The Plain People and the Foster Care System

with a Brief Introduction by Clinton Martin

I  know an Amish family well, where the two children in the home are not biologically those of the mother and father.  Two “English” (non-Amish) girls were placed with this Amish couple when their mother was unable to care for them.  After the mother’s overdose death, reunification obviously was no longer a goal, and the girls were adopted by the Amish couple.  I’ve often wondered, is this an exceedingly rare occurrence, or is foster / adoption among the Amish and other Plain groups commonplace?

I recently came across a fascinating study, published in the Journal of Public Child Welfare, which indicated that Amish and Mennonite (and other Plain) communities are indeed participating in the foster care system in America, and that their participation is growing.  

The study is titled Inviting Plain Mennonite and Amish families to provide foster care for children and is authored by three experts in the field:

  • Jeanette Harder, Goshen College, Social Work Department, Goshen, Indiana
  • Sara W. Bharwani, Academy for Child and Family Well Being, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Jodi Gabel, Grace Abbott School of Social Work, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska  

One of the study’s authors, social work professor at Goshen College Jeanette Harder, wrote a fictional story, as an illustration of the aggregate findings.  In her words, a “story” that I like to use to illustrate the results – the story is not any one family’s story but is rather a compilation of the highlights of many families’ stories. I’ve shared it with the families we interviewed, and they tell me that it’s “accurate.”

Amish Country News has re-printed it here with Harder’s permission:

Joe and Sarah were concerned. They had married 5 years earlier. Joe was partnering with his father and brothers in the shop, and Sarah was home caring for their two children, Ben and Beth. Sarah had a medical situation when Beth was born and now it seemed their fears were confirmed. While their friends had three, four, even five children already, their family had stopped growing.  

Sarah went out to the barn where Joe was finishing the chores. Ben and Beth were playing in a water puddle not far away. “Joe, do you think we should look into doing foster care?” Joe looked up at his wife. He was silent. He knew how she longed for their home to be full of children, for that is what he wanted too. 

A week later, he picked up the mail and saw a manilla envelope with the return address of their county offices. They poured over the material together. They called Joe’s sister who had adopted three children after doing foster care. She said, “Go for it! But don’t expect it to be easy.” They imagined what their parents would tell them about inviting the government into their home and about the future of dark-skinned children this would bring into the community. 

Joe & Sarah started going to the training with other potential foster families. They were overjoyed to see a Mennonite family from a nearby community. They endured the home study, with Joe building a new locked cabinet for his firearms and erecting a fence around their wood-burning stove, even though any child would surely know not to touch a hot stove. The case worker asked them more questions than they could ever imagine, and just when they thought her next question would be the size of their underwear and the brand of toilet paper they purchased, she delivered the good news: they were approved as a foster home in their county.

They waited longer than expected for their first placement. When it came right down to it, the workers just couldn’t picture placing a child in their home. What would they tell the birth families? Finally, late one afternoon, the caseworker called. “Would you come to the hospital tomorrow morning?” Joe & Sarah flew around the house preparing for the arrival of a new baby. They asked their neighbor to care for Ben and Beth the next morning while they went to the hospital.

Isaiah had been born to a 16yo girl. Just 4 lbs. and unable to breathe or feed on his own, he’d spent the last month in the NICU. The hospital social worker had done her best, but Isaiah’s mother wasn’t prepared to care for a child. She had stopped visiting him. She had brought Isaiah a toy giraffe and disappeared into the foggy morning. 

Isaiah was now ready for discharge and the caseworker was handing a car seat to Joe and Sarah. “We can’t use that.” Surprised, the case worker explained that all babies must be transported in a car seat. And then it dawned on her, Joe & Sarah had come in a buggy. Joe patiently explained that the buggy was not a vehicle, and a car seat would not make little Isaiah any safer. Before they knew it, Sarah found herself in a van with Isaiah, while Joe drove home alone in their buggy. 

Isaiah was a fussy baby. Unlike anything they’d ever experienced with Ben or Beth. He cried all night and all day. Joe & Sarah took turns rocking him each night, all night. During the day, Sarah struggled to care for their little household while also cradling Isaiah. The next few weeks were a blur of doctor’s appointments, caseworker visits, and caring for a fussy baby. Joe & Sarah were grateful when the case worker’s supervisor let them know that it would be ok to transport Isaiah in their buggy. 

