So You Want to Open an Orphanage…

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Do you feel called to open an orphanage? Trust me on this, lay down until the feeling goes away. If you still want to open an orphanage, continue reading.

I wish orphanages didn’t exist. The first choice for caring for abandoned children should be extended family. If the extended family is not an option, then children at risk should be placed with healthy families. Unfortunately, placement with a family is just not an option for many children. Most orphanages are filled with children who, for one reason or another, are not adoptable or are very difficult to place. Orphanages care for children with multiple siblings, children with physical or mental challenges, children with an extended family that cannot care for them but still hold parental rights, etc. So if orphanages have to exist (and they do), they should be great, and run by people with vision and the skill sets to make them a fantastic place for children to heal and grow into healthy adults.

Regularly, people contact me who feel lead to open orphanages. My first question is always: “Who is going to run it?” Putting up buildings is easy(ish), on-going funding is harder, but living at, and running an orphanage can be hugely challenging and is not for the faint of heart. Continue reading

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Changing the Memories

pexels-photo-1596882We all have childhood memories that stand out. It might be a specific Christmas, a family vacation, maybe it’s just a moment from your childhood where the smells, sights, and emotions are still vivid in your mind. That time you sang karaoke with your dad, or when you made cookies with your mom. I hope these memories bring joy when they appear at those random moments. For children in orphanages or foster care, many of the memories they carry do not bring joy. It is our responsibility to tip the balance of good to bad memories in the right direction.

For most people caring for children at risk, the focus is on the basics. They might not have the know-how or resources to work on anything past keeping the children alive. In many areas of the world, orphanages struggle to stay open. It’s a day-to-day challenge to keep food on the table and the lights on. If the absolute basics are covered, you can start the next level of healing and restoration. As with anyone, the hierarchy of needs kicks in. The basics first, then the extras.

When a child first comes into a home, even if it is a stable, well-run home, the fear of uncertainty can take a long time to overcome. Food hoarding is very common with new children; they aren’t sure when they will be fed again because they weren’t fed where they were before. It takes time and consistency to bring a child to the point of moving forward. They also have a hierarchy of needs. If they don’t feel secure in the basics, they can not begin the healing process.

Once you’ve reached the level of providing the foundational needs, and a child knows at a profound level that they are in a safe place, the long process of healing can commence. A new chapter in their story can be written.

Joyful childhood memories are not created in a moment or an event; they are built over time. Childhood memories are a rich tapestry of intertwining threads brought together to create an overall image. It should be an image of joy, security, a connectedness that we all need. Only by consistently blending in the bright colors can you begin to soften the dark tapestry that has been the assembled experiences of a wounded child. You can never fully cover the darkness that exists, but you can brighten the edges, you can lighten the right areas. The darkness of the past, when handled correctly, can ultimately bring a greater depth to the child’s image of life. With God’s healing touch, those dark areas can be richly used down the road. God can use the dark experiences to bring empathy and understanding. But this healing doesn’t happen easily, or quickly, it takes years of security to bring perspective as a child matures.

It’s the collective details that matter. Not that we have all of the answers, but in our home, we have found that consistency and traditions go a long way to bring a sense of security into a child’s life.

One of the first things the other children tell a new child in our home is how OUR tooth fair works. I have a large ceramic jar on my desk, when a child loses a tooth, they know to bring it to my office, drop the tooth in the jar, and get the cash. (Yes, I know it’s disgusting, but I have decades of teeth in that jar.) Occasionally a child will come over with a convincing tooth-like rock to trick me; I’ve learned to ask to see the hole where the tooth came out. While writing this, two different children came over to show me their loose teeth, so I know to be prepared. We’ve had adults, raised in our home, come back years later and casually reach over to shake the jar to see how full it is. It’s a memory they’ve carried forward and blended into their tapestry.

My wife hates the backend of what we do, the fundraising, the paperwork. The public side of our work makes her crazy. She wants to be mom; she wants to create those memories. She gives every single hair cut; it’s an automatic one-on-one time with every child. They can talk, spend time together, and experience the moment. My wife also makes the birthday cakes, in a BIG way. Every child gets an elaborate custom cake on their birthday. Some of the older kids have started to help, learning baking and cake decorating, frequently decorating cakes for their own siblings. To most kids in ordinary families, a birthday cake is expected, usually picked up from Costco or the grocery store. For a child in a care situation, a cake means the world. It’s not uncommon for their first cake here to be the first cake of their lives. Also, to have that level of attention in a crowd of children in a home shows them that they are unique and deserving of honor. A cake to an orphan is not just eggs, flour, and sugar; it’s healing.

