Someone once said, parenthood requires love, not DNA. In other words, genes do not define good families. Instead, they are built, from the ground up, upon love, caring, and mutual respect and acceptance among family members.
At Thanksgiving, our thoughts often turn to family. I am thankful for mine. I have a wonderful family that is built upon love, caring, and mutual respect and acceptance. Some, though, are not so lucky. As of September 30, 2016 (the latest date for which I could find statistics), there were 437,465 children in foster care in the United States. And each year, for at least the past five years, that number has increased. Although foster care affects all ethnic backgrounds, almost half of the foster children in America are white, while about one-fifth each is African-American and Hispanic. Interestingly, only about one percent of foster children are Asian.
There are multiple reasons why a child must enter the foster care system, but of those in the system in 2016, 61 percent (or 166,679 children) was due to neglect by their parents, 34 percent (or 92,107 children) was due to drug abuse by a parent, and 12 percent (or 33,671 children) was due to physical abuse by a parent. If you are good with numbers, you have already realized the percentages in these three categories alone surpass 100 percent, meaning most children who end up in foster care experience more than one cause. For example, drug abuse by a parent might lead to both neglect and physical abuse.
Two recent events emphasized these disturbing facts to me, but also give me hope that things can get better. First, on November 9th of each year, we celebrate National Adoption Day. If you even knew about the day enough to celebrate it, you might have done this with your hand:
A smiley face drawn on your palm is the symbol of National Adoption Day. And this past November 9th marked the one-year anniversary of the day our family adopted our grandson, Dax. But first, here is a short video about how National Adoption Day came to be and what it’s all about:
Second, I recently watched the film, Instant Family,[i]inspired by the movie’s writer/director’s own experiences with fostering and adopting three siblings. It is a touching story that will make you laugh, cry, and appreciate what foster parents do, and will help you get into the Christmas spirit. Here is a peek at the family who inspired the film, interspersed with a few scenes from the movie:
One of my favorite lines from Instant Familygoes like this: “Ellie, people who take in foster kids are really special. They’re the kind of people who volunteer when it’s not even a holiday. We don’t even volunteer on a holiday.” My son and daughter-in-law, Scott and Lauren, are special like that. A few years back, they already had four children of their own but felt like their family was somehow incomplete. Rather than have another of their own, and after discussing it with their other children (for fostering needs to be a complete family effort), they decided to take in a child. That brought Dax into our lives.
Dax’s mother was a drug addict, and there were signs his father had physically abused him. When he first came into Scott’s and Lauren’s home, Dax wouldn’t go near Scott. That was hard on everyone. Although regardless of the situation, adjusting to new surroundings and a new family takes time, the love for Dax came instantly. And with that love and time, Dax soon became best friends with Scott and an indispensable part of the family. Thinking about Scott and Lauren and how instantly they accepted Dax, problems and all, reminds me of what journalist, Bob Constantine, once said: “I have four children. Two are adopted. I forget which two.” To watch the interaction among Dax, his new parents, and siblings, you would never be able to tell which of the children is the adopted one. And even with adopted children, or more accurately, especially with adopted children, it takes a village of love and acceptance to make things work. Here is Dax, on the day of his adoption, surrounded by family who makes up part of his village (Dax is the little dark-haired boy between the three blue balloons):
Although it takes a great effort of an entire extended family and friends to be successful at fostering, and with no offense to my son, Scott (who is wonderful with all his kids, and does more than his fair share of nurturing), the focal point of successful fostering most-often falls on the mother. And when I think of great foster/adoptive mothers, after Lauren, I think of Sue Brierley from the movie, Lion,[ii]the true story of an adopted son who expends great effort to find his birth family. Here is one of my favorite scenes, which emphasizes the unconditional love of a mother, even for an adopted son, and the special calling many adoptive mothers (and fathers) feel:
Or as Leigh Ann Touhy (the subject, along with her family, of the film, The Blind Side[iii]) said: “Families don’t have to match. You don’t have to look like someone else to love them.” The Blind Side is the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American youth who is adopted by a white family, who are instrumental in helping him reach his full potential as a football player and a person.
Unfortunately, most foster children do not experience the happy endings that Michael Oher from The Blind Side, or Saroo from Lion, or our grandson, Dax, did. According to ABC News, on average, foster children will remain in the system for about three years before being reunited with their families or adopted. On average, a foster child will live with three different foster families, but it is not uncommon for a foster child to have been in 20 to 30 different homes over his or her short life, and many of them are separated from not only their parents but their siblings as well. It is easy to understand how unsettling the frequent moves in and out of the homes of strangers would be. But it often gets worse. In 2016, for example, 20,532 children “aged out” of the system, meaning they turned 18 without being reunited with their families or being adopted. In short, we turn them into the streets where they often end up homeless (30 percent of homeless people in America were foster kids) or in prison (25 percent of those in prison were once in foster care).
Even great foster kids can have a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Look what Buddy, in Elf[iv]had to face as a foster child and the pain of his realization that he is a little different:
But more seriously, when I think of what life might be like as a foster child, I think of this scene from the movie, Antwone Fisher,[v] the true story of a foster child who had been traumatized by events from his past:
Several months back, Scott, Lauren, and family took in their second foster child, Grace. Her mother’s boyfriend had physically abused her, which resulted in a fractured skull. The injury became infected, requiring the removal of a large portion of her skull. So now Grace has to wear a helmet, so she doesn’t injure her brain. She looks like this (fostering regulations require no identifying photos on social media):
Eventually, when she gets a little older, she will have a plate inserted into her head to protect her brain. But Grace is a remarkable child. For all she has gone through during her young life, she remains one of the happiest children I have ever been around. In short, she is easy to love, as she loves everyone in return. But unlike Dax, Grace came with a catch. Most-likely one day soon, Grace will be adopted by her natural grandparents. And so, Grace might not be part of our family for long. But she will be forever in our hearts. All of which makes Scott, Lauren and their family even more remarkable to me. They have opened their home and their hearts to Grace and loved her as if she were their own, even knowing they probably will be separated soon. But isn’t that one of the truest measures of love? To be able to say goodbye to someone you love when the time is right.
I tip my cap to all the caring, loving parents everywhere, but especially to those who are foster parents. As someone reminded me, foster parents don’t have superpowers, but it’s worth remembering that even Superman was adopted.
[i] Instant Family
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures
- Director: Sean Anders
- Screenwriters: Sean Anders and John Morris
- Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Bryne, and Isabela Moner
- Release date: November 16, 2018
- Production Companies: The Weinstein Company, Screen Australia, and See-Saw Films
- Director: Garth Davis
- Screenwriter: Saroo Brierley (adapted from the book by Luke Davies)
- Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara
- Release date: January 6, 2017
[iii] The Blind Side
- Production Companies: Alcon Entertainment, 3 Arts Entertainment, and Left Tackle Pictures
- Director: John Lee Hancock
- Screenwriter: John Lee Hancock and Michael Lewis (book)
- Starring: Quinton Aaron, Sandra Bullock, and Tim McGraw
- Release date: November 20, 2009
- Production Companies: New Line Cinema, Guy Walks Into a Bar Productions, Gold/MillerProductions
- Director: Jon Favreau
- Screenwriter: David Berenbaum
- Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, and Bob Newhart
- Release date: November 7, 2003
[v] Antwone Fisher
- Production Companies: Fox Searchlight Pictures and Mundy Lane Entertainment
- Director: Denzel Washington
- Screenwriter: Antwone Fisher
- Starring: Denzel Washington, Luke Derek, and Joy Bryant
- Release date: January 10, 2003