Making Forever Families

Churches and donors lift thousands of children out of the foster-care bureaucracy

Every two minutes, another child enters foster care in America. Four hundred thousand children live in these temporary homes in the U.S. today, a quarter of them permanently separated from their biological families and available to be adopted. The lucky ones wait an average of more than three years, and many never find permanent families at all. The New York Times recently described a child who bounced through more than 40 different homes since she entered 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 very difficult road ahead: By their mid-20s, 80 percent of the young men have been arrested, and nearly 70 percent of the women are on public assistance. They are more likely to be homeless, to be unemployed, and to be involved with drugs. A 2009 report found that the costs of letting a single year’s cohort age out of foster care without a permanent family were nearly $8 billion.

Meanwhile, children still in foster homes face challenges. Many have psychological and behavioral problems that need to be addressed. Some suffer additional neglect or abuse from foster parents themselves. With a chronic shortage of people willing to take these kids in, states’ standards of selection for foster homes are not as high as might be desired, and the agencies tasked with monitoring and supporting those homes are often understaffed or overly bureaucratized.

Atlanta businessman Rick Jackson grew up seeing these problems—as well as the abundant good and kindness in the foster care system—firsthand. Born to a dysfunctional family, Jackson was sent to a foster home at the age of 13. “It was the first time I ever saw a family sitting around the dinner table eating together,” he recalls. The idea that a family would pray together and have conversation in the evening had never occurred to him. “It gives a vision to children of the way life could and should be. It’s not like being at the ‘knife and gun club’ every Friday night.”

As much as he was aided by his experience with foster care, he saw problems with the system: foremost that his foster family was barred from talking to his biological family. “It takes a village when you’re dealing with temporary orphans from families that are dysfunctional,” says Jackson, now a successful health-care entrepreneur. It is important for the child to form long-term relationships and to have everyone on the same page, he says. “You have a better outcome if you have ten people watching a child during the week than just two.”

These ideas, and a desire to do something to improve the foster care system, were already percolating in Jackson’s mind when Bill Hancock approached him with a business plan. FaithBridge, Hancock’s nonprofit brainchild, would build that village that Jackson thought was needed for children, through a faith-community-oriented foster and adoption program. It was the solution Jackson was looking for.

Finding purpose

Jackson and Hancock formed a natural partnership. While considering teaming up with FaithBridge, Jackson found that Hancock’s life story resembled his own.

Now an eloquent expert on the problems faced by children without families, Hancock came out of a home marred by domestic violence and alcoholism. By the age of 15, he was homeless on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. He was among the 65 percent of maltreated children who do not find their way into a foster home or protective custody. At 21, he became a practicing Christian and went to college in Florida, thanks to the support of his local church. He found a job in an emergency children’s shelter at Florida Baptist Children’s Home in Lakeland, Florida.

He still recalls one of his first nights on the job, when a 6-year-old named Rosie was brought in. “Dropped off like a UPS package by a local sheriff,” Hancock says. “She was supposed to go to bed and be okay in a place she had never been before,” surrounded by adults she didn’t know. “I saw terror in the eyes of that child,” Hancock recalls chillingly. “This was our best solution, to put them in a government vehicle, drive them to an institution, and deliver them like a package.”

Hancock soon discovered what he calls his “purpose in life”—helping children whose families for one reason or another cannot care for them. He worked with churches to start residential treatment programs for emotionally disturbed teenagers who had already cycled through several different foster families. These centers serve as alternatives to juvenile detention for first-time offenders. Set up like homes, the centers consist of married couples overseeing groups of six to eight kids, making sure that they go to school, find productive work, and learn the social skills needed to succeed as adults.

(Courtesy of FaithBridge Foster Care; / © malerapaso)

During the time they lived in these centers, kids often did well. Hancock was disappointed, though, to see that “as soon as they left the environment and the support they had to go back to their local communities, many kids would gradually descend back into the disruptive choices they were making before.”

In retrospect, Hancock thinks that this outcome “should have been obvious.” Though “the best place for them to be would be in a family,” he knew that too few families were willing to take in foster children. Especially when kids are older, when they are part of a sibling group, or when they have behavioral problems, it is very difficult to find people to help.