If you work in foster care or with orphans, thank you. Working with children as risk is hard work and not for the faint of heart. I hope that you’ve moved past the basics and are working to create new, better, richer memories for the children in your care. Whether it’s the tooth fairy, a birthday cake, or any other detail that creates special memories, always remember how important it is. It might not seem like it at the time, but you are working to create a new tapestry for a child, you are tipping the balance of memories in the right direction. The details you create bring healing to a child.

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The Loss of Family in Orphan Care

This is an updated post from about two years ago, new posts should return next Monday.  Blessings

pexels-photo-262075Recently one of the boys we raised, who is now an adult and on his own, stopped by my office and asked if we could talk about a few things. He and his brother were dropped off at our home by their father over 20 years ago. Their father visited once but then disappeared. Sadly this happens way too often.

Frequently, for one reason or another, a child or a group of siblings are brought to an orphanage and the family is never heard from again. Hopefully, whatever orphanage they’re left at has the resources and skills to help move that child from the pain of abandonment through the long journey to healing. Adoption is always a good option. But the reality is that once a child is over the age of about five, they won’t be adopted, especially if they have siblings. The orphanage will become their home; the orphanage staff will become their family.

When a child is dropped off, and they are old enough to know what’s going on, they begin the grieving process just as anyone who has lost a loved one. They have lost their family and life as they knew it. They begin to go through the various stages of mourning: grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These can vary from person to person, but less than you might think. We humans are very predictable creatures.

Whether a child was abandoned or removed due to abuse or neglect, their first reaction is always denial. “No, really, my parents are going to come back for me.” or “My mom is in rehab, this time, I know it’s going to work.” We hope that the child can eventually go back to a healthy family situation, but the painful reality is it’s not the norm. More often than not, if the family cares enough to visit, they sometimes make the situation harder by making false promises, to the child and maybe to themselves. “It will just be a few weeks, I really am coming back for you.” or “Your dad and I are getting back together, then we can take you home.” These types of promises rip the wounds open again leaving the child stuck in the denial stage, living in false hope.

The next stage in the healing process is anger. If a child reaches the point of being pissed off at their parents, we are thrilled, this means they’re moving forward in the process. I remember one 11-year-old boy who had been with us for about three months. He was here with two younger siblings and was starting to settle in. One Sunday, his mother showed up to visit. He was seriously angry; wanting nothing to do with her, he ran to hide behind one of the buildings on our property. I walked back to talk with him, and as I approached, I could see he was so angry he was trembling. I sat down with him and told him he could do whatever he wanted, “If you don’t want to visit your mom, you don’t have to. Go hang out with your friends or spend time in my office; I don’t care.” I just confirmed to him what he already knew about his mom, that she’d done nothing to earn a visit and it was OK to be angry at her. I believe my response did two things. First, it shocked the heck out of him. Second, it showed him he was in a safe place and that we would be here for him. It turned out to be a pivotal day in his healing process.

I could write about the different levels of mourning, but I’m sure you get the idea at this point. The healing process is slow, painful, and depending on the person can take weeks, months, or sadly sometimes years. We hope that every child moves through the process and reaches acceptance as soon as they are able. Until an abandoned child (or anyone who has experienced tremendous loss) can reach that point of acceptance, it is incredibly difficult to begin to rebuild their lives.

Once a child reaches acceptance, they can start over. They can start taking school a little more seriously knowing they’re not ever going back to their old school. They can start making real friends knowing they probably won’t be leaving in a few weeks. Most importantly, if they’ve landed in a healthy orphanage or care situation, they can begin to bond with healthy adults who are committed long-term in the child’s life.

Even if a child reaches acceptance and begins to move on with their lives, it doesn’t mean the pain has gone away; the pain just softens over time. For most children, as they move into adulthood, they reach a point where they will try and find their biological family. If years later, reunions can be arranged, it’s not always the Hallmark moment we envision. Occasionally they can rebuild a relationship with their family, sometimes they’re rejected all over again. People are messy and messed up.

