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Wanted: More (and Better) Foster Parents

from the magazine

Wanted: More (and Better) Foster Parents

Church-based programs aim to prepare families for the challenge of taking in kids in need. Summer 2019
The Social Order

It’s a cold Saturday morning in Greeley, Colorado. Megan Magel and I sit in her car, waiting for someone to open the back door of Journey Christian Church. Megan’s trunk and backseat are filled with file boxes, snacks, extension cords, and a small sign that reads “Project 1.27 Training.”

The executive pastor, Chadwick Kellenbarger, and his wife and 13-year-old daughter soon arrive. They’re among the 100 or so people gathering this morning to learn more about foster parenting. Nationally, children in foster care total about 440,000—a number that has steadily risen as the opioid epidemic has worsened. About a quarter became eligible for adoption after their parents’ rights were severed. In almost every state, officials report a severe shortage of families to take in these children. Public information campaigns abound. Last year, for instance, state agencies and the federal adoption website AdoptUSKids tried to use the buzz around the Mark Wahlberg movie Instant Family to spark interest in foster care.

These kinds of strategies aren’t terribly effective, but fortunately, another path exists. Faith-based nonprofits like Colorado’s Project 1.27 are training prospective foster parents in what to expect and offering the community support that can be crucial to those who take on this extraordinarily difficult, but vital, task. Project 1.27, which was launched by Robert Gelinas, a pastor, and is now run by Shelly Radic, a foster and adoptive parent, takes its name from the Book of James 1:27: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” But in the past decade, many churches—large evangelical ones, in particular—have adopted a more strategic approach to caring for the orphan. Pastors are trying to mobilize their congregations to take on this work.

Foster parenting is hard. National estimates suggest that about half of foster parents decide to stop during their first year. Families are often ill prepared for the challenges: the behavioral problems that many children exhibit, the medical concerns, even (and perhaps especially) dealing with the frustrating bureaucracy of the child-welfare system and family courts, as well as with the dysfunction of kids’ biological families. One reason that foster kids go through so many placements—a group is now suing the state of Kansas on behalf of children with more than 100 placements—is that many foster families can’t handle the job. “If you want to adopt a child [out of foster care] and you just think that, if you love them, they’ll love you back—that doesn’t work for most kids because of their history,” says Charity Hotton, director of Treatment Foster Care for Utah Youth Village. “A lot of them engage in really confusing behaviors, like, they love you one minute, and then they hate you the next minute. It’s ‘come here, go away, I don’t need you, but I’m going to demand that you do everything for me.’ We have to prepare the family for the idea that, for a long time, this is not going to be a reciprocal relationship.”

A “disrupted” adoption—meaning that a family after months (or even years) gives the foster child back to the state—is the worst of all outcomes. A child is initially told that he has found a “forever family,” and then that family decides that they can’t deal with him, after all. According to a 2012 report from the Child Welfare Information Gateway, “disruption rates . . . range from about 10 to 25 percent.” For older kids, the numbers tend to be higher.

To change that situation, Project 1.27’s leaders believe, foster parents not only need better preparation; more of them are needed. Project 1.27, founded in 2004 and operating on a yearly budget of $430,000, is one of about a dozen “bridge” organizations across the country trying to connect churches with state and local agencies in the hope of recruiting and training more foster families. Arizona and Washington, D.C., have 1.27 chapters; Georgia has Promise 686; Arkansas has the CALL; and Oklahoma the 111 Project. All belong to a movement, associated with the Christian Alliance for Orphans, called “More than Enough,” with a goal to get at least one family in 10 percent of churches in the country involved in foster care. If they hit that target, they calculate, there’d be more than enough families to take care of all the kids in the system. And more than enough is the point, because not every foster child is right for every family, and caseworkers need placement options.

Inside a large, multipurpose room at Journey, Megan, a licensed professional counselor who works as a family care manager for Project 1.27, directs Kellenbarger and me as we set up tables with eight or ten chairs each. At the room’s front is a stage with a baptismal pool, a drum set, three large screens, and other set pieces for a large evangelical service. She plugs in the coffee maker and sets out a sign-in sheet. Shortly before 9 AM, people stream in, bearing coffee cups and more snacks. Megan tells them to sit with “the ones who brought you.” Each table soon consists of a foster couple (or, in one case, a single woman) and at least four other adults who have promised to support them, practically and spiritually, as they take in foster children. Some have brought their parents and adult siblings; others have come with their grown children, or coworkers, fellow church members, and neighbors. The foster parents and their supporters must be Bible-believing Christians, willing to sign their agreement to the Apostle’s Creed.

