LISTEN TO EP.70
How the Church Can Care for God’s Kids in Crisis with Dr. John DeGarmo
You cannot change the world, but you can change a child’s world. Dr. DeGarmo international expert in parenting and foster care, founder and director of The Foster Care Institute, speaker, and trainer joins the podcast to discuss the foster care crisis in America. With over 450,000 kids in foster care, five million children victims of abuse in their homes, 300,000 victims of human trafficking, and 800,000 missing in our nation, he pulls back the lid on an overburdened system. As he exposes the ugly truth about child abuse and trafficking, learn how this issue can become the next great mission field for you and your church, even as you are reminded that God wants to heal all his children. Will you answer the call?
We have as our guest, Dr. John DeGarmo, who is an international expert in parenting and foster care, his TED Talk has been viewed over 25,000 times. And I recommend you look it up and listen to him. He’s the founder, the director of the Foster Care Institute. He’s not just an academic, he’s practicing. He and his wife have taken in over 60 foster children into their home. They’ve adopted two of them bringing their natural total to six. And they always have some extras. It seems he is someone that loves what Jesus calls the least of these. And we’re just really thrilled that he’s joined us today. He is a consultant to schools, legal firms, and the foster care agencies. He also is an empowerment and transformational speaker. He trains schools, child welfare and nonprofit organization and businesses. He’s an author. He’s written a fascinating book that we highly recommend to you. He’s appeared all on CNN, Good morning, America, NBC Fox, CBS, PBS; I guess that’s about all of them. In fact, the Good Morning, America show has awarded him an Ultimate Heroes Award. And John, I want to thank you for being a hero. I want to thank you for joining us caring for what Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” That’s your heart. Thank you so much for joining us on the Influencers Podcast. We welcome you.
Oh, thank you so much for the opportunity.
How Personal Pain Birthed a Mission
We wanna know what was the Genesis of you and your wife feeling a call to help foster care kids and to see the, the real mission field that exists?
Yeah, it is a mission field. You’re absolutely right. And that’s a great question. It wasn’t anything that I really wanted to do or even thought about or considered or imagined – just the opposite. I believed a lot of the misconceptions that are associated with kids in foster care: that they’re bad kids and foster parents are crazy people. foster parents are crazy people. We have to be “crazy” to do what we do. I guess really why we chose to do this lifestyle was it was after the death of our first child. Our first child died of addition called ACEP or some call it pre ACAP. It’s a condition with the brain, or the skull, never forms. And my wife was in labor for 92 hours. And afterwards I turned my back on a lot of things, including my faith. I was very angry. I was filled with anger. I thought, “How can this be?” My wife and I hadn’t done drugs or alcohol; we did everything right. Yet this happened to us and there are people who abuse drugs and alcohol and have healthy children. So I was very angry and thought there could be no such thing as God. My wife turned towards her faith. I rejected it.
Years later we moved back to the United States from Australia and I had three healthy children at the time. And I was teaching in a very rural school setting in Georgia. And I noticed a lot of kids coming to my classroom who had issues of attendance and issues of behavior and issues of academic. And I kept asking myself, “What’s going on? Why all these kids in the small town?” Then I noticed that it was starting at home. I met a lot of their birth parents and recognized this is a broken town – lots of generational poverty and generational apathy. And I noticed that it was generational. So at that point, my faith had been restored and was growing. And I was making major changes in my life. And I went to my wife one day and said, “Hey, I got this student in my classroom. She’s pregnant with triplets. And I know the environment that she comes from. I know the environment, the father; the kids come from where the babies come from and it’s bad. So, what if I bring these babies home? My wife said, “As long as you change the diapers.” So, I probably should have listened to her because we did 20 years straight of diaper changing in our house. We had seven in diapers at once. That led to the discussion of foster parenting and the training and the doctorate and the books. Now I’m just driven daily. I’m driven daily to care for God’s kids in crisis. There’s so many of them.
Has having foster children come through your home changed your family dynamics and how has it affected the kids that you have – how has that brought change in your life?