Hancock began to wonder why churches weren’t more involved in the issue. He noted that in Cobb County, Georgia, there were 1,100 churches and 300 children in foster care. He liked the odds. There were plenty of people he knew with an extra bedroom who understood the needs of children. And so 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 those went through the training required and eventually became foster families. And the remaining ones formed the kind of support network that Hancock and others now believe is vital to making a foster placement or adoption a success. 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 from what can be an emotionally taxing responsibility. Each foster family had between 12 and 15 people serving as a support network. Today, the organization Hancock founded and still runs—FaithBridge—also has a “care coordinator” for each child, someone who will help a family navigate the public bureaucracy.

The coordinator’s job is not simply to monitor the well-being of the child, though that is paramount, but also to make sure that the foster family is getting the support it needs. “A child is an agitant to a family system,” says Hancock. Whether biological, adopted, or foster, the addition of a child to a family can cause tensions between mother and father, problems with siblings, financial strains, and a variety of other issues. Hancock sees FaithBridge’s role as minimizing stress for children and also for families, so they can continue to volunteer to foster.

The typical foster child is in a placement for about five months. When children in the FaithBridge network return to their biological parents, they keep their connections with foster families and volunteers in the sponsoring church. From spiritual support to job banks, biological families now have a greater connection to the local community and greater support for their youngsters.

Being part of the solution

This is the model that Hancock took to Rick Jackson, who had created about 25 companies in his lifetime and had agreed to look at Hancock’s business plan as a favor to a mutual friend. Hancock was not asking Jackson for money.

The businessman liked Hancock, and saw the value of his program. Hancock had a profound grasp of three major problems the foster care system was facing. The first, and perhaps the most important, was recruitment. The second was the lack of a support system for foster families. And the third was the absence of a “quality indicator.” As Hancock says, “If we are taking children out of these difficult situations and putting them in a foster home, what should be the desired outcome?”

What interested Jackson most about Hancock’s business plan was that it made foster care into something that wasn’t “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 explains. You can be there to support the parents who do volunteer. You can offer respite care on the weekends or babysit during a date night. Or you can buy a child clothes. “There are a lot of ways to get involved, to be part of the solution.”

Jackson had been looking for a way to make a difference in foster care. Like Hancock, he also looked at institutional models but found them expensive, often ineffective, and hard to bring up to scale. With FaithBridge, Jackson knew he had hit upon something different. And so he offered to fund the organization singlehandedly for five years. “Most small startups focus so much on getting money that they can’t create a good business model. I wanted Bill to focus on getting the model and the business and procedures down, not to focus on fundraising. Once we have a compelling story, we can get other people to donate to the program. I felt like long term we’d get there faster if we didn’t have to drag along a bus of donors,” he says.

Jackson also wanted to do more than give money. “I wanted to create something no different than any other business I’ve been involved in—in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Seeing results

In the past five years, FaithBridge recruited more than 200 families for Georgia’s foster care system through churches. It also recruited 400 volunteers, and offered training in ten locations. The organization spends about $3,600 per case. Hancock compares that with the $90,000 that the state government spends annually on a child in a regional detention facility.

Building on its work in Georgia, FaithBridge’s team next identified 17 metropolitan areas, representing three quarters of the foster-care needs in the country, where it believed its model could be duplicated. The organization picked communities that had at least two of three key qualities: a critical mass of volunteers, a willing funder, and a government official who would facilitate the program.

When FaithBridge arrived in these metropolitan areas, it often found that people were already familiar with the organization’s message. In the past decade, a quiet revolution has occurred in America’s churches, making adoption a central issue. Russell Moore, recently installed as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is one of the pioneers of the movement. He adopted two children from Russia a decade ago and wrote a book called Adopted for Life about the Christian mandate to become involved in “orphan care.” From Focus on the Family to Christianity Today, the world of institutional evangelicalism fully embraced the cause. And so more and more religious leaders and government officials are coming to realize that churches offer a standing army waiting to be deployed to solve the foster-care problem.

Looking after orphans

The best known church program tackling foster problems is Project 1.27, an adoption and foster parent training program based in Colorado. Since 2005, the program has partnered with more than 20 churches and helped families adopt 243 children.

Project 1.27 takes its name from the Bible verse James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father considers pure and faultless is this, to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The project started as a simple recruitment organization. But then, president Shelly Radic says, its leaders realized: “Once you inspire families to adopt, where would they go?”

