Plain Community Families Caring for Children—Theirs and Ours

By Anna Groff, Executive Director

My Dove’s Nest colleagues and I sat in a cramped room at the Office of Children and Family Services of Orleans County in New York State.

We were discussing the placement of “English” (non-Plain) children in “Plain” (Amish and Old Order Mennonite) communities.

One of the social service workers asked, “I sometimes wonder, why do these conservative families want to foster and adopt children? It’s a lot of work for anyone!”

It’s a fair question. Many of us—especially those who grew up in Amish Country, as I did in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—view Amish and Old Order Mennonites as “in the world, but not of it.” Or the “quiet in the land.” Or people who “take care of their own.”

But when it comes to children—their own children and children with needs in their community and beyond—they care immensely.

I witnessed their concern for children firsthand during our dinner the night before with three New Order Amish families. Two of these three families had adopted and foster children.

Jeanette Harder, cofounder and board president of Dove’s Nest, told the New Order Amish families stories from when she ran a shelter for abused women and children out of her home. She also described some of the cases of child abuse she had seen in her previous work as a social worker.

With wide eyes, they listened intently and clucked with sympathy.

Do they care in a new way because they are more innocent and less exposed to media coverage about abuse than us, the “English”? Perhaps.

Or maybe they are quietly, but harshly, judging worldly parents, especially those who abuse? Maybe.

But later when we heard from care providers about visitations with biological parents, I didn’t detect a thread of criticism from the conservative foster parents towards the biological parents. And if the visitations weren’t happening, the Amish foster parents explained with a simple sentence, “They are in jail.”

In fact, one Weaverland Mennonite woman who adopted a boy with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder shared about her support group for parents with FASD children. She said one attender at a meeting was the biological father, but that they don’t judge the biological mother as it can “take only one drink.”

Please know that I don’t mean to romanticize or patronize these conservative families. I would be remiss not to mention that fostering and adopting children is appealing to members of the Plain community because raising a family is an extremely high priority for them, in a way that the “English” cannot relate to. And Amish and Mennonites certainly struggle with child abuse, accidents, neglect, and child raising in their own contexts and communities. As we know, no religious group is immune.

Still, I found myself surprised by their care for others outside the fold. They want children to be safe and loved. Social service workers want children to be safe and loved. We all want this, so let’s find ways to bridge the cultural gap and move forward with unity.

Photo (from left): Jeanette Harder, Lois Ann Burkholder (photo used with permission), and Anna Groff at Elizabethtown College.