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Modeling God’s Heart Through Foster Care

with TJ and Jenn Menn | June 30, 2017

Foster parents TJ and Jenn Menn talk about the benefits and challenges of being foster parents. The Menns fondly recall how they've been blessed and remind us that we are close to the heart of God when we care for orphans and widows in their distress.

Foster parents TJ and Jenn Menn talk about the benefits and challenges of being foster parents. The Menns fondly recall how they've been blessed and remind us that we are close to the heart of God when we care for orphans and widows in their distress.

Modeling God’s Heart Through Foster Care

With TJ and Jenn Menn
|
June 30, 2017
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: To date, TJ and Jenn Menn have been foster parents for more than two dozen children—and in each case they say their goal has been to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a child for however long they have with that child.

TJ: Each situation is unique. I’d say our average is probably around a year right now, from all the cases that we’ve had. We’ve had as long as just shy of two years, and we’ve had as short as basically a weekend that we cared for a child.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, June 30th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today about the joys and the challenges that come with opening your home—and your heart—to children as a foster parent. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I just wonder how it would have gone over at your house when you and Barbara were first married. You’d been married for a year and a half and let’s say she was 21 years old and you came home and said, “Let’s take three kids in,” you know, six, four, and a baby.

Dennis: Foster care kids?

Bob: Yes; how would that have gone over?

Dennis: With Barbara or with me? [Laughter] At that point—I don’t know—I think Barbara and I had had a conversation as we dated about adopting—that was on her radar as a teenage girl growing up. I had never thought about the concept of adopting—I do not remember a conscious thought of taking in a child. Personally, I didn’t even really like kids at that point. I had to kind of grow in my love for kids as they came one at a time.

Bob: It was after about five or six that you started liking them, right?

Dennis: I started really liking them. [Laughter] Here’s what I found: I thought, “We’re not really taking the Bible seriously.” The Bible says children are a blessing, not a burden—that they’re a privilege, not something that they’re a curse—that you’re being punished for something. Are they hard work? No question about it! But are they worth it? I have no regrets. Absolutely no regrets.

We have a couple here with us who are on journey. They stepped out in faith and provided a home for so many they can’t count them, and they have the wrong number in their book, which is entitled Faith to Foster.

 

Bob: Just because they’ve continued the process since the publishing.

Dennis: TJ and Jenn Menn join us on FamilyLife Today. TJ, Jenn, welcome back to the broadcast.

Jenn: Thanks for having us back.

TJ: Thank you so much.

Bob: The scenario that I asked Dennis about was your scenario because Jenn, you were—weren’t you 21?

Jenn: I was.

Bob: And you guys got a call. Somehow you had let the county know you had been through the training. You had taken on this assignment that “we’d like to be foster parents”—early on. It’s one thing to say, “Let’s do this,” it’s another thing when the call comes and they say, “We have three—six, four, and a baby. Can we bring them over today?” Isn’t that how it works?

Jenn: It’s often that same day. For that first placement it was a couple hours later, and before we knew it we were on to other placements. We thought those three kids would be with us for a while, but after about two weeks—we adjusted, finally sleeping at night, finally getting some doctor’s appointments and getting healthy; the baby had pneumonia and was on asthma treatments and things.

So, right as we were finding our groove we got a call out of the blue that an aunt had driven from out of state. She found out that her nieces and nephew were in foster care, and so she came in, showed up at court that day—and they gave her custody on the spot. It was a surprise to us. I had packed a little lunch bag for them to go to their visit with their mom, and about that time I had received a phone call saying, “Hey, just pack up all their stuff; they’re going to be going with their aunt.”

 

That was just as much of a shock—going from zero to 60, and then it being all of a sudden quiet after two weeks of nonstop adjustment to them.

Bob: Was there a trauma in that at two weeks—because you had started to reorder your whole life around these kids?

Jenn: There was. You know, I think there’s a shift that happens from kind of feeling like you’re babysitting to feeling like you’re “Mom” around the two-week mark, now that we’ve done it several times—but it being the first goodbye I think made it more traumatic. TJ was up flying a helicopter at the time, so he couldn’t be there for the goodbyes. So there I am—by myself—being pretty pitiful—

Dennis: TJ, you’re in the military—you’re still serving. You’d just gotten back from a 15-month deployment, and then you grow your family, turning it from two to five. What was the most important lesson you learned as you stepped out in faith to do that?