Some families went to their local county’s training sessions and “found that some things ran counter to their faith and biblical values,” Radic says. One person reported that a county trainer “screamed profane words for 30 minutes at participants with the idea that you might have a child in your home like that and you should get used to it.”

Radic supports the idea of preparing families for the difficulties they may encounter, but the training offered by Project 1.27 (which is certified by the state) assumes that its participants are coming from a religious background. “God has a purpose for you,” the program teaches participants. While it is not an adoption agency itself, it helps to educate parents regarding the legal, financial, and emotional issues involved. Prospective parents pay a $100 administrative fee and receive 28 hours of training. Church leaders and community members are also offered the organization’s services, with the understanding that adoptive and foster families will need the support of friends and neighbors. Each family must bring four non-family members willing to attend four hours of training themselves to provide help to the adoptive parents.

Project 1.27 accomplishes all this for $5,000 per adoption. Individual donors provide most of its funding, with about 15 percent coming from churches and 5 percent from foundation support. The group collaborated with other public and private agencies to achieve an astonishing success: By the end of 2012, there were no children waiting to be adopted in the state of Colorado.

Project 1.27 thrilled state child-welfare officials. Sharen Ford, manager of permanency for Colorado Children’s Services, recalls the program’s first informational meeting held at a large local church. “It was a snowy night, but several hundred people showed up. I was blown away.” She realized that Project 1.27 had “put out a call to families that we had never been able to reach before…. It taught us about the value of collaborating with faith-based organizations.”

The project is now taking its inspirational message and valuable practical training to other states. Founder Robert Gelinas, a Colorado pastor and father of five adopted children, recently told a church audience in Arizona that “it is possible for people of faith to step up and to open their lives and their hearts, and that a foster care system can be emptied.” Arizona now has 50 families signed up through the program and undergoing training. Another group is starting in Washington, D.C.

Leif Houkom, chairman of Project 1.27’s board, has been a donor since its inception. A CPA and a member of Gelinas’s church, Houkom remembers hearing the first pitch for the organization. “I wanted to spend my money where it will do the most good. When we can effectuate an adoption, we will be affecting a life forever,” he says. “And not just the life of an adopted child, but a whole family.”

Houkom notes that many Project 1.27 donors work in finance and appreciate how cost-effective the program is. The organization spends only 4 percent of its budget on development. “We’re very lean,” he says. He doesn’t have to give a hard sell to most people. “If it touches your heart, especially if you’re a Biblical person, you will give.”

Spreading the message

In Jackson, Mississippi, a local attorney provided money to create a church-based recruiting and training effort similar to Project 1.27. The program is now called 200 Million Flowers, and Rick Valore, Project 1.27’s former executive director, is in charge. The new program’s name comes from the widely publicized estimate that 200 million is the number of orphans in the world (counting children who have lost one parent, which is more conservatively thought to be around 150 million; there are an estimated 18 million who have lost both parents and have not found a home with relatives or another family) and a quote attributed to Mother Teresa: “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.”

Valore believes the 1.27 model is “very replicable.” Because churches often allow small faith-based organizations to operate out of their facilities, Valore estimates the startup costs for someone willing to make the connections to local churches and do some marketing would be less than $100,000.

Similar organizations now include the CALL (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime), Project Belong in Kansas, the 111 Project in Oklahoma (One Church, One Family, One Purpose), and Embrace Texas near Dallas.

Some states, too, are learning from Colorado’s lesson: Instead of waiting for faith-based agencies to come to them, they are putting out calls for proposals to have more private organizations do this kind of recruitment. Chris Barras, a pastor in Richmond, Virginia, recently responded to his state foster-care agency with a proposal for an organization called Change Who Waits. The name comes from the idea that it should be families waiting to adopt children, not the other way around.

Barras, who with his wife has fostered kids and offered respite care to others who have, says there are 1,300 children in Virginia waiting for a permanent home. Change Who Waits held well-attended rallies in Richmond, Virginia Beach, and the D.C. suburbs. “Some of the most highly receptive people to this message are in churches,” says Barras. “Churches have a different call. We have a responsibility from Scripture.”

