CAFO’s focus isn’t on government, but we believe that well-considered, well-implemented policies can make a profound difference for vulnerable youth. So we’re always glad to work with government leaders – local, state and Federal – to help think through which policies and priorities will most enable children and families to thrive.
This week, the Director of CAFO’s National Foster Care Initiative, Jason Weber, testified at a Congressional Briefing hosted by the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, co-chaired by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) & Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). The briefing focused on family preservation support and reunification. The panelists included two other CAFO members also – Buckner International (represented by Randy Daniels) and DC127 (represented by Chelsea Geyer), as well as Valerie Brown, a client of Buckner’s family preservation work.
I’m pleased to be able to share Jason’s remarks below. He articulates well why the faith community is an indispensable partner in this critical and immensely complex work. In making this case, Weber highlights three great examples of family preservation and reunification work being done by CAFO member organizations around the country.
When my wife and I were first married we lived and worked in an urban community among at-risk youth and families. In fact, over 50% of the families we had regular interaction with in our neighborhood had been touched by foster care at some point in their lives. Building these relationships is partially what led us to first become foster parents at age 26.
The path for many people to become foster parents is often born out of a heart for the kids. That was definitely true for us. But I’d have to also say that our desire to be a part of the system included a very real passion for their families. Whether it was the recently widowed grandmother caring for her three grandsons or the single dad three doors down that helped me build the fence in my back yard, we came to have relationship with these struggling caregivers. Unfortunately, the prevailing view in our culture has often been that foster care is about taking kids out of “bad” families and putting them in “good” ones. And while there are certainly those situations in which a child cannot be safe and healthy, we also have encountered families that simply lacked the community support needed to thrive.
So what I’d like to share with you today are some encouraging developments over the past several years within the faith community – specifically churches — to provide the community support that can and does help families to stay together and get back together.
The organization that I’m a part of, the Christian Alliance for Orphans, is made up of over 190 member organizations working around the world. Many of our member organizations are working specifically in U.S. Foster Care. These organizations are involved in everything from recruitment and placement to mentoring and family support. We also have organizations specifically working diligently in the area of family preservation and family reunification. Each of the three programs I’m going to describe today addresses a different population of vulnerable families as it relates to foster care: homeless families, moms who are incarcerated, families with kids already in foster care.
- Homeless Single Moms: Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes Family Care
Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes offers their Family Care Homes as a voluntary program for homeless mothers with dependent children. Once accepted into the program, these moms are allowed to stay up to a year in a home setting with 2-6 other family units and a full-time on site program manager. Participation in the program requires that the mom find employment and secure childcare. She is asked to pay $25 a month as rent. One third of her income each month goes into a program savings account that she gets back upon exiting the program. That 30% is enough at the end of year to get her into her set up in her own apartment and many times serves as a down payment for her first home. During her time in the program she is mentored, provided with job skill development, parenting skills and weekly counseling.
Maybe the most important part of this program is that 3 to 4 churches are partnering with each of these homes and surround this mom with community and the necessary resources she needs to thrive. For example, every year before Easter, one church takes the moms shopping and helps them buy professional clothes they can use for job interviews.
There are many success stories but one mom of three in particular started the program homeless and unemployed. A year later, she was employed as a pharmacy tech and her and her three kids were able to purchase and move into their own home.
Last year alone this program served 15 families. That is 60 children who were at a high risk of entering foster care that won’t be doing so because of the resources and community this program provides.
- Moms who are incarcerated: Jonah’s Journey
Jonah’s Journey (a ministry of ChildX) provides foster care to children born to women that are incarcerated. Jonah’s Journey trains caregivers to work alongside the mother through prayer and through prison visitation, hoping to continue the bond between mother and child with the ultimate goal of reunification (when, of course, it’s in the best interest of the child).
One example of a success story is a 26-year-old mother who was incarcerated and recently got out in May. She has twin girls. After she was released, she returned home to her husband and another child, and did a one-month transition with the twins. The twins have been with her full-time since June. Mom is in cosmetology school. The caregiver for the girls during the time of incarceration has visited with her multiple times, and she is doing very well. The twins spend one weekend each month with these caregivers to give the mother a break.
- Families with kids already in foster care
Lifeline Children’s Services, through its Families Count program is providing 6-week classes in 3 different states for families whose children have been taken into protective custody.
These classes provide six weeks of child and family focused education and mentoring for participating parents. Volunteer churches seek to remove barriers to parent participation by helping with tangible needs that may arise throughout the classes, such as transportation and childcare. An emphasis of the class is on relationship. Because of this, volunteer mentoring families are recruited from area churches to model this. Each class includes a family-style meal prepared and served by the hosting church. Volunteers who cook and serve the weekly meal are encouraged to sit with parents during the meal and engage in conversation, thereby creating opportunities for parents to connect with church members and find a place of belonging there. The meal also meets a physical need of families who may be struggling financially and may come hungry to class. Those who elect to be matched with mentors receive additional support from volunteers within the church, who come alongside them, pray with and for them, listen to them and provide practical, biblical advice on parenting and life choices.
So when you look at all three of these initiatives, they all involve providing resources and services for sure. And that traditionally has been our default mode. When we see lack, we attempt to fill that void with financial and physical resources. While these things are needed, the common denominator that these three programs provide and that I’ve seen over the years make the biggest difference for people is community. It’s providing not just resources but relationships with people. At of the end of the day it’s not curriculum that primarily helps us to grow. It’s the people in our lives. That’s true for all of us. These programs offer relationships with people who provide the wisdom, insight and support all necessary to parent well.
I think one of the important things to note, is that communities of faith are uniquely positioned to make an impact in the area of preservation and reunification for 3 reasons:
- An existing worldview that celebrates redemption and reconciliation. Our faith is based on the assumption that things that are broken are never beyond repair. We believe that brokenness can always be turned into wholeness.
- An existing supportive community of people with a diversity of backgrounds and potentially supportive resources. When churches are involved, community does not need to be manufactured for struggling families – it is already there. It simply needs to be mobilized for the benefit and support of these families.
- An existing set of programs and structures that could be leveraged for the benefit of at-risk and reunifying families. Many churches already offer several important programs that are key in helping families stay together and get back together:
- Addiction recovery programs
- Marriage classes and counseling
- Parenting classes and support
- Mentoring programs
- Personal finance management classes
- Benevolence ministry for the purpose of meeting physical needs
In conclusion, I would simply say that family preservation and reunification cannot happen apart from community. The good news is that the resources to provide that community are there. They are untapped in many cases but they are there. We have continued work to do to help our communities understand that foster care is not only about supporting kids, but also about supporting families. But, as faith communities understand this and act on it, I believe we will see a much more robust and complete response to vulnerable children in our country.