couldn’t have cared less who I was.  She was simply here because her case worker had dragged her in to get a physical.  She gave cursory answers to most of my questions.  She had been in 10 placements over the past year – she was difficult to care for, she guessed.  She could make straight A’s when she managed to stay in school long enough to get a report card.  Yes she smoked – 2 packs a day.  Even though she had asthma.  Yes she drank alcohol, any time she could get her hands on it.  Yes she slept with boys, mostly when she was lonely.  But then I asked something that struck a nerve. “What do you enjoy?”  Her face fell.  “I don’t enjoy anything.”  I didn’t believe her.  “Come on”, I said, “there must be one thing that you enjoy doing.  Even if you don’t get to do it very often.  What is it?  Reading?  Writing stories?  Playing ball?  Watching movies?”.  “Music”, she said.  “Music calms me down, helps me to not get into fights, and not be depressed.  I have had CD’s and even had a boom box before, but I have moved around a lot, and have lost it all.”

The medical treatment she needed was fairly straightforward.  Take your asthma medicine.  Stop smoking, drinking, and sleeping around.  Go to school.  But the question wasn’t WHAT did she need to do to be healthy.  The question was HOW to be motivated to do it.  In the face of overwhelming stress.  When you have been abandoned and are hopeless.  When you have very little control.  The answer?  Music.

We made a deal – come back in a month in better shape.  You can define it.  If you are better, I will get you your music.  Two months went by, and I wondered if she had moved again.  Then, she came.  Stopped smoking.  Taking her asthma meds.  Hadn’t slept with anyone new this month (I counted that as an improvement).  Only 1 new placement in 2 months.  In school, making A’s and B’s.  Her case worker smiled and agreed.  And I went to the store to get her some music.

When you turn on your radio, or plug in to your iPod, pause and be thankful that you are alive, that you are safe, that you have food in the fridge and relationships that are meaningful.  Let music be a gentle reminder that not everyone does.


Jan 312010

She was 13 when I met her.  Much of her last 3 years had been spent in and out of foster homes, with some occasional brief stints with her parents or other family members.  She was polite but a little distant and suspicious of me – I suspect that she saw me as  yet another adult with lots of questions to ask, but no compelling reason to care about or even consider her answers.  I rattled through my usual list.  Any major illnesses?  Medications?  Allergies?  Feeling OK today? 

Then, a question that struck a nerve.  “What grade are you in?”  Her head dropped, and the walls defending her soul lowered for a second, revealing shame.  “6th, but I am supposed to be in 7th.” 

A common answer – I’ve heard it a thousand times.  Educational delay is a ubiquitous struggle for kids in state custody.  The average foster kid is one full grade behind their peers by 6th grade.  The lack of life stability, both before and during placement in foster care, causes them to miss valuable chunks of school.  They change schools frequently, often several times a year.  And even if they are able to attend, exactly how are they supposed to pay attention? Can you imagine sitting through math class while wondering if anyone knows it is your birthday?  Or how your siblings are doing?  Could you learn about history and ignore the thought that your own life is likely sooner to be written about on the obituary page than in the history book? 

My heart broke for her.  “No worries – everyone here is a grade behind.”  Her head snapped up and her eyes met mine with a question. “Everyone here is a grade behind,” I said again.  “It’s because you have moved a lot, right?  And every school has different curriculum, different schedules.  Plus, it’s not like you haven’t had other things to think about.  Don’t worry about it, just keep going.  They won’t throw you out.  Just keep going, keep learning, keep showing up.”  A faint smile, a brief hug, and she was gone.

She needed what we all need – acceptance, validation, encouragement.  She needed to know that it was OK to keep going.