James 1:27 calls us to demonstrate our faith by caring for widows and orphans. That high calling is one we seek to embody—collectively and individually—in a variety of ways. Many churches fulfill those words by championing the plight of orphans, whether in an annual nod on Orphan Sunday or throughout the year. And many faithful Christians answer that call personally by opening their hearts and homes to a child through adoption.
As an adoptive parent, I’m always encouraged when churches raise awareness for orphans the world over. And, as a parent whose adoptive children have struggled deeply to process their trauma and integrate into our family—to attach—I’m hopeful that our churches will also stand alongside us after we answer that call. Yet many churches are bereft of resources to do so—which is particularly problematic in light of fact that 14% of parents report attachment issues in their adoptive children. Attachment, as a special need, isn’t likely to be diagnosed before adoption but only after the child is home.
Given the already taxed resources of church budgets and staff hours, trying to stand in the gap on behalf of adoptive families and their children proves exceptionally difficult. Most churches can’t afford to train staff to provide trauma-informed care (though that would be optimal for the affected children). However, every church can provide resources and supports with little or no additional expense or manpower.
- Commit to presenting a well-rounded view. Orphan Sunday, and similar awareness efforts, stir the hearts of parents to consider adoption. Aim to walk alongside families while they consider adoption by hosting a series of panel discussions or small groups with those who have walked the road before. Be deliberate about including on the panel those whose stories haven’t developed smoothly to ensure an accurate picture is painted. Partner with other churches to develop a robust panel and reach beyond the church to include adoption therapists and other trained professionals to candidly educate would-be parents on attachment issues.
- Cultivate resources. The duties of church staff persons are many and becoming trauma-informed may not be feasible. Yet believing there is need for such care and knowing what resources exist for families whose children are struggling is vital. Develop—and maintain—a list of local practitioners and national resources. Don’t assume that any social worker or therapist can do the job; well-intentioned practitioners who aren’t skilled in developmental trauma can delay, and as a result possibly impede, healing. Develop a lending library of books and be willing to read one or two for a basic understanding.
- Hold space for the kids and their families—physically and spiritually. When children are learning to form an attachment to their new parents, clear physical boundaries relieve confusion about who fills their need for physical touch. Educate the congregation to limit any physical interaction with the adoptive kids to high-fives or something similarly honoring of personal space. Families may need to stay closer to home to alleviate the anxiety-inducing environment of a busy Sunday morning at church. Assure them of their place in the faith community whenever they’re able to return. When they do, welcome them into the quieter, calmer space of the cry room if that’s what their child needs—especially if Sunday school classrooms (even the best ones!) trigger memories of time spent in an orphanage. Remind the broader church community that, though the kids may not sit quietly or might display off-putting or less “church-y” behaviors, they are deeply valued by God and experience His love through our acceptance of them. Plus, their parents need to worship without concern for how well their children conform to behavioral norms. Church may be the only place they can do that.
- Accommodate the unseen needs. When (and if) kids are ready to be part of Sunday school or youth programs, suggest that staff meet with the family to learn what specific needs the child might have and how to best facilitate success for them—much as serious allergies and other special needs are addressed before affected children attend. For example, will the child need a buddy? Be willing to ask God for yet another volunteer who can consistently attend with the child (or keep “eyes on” at youth group) who can be trained by the parents in how to best support him or her without interrupting the attachment process. Do the parents and child need a quiet place to reunite and reconnect with their child after the separation to affirm the bond they’re building while insulated from the distraction of other parents picking up their children? Collaborate with the appropriate staff to accommodate their needs within the building’s facilities.
- Make it safe to say the hard things. Attachment disordered children may not show their deep wounds in public; they’re more likely to present a seemingly healthy, superficially charming persona in public. Yet at home, their trauma wounds can manifest in truly dangerous ways, such as victimizing other children in the family or starting fires in the house. The incongruity between their behaviors at home and in public put the parents in a desperate situation, summoning the courage to ask for the help they need, yet not always having their account believed. If they don’t have a safe place to share not just the unfathomable events taking place in their homes but also the pain (and perhaps sin) it’s awakening in them, they’ll experience the insult of isolation on top of the injury of the hardship.
Many Christians build their families through adoption out of loving concern for orphans and to live the faith James describes. I hope churches continue to bring the orphan crisis to light. And, as they do, I pray we—as the Church—can come alongside the families whose children’s past trauma continues to cause the “distress” James 1:27 mentions.
While none of the suggestions here cost much financially or require a great deal of time, they foster a church culture that wraps around the families—supporting the parents who support their children, day in and day out—during what may be an unimaginably difficult journey for months or even years of helping their child attach. Creating such a culture, through ongoing, intentional effort, is an inexpensive yet utterly priceless gift to those of us trying to help our children feel safe in our families.
Kirsten Holmberg is a writer and speaker based in the Pacific Northwest. Her TEDx talk, “Your adopted child experienced trauma, now what?” chronicles the impact of trauma and Reactive Attachment Disorder on her family. Find her online at www.kirstenholmberg.com or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@kirholmberg).