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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Commentary

To make foster care work, let churches lead


Published:

Every two minutes, a child enters foster care in the United States. About 400,000 children live in these temporary homes, a quarter of them permanently separated from their biological families and available to be adopted.

Many never find permanent families; the lucky ones wait an average of more than three years to be adopted. The New York Times recently described a child who bounced through more than 40 homes after entering the New York City foster system at age 12. In 2011, 26,000 foster children turned 18 and aged out of the system — up from 17,000 in 1998.

Foster children who reach adulthood with no family connection have a difficult road ahead: By their mid-20s, 80 percent of the young men have been arrested, and almost 70 percent of the women are on public assistance. A 2009 report found that the costs of letting a single year’s cohort age out of foster care without a permanent family were almost $8 billion.

Meanwhile, children still in foster homes face challenges. Many have psychological and behavioral problems. Some suffer neglect or even abuse from foster parents. With a chronic shortage of people willing to take in these kids, states’ standards of selection for foster homes aren’t as stringent as might be desired, and the agencies charged with monitoring and supporting those homes are often understaffed or overly bureaucratic.

But, as a new program initiated five years ago in Georgia suggests, these hurdles aren’t insurmountable. The nonprofit FaithBridge was started by Bill Hancock, a director of counseling programs who had lived on the streets as a teenager, and Rick Jackson, an Atlanta businessman who had spent time in the foster-care system.

Hancock wondered why churches weren’t more involved in finding solutions. He said he noticed that in Cobb County, Ga., there were 1,100 churches and 300 children in foster care. He liked the odds. Plenty of people he knew had an extra bedroom and understood the needs of children. He began to break down the problem.

He would find out the number of children in a particular ZIP code in need of a foster home, go to a church in the area to present their stories without using their names, and see what happened. He announced at one church that there were 11 kids in his own zip code, representing four sibling groups. Four dozen people showed up at a meeting to volunteer.

Some of them went through the training required and became foster families. The remaining ones formed a support network. Some of those support families offered to shuttle children to and from sports practices or doctors’ appointments. Others offered to watch the kids for an evening or a weekend to give foster parents a break. Each foster family had from 12 to 15 people serving as a support network. Today, FaithBridge also has a “care coordinator” for each child, someone who will help a family navigate the public bureaucracy.

Churchgoers aren’t the only ones who can foster a child, but they are easily reached with a direct message.

In addition, Jackson says, with an effort such as FaithBridge, foster care needn’t be “all or nothing.” “It used to be at church someone says, ‘We want to talk to you about foster care.’ You say, ‘I have too many children.’ Or ‘I don’t have the time.’ But now you don’t have to be the parent,” Jackson says. “You can be there to support the parents who do volunteer.”

Finally, by ensuring the support of others in the community and providing help in navigating the public bureaucracy, they have made good foster families less likely to burn out and more likely to volunteer again.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “ ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.” This article is based on an article in the winter 2014 issue of Philanthropy.

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