TJ: I really think it was—allow other people to help you, and allow the church to come alongside you. I mentioned in the last program just how much our Sunday school and our church helped us. We were a young married couple, we had things that young married couples did, but we didn’t have extra beds. We had a queen bed for guests, but we didn’t have cribs or we didn’t have car seats or any of this stuff. When that happened—and just seeing the Sunday school class and the community coming alongside us—it was—it was phenomenal.

Bob: Yes, but two weeks later you have cribs and toys and car seats and no kids—I mean, I can imagine the melancholy that comes with that in that first weekend—when it’s the two of you. I imagine your crying wasn’t over in a day.

Jenn: No, it wasn’t. I had this song stuck in my head that was driving me crazy, and probably after about three days the Holy Spirit was finally like, “Will you just listen to that song you’re singing in your head?” It was a little kids’ Bible song that was, “In my Father’s house are many mansions, many mansions in my Father’s house,” which comes from John 14:1-2, where Jesus is saying, right before that, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And He goes on to talk about preparing a place. I think He was really just reassuring me that He has prepared a place for these children—that I am not central to their story—Jesus is the One central to their story.

That sense of pressure lifted off and freedom—like, “Jesus is going to be with these children, and He might bring them in our lives for two weeks or two years or forever—but He’s going to be with them forever.”

TJ: We mentioned earlier the numbers—so our home wasn’t empty for long.

 

Dennis: What is the average length of time that a parent can expect to be a foster parent caring for a child like this?

TJ: Each situation is unique. I’d say our average is probably around a year right now, from all the cases that we’ve had. We’ve had as long as just shy of two years, and we’ve had as short as basically a weekend that we cared for a child.

Dennis: After you said goodbye then, to the three, and you packed them up and helped them head off—how long before you got the next call?

Jenn: It was about a week before we were asked to pick up a newborn baby from the hospital.

Dennis: Wow.

TJ: As we mentioned, there’s a severe shortage—and some counties are worse than others. We are in a pretty severe county down there in Georgia. I’d like to say that that situation’s gotten better, but we know that that county is still struggling.

Dennis: I spoke at a meeting here for the state of Arkansas, and a gathering of those who care for foster-care children, and there was a person who had traveled all the way from Georgia, because in her county she and her husband were the only—the only—foster-care qualified parents in their county. She just came wanting to say, “How do we get the word out about this, so the church can step forward and offer families for these kids who have none?”

Jenn: It’s true that different times I would be at church holding this beautiful baby and plenty of people would say, “Oh, I could just take her home with me,” and there was a part of me that was like, “Great! Here’s the papers; sign up for training! You’ll have one coming home with you soon.” [Laughter]

 

Bob: You sound like you guys were on a default “yes” —if they were going to call and say, “We have seven kids,” the answer was going to be yes. Is that right?

TJ: Not exactly. Our home—you’re going to be limited by the constraints of your home, and they will require certain bedroom arrangements and things that way. We’re in a pretty small home, and so sibling groups—some of those restrictions can be waived. I will say that we’ve said no to plenty of kids—and we list in the book some of the circumstances that we’ve said no to. That’s really hard, and I’ll tell you that as hard as it is to say goodbye, I think it’s harder to say “No” on the phone call when they’re calling you and saying, “Hey, we need you to take this child home.”

Bob: What kinds of circumstances have caused you to say no?

Jenn: Sometimes it’s just been we had other children in the home, and we felt like we were exhausted already at the end of the day, “And how can we add another baby into this? TJ’s deploying in four days—” Sometimes it would be a medical need that we just didn’t feel capable to handle.

TJ: It’s important to realize you can say no. We encourage people in the book and when we meet them, “Just go to the training, and just go see if this is something that you can even do or not.” If it isn’t that’s fine—there are other ways to help, as we’ve mentioned. Right now we have people that are phenomenal that are watching the kids for us while we travel here to be on the show. So, the community can help in other ways. Church members can help in other ways—they don’t have to be the foster parents.

