This Issue









Vol. 2, No. 1 • Fall 1997

Religious Differences and the Holidays
by John McMahon

Picture this scenario: Amy, a 13-year-old foster child, is crying hysterically. It is getting close to Christmas, and her foster mother has just told her that if she doesn't attend church services on Christmas day, she cannot participate in an exchange of Christmas gifts with her foster family.

She desperately wants to participate, but she has decided not to--her birth family belongs to a religious tradition that does not go to church or celebrate Christmas. She feels excluded from her foster family and guilty because she wants to take part.

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For foster families, the holidays can be challenging. Foster children miss their birth families and their traditions, while at the same time they may want to be a part of the activities of their foster family. When there is a religious difference between the child's birth family and the foster family, things can become even more complicated.

Religion can be a sensitive issue. Legally, biological parents have the right to choose their children's religion or lack of religion. Placement of their child in foster care does not take away this right.

Of course, most foster parents try to respect the culture and religious customs of the children in their care. But what does this mean when it comes to religion? Must a foster parent avoid talking about religion with foster children? Must foster children be excluded from holidays their birth family does not celebrate?

Answers to questions like these lie in establishing open lines of communication between you, DSS, and the birth family. If your foster care coordinator, social worker, or licensing person knows how you feel about religious issues (for example, if prayer makes you feel uncomfortable, or if you feel compelled to convert foster children and their families), he or she will be able to make informed placement decisions.

This communication works both ways. The more you know about the religion, traditions, and preferences of birth families, the easier it will be for you to act in a way that honors their beliefs.

If you aren't already doing so, consider talking with your social worker about how religion affects your role as a foster parent. Before you do so, you may want to survey your own beliefs and values before talking to your social worker or the child's social worker. The box below contains questions that may help you through this process.

What would you do if...

  • Your foster child refused to attend your place of worship?
  • Your foster child attempted to convert you?
  • Birth parents talk badly about your religion to their children?
  • Birth parents insist you cannot discuss religion with their child?
  • Birth parents want a child to adhere to religious regulations or routines different from yours (for example, not eating pork, not cutting their hair)

Inspired by Schatz, M. S. & Horejsi, C. (1996). The importance of religious tolerance: A model for educating foster parents, Child Welfare (Jan.-Feb.), 73-86.

Copyright 2000 Jordan Institute for Families