In his medical practice with Urology Centers of Alabama, urologist Dr. Mark DeGuenther uses high-tech tools that weren't available just a generation ago. But in his off-time, he's gotten an unusual amount of experience with an age-old skill: parenting.
Advances such as laparoscopic surgery make it possible to perform procedures that are minimally invasive. "Previously, such surgeries required large incisions," DeGuenther says, "but today's techniques mean less post-operative bleeding, less pain, and a quicker recovery overall."
How he and his wife Laura--who have raised five children of their own--first became involved in foster parenting is a more complicated story, and begins when they participated in a mission trip several years ago.
"We work with the youth at our church and we just love kids," DeGuenther says. "We had discussed being foster parents for a year and a half. My wife was willing but I was making excuses. When we were on an urban mission trip to Memphis, we met a 12-year-old boy who lived with his grandmother because his mother was addicted to drugs. It broke my heart to leave him.
"Then the pastor's sermon that day was about being obedient to the will of God. He said, 'There are some of you currently struggling with that issue, and I just urge you to hear God's call to obedience.'” The next day, DeGuenther heard a story on the radio about fostering and the host said there was “likely someone out there considering doing this, but holding back for whatever reason.” She then urged “obedience to God’s call.” He remembers, “It hit me right between the eyes.”
The DeGuenthers came home and found information about the Alabama Baptist Children's Home: “They were just starting a 10-week class from the Department of Human Resources for becoming certified as foster parents, and we signed up."
None of those events were "coincidences," DeGuenther believes now. In the years since, he and Laura have fostered more than 15 children, from ages three to 12. But the process has been far from a smooth path.
"Caring for foster children is one hundred percent different," he says. "In the beginning we thought, 'Well, we'll just raise them like we raised our own.' But in the classes we learned that the same strategies and techniques either don't work, or are counterproductive, because of the foster kids' backgrounds."
Some of those differences can make communication a whole new ball game. "With our kids, I could give them what I referred to as 'the daddy look,' or 'the daddy tone of voice'", DeGuenther says, "and immediately they knew, 'Hey, Dad's serious here. Don't mess around.' And they would correct their own behavior.
"Whereas if you use that approach for a kid with an abusive or neglectful background, they just recoil and block you out. They don't hear you. They put up a wall that creates this sensory input barrier, and once that happens you've lost them. You're not going to have the opportunity for any meaningful communication.
"So that's been a huge challenge for me, after raising five kids of our own, having to re-learn parenting skills. It's tough."
Discipline has to take other forms as well, DeGuenther says: "Becoming angry is not a good way to communicate with anyone, so this is a positive in all of my relationships. With foster kids, though, no spanking or corporal punishment is ever allowed, so you feel like an important tool has been taken out of your tool belt.
“But when you consider that so many of these kids have been physically abused by their parents or uncles or aunts or whatever, the anger sends a message that 'You're just like all the other adults I've known, and you're going to hurt me.' That's counter, of course, to what you want to be sharing with them, which is God's love."
The trusted parental tool of "Time out!" has to be modified as well. "We have plenty of discipline with our foster kids," he says, "but when they've been basically abandoned so much of their lives, making them go to their room is just not an effective thing. Instead, we have 'Time in,' which means their punishment is having to sit there in the room with you while you're doing what you need to be doing."
All in all, no small challenge. But DeGuenther credits the Alabama Baptist Children's Home for "doing an incredible job of giving resources and support to the families and kids."
Perhaps the hardest part of the experience is giving kids up, he says. "You love them, and for all intents and purposes they become one of your own. But our attitude is that God has put these children into our lives--and us into their lives--for a period of time to teach each other things about His love."
DeGuenther invites anyone considering foster parenting to contact him or the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home for more information.