Dennis: Tell us about a little baby named Harmony.

TJ: Harmony was our second placement, and she was probably one of the—man, she captured my heart right away. She was just so young, and I forget the circumstances exactly why she came into care—was it drugs?

Jenn: She was drug-exposed, and in some states—where we were at included—if a baby’s born with drugs in their system they automatically come in foster care. But she had had previous siblings that had been in foster care as well. You know, Dennis, you opened the show talking about you had to learn that children were a blessing, to see the Bible that way. I think Harmony was—I mean, she cried and screamed.

She had drugs in her system, and we really had to learn that, like the psalmist says, “From the lips of infants God has ordained praise.” Infants, they only make a few sounds, and some of them sound a little screechy, you know—but really just seeing that comforting her in the midst of her body adjusting to the world was praise.

Dennis: Tell us about this drug exposure, because I think a lot of us hear about that and it conjures up a lot of fear with prospective parents. What’s taking place there? Explain kind of how long it lasts and what are you dealing with?

Jenn: There’s really a spectrum of how someone would respond, how a baby responds, but usually it has to do with tenser muscles, not sleeping or eating as well. Sometimes it can mean something hasn’t been developed; maybe their eyes aren’t fully developed yet, or their lungs.

On a worse-case scenario it might mean a breathing machine or a sleep apnea monitor, but often—for the baby—they’re experiencing discomfort. They might be having migraine headaches as their body’s just flushing out the toxins from their system, so there’s just less restfulness—they don’t have that ability to calm themselves in the same way.

TJ: A lot of states in the U.S. right now are dealing with this increased drug exposure, especially opiates. Ohio right now recently passed some legislation in the millions of dollars to help southern counties, where over 75 percent of some of these counties now—the kids are coming into care because of drug exposure.

Jenn: I feel like it’s—I don’t mean to make it too light to say it’s like helping a child put on a Band-Aid—it’s not that easy—but it also isn’t scary in that sense. There’s a weight of responsibility in caring for a child. We had another newborn who was born over ten weeks premature, and when she came to us she was on all kinds of monitors and medicine—and we definitely felt the weight of, “This child could die in our arms.”

I don’t mean to make light of it—but when you trust that there’s a God over this life—who even brought this child to be with us—you know, we didn’t know her weeks ago—there’s a sense of relief—of, “Whatever’s going to happen is in His will.”

Bob: You have to adjust all kinds of expectations with that understanding of, “This is God’s child on loan to us for we don’t know how long,” because it’s really easy for parents to start building in their own minds a whole checklist of, “This is what I’m responsible for,” and some of those things—like keeping them alive—you are responsible, but some of them you’re not going to get the chance to see if they graduate from high school or to help them with their first job, or a lot of the things that—in your own mind, you’re thinking, “I’m supposed to do this.”

TJ: Harmony was a success story—in the fact that she was not going to go back to her mother. That was pretty much determined early on, but they still had to allow a certain amount of time for the mother to maybe change ways and regain custody. What ended up happening was we had orders—military orders to move—and foster care you have to certify in each state. You’re not going to take the kids out of the state with you—your training doesn’t go with you—which is something that Jenn is working on, to try to get—at a federal level.

So Harmony couldn’t go with us because orders were coming. So we ended up transferring Harmony to an elderly couple, I think in their 60s. To their credit, they took her on the auspices of a foster child and were not intending to adopt, but fell in love with her and ended up adopting little Harmony.

Dennis: Wow. That’s cool.

TJ: So Harmony was placed—she probably never remembers her time with us, which is fine but—we were there for the beginning of her life. We brought her home from the hospital, and we got to care for her. We loved her and we prayed over that child a lot. We hope that she takes the seeds that were planted and that it results in a harvest.

Dennis: I have to ask you what you send with your kids who leave your home, because Ashley, our daughter, and her husband Michael buy each of the children a Bible, and they write their names in the front of it and just let that child know where life is found. When they get old enough to read it, if they’re a baby or a toddler and are not reading yet, they’re going to have that as a part of their belongings as they go forward. What are you guys giving to your children?

