Did you know that there are over 20,000 children in the foster care system in the state of Arizona alone? There are 21,455, actually, according to the newest release from the state. Even if you assumed the state average of 1.97 children per family, you have over 10,000 families disrupted and troubled in significant enough ways to warrant the state removing the children from the home.
I can’t even imagine that many people, in my own state, destroying their own lives, the lives of their children, the relational fabric of the family that should be the source of love and security for their children. It’s staggering.
I’ve lost count of how many times, over the past 2.5 years, I’ve commented to friends or coworkers about how incredibly lucky we are to have both my parents and my husband’s parents in town and willing to help us out. I’d say we’re even luckier that both of our parents are still married – so not only do we have the unconditional support of our families as we begin raising our own children, we have the example of a committed and enduring marital love to model and emulate.
In our state, last year, there were 40,005 marriages and 24,214 divorces, so I think it’s fair to say that most new parents don’t have the kind of familial role models my husband and I have in our parents. When these new parents are single, young, unemployed, or living far from extended family (or for other reasons don’t have the support of an extended family), it becomes even harder for them to consistently give their children the home and family life that they need and want. I don’t think my husband and I would be able to give our boys the family-centered, consistent, loving care we want for them without the support of our parents, at least not during this season of our lives, and so it makes sense to me that people without that support network are going to find themselves stretched to the breaking point: no respite, no role models, no encouragement, no margin, and the constant gnawing fear of failure and sense of inadequacy.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the breakdown of the family that hurts struggling families: the crumbling of the greater community is more damaging than we might think. If we don’t know our neighbors, if we don’t have close friendships with people who live near us, if we don’t have trusting relationships with people of different ages and in different stages of life than us, if we don’t have any groups of people with whom we can interact for mutual support and encouragement, the stresses of life are going to hit us like tidal waves, and there will come a day when they overpower us. With a community support system, a family is much more likely to be able to handle marital difficulties without seeking divorce, to weather unemployment without ending up on the streets, or to make it through chronic stresses without turning to drugs or alcohol or sex – and all of those things will benefit the children of that family, and thus in turn benefit generations to come.
But how do we rebuild a community that’s broken? How do we reform the social bonds that have been torn asunder, and step into the breach for the hurting and lost parents and children in our society?
I’m not totally sure.
We can start by getting to know our neighbors, and offering them a helping hand when they need one. While I’m sure there are tangible needs even in high-income neighborhoods, we might make more of a difference living in a lower-income or mixed-income neighborhood, where families tend to have less margin and more stress, and less disposable income to keep them out of the home and away from their neighbors. We can model strong marriages and loving families by putting God first in our own homes, and then by opening up our homes to our friends, our neighbors, and those in need. If we are creative, courageous, and hospitable, we can do a lot, by God’s grace, to rebuild the fabric of community in our local areas.
One of my friends, who works for a local foster care licensing agency, recently made me aware of a program called Safe Families that endeavors to create the kinds of social and community networks that could prevent family breakdown in the first place. They partner families together for support in crisis in several different ways. In the most drastic case, a family who wanted to help could be a host family, to temporarily take in children at a crisis moment in a situation that hasn’t escalated to abuse or neglect (in which case the state would step in) – maybe a parent is going to drug rehab, or is facing temporary homelessness and doesn’t want their children to be on the streets; maybe a couple needs a week to work through their difficulties and disagreements to keep their marriage together; maybe a single parent is going to be incarcerated and needs someone to care for his or her children for a month or so. By stepping in to help families at these junctures, host families enable parents to get the help they need to straighten out their own lives without losing their children to the state and the foster care system.
Another way of helping families and rebuilding the community through Safe Families is to become a family friend: someone who can babysit, mentor young parents, make a grocery run, be a listening ear at the end of a hard day, share meals together, or advocate for families seeking resources for their children. I have a feeling that while you might start doing this as a way to help people in a generic charitable way, you will probably end up being lifelong friends with at least one of the people you are partnered with! And having the program partner you with the other family removes some of the awkwardness fellow introverts may have in getting to know our neighbors in a meaningful way… 🙂
The social problems in our nation feel overwhelmingly large, sometimes. The divorce rate, the abortion rate, the sheer number of children in the foster care system, the increasing poverty rate, the fear and apathy and isolation – the numbers and emotions pile upon us like an avalanche of despair. And to be honest with you, I don’t think there is anything we can do on a top-down, national level. Human hearts aren’t changed by a new law, and our current presidential candidates don’t give me much hope for policies that will encourage human dignity, strong families, and tight-knit communities. But there is much we can do on a local level. We can transform the neighborhoods we live in; we can rebuild the communities around us, one person, one family at a time. I have been, time and again, too full of either pride or timidity to take action; but maybe, if we are faithful and unafraid, if we pour ourselves out for God in our communities, in years to come, this will be our memorial:
“And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” – Is. 58:13