Summit addresses how churches can support foster and adoptive families

January 5th, 2017 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Summit addresses how churches can support foster and adoptive families

AUSTIN—In determining how many prison beds will be needed each year, prison administrators nationwide look to the number of boys and girls aging out of their states’ foster care system.

It’s a sad, unofficial yet commonly understood calculation among Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworkers said Val Jackson, a 19-year CPS caseworker who now works as the faith-based specialist coordinator for the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS).

But Jackson and DPFS faith-based specialists across the state work with those who believe that a child’s past does not have to determine his future, coordinating efforts among ministries committed to rescuing children abandoned by their parents. And they do it within a system facing legal challenges.

It’s a messy business. But so, too, is grace, he said.

In 2011, DFPS, the agency tasked with protecting children harmed or neglected by their parents, was sued and accused of mismanagement and neglect. US District Judge Janis Graham Jack heard reports of children suffering at the hands of other children in foster care homes or forced to sleep overnight in CPS offices because no emergency foster homes were available. Overwhelming caseloads for some social workers and an insufficient number of families willing to step in on behalf of the children only added to the list of allegations.

As a result, Texas’ child protection and health agencies recognized that foster children and families need more help than the state can provide and called on churches for help.

“We are going to endure what Christ endured. [You] can’t draw a line and say you won’t go any further when caring for the broken.””

—Becca Harris, KIDS director at Austin Stone Community Church

“This is not an option. It is an obligation,” Charles Smith, Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) executive commissioner told almost 400 ministry leaders, state agency representatives and legislators gathered at the State Capitol building Nov. 2 for the Faith Leader Summit.

A loosely knit network of churches, independent ministries and individuals have long served foster children and their families. But those bonds must be more tightly woven and their numbers increased to work effectively within a system Jack said was “broken” and did children more harm than good.

In November Attorney General Ken Paxton rejected court-drafted recommendations for overhauling the DFPS and said changes should come from Texas agencies rather than court-appointed committees.

More than 30,000 Texas children, newborn to 18 years old, now wait for the adults to work out their disagreements. Of those, 20,000 are in foster homes and 10,000 live with extended family members. An additional 6,000 whose mothers and fathers have had their parental rights revoked await adoption.

Not bound by the legal quagmire facing DFPS is a network of established ministries that flow from the churches and faith-based organizations in communities across the state that support foster and adoptive parents and encourage more Christ-loving families to do likewise. The summit highlighted the need for better networking among existing foster-adoptive care ministries.

Summit participants heard of the challenges associated with foster care and adoption as foster parents described the emotionally demanding task of bringing children into their homes, particularly those coming from violent environments.

“As a foster dad it shook my home when they came in,” Bishop Aaron Blake said. “Then we engaged our church.”

Blake chairs the advisory committee on Promoting Adoption of Minority Children and addressed the workshop entitled “Why are we here?”

Throughout the day other foster and adoptive parents told of their children’s “melt downs,” irrational, and, sometimes, destructive behavior. Ryan North, executive director of Tapestry Foster and Adoption Ministry, said well-intentioned but ill-informed adults often go through the state’s lengthy foster care certification process only to find they are ill-prepared to care for the child, or children, placed in their care.

Fifty percent of foster families quit after only one placement in their home, perpetuating the dysfunction of children caught in the DFPS system, said workshop moderator Bruce Kendrick, executive director of Embrace Texas.

That’s where faith-based ministries and churches step in to provide spiritual, material and emotional support for foster families learning to live in a new normal.

Becca Harris, KIDS director at Austin Stone Community Church, said the grace extended to her by her church during the foster-to-adoption process of her two sons was critical. Merely offering assistance to struggling foster families is insufficient.

“Don’t say, ‘Let me know what you need,’” Harris said. “Just show up.”

But not just anyone can “show up” to lend a hand with a neighbor’s or church member’s foster children. The state requires training for caregivers, and summit leaders said this is where churches can play a supportive role in transforming the lives of children broken by circumstances beyond their control. Assisting in the care and healing of foster children requires the commitment of the entire church, and faith-based training goes beyond what the state can or will do in recognizing each child as a creation of God in need of transformative parenting.

“It’s not a hard leap for (children) to believe that God cannot love them,” Ryan North said. “They have to learn to trust again.”

As foster parents, Ryan and Kayla North experienced the impact neglect and abuse has on the psyche of a child. What some people may interpret as acts of defiance or wanton destruction by a foster child are actually learned responses hard-wired into their brains from years of living in a violent home. Loud voices tell the child someone is about to get hurt, and that child’s learned response is to fight, flee or freeze.

“There’s fear underlying this reaction,” Kayla North said. Church families need to understand this and respond accordingly.

Trauma-Informed Training provided by faith-based ministries equips caregivers and volunteers to recognize these reactions and respond appropriately. Ryan North said Sunday morning then goes from behavior management to teaching them about Jesus.

Similarly, Harris said Christ-centered foster and adoption ministry shows grace to the parents or grandparents who lost custody of their children and prays for restoration, which invites “very messy situations.”

And that’s where grace must endure.

“We are going to endure what Christ endured,” Harris said. “[You] can’t draw a line and say you won’t go any further when caring for the broken.”