Barras says he is not suggesting that “only Christians do this,” but that “the best bang for your buck is this kind of targeted recruiting.” He cites a 2005 Harvard study showing that for every 28 people who contact a child placement agency about adoption, one follows through. That’s about a 3 percent return. Project 1.27 has a 20 percent return. “We’re just saying we’re a good niche market to go after.”

Encouraging “forever families”

The problem of getting families to volunteer is not just about reaching the right people. As Bill Hancock and others have found, when adoptive or foster parents are supported by their friends and families and churches and communities, they are more likely to volunteer again and more likely to encourage others to sign on.

In 2004, Debra Steigerwaldt Waller, the CEO of Jockey International, started doing some research into how she personally and Jockey as a company could make a difference in the area of adoption. “What we found was that there are 50,000 children adopted in the U.S. each year from foster care, and about 10 to 15 percent of those adoptions fail,” she says. The notion of a failed adoption horrified her. “I don’t think it’s right or fair that other children should not have a similar experience to me, that they shouldn’t have a ‘forever family’ too.”

When Waller was in second grade, she remembers her mother sitting her down to explain she was adopted as a baby. “I’m not sure I understood what she meant,” but over time Waller started to have questions about her background. She appreciated her parents’ transparency about the subject. “But adoption wasn’t really talked about as much like it is today.” In fact, when Waller took over as CEO of Jockey International from her mother in 2001, many of the employees who had been there since Waller was a child had no idea she was adopted.

Since Waller’s childhood, the entire landscape of adoption has changed. For instance, many adoptions are now open—adopted kids can meet their biological parents. But it is also now much harder to adopt a baby. The end of the stigma on unwed motherhood combined with the widespread availability of abortion means that fewer “unwanted” babies wait for adoptive parents. Many foreign countries have restricted international adoptions. Parents wanting to adopt a healthy infant can easily wait years.

But there are as many older children needing homes as ever. In many cases, says Waller, “the adoption journey is a fabulous thing. The child gets to a family, the family gets all excited, everyone celebrates.” Yet after all that, there can sometimes be problems. Families prepared in principle to cope with emotional issues may not be sure how to deal with them in real life. Even otherwise “normal” children can start acting up, says Waller.

(Courtesy of Jockey International; / © malerapaso)

To help fill this gap, Jockey has put $3 million into “post-adoption” education and counseling since 2005. It has funded scholarships for parents and kids to attend classes where they learn how to manage behavior, resolve marital tension, and deal with various government agencies that may be involved.

In Wisconsin, where Jockey has its headquarters, the company helped sponsor a program called Our Home, Our Family, in which adoptive parents take a rigorous course on managing new family realities. Waller notes that some of the families “were in complete disarray.” There were couples who were ready to divorce, children who wanted to leave. Yet “the families who went through this program did not dissolve,” says Waller.

Mark Courtney, who teaches at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and studies this area, confirms that foster care and adoption preservation are areas where philanthropy can do a lot of good. “Parents want to know, ‘Will the government be there to back me if my child needs significant mental health treatment?’ In many cases, the answer is no.” He says many families don’t have the resources for the kinds of high quality support programs that are important to making adoption successful.

Jockey provides kids adopted out of foster care a monogrammed backpack, filled with games and toys chosen specifically for each child, as well as a handmade blanket and a teddy bear. “Most of the time children coming out of foster care have nothing but the clothes on their backs,” Waller says. Often a caseworker brings the backpack to the child at his or her new home. “It helps the caseworker start a conversation with the family” about the help that is available to them now that the adoption process is complete, Waller adds.

These backpacks also include information about post-adoption services for the families. About 200 Jockey employees have put together 7,000 backpacks so far, and the program is currently being expanded nationwide through the Center for Adoption Support and Education.

Jockey volunteers also help on other projects, such as home renovations for families adopting children with physical disabilities. Jockey employees who adopt themselves are given a $10,000 stipend for each child. Jockey sponsors bus tours in Wisconsin that go from town to town drawing attention to adoption. These “Journey Home” tours engage with family court judges, police officers, school principals, and other people who affect the lives of adopted and foster kids.

Stopping a vicious cycle

Education is Waller’s primary focus. Last year, she worked with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, where she sits on the board, to put together a guide for pediatricians to help adopted children and families adjust. They’ve distributed 200,000 copies so far.

