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Wards of God

How evangelical Christians became foster care influencers

If you fall down the right Instagram rabbit hole, you will find images of children with digital heart stickers plastered over their faces, or with scribbles scratching out their eyes. Most of them are babies or toddlers, and they are cute, from what you can see: chubby cheeks, tufts of curly hair. Some are elaborately dressed in rompers and knee socks, and if they have siblings, you can bet that they are color-coordinated. Should you stop to read the captions, you’ll notice that God and Jesus are governing these censored children’s fates. “In a very real sense, all of the children in my home are mine. In another—maybe even more real—sense, none of the children in my home are mine,” one such post begins. “They were created by God, they were given to me by God, they belong to God.” Welcome to the world of evangelical foster mommy influencing, where children who have been removed from their families by the child welfare system are Instagrammed to spread the gospel of foster care.

The American child welfare system is labyrinthine and diffuse, and each state, county, and private agency has different regulations, but privacy is a central tenet. The women posting bestickered children with messages about trusting God are only nominally protecting these children’s privacy, following the spirit—but not the letter—of the law. In Pennsylvania, where I live, the Children in Foster Care Act of 2010 stipulates that children have the right to have their personal information kept confidential. Specific social media regulations are lacking in many states, whose laws have not caught up with how we live on the internet, but where they do exist, they urge privacy, confidentiality, and sensitivity. Social media tips for foster parents from the United States Children’s Bureau, the federal agency tasked with reducing child abuse and neglect and supporting adoption and foster care, recommend that they refrain from posting photos of a foster child without permission and avoid identifying the child as being in foster care or sharing any specific details about their case.

But evangelical foster mommy influencers on Instagram do in fact share quite a bit about their foster children, and they’re not just capitalizing on those stories to spread the gospel. They’re also making money.

The ringleader of this group is Jamie Finn, a.k.a. @fosterthefamilyblog, who has parlayed her foster parenting journey into a career. As she puts it, God “convict[ed] and convince[d]” her and her husband to foster and adopt. An article about the Finns on the “pro-life” section of the website of Focus on the Family—the conservative evangelical organization that promotes “the God-ordained institution of the family” and lobbies against abortion and LGBTQ+ rights—explains that the Finns consider foster care a “mission.” In addition to taking the Bible as the word of God and ultimate authority, evangelicals like Finn believe in The Great Commission, a mandate from Matthew 28:16–20 to spread the gospel to “all nations,” which was long used to justify and legitimize colonialism. As scholar of religion and politics Anthea Butler points out in White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, “Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.” She traces how, historically, white evangelicals have used the Bible to “support slavery,” as well as to “oppos[e] the civil rights movement, integration, and interracial marriage.” Today, Butler contends, white evangelicals form a powerful conservative voting bloc that “support[s] structures of oppression.” The child welfare system is one such structure.

On Instagram, Finn posts about Foster the Family, the nonprofit she founded (which supports foster families, not birth families); the series of Christian retreats for foster and adoptive moms she hosts; and Good and Better, the apparel company she runs, which sells T-shirts with phrases like “adopt & foster & mentor & advocate & volunteer & pray” (the proceeds support her nonprofit). In addition to her entrepreneurial pursuits, she sometimes posts more typical influencer fare: last Christmas, Finn did a brand sponsorship with Jockey featuring her family—two biological children, two children adopted from foster care, and one foster child, “Baby Boy”—decked out in matching pajamas. One photo shows the baby lying on a forest-green blanket, his face covered with a white heart sticker. “Purchase this super soft fleece blanket & @jockey will donate $25 to the @jockeybeingfamily foundation,” she wrote under an affiliate link.

Other evangelical foster moms take Finn’s word on foster care as seriously as the scripture she posts daily. One quote of Finn’s that is popular in these circles reads, “I could be sitting on the sidelines, in blissful ignorance of the brokenness that surrounds me, enjoying the wholeness of a sweet and sheltered life. Missing out on the beauty of breaking off pieces of my heart and my life to make another whole. Missing out on the joy of offering those broken pieces in worship to my Savior.” You can get a variation on it, minus “in worship to my Savior,” emblazoned on a throw pillow via Goods and Better. The phrase is so pervasive that it has been turned into a meme: “Gotta be honest Jamie . . . Sometimes I wish I was sitting on the sidelines in blissful ignorance of the brokenness that surrounds me,” reads a post from @fostering_memes, an account for foster parents that makes light of the chaos of the system and of children’s traumas.

