Megan Fowler, foster care, children, family, church

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It's About the Children

How churches are finding new ways to support foster care.

Fostering was so important to Hannah McIlhargey that she and her future husband, Alex, discussed it on their third date. In March 2020, more than six years after that initial conversation, the McIlhargeys began the certification process. Certification proceeded by fits and starts, slowed by a global pandemic and bureaucratic red tape. In October 2021 the McIlhargeys were finally certified, and in January 2022 they received their first placement.

The time between was far from passive, as they contributed to a foster-friendly community within their church, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Seattle, which increasingly leaned into the needs of foster children, foster families, and the counties where they are.

On any given day, there are roughly 400,000 children in the foster-care system in the United States. Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows the number of children in foster care climbing year over year from 2011 until 2017 when foster-care populations began trending downward. Over one-third of children in foster care live with a family member or close family friend who is like family, and 37 percent of children in foster care are five years old or younger. 

Each year, 20,000 children age out of foster care without returning to live with a parent. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who age out of foster care without a stable, supportive family situation “are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence behav­ioral, men­tal, and phys­i­cal health issues, hous­ing prob­lems and home­less­ness, employ­ment and aca­d­e­m­ic dif­fi­cul­ties, ear­ly par­ent­hood, incar­cer­a­tion and oth­er poten­tial­ly life­long adver­si­ties.”

The church doesn’t need to look far to find orphans in distress; they reside in every community. And by wading into the foster-care system, implemented by the 3,000 county agencies nationwide, churches can have an outsized impact on their communities and the lives of vulnerable children in their neighborhoods.

Two years before the McIlhargeys received their first foster children, another member of Trinity named Katie Ribera saw the growing interest in foster care at her church. One family was already fostering, and a few other families, like the McIlhargeys, were interested or in the process of getting certified. Ribera recalled a conversation with a friend who worked at a faith-based foster and adoption agency called Olive Crest, whose Puget Sound office covers Trinity’s Ballard neighborhood. Ribera contacted Olive Crest about implementing ways to help foster families at  Trinity. She and another volunteer learned how to launch a ministry, how to form a care group around each foster family, and how to raise awareness in the church about foster care. They also pointed families that wanted to learn more about foster care back to Olive Crest. In 2020, they launched the Family Advocacy Ministry at Trinity.

Religion, pure and undefiled

In 2004 Robert Gelinas did the math. At the time there were 875 children in foster care in Colorado and nearly 1,500 churches just in the greater Denver area.

“If every church took one child there would be a waiting list of churches but not a waiting list of children,” Gelinas said during his presentation at the 2014 National Foster Care Initiative Symposium.

Gelinas decided to get involved and work toward the day when there would be a waiting list of Colorado families eager for a foster child rather than a waiting list of children in need of foster homes. He founded a nonprofit to be a conduit between local churches and the foster-care system and called it Project 1.27, taking its name from James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

It’s precisely this verse that Rev. David Richmon, senior pastor of Trinity in Seattle, points to in discussing the church’s core values of mercy and justice. So when Ribera approached Richmon about starting a foster-care ministry, it was an easy yes.

“We have taken seriously James’s call to see our faith expanded in tangible acts of love and service,” he said. Besides, it’s easy to say yes to an effort that already has a champion like Ribera heading it up and what Richmon called “a small groundswell of people devoted to it.”

The (un)hidden pandemic 

Like everything else in the world, the foster-care crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic. A 2021 study found that one U.S. child loses a parent or caregiver for every four COVID-19 deaths. From April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, data suggest that more than 140,000 children under age 18 in the U.S. lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.

“Children facing orphanhood as a result of COVID is a hidden pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States,” said Susan Hillis, CDC researcher and lead author of the study.

What is a hidden pandemic to the CDC has historically been well-worn territory for the church.

“This theme of caring for the vulnerable child, I think, is what the Bible is talking about. And the church has always been in the space of caring for vulnerable children,” Andrew Holmes, director of community engagement with 4Kids, a Christian social services agency in southern Florida, said.

Holmes points out that the church has historically been in the business of helping the most vulnerable in society. Caring for the sick during plagues, rescuing children left for dead on exposure walls — these acts of mercy defined the early church. Slowly, churches across the country are recovering this role of being agents of mercy in a broken system. But participating in foster care necessarily involves interacting with state agencies, an uneasy alliance for many churches.

