"Be my Mommy!" the banner in the CVS window read, part of a display of surplus Baby Emma dolls. It was the fifth day of Christmas, and I noticed during Mass -- shortly before I went to the drugstore to pick up prescriptions -- that one of the petitions during the service was for those struggling to have a happy, peaceful Christmas. We prayed for the sick, the grieving, the lonely. We didn't pray for the orphans, though, I thought during Mass. I did, in my heart, but seeing the Baby Emma display reminded me to do so again.
Over a number of Christmas days, as it happened, I was in semi-quarantine (having been exposed to COVID, but testing negative) and then on account of food poisoning. It was not what I had planned, and I wasn't entirely happy about it (particularly the second). But I'm grateful, because it got me thinking in a deeper way about people who are in a graver and more long-term isolation -- in particular the anguish of a child in foster care who doesn't have warm memories of love, security and joy, bereft of the comforts of family.
Children wind up in foster care for many reasons, but it's often these days on account of parental opioid abuse. When you can't care for yourself, you can't care for another.
My friend Darcy Olsen, who runs Gen Justice, a foster-care and adoption advocacy group in Phoenix -- and is an adoptive mother from foster care herself -- believes that a mother's meth addiction should be an automatic reason for termination of parental rights. This belief comes from her experience with a baby who had been in her care, but was taken away and given back to a mother who struggled with meth. The child died in his biological mother's care. That mother couldn't care for herself, never mind that precious child.
If you even quickly scan recent foster-care headlines, you read about children being put in hotels in Texas and Oregon, and for long periods of time. These children tend to have mental disabilities or severe trauma in their backgrounds. One Texas report found that children placed in hotels "may be exposed to sexual abuse, given incorrect or improper medications, engage in self harm, physically fight with other children and staff, or run away." Many are teens who have spent time in psychiatric care. None of this needs to happen.
Alison Blanchet is a foster and adoptive mother, with her husband, Jim, in Panama City, Florida. While she and Jim were dating, they went on a mission trip to Nicaragua and saw how an orphanage there provided needed services and care to children. So, they wanted to help build something similar, if on a more personal scale, at home. I know that makes them sound extraordinary -- and they are -- but we can all be so. Again, the message of Christmas is about our poverty and God's grace. That's how the Blanchets do it.
There are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States today. Yes, caring for often troubled children is emotional work. Yes, you will get attached and may have to say goodbye. Yes, it's messy. But all of that is true of biological parenthood as well. "Love is love" is not an ideology or a bumper sticker, but a selfless sacrifice.
Every life changes the world -- simply by touching the lives of others. Rewatch "It's a Wonderful Life" if you need some inspiration on that front. And pick up a copy of Naomi Schaefer Riley's recent book "No Way to Treat a Child" for a challenge and inspiration.
What more are you and I going to do for children in foster care this coming year? Everyone has a role -- supporting families who do step up to the plate, for one. "Too many children are alone, because we don't think we have what it takes," Blanchet says.
They don't have to be alone. We do have what it takes.