Just as they were beginning to find a new balance in their home, the caseworker called again: Would they be able to take in 6yo Tabby? Realizing Tabby’s age, Sarah asked about school. The case worker explained that the bus would pick up Tabby at the end of their lane, and she would go to the public school. The case worker also explained that Tabby’s mother had entered treatment and was working toward reunification. Sarah thought about Tabby – how she must feel alone and scared – and said yes. 

Tabby was certainly more active than Ben and Beth, but she blended right into their household. At first, she wore clothes Sarah bought for her with the money from the county. But before they knew it, Tabby was asking to wear clothes that looked like Sarah’s and Beth’s, especially to church, and then later at home as well. She wanted to look like other children. 

The county asked Sarah & Joe to take Tabby to visit her mother in treatment each week which Sarah was glad to do. Sarah couldn’t imagine how hard this must be for Tabby’s mother. While the county reimbursed them for the driver, it was exhausting to pack everyone up and go to the treatment center – it usually consumed the whole day. She tried to coordinate these visits with Isaiah’s appointments with the medical specialist, but that didn’t often work out. He was getting in-home services too, which sometimes had to be changed to accommodate Tabby’s visits to her mother. Joe & Sarah were grateful whenever their neighbors offered help in the form of food, childcare, or just companionship. Life was full, but it was good.

Going to church became more challenging than ever though. Isaiah was often fussy, and Tabby simply would not sit still. Joe & Sarah sighed to themselves when they saw other parents with their children. Tabby’s aggressive behavior around other children was beginning to make Joe & Sarah avoid community gatherings. Then one Friday, the school called and said Tabby had touched another girl inappropriately in the restroom. Joe went to school and apologized for Tabby’s actions. Apparently, the school made a report because the caseworker pulled into their lane the next day. She asked why Joe & Sarah hadn’t called her right away. Joe explained that their phone was not working, and they had not yet had the chance to go to their neighbors. Besides Tabby was home safe with them over the weekend.

The caseworker told Joe & Sarah that Tabby’s mother was about to be released from treatment, and that her supervisor had asked her to move Tabby to a respite home for a few days and then she would likely be returned to her mother. Joe & Sarah gasped and pleaded for Tabby to stay with them. But no, the caseworker said that would not be possible. Joe & Sarah only had time to quickly pack Tabby’s few things and before they knew it, the caseworker was pulling a sobbing Tabby out of their arms. Their home seemed quiet that evening without Tabby’s energy. The next morning, Sarah called the county to say they wanted to take a break from foster care for 6 months.

Joe & Sarah signed up to do foster care through a private agency that was nearby. Their new caseworker called just a month later. Even as Sarah was forming the words to say “No, it’s too soon,” the caseworker began describing the 3 and 5yo brothers who needed a place to stay. “Just for a few days,” she said. “These boys have had so many placements, and we need a home where the mother is home full-time, so they don’t have to go to daycare. You are the only home we have for these boys.” After talking with Joe, they consented. 

The boys had been severely neglected. They had apparently spent all their time snacking in front of the TV in a darkened apartment and were quite overweight. A few days stretched into a week, and then a month. The caseworker expressed her gratefulness to Joe & Sarah for continuing to care for the boys. Over time, the boys became comfortable playing outside with the other children. But then the 5yo began having significant anger outbursts and sometimes the other children would cry in fear of him. Joe & Sarah knew he needed discipline in the form of a good spanking, but they also knew that wasn’t allowed. Joe spent hours restraining the 5yo until he would finally calm down and could listen to reason. Joe was grateful for the training they had received about trauma and was grateful for the support of other foster parents, as other parents in their church community just couldn’t relate. Except for setbacks after visiting their birth mother, Joe & Sarah were satisfied to see how the boys began to blend into their family. They wondered how long the boys would stay. 

Joe & Sarah were relieved that Isaiah’s adoption had been finalized and hoped that he would do ok as an African American child in their community. They looked forward to continuing to grow their family. When another couple in their church asked Joe & Sarah if they should also consider doing foster care, Joe & Sarah said, “Go for it, but don’t expect it to be easy.”