Called to step up: the Church can respond to the foster care crisis

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The Petrov Family of First Baptist Church in Woodstock adopted a sibling group last year through the church’s WeFoster ministry. Since the adoption, all the children have also been baptized. CRAIG ORMSBY/FBCW

Small steps leave big footprints. At least, that’s the prayer for families trying to stem long-term effects on children wrought by a drug crisis deemed to be the worst in the country’s history.

Opioid addiction delivers a punch felt not only by the user, but those within the vicinity. Particularly, the smallest victims are the most innocent. They need a voice, and a home.

In Georgia, the number of children needing a foster home has grown while the number of homes available has fallen. Last month, the state responded by adding up to $10 a day in per diems, money to help offset the cost of another child in the home. Hopefully, that will bring in more parents to help foster the 13,000 children projected to be in Georgia foster care by the end of the year, a 55 percent increase over the last three years.

Making the most of the day

Nicholas Pepper knows fostering requires a certain mindset. You grow to love a child, care for her, knowing in the back of your mind the goal is to eventually provide that child a safe, happy forever home. Most of the time, that home won’t be yours.

So, time is precious.

Pepper, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Kennesaw, and his wife, Mala, became foster parents in August 2016 through FaithBridge Foster Care. Twin six-month-old girls joined their home as the first placement.

“We instantly fell in love,” says Pepper.

There were the typical late nights and crying babies that come with having two infants. However, laughter and tiny smiles became a part of the Pepper home for a couple of weeks.

“We used those days to love them and make sure they were healthy and well-fed,” he remembers. They prayed over the girls. Read scripture over them. The extended family of New Salem Baptist Church fell in love, too.

Pepper acknowledges the end was challenging.

“It was tough seeing them go, but we’re thankful knowing they’re with family members who love them and care for them well.”

Walking alongside

The couple’s next placement – a five-year-old boy – brought a different dynamic.

Children in custody of Georgia DFCS under the age of 18 GEORGIA DEPT OF HUMAN SERVICES/Special

“He had a difficult family situation so we did our best to provide safety, comfort, and love daily. We had this young man for ten months and used that time to train him in respect and obedience.

“He made tremendous progress physically, emotionally, academically, and spiritually,” the pastor states.

The relationship with the little boy didn’t stop there.

“Unlike our first placement, we also had the opportunity to pour into his parents and family,” says Pepper. “We walked alongside them and reassured them we were only there to help and not adopt.”

The boy rejoined his family in July.

“Again, it’s hard [leaving him], but we’re so thankful to see God’s plan of restoration and reunification in today’s broken world,” Pepper notes.

Faith in fostering

Becoming a foster parent can be accomplished through various groups such as GCAC (Giving Children A Chance), AdoptUSkids, and the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. Like other foster parents wanting to make their faith a central part of the journey, the Peppers chose to work with FaithBridge.

Established in 2007, FaithBridge describes the faith community as “bridg[ing] the gap between those who need help and those who want to help.” Since then, the organization has become one of the fastest-growing, private child-placement agencies in Georgia, according to its website.

“Our vision is for all foster children to experience the hope, healing, and the unconditional love of Jesus Christ,” President and CEO Bob Bruder-Mattson told The Index.

Before joining FaithBridge in March 2016, Bruder-Mattson had built quite the resume for a job requiring massive organizational skills while surfing the constant challenges in a family-shaping culture.

In college he worked with at-risk youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters before gaining experience at the United Way, Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, Habitat for Humanity, the American Cancer Society, and, most recently, as president and CEO of the United Methodist Children’s Home. In April 2014, Governor Nathan Deal appointed him to the Child Welfare Reform Council, created to improve the state’s child welfare system.

Staying in the process

One of the issues surrounding the foster care crisis in Georgia isn’t just the lack of foster home. Just as concerning is the number of foster parents opting out.

Children placed far from home due to shortage in local foster families GEORGIA DEPT OF HUMAN SERVICES/Special

A report at FosterGeorgia.com, an arm of Georgia DFCS, stated that 63.82 percent of foster homes signing up at the beginning 2013 remained so by November of 2014. That retention rate improved to 88.48 percent when accounting for foster homes licensed at the beginning of 2014. FaithBridge holds a 95 percent retention rate, said its Bruder-Mattson.

That last number sounds high. But consider that from November 2016-November 2017 nearly 1,500 more children entered the Georgia foster care system while losing 11 percent of placement homes.

The result? Children placed in foster care don’t just lose connection to their parents and extended family, but their school, friends, town – everything in their “normal” – because no local foster homes are available.

At times, they could literally be sent across the state. This hits a swath of counties beginning with Floyd, Polk, and Harralson, stretching eastward to Gwinnett particularly hard, as up to half of those children could be placed outside their region.

It adds up to being a personal issue for Bruder-Mattson.

“I was in foster care when was adopted into a loving, Christian home at seven months old,” he says. “It changed the trajectory of my life. God spoke to me five years ago and said He wanted me to share the love of Christ with these foster kids.”

Follow the leader

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about fostering. 

In 2009 Pastor Johnny Hunt of First Baptist Woodstock declared the church would begin a foster care ministry. This came after years of foster involvement by the congregation. Most notably, former Georgia First Lady Mary Perdue served as a catalyst. At the time, she and her husband Sonny attended the church as members when he was governor. 

“She has a big heart for foster children and was a great influence on Dr. Hunt,” testifies Craig Ormsby, who directs the church’s WeFoster ministry. “Pastor and his wife, Miss Janet, cared for many children – not officially in a foster capacity but children in crisis – through the years. Those factors led to Pastor Johnny proclaiming the start of the foster ministry.”

Currently, he adds, 50 families at the church serve as either foster families or respite families. Respite families go through the same training as foster families. However, they serve primarily to help when foster parents need a break for, say, an appointment or when traveling out-of-state. In addition, Ormsby noted that hundreds of volunteers support those foster families and children. 

Since its founding, some 230 children have been served through WeFoster. Of that, 38 were adopted and 192 reunited with a family member.

“It’s been absolutely amazing to see our entire church wrap its arms around WeFoster, foster families, and foster children,” says Ormsby. “We’ve seen many children saved and baptized as well as life-changing relationships built with the birth families. We’re helping those families succeed at parenting the kids they receive back though they face very difficult odds.”

Everyone involved

David and Jennifer Johnston stand at the beginning of the foster process, having signed up through FaithBridge.

The couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Natalie. Seeing friends become involved in foster care, they developed a heart for the need. A Bible study on the Good Samaritan at Wildwood Baptist Church in Acworth, where David is children’s pastor, confirmed their calling.

“The children in these [foster] situations are the man who was beaten up,” Johnston explains. “It’s not their fault they’re in this position. If we, as the Church, don’t reach out and help these children we’re no better than those who walked by on the other side of the road.”

The range of participation goes beyond being a foster parent, adds Bruder-Mattson. That can include training for respite care or contributing to your church’s foster ministry.

“It’s something in which everyone can be involved,” he points out. “Not everyone can foster, but everyone can be involved.”

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