Oh, I’ll tell you that I’ll start out by saying this. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done and it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve done. And it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done. Every child has made me a better person in some way: a better parent, a better husband, and a better member of the community. It’s made me more compassionate. It’s made me more loving; it’s made me more giving. There’s nothing like watching a child who has never smiled, who has never laughed, learn how to laugh while living with you.
I think back to a four year old girl who had been raped by her grandfather over and over and over again, and couldn’t speak one word; just grunted. When she came to our house, she was four years of age. She could not speak a word. She just grunted and pointed to her mouth when she was hungry. And I remember the very first time she smiled and that was life changing for me.
I think back to the little boy who had cigarette burns and the roof of his tongue and his mouth and his genitals from his mother. And I’ll be honest with you, I was angry at the birth mother. How could she do this? But then I remembered, she’s a child of God. God loves her. Just as much as He loves me. Her sins are no bigger than my own. “Look at the plank in my own eye.” So it’s taught me to not judge others as well because we’re all simple and God loved us just as much as he has them. That little boy changed me.
We’ve had the blessing of adopting three, and that’s something we never set out to do either. And we’ve had four failed adoptions, but I never set out on adopting any of them. So my own children have grown as well. While none of them may ever be a foster parent, I truly believe that all six of my children will lead a life of serving others in some way, because they have seen you in their house, in their family up close, how children, their age have suffered so much from abuse, from neglect, from abandonment. And I think that’s made my children very compassionate. It’s made them stand up to bullying. It’s made them stick up for those children who are friendless and try to friend them. So I think it’s really changed our whole family. Not just numbers wise, but for our character as well, who we are.
John good to see you, my good friend.
Adoption: A Kingdom Principle
You and I have had some great discussions and as Scott mentioned, your book, “The Church and Foster Care”, should be on every bookshelf or beside every bed. I mean you need to read this book; it’s a masterpiece. And I’m holding up here by the way, the adoption certificate for our daughter, right? Barbara out of foster care. And what you shared is what we experienced firsthand. When we first met Barbara, she was hiding her face with her arms because she had been, abused and neglected for many years past, from home to home and wondering if we would really keep her. And but as you also have described today in your book it was revolutionary to our family, our kids teaching them really what it’s like to be adopted by God.
Yes. We all have this adoption certificate written in the Lamb’s book of life. The Bible says to follow Jesus but also has so many principles such as sharing. I believe you’re the most articulate and knowledgeable voice when it comes to foster care and the plight of these kids – these kids right now, across this country that like our daughter and those that you and your wife have adopted, are crying out. They’re crying out for a forever family. And God’s crying out for families that will be the fulfillment of his promise to these kids to be a father to the fatherless. But we’re in a crisis in this nation. And I’d like for you to share your perspective on this crisis and where we stand today, is it getting better? Is it getting worse? And what can we do about it?
Once a Solvable Issue, Now a Crisis
Yeah, that’s a great question. Before COVID, foster care was in crisis. There were more kids coming into the foster care system, mainly due to the opioid epidemic, at that time. And not enough foster parents. Where do these children go? When their parents are incarcerated because of opiates, where do these children go? When their parents are hospitalized or even die because of their opiate addictions, they were flooding a new foster care system that couldn’t handle it – not enough foster parents, more children coming in, case workers – overworked overwhelmed under resourced, underpaid, and understaffed. Since COVID started, it’s grown worse. I have been far more concerned about the mental health issues that we’ve done for our children than of any virus we have seen since COVID started: a arise in child abuse. Before COVID, there were 5 million children in our nation experienced domestic violence in their own home.
That’s gone up since COVID. Teenage girls’ suicide rates attempts up 51% since COVID. We’ve seen the rise of homelessness. Think about those youth and foster care who were in college; they’ve aged out of foster care. That 6% who went to college? College dorms shut down and they’re now homeless, Residential homes or group homes shut down because of COVID and those youth are now homeless. There are more children coming in now over the borders and there’s not enough homes – it’s truly in crisis. Human trafficking has gone up in our nation. This is something that people don’t recognize: the fact that human trafficking, child sex trafficking, is in every single state and in every single community in our nation. A lot of that’s associated with foster care and these kids who are in foster care. They don’t wanna be in foster care. They wanna live a normal lifestyle. So they go online looking for love. They’re looking for normalcy. And a lot of that happened during COVID. When those kids were at home online and the sexual predator recognized that, they lured those vulnerable children in with false hopes and false promises. And they runaway. 300,000 children fall victim to human trafficking in our nation, and 800,000 children are missing in our nation. It’s a really difficult time right now.