But the state is not the problem, says Jason Johnson, national director of church ministry initiatives for the foster-care programs at Christian Alliance for Orphans. The social service agencies certainly have problems, Johnson says, but increasingly Christians see that the case workers are doing the best they can under crushing burdens. And rather than shying away, he says churches are now stepping up to help:

“By and large we’re seeing over the last five to 10 years a significant shift in U.S. churches toward a recognition that there are children and families in their own backyard, and in their communities that need help.” 

And since children often enter and exit foster care via a county agency, churches have the opportunity to not only to help vulnerable families, but to serve burdened, overworked social services agents, too.

“Serving families in crisis is really messy and hard,” said Shelly Radic, who has served as president of Project1.27 since 2013. “So you need to be focused enough that you’re discipling your congregation to live out their faith in the community. … And it takes a community to support families welcoming foster children into their homes.”

The big family of church

At Trinity, Ribera organizes volunteers into care teams that provide weekly meals for foster families and weekly care for foster children in the form of mentoring for older children or babysitting the younger. Some volunteers have received the certification and clearances needed to host foster children overnight, and Ribera said many volunteers go beyond bringing meals to help with household chores while they are dropping off a meal.

The care team around the McIlhargeys was a lifeline when the couple received their first placement, a set of brothers, in January 2022. They had never before been parents, but Hannah is a certified trauma specialist, social worker, and mental health counselor. But even those qualifications did not adequately prepare her for the emotional, psychological, and behavioral challenges of their first foster placement.

For their first placement, the McIlhargeys received two brothers, aged 6 and 10. The children were not toilet trained, their skin was jaundiced from malnutrition, and they were severely underweight. And then there were the behavioral challenges: severe aggression and frequent running away meant that at any given moment “our whole house was either in a full trauma response, recovering from one, or about to be in one,” Hannah McIlhargey said.

What buoyed the McIlhargeys through those difficult days was the support of their Trinity family. Church members brought over so much food that Hannah said she rarely had to worry about cooking, which she says was a blessing since the constant stream of crises in her home left her depleted. When the boys were sick and unable to leave the house, a friend from church came over to give Hannah a break. People helped with financial gifts, child care, and assistance with their taxes. The deacons helped obtain furniture for the boys to each have their own room.

And Trinity supported the McIlhargeys with faith in God’s love and care. When one of the boys tried to burn down the church, the children’s ministry director assured Hannah that the boys were still welcome. “We will love all the children God brings through our doors no matter what,” she told Hannah. 

In those moments, Hannah McIlhargey depended on the faith of others to strengthen her weary faith. “Those are the moments when people who are further along in their faith are practicing it. They really believe God is who he says he is … I did a lot of borrowing other people’s faith because it was so hard.” 

Foster kids, mercy, and justice

Radic of Project 1.27 talked about the way  it takes work and time to build relationships with state and county officials and to continue demonstrating that the faith community is a committed partner. What does it take for a church to embrace foster-care ministry? 

“You must have a champion in the church and be willing to go the extra mile for foster families,” said Radic.

For churches like Trinity that have mercy and justice baked into the church’s DNA, it’s an easy bridge to foster-care ministry.

For other churches, foster-care ministry is a harder sell. That’s why organizations like 4Kids and Project 1.27 assist churches, helping them implement efforts in their contexts. The format for Trinity’s Family Advocacy Ministry was first developed by Promise686 out of Perimeter Church in Atlanta. Still, as Holmes of 4Kids reaches out to churches in South Florida and Southwest Florida, he sometimes gets resistance from Christians unwilling to wade into the problems of their communities. 

Johnson with the Christian Alliance for Orphans believes a hesitation to embrace foster-care ministry is often a discipleship issue, not a resource or recruitment issue. And he’s not interested in telling sob stories to tug at heartstrings so that churches commit to participating in foster-care ministry; he wants churches to disciple believers more deeply so they stay committed for the long haul.

 “Our goal isn’t to recruit more people faster, but to disciple more people longer,” he said.

And it doesn’t take a church with the manpower and resources of a megachurch to successfully support foster families. Holmes has found that small church communities like house churches disciple well; and they are often open to supporting a foster family. And this long-haul discipleship is having an impact in its communities.