They’re not just capitalizing on those stories to spread the gospel. They’re also making money.

Finn’s robust Instagram following no doubt helped her ink a book deal with Christian publisher Baker Books. Foster the Family: Encouragement, Hope, and Practical Help for the Christian Foster Parent came out in February of this year; Finn went on a twenty-one-city tour to support it, stopping at churches and Christian conferences across the country. The Instagram caption I cited earlier, about God having “given” a woman the foster children she cares for, is an excerpt from Finn’s book. It adorns a picture of “Baby Boy,” who, sometime after the Jockey ad, went from foster child to transracial adoptee—he is Black, Finn’s family is white. Before the adoption, she suggested to her followers on social media that the boy had been exposed to drugs in the womb.

In New Jersey, where Finn lives, the Department of Children and Families forbids foster parents from posting photos of children in their care or sharing personal information about them online. Like other foster mommy influencers, she evades these rules with stickers and nicknames. Her book is even less circumspect. In the prologue alone, which focuses on how wearying her life as a foster mom is, Finn shares that she was asked to take a toddler to prison to meet their father. She ends this section by writing about posting to Instagram at the end of the day: “Sharing about my life and about foster care on the internet each day leads me to contemplation, readjustment, and worship.” But it’s not just her life that she’s sharing.

Regular mom influencers already tread in ethically complicated waters. They monetize their children and promote an aspirational vision of the labor of mothering in what Sara Peterson, author of the forthcoming book Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture, calls “a confounding stew of ideology and performance.” Evangelical foster momfluencers take the gambit further by exploiting children who are only temporarily in their care for the sake of “advocacy” (a favorite term of Finn’s) and proselytizing, turning them into poster children. But you can follow accounts like @fosterthefamilyblog for years and not glean much about how foster care really works.

I first stumbled upon this online community while researching my book on America’s obsession with orphans and the social history of orphanhood. My parents both died of cancer by the time I was fourteen, but I was never in foster care myself—I lived with one of my father’s sisters in a legal guardianship—so I took to social media to find inside perspectives on the system. I quickly realized that while former and current foster youth are active on TikTok, foster care hashtags on Instagram are dominated by women like Finn. I couldn’t stop looking at their posts and watching their stories, though I believed they were violating foster children’s rights, even when they posted in celebration of Roe v. Wade being overturned. I was mesmerized by their performance of motherhood and grew invested in the stories of the emoji-censored children they cared for.

Those children cannot meaningfully consent to having their lives turned into fodder for Instagram consumption, however. And even if they could, learning their individual stories, filtered through their caregivers’ deeply conservative religious worldview, doesn’t help us understand the systemic inequities in the foster care system and the need for reform. Instead, the objectification and tokenizing of the majority-minority foster child population by the largely white evangelical foster momfluencer community reproduces the fundamental racism and classism of the system as a whole.

Family Policing

According to the most recent Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System data from the Children’s Bureau, there were an estimated 407,493 children in foster care in 2020. The case goal for 54 percent of those children was to reunify with their families. Black children are overrepresented in foster care, making up 23 percent of the foster population versus 14 percent of the total child population, while white children are underrepresented.

Instead, the objectification and tokenizing of the majority-minority foster child population by the largely white evangelical foster momfluencer community reproduces the fundamental racism and classism of the system as a whole.

Children most often end up in foster care because someone has made an allegation against their parents of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) or neglect—a loosely defined category that varies by state. The Children’s Bureau explains that definitions of neglect generally include “the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.” Frequently, conditions of poverty are construed as conditions of neglect: think a child who attends school in stained clothes because their parent couldn’t afford to go to the laundromat.

In 2020, 64 percent of children entered the foster care system due to neglect. Parental drug abuse was cited in 35 percent of cases. As Gothamist recently revealed, in New York City, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is still citing parental marijuana use when building cases that advocate separating children from their parents, despite the drug’s legalization statewide. Physical abuse—what we might imagine to be the most common cause of child removal—was only cited in 13 percent of cases. Mandated reporters like teachers make the majority of maltreatment reports. In 2019, only 16 percent of these reports were substantiated. Yet it’s estimated that over half of Black children in the United States have been subjected to investigations by child welfare agencies, according to a 2020 study published in Children and Youth Services Review.

