Thursday, September 21

Religion professor serving community through foster care

By Grace Beckner

Without the open heart and home of a single woman, Mary Schmitt, assistant professor of biblical studies at Trevecca, might not be here today.

Schmitt’s grandmother was born to a mother who died not long after childbirth, and to a father who was unable to care for a newborn baby. The father put the child in a home with a family, and when he could no longer pay them to care for her, she was brought to an orphanage.

Schmitt’s grandmother was taken in by a single woman who saw how sick she had become and thought she would not do well in the orphanage. So the woman, after gaining permission from the orphanage and the child’s father, took the baby home.

“She was never allowed to adopt her, because she was a single woman, and you weren’t allowed to do that until very recently in this country,” Schmitt said. “So she never allowed her to call her ‘mom’ or anything.”

Single parents were not officially allowed to adopt children in the U.S. until the 1960s, when the Child Welfare League of America decided married parents were an “unattainable luxury” for some children.

That single woman put Schmitt’s grandmother through school, through her college years, and ultimately helped her become a nurse

“That was her mom,” Schmitt said. “I think it is really cool that there are people who open up their hearts, because my mom wouldn’t have been born, so I wouldn’t have been born, if that didn’t happen.”

Schmitt has committed to becoming a foster parent, a sort of continuation of her own story.

Besides the connection with her past, Schmitt is drawn to the foster care system because of the localized need for foster parents in Tennessee and the Nashville area. She sees this role as an opportunity to live out the scriptural call to care for children and orphans.

“I know in Nashville there are kids that need a home, and here I’ve got a room, I have other means of support,” Schmitt said. “And so I thought I would maybe try that route because it is the most localized, it would affect my immediate community that I live in right outside Trevecca’s campus.”

According to the Tennessee Alliance for Kids, there are just under 8,000 children in the foster care system in the state of Tennessee, 466 of those kids are coming from Davidson county. 

There are over 415,000 children in the foster care system in the United States.

The foster care system is designed to reunify children with their biological parents or family members, meaning much of a foster family’s role is to support the process of getting children back into their original home.

“You hope and pray that their biological parents or biological grandparents can get to a place where they are able to support and love them,” said Schmitt. “Then you have been a piece of their journey, and that’s okay.”

Tim Green, dean of the Miller Reed school of theology and Schmitt’s supervisor, views Schmitt’s decision to foster as something that should be celebrated, and then accepted as a “natural, beautiful thing of the journey of life.” He said this is how he thinks all familial relationships and planning should be approached.

“There is a commitment to generations beyond [her] own life,” said Green. “I think what Mary is then considering with foster parenting, is that same kind of ‘I will give my life to those who likely will extend life much longer than I will be able to serve.’”

Jasmine Hiland, Trevecca alum and current foster parent, said there is a tension when a foster child is in the home between the joy of having them there, and the grief of why they have to be.

“The beautiful thing is that you are providing a space for that family to do what they need to do to have their reunion,” Hiland said. “It is a really weird place to put yourself in the middle of, where you are holding this space…for this family to get resources and help so they ultimately get reunified.” 

Schmitt has not yet started this process, but is preparing herself, her home and doing her research for when she does take this step.

The process of becoming a foster parent has a lot of moving parts. Taking anywhere from four to 12 months, there are seminars, training, background checks, interviews and home visits to make sure safety protocols are being followed.

“It doesn’t feel real when you’re doing it because you’re discussing hypotheticals, but it is one of those things you learn by experience,” Hiland said. “We made a fire map, we safety-proofed our house, we put all our medication in a double-locked [container], it is pretty intense.”

For Hiland, the process to become a foster parent from start to finish took six months. Schmitt said she has not set a timeline for when she would like to have the foster parent process completed by, and is currently trying to be faithful to “a door the Lord has opened” in her home by learning about the system and preparing herself.

“You go from having no kids, to suddenly having kids,” Hiland said. “You are suddenly a parent overnight, and not in the way everyone expects it.”

Hiland said it is not uncommon to get a foster child placement call within hours after being officially approved.

“It is very likely that you will get a call [saying], ‘Hey, you’re approved,’ and then thirty minutes later get another call saying, ‘Hey, we have a placement, can you take this person?’” said Hiland.

Previous to this decision, Schmitt thought she might wait to get married and “do all the normal steps.” But over the past year she noticed how her life was changing.

“I had my 40th birthday, I started decluttering this room [in my house] and realized how much stuff I had,” said Schmitt. “When I started getting rid of my stuff I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a spare bedroom that could be used for this whole purpose I had always wanted to use it for.’” 

She also struggles with the views of those who believe there must be two parents in a home caring for a child.

“I have a real struggle with people’s claims that you shouldn’t do this if you aren’t married because every child needs two parents. I think a child with one foster parent [who is] really in their corner and really taking care of them, is itself a gift,” Schmitt said. “I come at things from a Biblical scholar perspective, and I think this idea of the modern nuclear family–two parents, one-and-a-half kids–is just not the only thing we see in Scripture.”

Schmitt believes God creates families of many different shapes and sizes. Even in churches themselves, there are not only “American average scenarios” represented, and God is faithful in those situations too, she said.

As a single woman entering the foster care system, Schmitt is concerned about having enough support. Questions like, “what do you do when it is only you?” have weighed on her mind as she thinks about the future. 

She acknowledges many areas of her life may change. Becoming a foster parent might make it harder to travel, which is a required part of her job. Schmitt has started to think about how she will be able to take a day off of work on days when fostering might feel like another job in some ways. 

“I do think there are challenges of coming at [the foster care system] without having a partner, because there is no one immediately to [help out],” said Schmitt. “Which is why it is so important that I fall back to my church families, and colleagues here. To say, ‘Do I have support from other people that are my bigger Christian family?’” 

Even as Schmitt anticipates the challenges and lifestyle changes she will have to take on, her own background and story connected to her grandmother is in the back of her mind.

“I am looking forward to the way [kids] help you see the world differently,” said Schmitt. They carry the ability to laugh and be light, and the fun that would be a part of that too.”

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