In the Atlanta metro area, North Point Community Church began its foster-care ministry, Fostering Together, in 2012 with 20 licensed foster homes and 17 children placed. As of August 2022, there were 131 families hosting 210 foster children. Across North Point’s eight campuses, 492 people are involved in the ministry. The director for Fostering Together, Lesli Reece, says that over time foster families at North Point have been able to take more foster children and sustain them well.

Over the years, 4Kids has expanded its services to address the circumstances that cause children to need a foster-care placement, support women with a crisis pregnancy center, and help children who are transitioning out of foster care to independent living. It also provides trauma-informed therapy to children in foster care and trains parents and educators on trauma-informed care. Holmes is concerned with how 4Kids can retain families who are willing to foster. By adding trauma therapy and family advocacy ministry, the number of months a family is willing to foster with 4Kids has grown from 14 to 37 months.

Likely as a result, children placed in homes supported by 4Kids stay with a single foster family far longer and need to move far less frequently than children placed in other situations. Holmes had the chance to meet with the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, who asked him why 4Kids’ placements stay in one place for so long.

“I told her it’s because of faith in Jesus, faith that causes us to endure, faith that causes us to do hard things, faith that causes us to love unconditionally, faith that causes us to disciple and stand for the long haul and endure challenging times like Jesus. Jesus is literally the reason why our stability rate is good,” Holmes said.

Since 4Kids began in 1997, the Christian placement agency has placed more than 5,600 children into foster care, and 800 children have been adopted. In the years since Project 1.27 began working with churches and state agencies, the number of children waiting for foster-care placements in Colorado has declined to 200 in recent years.

A case against case files

Even as churches and faith-based agencies make inroads in their communities, they still must work within an imperfect system. A former foster child herself, and now a foster parent and advocate for foster-care reform, Tori Hope Peterson believes children are harmed when they are pigeonholed by their case file, notes and documentation opened by the child welfare agency, which follows the child from placement to placement, detailing every bad thing they’ve ever done or experienced.

“The only other people in society who have a file like this are criminals,” she said. The case file can impact the way a child sees himself or herself and the way adults view a child. One of Peterson’s foster parents told her, “You’re nothing like your case file.” It made her realize that adults were drawing conclusions about her from her case file.

Peterson, author of Fostered: One Woman’s Powerful Story of Finding Faith and Family Through Foster Care, now shares her story and advocates for foster-care reform like changing the case file to reflect the best of children. And while it is important for foster parents to know the trauma and triggers for a foster child, they need to speak a better story over children than just the worst things foster kids have done and experienced.

“We need people willing to contradict the file for these children and rewrite their identities because we are losing the potential of hundreds of thousands of some of the most resilient people in our society … to a faulty file,” Peterson said in a 2022 TEDx Talk.

For Peterson, it was her track coach telling her she was resilient, that she had a chance of becoming a state champion athlete that offered her a different way to see herself. In part because of his encouragement and affirmation, she became a five-time state champion within a year and earned a full scholarship to college, becoming part of the three percent of foster youth who graduate college.

To those who are considering entering the service of foster care but concerned they don’t have what it takes, Peterson happily assures them they are inadequate. But so is every parent. It’s not about having all the answers before we start. And being involved in foster care doesn’t only mean welcoming children to your house. It can be serving as a mentor, bringing a meal, providing respite care for a family.

“I try to tell people to just love the person in front of them because you never know how that’s going to change the trajectory of someone’s life,” she said.

Families for life

In June, the brothers living with the McIlhargeys were moved to a different situation. In September, they welcomed a 3-year-old girl into their family.

In the two years since Trinity began its Family Advocacy Ministry, the number of volunteers involved has grown to 50, an astonishing number for a church with less than 400 members. The church has more than enough volunteers to support the foster families and kinship family in the church, so Ribera asked Olive Crest to find foster families in the Puget Sound area that lacked support and would benefit from Trinity’s wraparound care. Trinity is now helping other churches support their foster families and caring for foster families that do not have a church community supporting them.

“A huge part of our intention is to help foster parents stay in the game,” Ribera said. If foster parents have support, 90 percent will continue to foster beyond the first year. “We are trying to be a part of that number. It feels like the Lord has gone ahead of us.

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