The plight of babies born to parents who cannot raise them, whether for financial, emotional or other reasons, is older than Moses.
Solutions to such problems are rarely anything other than heartbreaking, but in the past decade laws have been passed that at least eliminate some of the worst outcomes.
Child abandonment—the proverbial newborn wrapped in a blanket and left on a doorstep, exposing the child to the whims of fate and opening the parents to prosecution—is a problem the U.S. is taking very seriously. Every state has passed “safe haven” laws to make responsible alternatives available, usually involving the parents’ legally turning their child over to local welfare services and temporary foster care.
Since the last safe-haven law was passed in 2008, the fastest growing category of children entering foster care has been newborns. Adoptive families are easier to find for babies than for older children, but infants are also more vulnerable to the variability and sometimes instability of foster care.
“By age three, roughly 85 percent of the brain’s core structure is formed leaving infants and toddlers extremely vulnerable to the effects of maltreatment,” according to a report by the Zero to Three Policy Center, a nonprofit dedicated to early childhood development. “And half of all babies who enter foster care before age three months spend 31 months or longer in placement. In other words, these babies are spending most of this critical period of development in an unsettled living situation with inconsistent caregiving.”
As with every solution so far to the problem of temporarily displaced children, the best and only sure remedy has been the willingness of responsible, loving foster parents to open their arms and homes to such children—whether for weeks, months, or years.
One such person is Calvin Bishop, an Allstate Insurance agent in Nashville, Tennessee. Another is his wife Cathy.
Four years ago Calvin and Cathy, recent empty-nesters who had raised four children of their own, began working with Catholic Charities, the largest adoption agency in Tennessee. Since then their home has been a halfway house for twelve babies, some of whom ultimately went back to their birth parents but most of whom were put up for adoption.
“A lot of times, these young moms give birth, and the nurses notice that there is no family around and the mother’s distressed,” Calvin says. “The hospitals know that there’s a network out here of people these moms can talk to if they’re struggling with knowing how to cope.”
When a mother in crisis gives birth, Catholic Charities coordinates the handoff to foster parents like Calvin and Cathy, who look after the baby as the birth mother talks with her family and the agency to decide whether to keep the baby or not. If she decides to put her child up for adoption, she can interview and consider prospective families. And while that process takes place, foster parents take care of the child, keeping a log of its first days, weeks or months.
“We get babies when they’re maybe two or three days old,” says Calvin Bishop. “We keep them anywhere from two or three weeks to months. Sometimes we don’t have any babies at all, and then last year we had three or four babies for most of the year.
“We keep a log for the baby’s parents of every meal, every diaper we change—everything that happens, really—for every baby,” Calvin adds. “They have this whole life cycle of the first couple weeks or, if they adopt, maybe months. They’ll know the first time the baby smiled or walked, their first word, everything. My wife really makes that a part of what she passes on.”
Safe haven programs are just one piece of America’s complex adoption puzzle, which becomes more complex as children age in foster care, disproportionately displaying developmental challenges such as literacy and behavioral issues. But as the Bishops have discovered, along with the thousands of professionals, parents and volunteers who engage with the adoption cycle in the U.S. every day, helping just one of the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care is a way of changing the world one life at a time.
“It’s for the kids,” says Calvin Bishop, “because there’s just a lot of unhealthy situations out there, and you have to be open-eyed about those situations. If we can help those kids get into a home and help them grow and have a life they otherwise would not have, getting to do that … well, I guess I don’t have the words to describe it. It’s just a real pleasure.”