One Sunday after Mass, Lisa Penzkover from Caldwell, Idaho, was discussing the topic of pro-life fairs with some parishioners when she mentioned how she thought it would be important to include a foster care booth. Penzkover says, “They told me, ‘That’s not really pro-life.’”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” questioned Penzkover. “We encourage women to have babies, and then sometimes they cannot care for them.”
Some people may believe that pro-life work pertains to pregnant women, laws, and advocacy, but it goes beyond that. Being an advocate for life means taking care of children after they are born and supporting families. It includes respecting the dignity of people from the womb to the tomb.
Here you’ll meet four Christians who are contributing to the culture of life through foster care, adoption, promoting safe haven laws, and volunteering for the No One Dies Alone program.
Lisa Penzkover and her husband, Jeff, were raising six children, ages 3 to 18, but felt in their hearts that they had room for more.
In the summer of 2014 — shortly after going through the four-to-six-month process of getting licensed for foster care — they began doing respite for foster families who needed a temporary break. During their second respite, 4-month-old Grace came to live with them. When child protective services placed her, Lisa didn’t receive many details about Grace. “It was like, ‘Here’s a baby; feed her,’” Lisa recalls. “I said, ‘Wow! She’s small.’”
Foster caring for the family
Grace was undernourished because her mother and father struggled with mental illness and were unable to care for themselves, let alone their baby. The Penzkovers welcomed the tiny, platinum-blonde baby into their home, but they were also there for her parents. “You don’t just take care of the baby; you help take care of the family, or at least you are involved in the family,” Lisa Penzkover says. “Our experience is that all of these people love their kids, and most of them want them back, even if that cannot be due to mental illness or addiction.”
As of Sept. 30, 2015, an estimated 427,910 children were in foster care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During fiscal year 2015, of the estimated 243,060 children who left foster care, 51 percent were reunited with a parent or primary caretaker.
When child protective services removes a child from an unfit home, the mother or father have a set amount of time to prove to a court that they can provide a stable home — typically 12 to 15 months. Meanwhile, the child is placed in foster care, and child protective services puts “plan B” into place: They begin looking for relatives who are willing to adopt.
In Grace’s case, her mother had relatives who were childless and eager to adopt. “They were very patient while the system worked with the mom,” Lisa Penzkover says. “Eventually, we started taking Grace to their home for visits.” When the court determined that Grace’s mother and father would not be fit to parent her, everything was already in place for her to be adopted.
Grace had been a member of the Penzkover family for 16 months. Her departure was difficult, but the gradual way it was done and having constant contact with the adoptive family made the transition easier. The Penzkovers keep in touch with Grace through pictures and visits. Grace no longer remembers them, but Lisa says that’s OK. “We always say that we are Grace’s ‘heart family’ — in our hearts, she’ll always be a part of our family.” So Grace will know how much they loved her, Lisa made a book chronicling the time she spent with them.
What happened after Grace was adopted?
Adorable twin toddlers were transitioned in as Grace was leaving. “When people ask me how many children I have, I slip and say six,” Lisa says. “But my 10-year-old daughter, Gianna, reminds me, “No, Mom, you have nine. Don’t forget Grace and the twins.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Grace’s name was changed to protect her identity.
SAFE HAVEN LAWS SAVE LIVES AND BLESS FAMILIES SEEKING ADOPTION
During the adoption process, Paul and Christie Haack, from Illinois, heard about safe haven babies, but Christie didn’t think that she would want to adopt an infant without knowing the genetic and family background. Then, a week before Thanksgiving 2014, she got a call from her adoption agency. Christie tells Catholic Digest, “They said, ‘We have a little girl — she was relinquished to the fire department. Would you be willing to accept her?”
Safe haven laws
As of this year, more than 3,600 infants have been safely surrendered to safe havens nationally, according to the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation. Every state in the United States has a safe haven law, allowing mothers — and in most states, other family members — to deliver a baby to a safe haven such as a fire station, hospital, or police department. Depending on the state, the time allotted to relinquish a baby legally is typically three to 30 days, but some states have longer relinquish times, including Missouri and North Dakota, which allow for one year.