America’s Ugly Secret
Our daughter and you and I have talked about this. She was really close to being a victim of one of these predators. We found out that one of these predators had convinced her to use a different email as an alias name, and to meet her at a park. And we found out about it through our youngest daughter and intervened, and even got the authorities involved and then learned it was even more deep and complex – it was tied to this human trafficking. Let’s drill down on that a little bit because you’ve shared with that I know on many different tv shows like CNN – the tie between foster care and human trafficking.
Yeah. 60% of human trafficking victims that are rescued are from the foster care system. As I noted earlier, many times when these kids are placed into foster care, when they’re placed in my home, they don’t wanna be here. I can offer them all the stability, structure, and unconditional love that I can give them. At the end of the day, it is a time of anxiety, when being placed into my home, because these kids don’t know who I am, and they’re scared. They’re afraid. And they should be. And I want to preface this by saying that in my house, there’s no label. There’s no biological or foster or adoptive (label). They’re all my children. There’s no black or white. To me, we’re all the same color, just different shades, of God’s skin. But when they come to our house so many times they are scared.
They’re afraid. They go to any foster care home and they go online looking to be normal. They don’t want to have that label associated with them as a foster child or foster kid, particularly when they go to school and they’re being picked on and bullied at school because they are “that foster kid”. So they go online looking for normalcy, trying to express themselves, find somebody that will talk to them normally. And again, that’s where those predators lie. Those predators lie waiting for them, recognizing they are vulnerable. They fill them with false hopes and false promises: “Hey, I love you”, or “You’re so pretty”, “Hey, come work for me”, or “I’ll take care of you”. These kids just want to believe that they’re normal. They want to believe that somebody loves them out there. So they rush out there to these predators, they become victims, or they run away from residential homes or group homes and they become victims.
I often call a human trafficking. America’s ugly secret, cuz we don’t wanna talk about this as a nation. It makes us feel uncomfortable. So we talk about other things. We avoid it. But as I said earlier, it’s in every single community. And this is where I believe the church has a role. I firmly believe that the church’s next great mission field is the foster care mission field. 450,000 kids in foster care in our nation, 300,000 children-victims of human trafficking; that’s 5 million children in the greatest nation in the world, America, victims of child abuse in our homes.
Answer the Call
Jesus says, lift up your eyes, don’t look down, don’t look away, see the harvest around you. And you just talked about this great harvest field that is around us. How can we help churches? People that are listening to us said, “We’d like to become engaged in being a solution, being an influencer in this area to bring God’s love to these broken lives. How can we bring this mission and get churches to lift up their eyes and see this, this huge harvest mission field?
There’s so many ways. To me being a foster parent was the hardest thing I ever did. And not everybody can be a foster parent. At the same time, everybody can help a child in crisis in their community in some way. And this is an opportunity, a fantastic opportunity for the church to do so. Our government can’t do it. They’ve shown us they can’t do it. The problem is so big. Particularly when in many states (Michigan, Texas, South Carolina) there’s a movement out front by our government to handicap faith-based foster care organizations. And if we do that, we’re going to lose a lot of foster parents. So this is a time for the church to step up and have their own outreach program. And it can look like a number of ways when a child comes to my house.
So many times they just had the clothes on their back. I remember a group of five kids that came to our house and they just had their clothes stapled together. That’s all they had, the clothes they were wearing were stapled together. And we actually had to burn their clothing because they were contaminated with with feces and meth. Or sometimes they would come to us with their clothes, their belongings, in a black plastic bag. I know of many church organizations and faith-based organizations who have started a suitcase ministry. When every child leaves my home or a foster care home, they leave with a brand new suitcase, giving them some sense of dignity because a trash bag represents to them that they’re trash. Churches can open up a clothes closet or a food pantry for these children.