Jenn: That’s beautiful. You know, I think for the younger ones we haven’t sent Bibles like that, but now we will. [Laughter]

 

TJ: That’s a great idea.

Jenn: One of the things we’ve been sure to do is get nice suitcases. I mean, really—sometimes these kids are just showing up with garbage bags or grocery bags when they arrive places, and just to know that there’s more stability than that. Things that have their name on it. We definitely send lots of pictures and all their belongings.

Dennis: Yes; in fact, that was a question I wanted to ask you guys that I don’t think most of our listeners can even conjure up or imagine the circumstances that some of these kids are living in. Just share one of the stories of where kids came from who came to your home.

TJ: The one I think of, probably one of the more depressing, is they were found tied with dog leashes to the kitchen tables, and left there, and they don’t know exactly how long.

Dennis: Wow.

TJ: Then another one fell out of the second story window and was inches away from landing on metal pipes or something below. She ended up going to the hospital, and that’s what they ended up coming into care, that sibling group. Miraculously—no broken bones, no severe injuries from falling out of the second story window.

Jenn: Another case would have been an 11 and 13-year-old that Salvation Army called in; the family was homeless, and then when they started staying at the shelter there was a warrant out for the parents’ arrest—so they had to, by law, call in the warrant. When the parents were ushered off to jail, then they were left with these two kids at a Salvation Army—so that’s how they came in.

Bob: It has to be different. I was wondering if it’s harder to have a two-month-old baby show up or a 12-year-old show up in your home. It’s obviously very different. Is one tougher than the other?

Jenn: I think each one has its unique challenges. With the infants there’s less sleep and more physical labor, and also that sense of, “They’re not going to remember this,” but they’re also really cute. Whereas with the older children I think there’s much more opportunity for actually speaking about spiritual principles and influencing in a way that we expect or think that they’ll remember—but at that point they’ve also been parented in a way that’s not healthy—often for over a decade, and that’s harder to correct—that sort of habitual behavior.

TJ: I will say what’s interesting or what I’ve enjoyed a lot with foster parenting and would really encourage your listeners, just a huge plus is with the older children that understand the Bible and understand Christ and even understand praying and things.

We’ve been challenged recently—a mentor of mine at West Point was challenging. We’ve been going through this idea of family worship. It is so much fun to worship as a family and with these foster children that maybe have never known or experienced Jesus. We spend more time singing praise songs or praying or reading the Bible on a daily basis—

Bob: Have you been able to keep track of all of them?

Jenn: No, unfortunately—some of them we have. Oftentimes it depends on the adult caregiver that they go to next, and whether they’re in touch with Facebook. I mean, some of it is we move around as a military family. I think if we would have stayed in one community we would have taken on more of an “auntie” role with some of these cases.

Bob: Now, I don’t know the answer to this—do you have bio kids?

Jenn: We do not. So we exclusively foster right now.

Bob: And is that by choice?

Jenn: No.

Bob: So, you started fostering without any sense that infertility would be a struggle for you guys.

Jenn: Correct—we had no idea how God would grow our family—and even now as foster parents, for probably the last seven years we would have liked to adopt from foster care, but that’s kind of a weird place to get into. At one point we hope to be able to adopt—but that’s like saying when a child is placed with us that we “hope” that their parents won’t be able to have their children back. It’s this little catch 22 we found ourselves in, and just trusting, “Well, whatever children God brings our way, He knows their outcome and—”

Bob: Jenn, if I were you and wanted to be a mom, I’d have a little bit of this thought, like, “Hey! I started fostering earlier than most. God owes me.”  Have you had thoughts like that?

Jenn: I don’t know. I think foster care kind of wipes away the romanticism of parenting. [Laughter] Really!

Bob: Okay, okay.

Dennis: Your husband is laughing.

TJ: Yes. It’s true, and foster parenting—it’s really unique—at least in our situation, and this wouldn’t be true for all your listeners, but we don’t have kids of our own. So we have gone from this experience of no kids, just the two of us, to having kids, to no kids, to having kids multiple times. Each time I’m struck by one, the amount of time parenting requires.

Bob: Yes.

TJ: And then, secondly, the amount of free time we have when kids have gone out of the house and how quiet the house is. But, just like it’s amazing to me—I’m like, “If you don’t have children in your life and you’re a Christian, there’s tons of time for you to be doing ministry work.”