I opened up by sharing about the young man who came into my office. I’m incredibly proud of both him and his brother as they’ve grown into healthy, incredible men of God. The older brother is married with two children and has demonstrated an incredible commitment to his wife and caring for his family. It was the younger brother who came into my office. He wanted to talk over the situation that, after twenty years, he and his brother had recently found family in another state. He had just talked with his “biological” mother. He has no memory of her, but they’re planning on visiting her next summer. The draw to know your biological family is strong and we’re tremendously happy for them both. (I’m tearing up as I write this)

The second thing he wanted to talk with me about was also life-changing. We were planning a get-together with many of the children raised in our home, and he was asking permission to propose to his long-term girlfriend in front of his true family at the party. (She was also raised in our home.) I think he’s reached a good place, a place of wholeness; God has restored this abandoned child.

There is hope for an emotionally wounded child, if they are lead to the master healer, and allowed to grieve in His arms.

Update on the young men in the story: The brothers visited thier mother, it went well but she is still a stranger to them. They are getting to know each other. Since this was first published two years ago, the young man who came to my office is now married and they are expecting thier first child in Dec. My pride of this young man runs deep.

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We Become Our Parents

fatherhoodWith all the mass shootings lately, people are quick to express opinions on gun control and gun regulations. As horrific as the mass shootings are, they are a symptom of a much larger problem. The mental health of shooters often comes up, in the vast majority of the cases, the shooters have used some type of behavioral medication. The one common thread through almost every shooter’s background is the lack of a strong male figure in their lives. Dad was not there.

It’s human nature to emulate the people who are closest to us. Whether we want to or not, we take on the attitudes and characteristics of the people with whom we spend the most time. As much as our friends influence us, the people who care for us when we are in our formative years ultimately have the most significant impact on our lives. 

The people parenting us when we are very young are the people who determine who we become. These are the people we want to make proud, and we remember at key moments in our lives. They shape how we approach experiences and relationships. Our parents shape our reactions to the blessings and challenges that we encounter. Although change is always possible, it gets harder to change our basic personality as we get older, the patterns have been set. The early examples in our lives manifest themselves later on, whether we want them to or not.

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. 
Proverbs 22:6

Over the last few years, while I wasn’t paying attention, I turned into my dad. While I was growing up, “consistent” is the word that would best describe him. He worked the same job for years, home by 5:10, dinner at 5:15, recliner and evening news at 6:00. We were at church EVERY Sunday at 8 am. As my dad aged and then retired, he started looking after his health more, focused more on gardening, and his woodworking (he was a true artist). My life pretty much mirrors this, although I’m not the level of woodworker he was. I’ve kept the same schedule every day for years. In the last few years, I’ve gotten more into gardening, and I’ve set up a wood-shop. As I was arranging my tools recently, I realized again how much I miss my dad and how much I’ve turned into him. Those generational examples can be broken, but it’s complicated. We generally become the people who raise us. I was blessed with an incredible dad, but what about children without that father figure in their lives?

Running a large orphanage, or even being involved in orphan care, you spend a lot of time thinking about parenthood, and the impact it has on a child. Too often long term childcare situations, whether it be foster care or orphanages, focus on the basics. This is entirely understandable, there is a hierarchy of needs, and we need to have the basics covered. Food, shelter, medical needs, education, etc. are all critical in raising children. These basics will keep a child alive, but do they create emotionally healthy adults? Children will not mature in a healthy way without consistent positive examples that they can learn from, and emulate, as they grow into adulthood.

Many orphanages worldwide operate like most families in that they need to focus on the basics first. Out of necessity, anything beyond the basics of keeping children alive doesn’t happen often. In families, the hope is that by default, one or two reliable parental figures are there to provide an example, a pattern to follow in life. In orphanages and long term care situations, the father figure can be elusive. No child belongs in a system, but there are children in long-term care situations in almost every culture in the world. How do we do better? How do we provide more than the basics to keep them alive?