Those volunteering as foster parents through Project 1.27 will have completed 20 hours’ worth of training, though the state requires only 12. These sessions include information about their legal obligations as foster parents, as well as four hours on “trauma-informed care.” The parents learn how the brains of abused or neglected children may not operate normally and ways of handling upsetting behavior that they may never have experienced from their biological children.

This morning is the last part of their training. Sitting at my table are Jason and Michelle Watts, a middle-aged couple from nearby Loveland looking to become foster parents—again. For support, in addition to their 18-year-old daughter, Jaycee, they’re accompanied by Greg and Sue, who belong to their Bible study group, and Greg and Sue’s adult son and his girlfriend. This is not the Watts’s first foray into foster care. Over the years, they have fostered eight children in their home. About a decade earlier, though, they adopted one of their foster children at age 12 and then decided to terminate their foster license. The boy had severe behavioral issues, doubtless a consequence of his nightmarish upbringing with his biological parents, which included being starved. As he hit his teen years, he had run-ins with the law. But Michelle and Jason remain hopeful about his future.

Now they’re ready to open their home again. They haven’t forgotten the pressures of fostering, starting with the logistics. When Jaycee was younger, the family was constantly moving bedrooms around to accommodate different sibling groups coming to live with them, often on only a few hours’ notice. Taking in a foster child disrupts the schedule of the whole house, Michelle notes—meetings every week with caseworkers, visits with biological families, doctors’ appointments, therapist sessions, and lots more. She says that it usually takes her about two months to readjust each time a new child arrives—and one never knows how long those children will stay.

“Foster parenting is hard. Estimates suggest that about half of foster parents decide to stop during their first year.”

Jason and Michelle went through the state’s basic training the last time they fostered, but they’re impressed by how much they’ve learned from Project 1.27. The group watches an emotional video about being a foster child. In it, police remove a young girl and her baby brother from their home after her drunk father beats her mother; then the girl and the baby get moved into separate homes; she misbehaves, and her foster family punishes her harshly. In another scene, her foster mother offers her a dress, but it reminds her of one that her biological mother wore, and she screams. The video is not melodrama: it represents a fairly typical scenario.

Megan talks about the sights and smells and sounds that can trigger foster kids to react. The smell of beer on a foster parent’s breath may make a foster child think that she is about to be abused. One of the Watts’s foster children lost his temper when asked to do the dishes. It turned out that someone in his biological family had smashed a beer bottle over his head when he was doing that chore. Choking up, Jason says that he wishes he had known more about the brains of the children he was caring for. “In all my interactions, I had no clue what was going on.” Jason would wonder why these kids weren’t listening to him, why they weren’t doing what he asked. Now he understands that things that happened to them years ago remained like scars in their minds.

Megan spent a week at Texas Christian University getting trained in Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), finding out about how the brain reacts to trauma and how parents and caregivers can provide the best care to abused children. She now gives presentations for Project 1.27, as well as for other state agencies and nonprofits dealing with kids in crisis. TBRI has become a common part of foster-parent training—above all, among faith-based foster-training agencies—alleviating a concern that some traditionalist Christian parents might take too strict an approach with their children.

Another Project 1.27 foster mother, Noelle MacLeay, describes how the information she and her husband received about trauma changed how they’ve raised their fourth child, adopted from foster care when she was just six weeks old, after suffering abuse. “They taught us that though she will never remember, her body will never forget,” says MacLeay. “When you talk to people in the world, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, but she was a baby. It’s fine.’ And that’s not true. Her brain is wired differently now because of that.” MacLeay and her husband have three older biological daughters. When those girls misbehaved, they would get timeouts or get sent to their rooms. But isolating their younger foster daughter in this fashion might make things only worse. Tantrums might be better handled with calm attention rather than punishment.

During the support training session, I watch Greg and Sue, who’ve volunteered to be part of the Watts’s support network. They are moved by the video and by Jason’s grief over the past, but aren’t sure what to say in the discussions that follow. Sometimes Sue offers a comment about her own children’s willful personalities, always careful to say that she knows it’s not the same. Greg awkwardly mentions a dog they once rescued, which would get upset whenever it saw a flyswatter. They concluded that someone must have used one to punish the dog.