My church does something wonderful. I love what my church does. We have what’s called a every other weekend. My church opens up their doors for foster parents to drop off the child in our home at the church. The birth parents can come and meet the child at the church for the visitations. And it’s a meeting in a neutral, warm environment. When the visitations occur, so many times they occur in a child welfare agency. And for that birth parent who might be struggling with anger issues or grief or guilt or struggling with their own anxiety, they might see the child welfare agency as a place that’s very negative or judgmental. But when we have those visitations in a church where the birth parents come together with a child and the church members a volunteer to oversees it, supervises and monitors, Hey, who knows what kind of seeds are being planted in that birth parent?
It’s an opportunity for the church to witness. Some churches have foster parent association meetings in the church. I know of many churches that buy meals for the foster parents once a week. How about a church opens up their doors and have their members adopt, if you will, a foster family for Christmas and birthdays and shower the children with gifts. I’ve seen kids in my home – a 10 year old child who didn’t know how to open up a gift because he never had one before. So these are just a few of the many ways churches can open up their doors. I’ve seen so many times people at our church or the churches that I’ve worked with – their lives have changed as well because they’ve seen people heal, when the birth parents see their children healing from what the church does.
Two or three have adopted third generation foster care. The parents and grandparents were from foster care and their mother was trafficked out by age nine. She is in pain, she’s suffering, she’s filled with anxiety. She’s never found the healing, but when she sees her two girls healing, part of her heals as well, and that’s what God wants, what God wants for all of us to heal. We’re all hurting in some way. I’ve also seen sometimes church members because come foster parents because of the ministry in their own church.
How You Can Get Started
If a pastor or a leader is listening and they would like to connect with their local agency, how do they find local foster care agencies? How do they begin to build those bridges that you just outlined? How do they do it in their community?
Well, they can simply contact their local child welfare agency, whether it’s to the state or maybe there’s a private agency in their town, or maybe there’s a faith-based agency in their town. One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m working with foster care agencies across the country and helping them recruit new foster parents. And I’m telling the foster care agencies they need to go to the churches in their community and form relationships with the churches in their area to help recruit new foster parents. The churches can do the same thing: just pick up the phone or do an online search and locate the nearest child welfare agency in their area and call up the director and say,
“Hey, you know what? We would like to help the children in our area, or maybe help the foster parents or the birth parents, by providing new clothes or school supplies or hygiene items or that suitcase or whatever it might look like.”
The Church and Foster Care
When you wrote the book, “The Church and Foster Care”, and someone wants to get ahold of that book, how do they do that? What’s the idea you’re trying to get across to the readers of that of that book?
That book came from the book, “Faith in Foster Care”. When I was talking to foster parents across the country, I kept asking them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?” By far, the vast majority said they felt called to. So I wrote the book, “Faith in Foster Care”. And then I started thinking deeper; people of faith are being foster parents, but how can we get the church involved? So this book is designed for churches and faith based organizations. It gives, them a lot of ideas, tips, strategies, to own, to create their own foster care ministry in their own community. And every chapter ends with a number of questions because I see it as a study guide for small groups or maybe Sunday school classes where they can read a chapter a week and then they can sit around and talk about, “Hey, here’s some ideas, what can we do?”
One of the things I’d love about Sunday school class, where I go to is I love the discussion time. I love talking with others and learning from others. Well, this is an opportunity for churches to learn from each other and again, create their own ministry. As I said earlier, there’s a mission field in every community. I’ve been to Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua – all those things have been life changing for me, but we don’t have to leave our country or even our state, or even our city to find a mission field of children who are suffering. Matthew 25:35 says this, “When I was hungry. You gave me something to eat. I was thirsty. You gave me something to drink. I was naked. You gave me clothing”. To us, that’s the children where we live.
Stop Believing the Myths
John, there are a lot of myths that and as a result of those myths and people believing them we have thousands of kids right now that their lives hanging in the balance. They need to be rescued. And I know when I share my daughter’s story, the number one question I’m asked by parents that are afraid is that if they bring a child in from foster care, if it’s going to negatively impact their kids and perhaps even physically harm them. Can you speak to that?