Although I’m a huge advocate of short-term missions, short-term teams do almost nothing to provide long term examples for the children who need it. What short-term mission teams do offer, is the support the long-term staff and missionaries need to stay the course, to remain in the child’s life for the long-term. Orphanage staff need the support and encouragement of teams and individuals behind them and praying for them.

If you work in orphan care, please know your work matters. I know from experience, there are many days you ask yourself why you’re doing what you do, and if it makes a difference. It does. You won’t reach every child; you won’t always have the opportunity to touch a child’s life long term. But when it works, it can make all the difference in a child’s life. Please keep it up; it’s worth it. You might be the only example a child has to model their life after. Do it well.

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Where Do Babies Come From?

pexels-photo-2760338Part of the job when running a large orphanage is answering a LOT of questions from people you meet. There is something about orphan care that brings out the curiosity in just about anyone. People hear stories or make assumptions about this type of work all the time. Don’t you get government funding? (No) Do you handle a lot of adoptions? (No) Do you ever get threatened by family members? (No) Can you use my old clothing? (Maybe) The questions seem to come from anyone we meet. We get it; there is something about orphan care that affects people at a different level than your average job. No offense to accountants or plumbers, but these jobs, while needed, don’t inspire deep, life-altering questions too often. 

There’s a reason almost every superhero is an orphan: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc. There is just something about the story of a child alone in the world that brings up emotions and reactions in anyone. It’s part of our collective human experience to be drawn to the orphan story.

One of the top five questions we get is, “Where do the children come from?” I sometimes respond with, “Soooo, you’re asking me where babies come from?” This usually gets an awkward laugh. I find a little humor helps to soften the harsh realities of what we do. The question of why children wind up in orphanages is never pleasant. This is complicated work. When you’re dealing with young children, often coming from traumatic circumstances, the realities are not what most people want to think about.

The question of why children come to an orphanage is, like any social work, profoundly complicated. Every case is different and tragic. The family unit is the ideal and ordained place for a child to be. No child belongs in a system. Unfortunately, we live in a deeply broken world made up of people who are frequently struggling with complicated and deep issues. Some people, unfortunately, should never have children or should never be let near children. With our home, most of our children are referred to us by Mexico’s version of Child Protective Service (DIF). Why they are brought to our home varies wildly.

The first assumption from people is that the many children in our home are orphans. The truth is, actual orphans, where both parents have died and there is no extended family to step in, are pretty rare. Unless you’re dealing with AIDS, war, or some catastrophic natural event, the odds of both parents of a young child dying are pretty slim. Children wind up in orphanages for much darker and varied reasons. I know that sounds odd: darker than dead parents? The truth is, this is a dark and sad world in which we live. The short answer to why children are in orphanages is: sin.

Parents unavailable to care for a child is one reason children are placed in orphanages or foster care. They might care about their child but are dealing with their own issues: prison, re-hab, etc. Often they can barely care for themselves, much less small children who need loving attention. They might be released from prison or overcome their addictions, but it takes time if it happens at all. These children need a safe place to wait and see if their parents ever recover.

Some children wind up in orphanages due to severe neglect or abuse. After twenty-five years in this line of work, you can imagine the nightmarish stories we’ve seen. Acts of neglect and abuse cut across all social and economic situations. There are just a lot of profoundly messed up people in this world. Unfortunately, broken people frequently take out their issue on the most vulnerable members of society, children. Many children wind up in orphanages coming directly from some horrific situations.

Oddly, the parents of children in our home I appreciate most are the ones who abandon their children. Dropping off infants in hospitals or other areas, or bringing older children directly to organizations like ours, people sometimes just leave their children. At least in the majority of cases, these people are self-aware enough to know that they would make horrible parents or can not give their child what they need. In most cases, they want what is best for their child, and they know they cannot provide that.

Some people assume that children wind up in orphanages due to financial hardship. In our experience, this is actually pretty rare. If we do believe it’s a straight economic issue, we will do everything in our power to keep those families together.

As you can see, why children come to an orphanage is a complicated question. The only constant is that it should never happen. No child belongs in a system or institution. Unfortunately, in every country in the world, children are born into circumstances that require long-term care where a family is not in the picture. Orphans are near to the heart of God, and we as a church and a society need to do better when it comes to orphan care.