If, after an investigation, an agency does find an allegation of abuse or neglect credible, the child will be removed. They will either be placed with kin, in an institution like a group home, or in a foster home. Foster parents are licensed by counties and subcontracted private agencies. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, eight thousand child-placing agencies in America are faith-based. The federal government does not track much information about who foster parents are, outside of their race and ethnicity, but Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, cites that practicing Christians are more likely to foster or consider fostering than adults in general.

Foster parents receive so-called “maintenance payments” or stipends, paid for with federal and state funding, that are meant to cover the costs of caring for the foster child. Meanwhile, birth parents are required to work a case plan that might include parenting classes, psychological evaluations and services, drug testing and treatment, obtaining stable work and housing, attending family court hearings, and more in order to regain custody. Many states also require birth parents to pay child support while their children are in foster care. Parents can only see their children during brief supervised visits that typically take place once a week or every other week.

Given the racism, classism, surveillance, and punishment inherent in the child welfare system, activists like legal scholar and sociologist Dorothy Roberts promote calling the system what it is: a family-policing system. Roberts has been pushing for abolition of foster care since her 2001 book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. In her 2022 book Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, Roberts writes about how little has meaningfully changed in the system in the past twenty-one years: “Despite numerous reforms, the family-policing system has not changed its punitive ideology or racist impact. Given its foundational logic, which is centered on threatening politically marginalized families with child removal, the system has absorbed efforts to mitigate its flaws and has continued reproducing its benevolent terror.” Roberts’s vision of abolition now includes a complete dismantling of the current system alongside “imagin[ing] and creat[ing] better ways of caring for children, meeting families’ needs, and preventing domestic violence.”

One of the organizations that Roberts commends in Torn Apart is Rise, which was founded in New York City in 2005 as a magazine that showcases the voices of parents harmed by the family-policing system. In addition to the magazine, Rise trains parent-leaders for community organizing, hosts peer support groups, and advocates for abolition. I spoke with Jeanette Vega, a Puerto Rican mother formerly involved with the system, who in 2021 became co-executive director of Rise alongside Bianca Shaw, a Black mother and licensed master social worker. Vega told me that the most important thing to highlight about her experience with the system, which started in 2002 when ACS removed her toddler son (they reunified three years later), is how little has changed since then. “The racism is still there, the bias is still there, families are still lingering for three to five years, they’re still removing kids for poverty situations and categorizing them as neglect,” Vega said. “At Rise, what we’re trying to do is really to elevate parents’ experiences to say, ‘We’ve been there, we know what it’s like.’ And really supporting other parents to either get out of [the system] faster, or not have to go through it at all, and then have the networks of support that we didn’t have back in the day.”

Part of that support is community organizing with a focus on “shifting conditions that are getting these families in poverty and then having child welfare involvement,” Vega told me. The organization’s goals are centered on child care, with lobbying for universal child care without ACS oversight as their top priority.

Rise’s abolitionist mission and commitment to building communities of care along the way provide a stark contrast to Jamie Finn’s Foster the Family organization, which does not seek to disturb the status quo. Instead, Foster the Family hosts support groups across the country for foster moms (and foster moms only), which nearly all meet in churches despite purportedly being non-faith-based. In Finn’s book, she describes these support group meetings as being akin to “a group of vets sharing war stories,” a metaphor that equates temporarily caring for children who have been removed from their families—a trauma in itself—with being enlisted in bloody armed conflict. She ends the chapter with a vow: “My life has been ransomed and purchased. I’ve been bought with a price, so I now belong to God.”

Orphan Care

Evangelical zeal for foster care and adoption is nothing new and fits neatly into the broader history of the outsize role that Christians have always played in child welfare. Because the government abdicated its responsibility from the start, religious charities filled the gap. We can trace this history to the dawn of industrial capitalism and unstable wage labor in the 1800s. With industrialization came mass urban migration and immigration, taking people away from family members who could care for their children in a time of need. The vast majority of orphanages that opened in the 1800s were run by religious charities, and nearly all of those belonged to either Catholic orders or Protestant groups. Most children in orphanages during this period weren’t actually orphans—they had one or even two living parents, just desperately poor ones.