Sure, sure. 60 plus kids in my own home, and my children would have it no other way. My children’s norm is having another sibling in their home. Someone that they’ve learned to play with and grow together with and love my kids. As I said earlier, they have learned to be more compassionate, be more caring, stick up for others, and serve others. And they’ve done that by caring and living with their foster siblings. That is one of those myths.
Another myth I hear is this, Dr. John, “I couldn’t do what you do. It’d hurt too much to give the kids back.” And I tell them, “Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s exactly how it’s supposed to be with a child.”
Yes. When a child comes into my home, I give all of my heart and when they leave home, for whatever reason, whether it’s adoption or aging out or moving to another home or going back to their relatives, whatever it might be, my heart breaks and I’ve cried and cried and cried over children. But that’s a gift because I might be the first person who’s ever loved that child in a healthy way. They’re gonna remember, there’s a time in my life or maybe the only time in my life is somebody loved me. So we can give a gift of our broken hearts to these kids.
My children have never been threatened by a child. It’s not to say it doesn’t happen. But again, those are myths. There’s another myth that the kids are bad kids. These are children who have suffered from abuse, neglect, abandonment. These are children who are hoping, maybe even praying that somebody will help them. That’s the reality. And I think people need to realize what’s at stake here is the enemy seeks to rob, steal, and destroy these kids by isolating them by these myths that you’ve just so well described. We have to fight for these kids. We have to fight for their testimonies.
Yes. If not us and who?
Millions of people right now are considering foster care or adoption. But many of them never take the next step. I’d like for you to challenge our audience to really take that next step.
Well, as I said earlier, I never planned on doing it. It was nothing I really ever considered, but it has been by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine life not doing it. As I said, it’s the next mission field. But, but more importantly, I think back to the starfish story, and we’ve all probably heard the starfish story, but for those who have not, I just want to share very, very briefly.
There’s a father and son walking on the beach after a huge storm. There’s the beach is littered with starfish from one end to the other. And the sun’s just starting to come up, starting to heat up. The starfish are starting to die. They bend down and start picking up a starfish and throwing in the ocean. He bends down and throws another starfish in the ocean. He bends down for a third. One, picks it up and throws it in the ocean as far as he can. He’s doing this for a while. And his father watches him. And after a while the father says, “Son, what are you doing? You can’t save them all; it doesn’t make a difference.” The son thinks about it. He bends down one more time, throws a starfish in the ocean and says, “It made a difference for that one”
I can’t save the world and neither can you can save the world. But when we care for a child in crisis, we care for them and bring them into our home and love them. Their world is changed. I can’t change the world, but for that child, their world has changed. So we all have an opportunity to change the world. One child at a time for a child that is suffering. These are God’s children in crisis. There’s a crisis in our nation. And it’s up to us, as people of faith, to answer God’s call and say, “I will help that one, who is praying right now, “God, please have somebody rescue me, please.” “God have someone save me. I’m hurting.” “God, I don’t want to be beaten anymore. I don’t wanna be touched there anymore.” “God, please have someone come rescue me.” This is an opportunity for us to answer that call.
Connecting with Dr. DeGarmo
What a powerful challenge. There is a thief that comes to kill and steal and destroy. But Jesus comes to give life – an abundant life. And he does it through his people, through the body of Christ, through people, just like you, just like your wife, just like your family. And if people are listening and they’d like to connect with you, John, maybe have you come and speak at their organization or get a hold of the book that we’ve talked about, how could people further get to know about you and the really the calling that’s on your life?
Very simply you can go to the Foster Care Institute, just search online for the Foster Care Institute, or just, just search online for Dr. John DeGarmo, Foster Care Expert: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, I’m all over social media. And I’m here to serve.
Well, thank you so much for joining us and for raising our eyes up, as Jesus says, look at the harvest. It’s all around you. Thank God for what’s going on in the nations of the world. But this is a huge harvest field that is all around us. And we just need to see it. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.
My pleasure. Thank you.