They don’t know much about Jason and Michelle’s earlier experience with foster care—it was before the couples knew each other—but they do know the son who’s been in trouble with the police and have offered to serve as a sounding board. Michelle says that this is an important part of the support that they need. They had a neighbor who would greet their daughters but shun their adopted son. They also had attended a church that was less welcoming toward foster children. “People would start conversations with us about our foster children because they wanted to gather information,” Michelle says, not because they cared. “These are real people living in your home as your children, not just some kids you are watching.” Their current church is smaller but much more supportive. Of its 100 or so families, they can think of six off the top of their heads involved with fostering. It may seem like a small number, but when everyone knows someone engaged in this work, it can change the whole community.

Foster-friendly churches are usually multiracial, and foster parents say that it makes them feel more comfortable. As Noelle notes, “Our youngest is biracial and we’re pretty white, you know. But there are other families here, so as she grows, she’s not the only kid that doesn’t match her family.”

Foster-friendly churches are also aware that not all kids behave the same way. They don’t banish loud or disruptive children, or even look at them funny. In the best cases, they have trained the church’s staff to help with these unruly kids. Noelle remembers being “terrified” to drop off her first foster child in the nursery during the service (as she did with her older kids). She tried to explain to the woman running it: “Okay, she hits her head and will bite herself when she gets upset. Just come get me and I’ll come get her.” The woman took the baby, hugged her, and said, “I’ve got this. I had a trauma baby, too.”

Project 1.27 is part of a movement to recruit enough foster parents so that every child in the system can find a home. (COURTESY OF PROJECT 127)

Greg and Sue dutifully take notes. There is only one short break over four hours, but as I look around the room, everyone seems to be paying attention. No one is checking a phone, or even doodling on the information packets. Helping foster parents is something that these men and women take seriously.

At one point, the supporters are asked to talk about the changes that a couple may experience when foster kids move in. “Our relationship just isn’t a priority anymore,” says Jason. “Or maybe it just feels that way.” The last thing that churches want is for foster care to be a cause of breaking up stable marriages, thus risking the security of intact families. But the risk is real. Jason acknowledges that when things are not going well with a new child in the home, “isolation is my default response. I don’t want my church family to know that there are problems.” Many foster families go through a “honeymoon period,” where everything seems fine and the child is behaving well, Megan observes. But once a child starts to feel comfortable in a family, he or she may start acting out. This is when foster parents are more likely to isolate themselves—and when support teams should get involved. Do the foster parents need a babysitter? Do they need help with their other children? Do they need a meal? Each table is told to fill out a “support team roster,” in which each person volunteers for specific responsibilities. From being “available to respond to the family in an urgent situation” to moving furniture or setting up outdoor play equipment to acting as “prayer team leader,” there are tasks to engage everyone’s talents and time. Megan tells me that most support teams establish a Facebook group or an e-mail list so that everyone can be aware when the family needs a hand.

Each table is also encouraged to imagine how life changes for children already living in the home. Michelle says that she and Jason worried about how to prepare their biological children for hearing about the experiences of foster kids. Jaycee nods. “They told me things that happened to them, and I thought, Whoa!” Sue stops writing and looks up. Maybe she’s thinking what most non-foster parents are thinking at this point. Would they be willing to expose their own children to the drama and pain that a foster child can bring into a home?

This is hard for some of the extended family in the room to grasp. Megan says that one couple’s parents almost dropped out of the support training because they were so worried about the idea of their children bringing foster kids into their homes. I’ve often heard sentiments like this from foster parents, especially younger couples without their own kids yet. Shelly Radic, Project 1.27’s president, tells me that a growing number of such couples are going into foster care. It used to be mostly couples who couldn’t have kids of their own or empty nesters; not anymore. And this worries the couples’ own parents. Do they know what they’re getting themselves into?

When I mention Project 1.27 to people, I’m struck by how many say that they would be uncomfortable asking for the kind of help they’d need as foster parents. Our culture pressures nuclear families to be self-sufficient. Whatever needs they can’t meet directly, they’re supposed to pay for—from child care to grocery delivery to housekeeping. Even listing friends and neighbors as emergency contacts on school forms can feel like an imposition. That’s why organizing the support team in advance and assigning each person specific duties can be so important.