“The racism is still there, the bias is still there, families are still lingering for three to five years, they’re still removing kids for poverty situations and categorizing them as neglect.”

The same holds true today. While 99 percent of children currently in American foster care are not orphans in the sense that they have entered the system due to the death of one or both parents, evangelicals are galvanized to care for them under the ideals of “orphan care.” They apply the label “orphan” not just to children whose parents have died, but children who are “vulnerable” (read: poor). The defining scripture passage of the orphan care movement is James 1:27: “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.” The country’s largest Protestant foster care agency, Bethany Christian Services, is an evangelical organization founded in 1944 with a focus on seeing people “the way God sees” them. It now operates foster care services in sixteen states.

In his book Growing God’s Family: The Global Orphan Care Movement and the Limits of Evangelical Activism, sociologist Samuel L. Perry traces the current iteration of evangelical “orphan care” to the early 2000s. In 2004, evangelical leaders like Rick Warren (founder of megachurch Saddleback, one of the largest in the country), James Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family), and Dennis Rainey (president of FamilyLife, a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ)—along with the heads of Bethany and other Christian foster care and adoption agencies—met to establish the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). Perry calls CAFO “the central organizing hub of the contemporary evangelical orphan care movement.” It partners with churches around the country to establish foster care and adoption ministries. Each year, CAFO hosts “summits” with more than a hundred workshops and sponsorship booths that cost up to $30,000. Finn hosted two workshops at the 2022 edition.

At first, groups like CAFO were mostly focused on international adoption of “orphans”—often meaning children who had poor parents who did not fully understand the permanent nature of American adoption—from countries like Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Haiti. In her 2013 book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce explains that in the early aughts, evangelical churches

had begun to view adoption as a perfect storm of a cause: a way for conservative churches to get involved in poverty and social justice issues that they had ceded years before to liberal denominations . . . and, more quietly, as a window for evangelizing, as Christians get to “bring the mission field home” and pass on the gospel to a new population of children.

She tracks how evangelical pastors cited an overblown “orphan crisis” to rally their congregants to pursue adoption. For example, Elizabeth Styffe, director of Saddleback’s Global Orphan Care Initiatives, referenced a grossly exaggerated number of adoptable “orphans”: “There are 163 million orphans [globally], but there are two billion people who call themselves Christians. If you do the math, this is doable in our generation.” The 163 million number—oft repeated—comes from a late-aughts UNICEF count that includes so-called “single orphans,” who have only lost one parent. In 2007, only 18.5 million children globally had lost both, and many were not in need of adoption because they lived with extended family.

Even as evangelicals pushed an end to the “orphan crisis,” international adoption was drying up. Inadequate regulation, corruption, and trafficking born of Western demand for adoptable children plagued many countries’ systems and led them to curtail or outright ban the practice. Guatemala suspended international adoptions in 2008; Ethiopia in 2018. According to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, international adoptions in the twenty-first century peaked in 2004—the year of CAFO’s founding—when 22,987 children were adopted into the United States. They have since fallen precipitously—in 2021, only 1,785 children were adopted internationally.

When I spoke with Joyce about what has changed in the orphan care movement since the publication of The Child Catchers, she noted a shift in how evangelicals talked about orphan care in 2017, when she was invited to a CAFO Summit for a “civil disagreement” panel. “There was more of a focus on promoting in-country alternatives to international adoption,” Joyce said. It seemed to her that some in the movement had reached the conclusion that “if you really want to help widows and orphans . . . it made more sense to do so by keeping them together by helping families that were poor, rather than just helping the kids.”

The same ethos of family preservation has not entirely carried over to domestic foster care. While some evangelical foster parents like Finn do promote family reunification as being the goal of foster care, their reasoning tends to be rooted in what they believe to be God’s vision of the family, and they do not seek to stop children from being removed in the first place. Finn recently posted an excerpt from her book (adorning an image of a baby’s tiny striped-sock feet cradled in her lap), explaining she is pro-reunification because of her “foundational conviction that God created the family and that He longs for it to be restored.” And when a so-called widow is able to regain custody of an orphan, Finn believes it is because God has helped them. She made this point in a September post about “the tendency for all of us to write off biological parents because of their past and current struggles and our too-small-view of what God can do,” where she lip-syncs to the TikTok audio meme of Dr. Evil saying “And the best part of this plan is, no one can stop me,” from Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Original Spin

These days, you don’t have to attend a church that partners with CAFO in order to hear testimonies about orphan care. You just need to find your way to @fosterthefamilyblog’s account, or that of @torihopepetersen (a former foster youth and former foster parent who adopted a teen; recent graduate of the conservative Christian college Hillsdale; 110,000 followers), or @kalliyoder (fosters toddlers; runs a Bible study business for women; 22,400 followers), or @thebrennerbunch (adopted a set of four siblings from foster care; homeschools; 53,100 followers), or any number of other accounts, bigger and smaller, that share daily glimpses into their homes.