The Dave Thomas Foundation is the biggest player in the world of adoption philanthropy. It has set its sights on drastically reducing the number of children in foster care, particularly the kids who age out of the system. President and CEO Rita Soronen describes how the foundation, through years of research, arrived at some best practices for helping kids find families. It funded the hiring of additional counselors, tasked with meeting with children at least once a month and getting to know all the important people in that child’s life. Of the program’s 8,800 kids aged 12 and older, 5,700 have been matched with a family so far.

Thanks in part to Waller, says Soronen, the Dave Thomas Foundation realized that “adding post-adoption services is a critical piece of this work. Many of these kids have been through such trauma that adoption is not the end of the story.” “Jockey,” she continues, “has been a long-term and generous partner in this process. We love when corporations step forward and say, ‘We have to make this commitment in our community.’”

Waller’s work with the Dave Thomas Foundation opened her eyes to many ways that she and her employees can help contribute to the lives of children in foster care. “I know the Lord put me here for a reason,” Waller recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The stars were aligned.”

“There are children that need these families,” she says. “There are families that need extra help. Don’t let them flounder. When that happens, this vicious cycle can happen all over again.”

(Courtesy of Bowers Media Group Inc.; / © malerapaso)

Making Group Homes Work 

In twenty-first-century America, orphanages seem to be relics of the past. Modern research in attachment theory and other areas has taught us that kids need human connections, so today every effort is made to place children needing homes with families, rather than in institutions. Yet for some kids, particularly those with special needs or behavioral problems, this simply isn’t feasible—there just aren’t enough foster homes available, or enough foster parents equipped to handle the challenges these kids bring with them.

The default option is to send these children to state-run group homes—by most accounts miserable places, often not far removed in character from detention facilities for juvenile criminals (with a revolving population between the two). The average cost of these institutions tops $200,000 per child each year.

But thanks to private donations, alternatives exist. A number of high-quality independent group homes and residential education centers are spread out across the country, offering help to children with severe challenges, many of whom have been abused, neglected, or traumatized, and who have cycled through multiple failed foster care placements.

One of the most iconic of these institutions is Crossnore, a 100-year-old Christian residential school. Set in the Appalachian hills of North Carolina, Crossnore was founded by Mary Martin Sloop, a doctor determined to help impoverished mountain children. It now houses about 100 kids whose needs aren’t met by the foster care system or public schools. Students live on campus in cottages, supervised by couples, and attend classes and activities that promote healing, balance, and faith. Special touches include the School Labyrinth, a spiral garden for meditation and prayer; the Weaving Room, a reminder of Sloop’s dedication to the productivity of the original students; and the Miracle Mountain Stables, which offer equine therapy. (For more information about Crossnore and similar institutions, read The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage or Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century, both by Richard McKenzie—or watch the documentary Without Perfect Answers by filmmaker Bruce Bowers.)

Similar facilities include the Safe Harbor Boys Home of Jacksonville, Florida, where boys ages 15 to 17 suffering from behavioral issues or the death of a parent live aboard boats and receive both traditional education and vocational training, and the Hendrick Home for Children of Abilene, Texas, which offers both family-style cottages and a 43,000-acre cattle ranch to give homeless children the skills to be economically self-sufficient.

Private group homes, which offer housing and care separate from educational facilities, offer another option to abandoned children. The Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries provides homes to groups of six to eight children under the supervision of house parents in cities throughout the state. Hope Village for Children in Meridian, Mississippi offers cottages and care to teenagers, as well as a new transitional program to residents who turn 18 and are preparing to enter the world as adults.

Private group homes and residential schools can help a child make the best of out a bad situation, but there are drawbacks to this type of care. Though children gain the stability of a permanent home and school, rather than being shuttled from one placement to the next, they don’t become a permanent part of a traditional family they can lean on later. Children are under the supervision of trained professionals, but there are limits on the amount of individual attention they get from caregivers, who can be responsible for many residents. While most homes try to keep sibling groups together, brothers and sisters in gender-specific institutions end up separated.

Despite the drawbacks, donors and caregivers at these institutions are doing heroes’ work. One homeless boy came to Crossnore after being arrested several times for selling drugs with his partner in crime, a neighborhood prostitute. At his new home, the boy dedicated himself to education. He recently graduated from New York University, where his tuition was paid for by the Crossnore board. With the help of thousands of donors, this boy and others like him defy the odds every year.

Emily Holmstead

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