Everyone knows where babies come from. The complicated question is, what do you do with them once they arrive?

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Random Affection in Orphanages

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One of the realities of orphan care is that everybody considers themselves an authority. Just like parenting styles in a traditional family, opinions on orphanage styles tend to shift frequently on how to “do it better.” These opinions change depending on what’s trending in any given year. In the last few years, there’s been a lot written on the potentially harmful effects of too many visitors on the children in an orphanage. After working full-time in orphan care for over 25 years, I could not disagree more.

The current theory states that having visitors in orphanages on a regular basis leads to attachment disorder problems later in life because the children are bonding with random, different strangers every week. In my experience, children raised in dysfunctional orphanages will have a wide range of emotional problems later in life, just as anyone raised in a dysfunctional family. If the children are bonding with random strangers every week, this means there are many underlying problems in the orphanage already. The bonding issue is just a symptom.

Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1) In our orphanage, we have more visitors than almost any orphanage in the world. In a typical year, we host around 280 groups and have other “drop by” visitors on a regular basis. We enjoy hosting the groups, we enjoy leading them into service and short-term missions, and we believe when well-managed, these visits are healthy for everyone. So how do we avoid the random attachment? First, we have reliable, consistent staff and plenty of them. Our children do bond with adults, but it’s with consistent adults in their lives. We have an excellent child to staff ratios (about 4 to 1) and minimal staff turnover. Second, although we have a tremendous amount of visitors we intentionally limit the time they have with our children. We limit the visiting hours with our infants and toddlers, but more importantly, we encourage all of our groups to stay with us but travel out daily to serve in the community or with other ministries in the area. Our children see the “visitors” as just that, visitors dropping by to see our family. The majority of children who grow up in our home go on to have healthy marriages and families. In spite of all the visitors, most of our children turn out okay.

Scenario 2) In an orphanage that is understaffed and overcrowded, the children will seek random affection from any visitor that comes through. You can see this when you first arrive in a home. If children above the age of five are running over to hang on you and ask to be held, they’re starved for affection. A normal, well-adjusted 10-year-old doesn’t just walk up to a random stranger seeking physical contact; this is a symptom of much deeper issues in an orphanage. The children are not bonding with the staff and are severely lacking affection. They WILL have problems bonding later in life without a tremendous amount of healing. Most children raised in poorly run orphanages eventually produce children that wind up back in the system and have a tough time with healthy relationships. (Just like too many children from foster care.)

So how does someone, or a mission team, respond to these two examples? If you’re dealing with a healthy orphanage, one that has well-adjusted kids and is well run, continue to back their work. Find out what their needs are and keep supporting a healthy situation. Help them to continue to provide what their children need.

If you’re working with a home that’s not so great, it gets complicated quickly. A few years ago, we were helping an orphanage near us that was a pit. The orphanage was overcrowded, filthy, and the children were deeply starved for affection. We were praying for a change in that home but did not have a lot of hope with the current management. With eyes wide open to the situation, we continued to send teams to that orphanage on day trips. The teams would clean, prepare meals, and spend time with the children in need of attention. I would encourage the teams by telling them, “This home will probably never change, but for one memorable day, those children can know someone cares about them.” With these “hit and run” trips, it was far from perfect, but it was giving these children something.

Everyone knows that eating junk food all the time makes for a lousy diet. In a perfect world, we would all have access to regular, healthy, balanced meals. If someone is starving, the standards drop, and junk food is better than no food. If a child was starving, and all we had to give them was a candy bar, that candy bar would mean the world to them. Long term, you would hope that the situation would change, but I don’t think anyone would withhold the candy bar because it’s not the ideal, healthy option. “Junk food” affection, when it’s the only real option, is better than no affection at all. People not visiting an orphanage to avoid this attachment and bonding problem does not suddenly make healthy bonding occur if the orphanage is understaffed and poorly run.

Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is obviously a complicated issue. It’s an issue that has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away soon. To believe that not visiting orphanages will help the situation is like saying not providing services and meals to homeless will end the homeless situation across America. I wish orphanages didn’t exist, but if they have to exist, they should be great, and they need our help.

