“I’ll take anyone. Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best that I could be.”
These were the words of Davion Only, the 15-year-old orphan who made headlines in October when he stood behind a pulpit of a Florida church and begged to be taken in by a good family. Thousands nationwide responded, offering to adopt him.
Only was born in a prison and has bounced from foster home to foster home throughout his entire life. He currently lives in a boys’ group home, but there is a good chance he will be with his “forever family” by Christmas.
It looks like Only’s story will have a happy ending. But his plea in the pulpit is an echo of the cries of thousands of other teen orphans in our nation who long for a home.
Bethany Christian Services, a Christian-based child welfare organization, reports that 26,000 teens “age out” of our nation’s foster care system each year. Of these, more than 50 percent will not graduate from high school, and nearly a third of them are expected to be homeless or incarcerated.
It is also projected that more than half of the girls who age out of the system will have children who become foster children, continuing the cycle.
“It is increasingly difficult for any child to find a family, the older that child gets,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—and an advocate for adoption.
He and his wife, Maria, adopted two of their five sons from Russia. He saw, firsthand, the consequences of a non-adoptive culture, and can relate it to our system in the United States.
“When a child ages out of the Russian orphanage system, he or she is ill prepared to deal with life. Many of them find themselves in substance abuse, prostitution, or even victims of suicide.”
Moore widely speaks and writes about the importance of a vibrant adoption culture, and often tells the story of adoption in his own family. In fact, when asked about the reason behind his passion for adoption, he simply explained: “Because I was initially reluctant to adopt.”
After years of struggling through infertility and miscarriages, Maria approached him with the idea of adopting. He responded with the words, “I’m all for adopting, but I’d like to do that later on—after we’ve had our own kids.”
However, he explained that his posture toward adoption didn’t last very long: “She didn’t try talk me into it, or put pictures of cute orphans on the dining room table at breakfast time. She just prayed for my heart to change. And it did, over a short period of time.”
Moore eventually came to realize that once adopted, a child is a parent’s own.
The Risk of Adoption
Many who consider adoption—particularly teen adoption—are afraid of risk.
“Anytime you are adopting a child, you adopt that child’s story—everything that has happened the child’s life that continues to influence him or her,” explained Moore. “With a teen, there is a much longer story, and often, a much more complicated set of factors. A parent who is adopting that teenager needs to be equipped to be able to minister, to love, and to walk with child through whatever he or she brings to the home.”
Another thing Moore believes adoptive parents of teens should be aware of is the possibility of an ongoing relationship with birth parents: “Sometimes that is a very good relationship, and sometimes it can be complicated or tense. Parents have to work through that as well.”
Karen Byrd, who recently adopted a 15-year-old boy, lives the complexities—and the blessings—of having an adopted teenager in her home. Prior to his adoption, her son had come from a background of multiple instabilities, and had lived in 10 foster homes over a six-year period.
“He comes to me with memories and situations that happened to him before he came to me, whereas my memories with him started only a short time ago,” she explained. “I am still trying to help him work through issues, trying to help him feel safe. For these older kids, they have been hurt so much that it is hard for them to trust. They need to feel safe just as much as the little kids need to feel safe.”
The way she phrases it, she and her son “adopted each other,” and they are blessing to one another, despite the challenges.
Through the blessing and the challenges, she chooses to trust: “People often ask me what I am going to do when certain things come up in the life of a teenager. That’s where I tell them that I just have to trust the Lord. He chose my son for me, and me for him.”
Byrd never saw this coming, but said that God had been preparing her through different life events and foster care classes. While this was an ordained path for her, she and Moore would agree that adopting is not for everyone.
“We shouldn’t guilt people into adopting. An adoptive parent must be quipped to take on this very tough task of loving the adopted child and being a family. This means walking with eyes wide open as to what this entails,” Moore explained.
“One of the worst things would be to have people adopting children and not able to care for them. Every prospective parent should be aware of what it means to adopt.”
The Role of the Church In the Orphan’s Life
While not everyone can—and should—adopt, there is a role for the Church in the life of a teen orphan and in his or her adoptive family.
One way to be involved, Moore said, is to support the parents who are adopting or fostering. This can even mean practical things, such as offering to stay with the children to give parents some time away.
“It involves simply saying to the parents, ‘how can we help you?’ And then doing that.”
Another way he suggests ministering to orphans is to get involved in the lives of the teens in foster care system: “Maybe someone is not equipped to adopt, but they can still mentor and disciple a teen orphan.”
He also suggests that congregations should be sensitive and aware of the situations and backgrounds of children they are bringing in to the church—especially a child adopted at an older age. It is easy for the older adopted children to feel like an outsider.
“They don’t have the memories and history, so it is sometimes a difficult adjustment for a teen or older child,” explained Moore. “We also need to show patience. Sometimes, there are teens who have never been in church, never attended Vacation Bible School or Sunday school, or sat though a worship service. Sometimes what we see as acting out or rebellion might just be a plea for attention, care and love. Congregations need to be ready and willing to bear the burdens of the adoptive families.”
Joy Allmond is a web writer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and a freelance writer. She lives in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband, two teenage stepsons and two dogs. Follow her on Twitter @joyallmond.