Dr. Karyn Purvis has been engaged in her work with adoptive and foster families for over ten years. But many people would be interested to learn that her passion for helping and serving at-risk children began early in her life and is deeply rooted in her personal faith.
Empowered to Connect recently asked Dr. Purvis questions covering a range of topics, including her work, her faith and her own personal experience in caring for children in need. Here’s what she had to say.
ETC: How did you get started in the work you do?
Dr. Purvis: Children have been my calling and my passion since I was a child myself. As a teenager I taught children’s church and children’s choir; as a Southern Baptist home missionary my work was with foster children and street children; and as a young mother our family fostered at-risk children.
ETC: What is your own personal experience with children from the hard places?
Dr. Purvis: God’s calling on my life has always been for children who have come from the hard places. Throughout my life, in ministry, in our family and in my professional work, God has led me to children from the hard places. A favorite ministry in my adult life has been to pray over unborn children and over little ones to speak blessing and “welcome” to them. Even older children, coming from hard places desperately need a welcome that acknowledges their uniqueness and their preciousness.
ETC: You speak often about “children from hard places? Tell us a little more about who these children are?
Dr. Purvis: Our research and that of others has revealed that there are six primary risk factors that are predictors of “children from hard places.” These risk factors are: inadequate prenatal care or abnormal prenatal conditions; difficult or traumatic labor or birth; medical trauma early in life; abuse; neglect; and trauma. Based on this list, it is apparent that this term describes many more children than merely those who were institutionalized or adopted later in life. As we look at children from hard places, sadly we see some common characteristics, behaviors and challenges. We know that many of them have experienced changes in their brain chemistry due to their histories. We also know that many of them experience sensory processing issues as well as challenges in developing healthy and secure attachments. All of this can lead to various behavioral challenges as these children try to deal with their fears and try to adjust to their surroundings. But what we also know is that there is much hope for these children and their parents. In our work we have yet to see a child that cannot experience dramatic levels of healing in response to the right approach and interventions focused on helping the child and parents develop deep and lasting connections.
ETC: What role does your own personal faith in Christ play in your work and in your passion to help children and families?
Dr. Purvis: As a child, I asked Jesus to be my Lord and He has been Sovereign in my life now for many years. As with all people, in my life, there have been mountains and valleys, but God’s faithfulness and tender mercies have always carried me through. God’s presence in my life permeates all that I am and all that I do. Knowing His love and grace is central to how we approach this work with at-risk children. My prayer in working with children is that when they look into our eyes, they will see the adoring love of our Heavenly Father.
ETC: How important are our churches in the effort to help children from the hard places heal and become whole?
Dr. Purivs: The Church is absolutely central to God’s heart for these children! Because so many of them have been wounded by abuse, neglect and trauma, it is critical that our families be in supportive, loving environments that can nurture and encourage them throughout the course of their journey. I am firmly convinced that our churches are the place where this can best happen, but they must be willing to learn and embrace what it means to become this kind of safe and healing place for our families.
ETC: With all the potential to positively impact adoptive and foster families, where do you sometimes see churches and Christian families missing the mark in terms of what our children truly need?
Dr. Purvis: My greatest sadness in observing Christian families with their children is the tendency towards an unbalanced application of God’s love. Some parents administer harsh and swift punishments, based on rules and laws. All too often this approach wounds our children even more deeply and drives them toward more and more aggressive behavior. This cycle becomes destructive between parents and children, and soon children are feeling unsafe while parents are losing their joy in parenting. Other parents err on the side of “cheap grace.” Compelled by their children’s early histories, they don’t want to ask too much and tragically their permissive relationship fails to create trust in and with their children.
ETC: Some may read your book or watch your presentations and become fearful about all the “bad things” they might face along the adoption journey. Some may even be disheartened about pursuing adoption altogether. What would you say to them?
Dr. Purvis: I would encourage them to seek God’s voice. Be quiet, be still and listen. If they don’t have peace for this journey, they need to reassess God’s calling. It is God’s peace that guides us. However, if after prayer and seeking God’s face, they are encouraged towards this journey, I would want them to know that every child can make dramatic steps towards healing. I have worked with violent, aggressive children, and have worked with children diagnosed with “mental illness” and have never yet seen a child who didn’t make dramatic gains in the context of an environment balanced with nurture (unconditional love) and structure (guidance and instruction).
ETC: What stories have you witnessed that best captures the hope and healing that is available for our children and our families?
Dr. Purvis: Over the past ten years we have seen dramatic positive changes in children within days of creating a nurturing, balanced, holistic environment. In our first summer camp a decade ago, parents began telling us through tears of joy about their children giving spontaneous affection for the first time since their adoption many year prior; telling us of their children looking gently into their eyes and saying “I love you” for the very first time. One mother told of her son, adopted from Russia, who, for the first time in three years, trusted her enough to close his eyes in her arms and let her rock him to sleep. From that first year of our work, we have been overwhelmed with hope in understanding this miraculous unfolding, and with a commitment to take the insights garnered from our work and provide them to parents and children across the world.
ETC: What would you say to parents who might be losing hope and don’t know where to turn or how to help their child?
Dr. Purvis: First, I would encourage that family to find safe people who they can talk to and ask for help. I’d want that family to remember that because of our humanity, all of us need help from time to time, and to remember that the flow of God’s love is not only in giving help, but also in receiving it. Second, I would strongly encourage them to find a supportive community of families. Ideally this would be through a church or church ministry consisting of families that could relate to their struggles and encourage them in practical and effective ways. I would also encourage them to find a place of respite and healing for themselves as parents. Again, this is and should be the ministry of the church, and I would encourage them to look for this kind of help. Finally I would encourage them to find knowledgeable, insightful teaching and resources that will help guide them to practical answers that will strengthen and encourage them on their journey.
ETC: What are you most proud of thus far in terms of what you and your have been able to accomplish?
Dr. Purvis: I have been blessed beyond measure and God has given me my heart’s fondest dreams and more. Standing continually amazed at His blessing, I have been given sweet opportunities too numerous to count. But my greatest joy is that God first enveloped me in His love, and then He gave me three amazing sons to love, and then, when they were grown, He gave me many more children, from all over the world, to love.