Bob: You’ve been empty nesters about ten or 12 times now, haven’t you? I mean, it comes and goes. Every season is either kids or empty nests, and then getting ready for whatever the next season is.

Jenn: I think one of the things that infertility while fostering has done is it’s really helped us wrestle through this concept of where our hope belongs—because it’s not quite right to say, “Oh, I hope we can adopt these kids,” even though sometimes other people will say, “Oh, I hope you get to adopt them.” And it’s not quite right to say, “Oh, I hope we get pregnant,” “I hope this,” or, “I hope that.” Sometimes it’s maybe, “Oh, I hope the mom will stay off drugs,” or, “I hope the birth dad comes to the visit.”

Really the only place that our hope belongs, as 1 Peter 3 talks about, is in the grace of God being revealed through Jesus Christ—then that’s like, “Okay, what does that practically look like?” I think what it looks like is facing a day before us and looking for God’s grace in it. God’s grace is going to be revealed through conception or through adoption or through just a child lighting up and seeing something new, or an encouraging note being written to a caseworker. I don’t know what that grace is going to look like, but if I take my eyes off of what I don’t have and what I wish I have, and instead start looking for the grace of God, my days become very full and joyful.

Dennis: Well, if our listener hasn’t sensed it, you have gone near the heart of God.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: All I know is as you go near the heart of an orphan you go near the heart of God, and you’re going to be ministered to in ways that you won’t even be able to imagine. You guys are both nodding your heads right now. I’m just thinking you’re dealing with infertility, but your answer was beautiful. You’re finding the right place to put your hope. Wow. That’s a powerful thought.

Jenn: Recently—about three months ago—we took a placement of a newborn baby who happens to have the name of an angel. One of the verses that struck me is about when you minister to strangers you might entertain angels unaware. I’ve wondered that, of just, “What is an angel? An angel is a ministering spirit.” So when we are hospitable in our home of entertaining strangers, even when they come to us at six pounds, that little boy may be ministering to me in ways that I couldn’t have asked for.

Bob: You have a remarkable number of angel stories all the way through this book, Faith to Foster which is, at one level, you guys are cheering on any couple who says, “We might be able to do this.” At another level you’re saying, “Now, here’s what it takes to do it” —then for all of us you’re just giving us a glimpse inside pure and undefiled religion.

I’d just encourage listeners to get a copy of your book, Faith to Foster. You can order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to order at 1-800-358-6329. Again, the title of the book is Faith to Foster. Order from our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.”

Dennis: I just want to ask, is the picture of the back window of your minivan, where it has this military couple and then—

Bob: It has 17—I counted 17.

Dennis: Seventeen? Seventeen kids, those stick figure kids there—is that really on the back of your—

Bob: I do love the camo, the guy in camo. I haven’t seen that one before on the back windshield—that’s great.

Jenn: We did recently cave last month. We maxed out our SUV and changed over to a minivan.

Bob: There you go.

TJ: Jenn is not too excited about this process. [Laughter]

 

Bob: It’s the ultimate death as a parent, isn’t it?

Hey, before we’re done I need to say a quick word of thanks to those folks who have made today’s program possible. In fact, you guys are being heard all around the world today. Some folks are listening on the FamilyLife Today app, some folks are listening online, they’re streaming today’s program; they’re listening on One Place or tune-in radio, and of course, most people are listening on their local Christian radio station in cities around the country.

All of that is happening because we have some very generous listeners—folks who tune in and listen to FamilyLife Today and who have said, “This program matters for our family and it matters for our community, and we want it to reach more people.”

If you’re a regular listener to FamilyLife Today and you haven’t joined the team of folks who help provide FamilyLife Today and are making it possible for us to reach more people all around the world, it’s easy to join that team. You can go online and make a donation at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Or you can mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today at Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.

Now we hope you have a great weekend this weekend—Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend. And I hope you can join us back on Monday, when singer-songwriter Laura Story is going to join us, and we’re going to hear some of the stories behind the songs that she has written, and hear more about her life as a wife and mom—hope you can tune in for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend and we will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.

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