When Nadia Stewart signed up with Project 1.27, she said that it was “difficult.” “I’m not a person who asks for help.” As a single woman planning to adopt a teenager out of foster care, she didn’t think that she’d need people to bring her meals or provide respite care. After all, she worked from home for an understanding boss and had flexible hours. She brought five girlfriends from her church to support-team training, though, including the pastor’s wife. And she has confidence that “they’re just going to bring me the help that I need.” Already, the women, all with experience as teachers, have helped her get a better sense of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) of the 14-year-old girl about to move in with her.

That Project 1.27 requires such a strong support network also makes it more likely that a single parent can succeed at foster care. Nadia made a deal with God that if she got to the age of 30 and wasn’t married, she would adopt a child; then she pushed it to 35. It’s been two years since she signed up for Project 1.27; but this week, she will take full custody of the 14-year-old. The staff, she says, has been enormously helpful as she navigates the complex system of foster care and adoption.

In certain areas, Project 1.27 staff members are better able to help than a fellow churchgoer or neighbor. Noelle recalls how, during the week that the court was about to terminate parental rights for their older foster daughter (she had been living with them for a year and a half), a relative of the biological family, whom they had never heard from, came forward to contest the adoption. “Of course, I panicked,” recalls Noelle. But her Project 1.27 caseworker counseled her to stay calm. At one point, it looked as though the courts would take the girl from them to go live with the relative, and Noelle and her husband told their biological kids that the child wouldn’t be staying. In the end, she stayed.

“Sometimes a family needs faith, Noelle says. ‘There were times that we were just on our knees, and it breaks us.’”

This is the emotional havoc that foster care can wreak on a family. Families know that foster care is supposed to be temporary (except where families request that only children free for adoption be placed with them). Yet parents and foster children can (and should) get attached, and it’s important not to minimize the sadness that the parents feel when a foster child leaves; but the loss can be better endured if they know that the child is going back to a stable home. It is becoming more common these days for foster parents to remain in contact with biological parents or other relatives who may take in a child, so they maintain some connection. And the more supportive adults children have in their lives, the better.

The harder cases are those where a family has become attached to a child and worries that he or she is in danger of being abused or neglected again if returned to the biological family. Or the child is taken from the only home he or she has known for years and placed with relatives who suddenly appear. These are not infrequent occurrences. “You just have to hold on loosely, with open hands, and just love them, but be willing to let go as well,” Noelle’s husband reminds her. “And just have the faith that they’re going to be okay and that they are loved, even if it doesn’t look like it to us.”

Sometimes what a family needs is faith, Noelle says. “There were times that we were just on our knees, and it breaks us. It’s hard and it’s painful, but we know that there’s that faith of God being there for us and for her and for our bio kids that we’ve decided to drag along.” She describes how hard it was to bring her foster daughters to visit their biological mothers: sometimes the women wouldn’t show up, upsetting the kids. Nadia has asked her support group to pray for her foster daughter’s biological mother because she doesn’t feel able to do it herself yet. She has read the file on what the girl went through since she was a toddler. “I can’t even talk about it because it makes me so upset.”

Both women say that they don’t know how they could foster without their faith, but these are precarious times for faith-based agencies engaged in this work. Catholic Charities in Buffalo recently ended its foster and adoption services because a state law could require them to place kids with gay couples. The ACLU sued and forced Bethany Christian Services in Michigan to get the organization to change its policy in this area, and Philadelphia suspended its contract with Catholic Social Services for the same reason.

Project 1.27 doesn’t handle foster placements, so it is not affected by these lawsuits, but it does depend on the state to authorize its training and certification of foster families. If state agencies set their sights on organizations like this next, they might target the religious aspects of their training or mandate that they teach things at odds with their beliefs. That would threaten the foundations of their work.

At the end of the training, Megan asks each group to pray. Jason and Michelle stay seated, while others huddle around them, closing their eyes, putting their hands on the couple’s heads and shoulders, and offering words of comfort and hope about the work they are about to take on.

Perhaps the image of the “little platoon” of civil society has become a cliché, but in this room, it seems as if there are ten small armies, with each member of the rank and file ready to assist. They’ve spent hours learning about the battles they will face, getting to know the other people fighting alongside them. Some battles will turn out better than others. But thanks to the help of those around them, they’ll have a better chance of succeeding.

Top Photo: Foster parents Noelle and Dan MacLeay say that the training about trauma that they received from Project 1.27 changed how they’ve raised their fourth child, adopted from foster care after suffering abuse. (COURTESY OF PROJECT 127)

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