“They have families. And those families are really struggling, maybe. And sometimes they’re struggling primarily because the state is intervening oppressively, but either way they exist.”

These influencers see themselves as providing a window into the life of a good Christian foster mother, and they do so by narrativizing their lives on Stories. Mornings are spent reading scripture and daily devotionals, annotating with colored pens and highlighters. There is a lot of driving children to various visits and appointments, a lot of Chick-fil-A. There is venting about foster children’s “behaviors” related to trauma or developmental and mental health diagnoses, and advice on how to handle them. During May—national foster care month—there are advocacy posts; Finn’s @fosterthefamilyblog posts a calendar of writing prompts ranging from “My Why” to “Best Day” to “Self Care.”

Charell Star Chiger, a former foster youth, understands the power and draw of social media storytelling. I came across her Instagram account (@charellstar, 31,400 followers) last summer, when she was featured on @humansofny in a series of posts about her experiences in foster care. The posts received more than 850,000 likes and drove $142,155 in donations to CASA-NYC, a nonprofit that trains volunteers to act as court-appointed special advocates for children in foster care.

Chiger, who is Black, grew up in Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s, and was in six different foster and kinship homes over the course of about six years before reunifying with her mother. When I asked her what motivated her to share her story—not just with @humansofny, but on her own Instagram, appearances on network news, and in a documentary called Feeling Wanted—Chiger told me, “If I don’t speak out against these things that happened to me and the experiences I went through, it’s going to continue to happen . . . I got to be very vocal and be that person that I needed when I was in care.” But Chiger did not feel secure enough to speak about her experiences in foster care until she was well into adulthood, for fear of being judged. “I made the mistake of mentioning [my time in foster care] one time in an early job I had, and my boss’s attitude towards me totally changed after that,” she told me. Chiger now works in social media partnerships and told me she finds the way many foster parent influencers “use the stories of youth” to be “frustrating.” “I think foster parents who do that violate youth,” Chiger said. “I think they’re really taking away the youth’s power, the youth’s ability to share their story in their own way in their own time.”

Vega, the codirector of Rise, points out that it’s not just children’s rights that are being exploited when foster parents share about them on social media, but parents’ rights. “Some parents have said, ‘They’re portraying my child on social media as their child,’” Vega told me. She’s also heard of foster parents posting pictures of children “going on all these amazing trips out of New York City,” without parental consent, which is required for travel. Ultimately, Vega said, any social media posting by foster parents can “feel like a violation, because they’re doing whatever they want with our children, and no one’s asking permission to do it.”

Rosalie Knecht, a licensed clinical social worker who used to work in a residential foster care facility for teenage boys in New York City, told me that this erasure of children’s families is what bothers her most about the portrayal of foster care on social media. “They have mothers and fathers and families, they have aunts and uncles and grandparents,” Knecht said of foster children. “They have families. And those families are really struggling, maybe. And sometimes they’re struggling primarily because the state is intervening oppressively, but either way they exist.”

Scrolling through evangelical foster momfluencer accounts, with their testimonials about how God gets them through the hard seasons of care, and how they get too attached to the children in their homes, you can almost forget about the families on the other side: families that didn’t need to be policed and broken apart in the first place, families that didn’t need women like Finn to save them. More than that, you can forget that the mission of evangelicals involved in the family policing system is not just religious, but, as Butler reminds us in White Evangelical Racism, explicitly political. She argues that evangelism is “not simply a religious group at all. Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.” Evangelical foster momfluencers aren’t just exploiting the experiences of vulnerable children to spread the gospel and bolster their personal brands. They and, more directly, the organizations like CAFO and Focus on the Family that they support, reinforce the conservative, racist, classist morals and policies that undergird the family policing system—abetting the status quo and standing in the way of abolition.