For more than a year, the Haacks and their son, Gabriel, then 3, waited anxiously for the adoption agency to tell them that they finally had a baby for them. The stress of waiting was getting to be too much for Christie to handle, and she was ready to give up. Even so, in October 2014 she started praying repeatedly, “Thank you for my healthy baby by Thanksgiving.”
A surprise delivery
The Thursday before Thanksgiving, a woman walked into a fire station in Illinois and told the firefighters that she needed to leave her baby. She revealed to them that she hadn’t known she was pregnant, and after delivering her baby girl, she cut the umbilical cord, tied it off, cleaned up the infant, and attempted to breastfeed. Her infant was the 100th baby relinquished in Illinois.
Christie’s 18-month-long wait had come to an end. When faced with an actual baby, Christie and Paul had no qualms about welcoming a safe haven baby. “From the moment we heard about her, she was ours,” Christie says. “All of our worries didn’t matter.”
Thirty-six hours after the phone call, they brought their daughter, whom they named Trinity, home from the hospital.
“We pray that her birth mom is OK and has peace of mind. Above all I want her to know that she did the right thing for herself and her daughter,” says Christie, who works with the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation in Chicago. Because of her positive experience with adopting Trinity, she is trying to spread the word about safe havens. Christie wants moms in difficult situations to know, “It’s not a bad thing you are doing by handing your baby over. You are saving a child and your own life.”
NO ONE DIES ALONE
When nurse Sandra Clarke completed her packed nightshift rounds in an intensive care unit, she returned to her first patient to find him dead with his arm outstretched. Feelings of frustration and anger washed over her. Ninety minutes earlier this elderly gentleman — who had a “do not resuscitate” order — had asked Clarke in a barely audible voice, “Will you stay with me?”
Clarke says, “He had a simple wish that was easily granted, and I couldn’t do it.” For her, this event brought to the forefront the fact that hospitals not only need to offer life-saving medical care, but also respect and dignity at the end of life.
In 2001, after 16 years of hashing over solutions for dying patients who did not have friends or relatives to be with them, Clarke founded the No One Dies Alone (NODA) program at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon, the hospital where she was employed. Now hundreds of hospitals across the United States have NODA programs where volunteers sit with patients who are on their deathbed and have no one to be with them or whose families need assistance.
Help for doctors and nurses
Ian O’Connell began volunteering with NODA after he witnessed his 93-year-old mother’s death in 2005. He wanted to honor her by being a volunteer companion to dying patients who would otherwise be alone. O’Connell, who is now a NODA coordinator of the Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Nampa, Idaho, tells Catholic Digest, “With the support of the nursing staff, companions can provide patients with a valuable human gift — a dignified death.”
He adds, “Doctors and nurses greatly appreciate NODA volunteers. When we’re sitting there, they don’t have to be concerned about that patient. This takes a lot of pressure off of them, and in some cases, [off of] the terminal person’s family.”
NODA companions volunteer for specific days and times. When a patient is dying, they stay for four-hour shifts until the person dies or, in some cases, recovers. The volunteer sitting with a patient might read from the Bible if the dying individual is Christian, hold his or her hand, or even sing on request. If the patient is an agnostic or atheist, silent prayers are said. “The person is on a holy journey, and the last thing you want to do is to be confrontational,” O’Connell, who works as a substitute teacher, says. “We are very loving and careful in how we communicate.”
For O’Connell, his 10-year involvement with NODA has been edifying. “I don’t know if there’s anything more rewarding — other than birth — than sitting with a person who is passing because they’re being reborn into eternal life.”
TO LEARN MORE
The National Foster Care & Adoption Directory (ChildWelfare.gov/NFCAD) provides foster care and adoption resources by state.
Save Abandoned Babies Foundation help line: (888) 510-BABY or SaveAbandonedBabies.org