Please, continue to follow the fundamental teaching of our Christian faith in regards to orphan care:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

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I Hate Orphanages

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I wish orphanages didn’t exist. A child in an orphanage means the enemy has won a battle, a battle to break a child and parent bond or destroy a family. Orphaned and abandoned children exist because we live in a broken world. I wish we didn’t need the foster care system and I hate orphanages, but if these types of homes have to exist, they should be GREAT.

People frequently ask me “why does a child wind up in an orphanage?” There are a lot of misconceptions about this; most people assume all kids in orphanages are “orphans” who have no living family. The short answer to why most kids are in orphanages is “sin.” Severe abuse, neglect, abandonment, substance abuse by the parents, etc. are all results of flawed people who have fallen into deep sin. Some people should just never have kids. Unless you’re dealing with AIDS, war or severe natural disaster, true orphans where both parents have died are kind of hard to find. Frequently, a parent might still be around, but for many reasons, they just can’t or won’t care for their child or have chosen to abandon their child or children. In any country, you can read stories every week of babies left at hospitals, fire stations, or in trash cans. Today, in many countries, there are thousands of children that are sold into slavery every year. We live in a deeply broken, profoundly messed up world.

Some people believe orphanages break up families to fill their dorms; this does happen in some cases, but less than you might think. There is an assumption that many children are in homes worldwide due to poverty, this happens also, but most of the time, there are other, deeper underlying issues. In most cases, it’s not easy to say what’s best for a child: A marginally abusive/neglectful situation or an orphanage?

In our home, as in any healthy ministry, we do everything we can to keep families together if it’s truly in the best interest of the child. The family is the ideal model, and every child deserves a healthy family. Every child needs the love, acceptance, and loving guidance of their parents. If a parent needs short term help, counseling, etc. to keep the family together in a healthy situation, that should always be the first choice. If there is some extended family that can help that’s an excellent second choice. Sometimes all that’s needed is daycare to keep a family together so the parent can work and still care for their children.

Unfortunately, sometimes, it really is in the best interest of the child to break up the family. You can imagine some of the horrific stories of the children in our care. We had a five-year-old brought to us after the stepdad held him against a hot stove for wetting the bed. We had a two-year-old dropped off late one night with bruises over much of his body and a broken leg after the mom lashed out in a drunken rage. We took in a girl who had just turned fourteen and was pregnant after being raped by her stepdad. (he is now in prison) These types of stories are much too common. Even the most ardent defenders of the family would be hard pressed to defend keeping some families together.

A well-meaning, well-educated individual once passionately shared with me that orphanages are a broken system and that they should all close down. I agree that it’s a broken system, but saying all orphanages should be closed is like saying the health care system in the US is broken so all hospitals should be closed. Just because we close a broken solution, doesn’t mean the problem goes away. I so wish there were better options for the countless children who fall through the cracks of society.

If the family is not in the picture, and adoption is a real alternative, it should always be encouraged. Unfortunately, adoption is not a reality for the vast majority of children living in any care situation. The latest figures available are that only 2% of children living in care situations worldwide ever get adopted. Most have multiple siblings, are “too old” to adopt, or they have some living family that still has a claim on them. Depending on adoption for a child’s future is very much like depending on the lottery for your retirement: It might work, but not likely.

A couple of years ago, eleven-year-old Pablo (not his real name) was brought to us after being removed from his home due to neglect on the part of his mom. He had been bouncing around the system for a while. He hadn’t been in school, was in bad shape physically, and had spent way too much time on the streets. After a few days here, he expressed amazement that he was getting three meals a day and asked if that was normal. His mother is currently working with the government to receive custody of Pablo. Mom visits from time to time but is still not doing very well; she’s dealing with some long-standing substance abuse issues. Pablo is now doing great in school, just graduated top of his class, and has become a real part of our family. We know we don’t replace loving parents, but here Pablo has a loving home with people who deeply care about him, great opportunities, and a future that was just a dream a few years ago. Very recently, Pablo came to us with a request. He knows his mom is working on getting him back, but he’s also bright enough to know he has no future with her. He has asked that if his mom gets custody, and if it’s OK with her if he could still live here. He wants to stay here so he can continue in school, work for a better life, and just visit his mom. We sincerely hope and pray that his mom gets her life in order, but until that happens, we want to provide a great home to Pablo, and the many other Pablos who are out there.

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