(OSV News) - "There are no unwanted children," an anonymous inspiring quote declares, "just unfound families." If that's so, the almost 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system - approximately 100,000 of whom are legally adoptable - need only wait. But the reality, especially in post-Roe v. Wade America, presents a more complex and challenging scenario - one in which foster care must, Catholic experts urge, be viewed as a pro-life issue.
"What we're trying to do," said Kimberley Henkel, a Ph.D. who is executive director of Springs of Love - a ministry that "encourages, equips and educates Catholics to discern and live out the call to foster and adopt," according to its website - "is to help create a culture of fostering and adoption in the Catholic Church. And we see fostering and adoption, clearly, as a very significant pro-life issue."
Henkel - who has four adopted children - added that "Jesus commands us to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and the children in foster care are our modern-day orphans. We are coming up upon the one-year anniversary of the end of Roe," she said, "and we're seeing a rise in adoption as some states are no longer allowing abortion, and we are seeing a need for encouragement and education for Catholics to learn how important this issue is. … As we work to end abortion, we need to be recognizing that we need to take care of the mothers and the children after they're born."
Protestant communities, Henkel has found, are much more active in foster care ministries and outreach than are Catholic churches. When she and her husband began fostering, this quickly became apparent. "We were looking around and we were saying, 'Where are the Catholics?'"
In the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, where she lives, Henkel has identified only two Catholic foster families. There must be more, she said - but these two Catholic foster families are so isolated that they "feel like islands."
To support foster families, Henkel encourages "wraparound care" - care communities at the parish level that assists with basics like meals, supplies, respite care and more. Statistics show, Henkel said, that without such care, 50% of foster families will quit after one year. With accompaniment, however, 90% stay.
"I saw so many beautiful Protestants bringing children to their home and just loving them," Henkel recalled, "and just pouring out the love of Jesus on these children. And that's what I want to see in the Catholic community."
"If we were talking more in the church about the children in our care and seeing them as God's children - these are God's kids, and they need a family - I don't see how we can turn away," said Henkel. "This is our responsibility. These children are our responsibility."
"My soapbox from a foster care perspective is helping our church open their eyes and see this as a fuller reflection of what it means to be whole life," said Lisa Wheeler, who -- with her husband, Timothy -- has adopted five children ages 7 to 14, and fostered 15 others.
Wheeler - the Texas-based president and founder of Carmel Communications, a Catholic public relations agency - urges an outlook that is "not just pro-life, but truly whole life, reflecting both babies in the womb and families that have already chosen life but are still in need of support and resources in order to keep their families intact."
For the first 15 years of their almost 26-year marriage, the Wheelers were childless. A parish adoption and foster care information session led to training and approval as potential adoptive parents. They planned to add just one child to their family - but journeying with their now-eldest daughter for two years prior to adoption changed that.
"We really were exposed to what a crisis we face here in our country as it relates to children," Wheeler shared. "We have a modern day orphan crisis within the foster care system - and we knew pretty quickly that we weren't going to be able to walk away, if we had a successful adoption. Because we just were seeing too much - and knew that there was a great need for people like us to stand in the gap for these kids."
The traditional orphanage - the terrifying source material of many a rags-to-riches literary tale -- no longer exists in America. But awareness of the modern adoption and foster care system and its issues is, Wheeler said, typically lacking at the parish level. She recalled the "deafening silence" from her own church community, which made no particular effort at accompaniment.
Given her personal experience, "I felt a real call on my heart over the last few years that we weren't educating in our churches enough about the crisis that exists in our country with foster care," Wheeler explained. "And now of course with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the very real possibility that more children will end up in the foster care system without the adequate supports in place to help families in crisis."
Wheeler's adoption and foster care ministry wish list, like Henkel's, also includes parish care communities. Priests and leadership could also acknowledge that "within their church community, there are foster families in those pews, there are families who have adopted out of foster care -- and are facing real challenges parenting in that way, because of the uniqueness of that call," said Wheeler.
She also is exploring specialized retreats. "Parents that are parenting these children that come from trauma suffer a secondary type of post-traumatic stress because of the unique daily challenges we face in helping these kids get through some of the difficulties that came from their early life," Wheeler said.
"You can assume that foster kids have had a rocky history," said Ray Guarendi, clinical psychologist, author and host of EWTN's Living Right with Dr. Ray.
"By their very nature they have been custodially taken from a birth parent or two," Guarendi noted. "There's been a lot of neglect -- not only abuse -- in their histories. They have learning problems; they have social problems; they have emotional struggles."
Often, Guarendi said, "these are kids who have been exposed to drug and alcohol in the womb. And because of that, their brain doesn't quite develop as smoothly as it would if they had a healthy womb environment, and a healthy first couple of years."
Affection alone also is unlikely to resolve a complicated family history.
"The attitude of, 'Well, I'll just give them love and stability, and everything will smooth out.' That typically doesn't happen," Guarendi cautioned. "Your goal is to give this child or children a stable, loving period of time. And perhaps you may be able to adopt. If you can't, you at least bought seven months, or a year-and-a-half, or maybe even two years of giving them a stability they've not known."
The state of California has more children in the foster care system than anywhere else in the country, said Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference. While now keenly aware of adoption and foster issues, Domingo - who previously worked in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles - admits this wasn't always so. As a founder of the archdiocese’s annual pro-life event, OneLife LA, she remembers an onstage shout-out from evangelist Nick Vujicic that changed everything.
"He really challenged the pro-life community in Los Angeles to say, 'If you're truly pro-life, what are you doing for the tens of thousands of children languishing in the child welfare system in California?'" Domingo recalled. "And I was standing next to (Los Angeles) Archbishop (José ) Gomez. He turned to me and said, 'Kathleen, what are we doing to help foster youth in LA?' And I said, 'Archbishop, I don't know - but I'm going to find out.'"
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles worked to become "foster friendly," through foster fairs at parishes, Catholic school tuition assistance, and other offerings. The desperate need for such programs cannot be overstated; on May 2, The Sacramento Bee revealed Sacramento County illegally housed foster kids in the cells of a former juvenile detention center, while in 2021, Fresno County's Social Services Department lodged foster children in abandoned offices, forcing them to sleep on conference room tables.
"It really is incumbent upon Catholics to step in and say, 'We have space in our home and in our heart to help some of these children,'" said Domingo. "God is calling some of you - not all of you, but some of you - to be foster families."
Children are escorted to the Cayuga Center, which provides foster care and other services to immigrant children separated from their families, in New York City, July 10, 2018. In the U.S. there are nearly 400,000 children in the foster care system. (OSV news photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)