Infomercials, child sponsorship programs, and stirring stories of missionaries like Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward give the impression that needy children mostly exist in third world countries. But this is not so.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the United States foster care system serves more than 740,000 children. Beyond that, more than 3 million children in the United States can be labeled as “children of trauma.” Children without hope line our own city streets and fill our forgotten alleys.
Thankfully, Christian church ministries are dedicated to offering the transformational power of Jesus Christ to thousands of children “orphaned by choice,” as Gary Porter, director of the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio (CCHO), puts it.
Porter, Rick Bayless of Cookson Hills Christian Ministries, Karen Culler of Show-Me Christian Youth Home, and a host of other workers involved in residential child care ministries are witnesses to the fact that God can turn around the lives of those wounded in childhood. These directors believe that individual Christians and local churches need to extend open arms to children because the need is great, the victories are sweet, and Christ has told us to do it.
The Children They Serve
“Maltreated children are among the neediest in America,” Bayless said. “Some are living in your neighborhood; others play on streets outside boarded-up buildings. Some are caught in the bureaucracy of the government foster care system; others run away and steal what they will eat and wear today. Still others are hung over after a night of illegal drinking, drugs, and sex. Some are reaping what they sowed, and others inherited a mess from their parents. But they all have one thing in common. They matter to Christ.”
Maltreatment of children costs taxpayers $103.8 billion annually.1 This doesn’t include the social, emotional, and spiritual expense both the child and society must bear. Children of trauma are more likely to suffer depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, and adult criminality. Without the love and power of Christ, these children continue the cycle of abuse and dysfunction.
Porter’s dream for the ministry of CCHO is to cultivate a place where “Christ and children could meet.” The mission of CCHO is to “touch children for eternity.”
“There are a lot of good social workers, a lot of good therapists, a lot of good teachers and social agencies that do excellent work,” Porter said. “We want to go further. We want our work to last not just for the here and now, but for eternity.”
When Porter speaks to groups about CCHO, he often asks, “Did you see our kids on TV? Those are the kids we serve.” He then relays the story of a father who asked his daughter to hand him a pillow, then used it to smother her mother. CCHO has served kids who have been locked in cages, chained to doghouses, and sold by parents for prostitution.
“As a result of the breakdown of the traditional family, many children find themselves without parents who will take care of them,” notes Chad Puckett, associate director of Show-Me Christian Children’s Home. “We respond to this great gap in society by providing a home and a family to such vulnerable children, making every effort to help them overcome the problems of their past and build a bright future.”
A Ministry of Unconditional Love
Residential child-care ministries have expanded their services tremendously over the past 30 years. Some, like Show-Me, began out of a Christian family’s involvement in foster care. Facilities were structured around a family model, with children housed in typical homes headed by resident houseparents. The goal was to provide a safe, loving atmosphere that showcased Christ’s unconditional love.
Today, these ministries provide therapy and counseling to both the child and their family. Show-Me, Cookson Hills, and CCHO offer equestrian therapy programs to help children rebuild their social skills. “Animals are so responsive,” Culler said. “The program helps children feel accepted, appreciated, and loved. It helps them build trust.”
CCHO launched New Beginnings, a counseling service, to help children and their families seek reconciliation and renewal. The program includes intensive in-home services to help dysfunctional families learn to cope with the stresses they face before reaching a point of crisis. Workers visit the family every day, offering support and advice as the family works through the rough time. Keeping a child out of residential care will ultimately save the state thousands of dollars, Porter notes.
Show-Me also provides a cattle ranching program with the threefold goal of providing beef for the residential cottages, helping kids develop confidence and responsibility, and introducing youth to career opportunities.
As in any healthy family, residential care programs help children transition into adult life, providing counseling and support as needed. Cookson Hills offers a high school credit recovery program, a GED program, concurrent college enrollment, and vocational training. Show-Me moves children who have turned 18 into separate apartments so they can learn responsibility for their own needs while staying connected to their support system.
The vision of residential care goes far beyond rescuing children from their current circumstances. As Bayless said, “Our vision is to restore children and families in crisis to a life-changing relationship with Christ.” Over and over, Cookson Hills and the others have seen life change that only Christ can bring. More than 4,500 (about 95 percent) of the children served by Cookson Hills since its inception have accepted Christ, been baptized, and have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Personal stories provide convincing proof of the success of these ministries. Porter tells about Chris, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She refused to go to church or devotions, and insisted, “You’re not going to change me.”
Porter told her, “I don’t change you. Jesus does.” Even though the teenager wanted nothing to do with God, the staff showed unconditional love to her. Soon she started to attend church, gave her life to Christ, enrolled at Milligan College, and became a registered nurse. Porter simply says, “She was changed.”
Darrin Taylor spent four years at Show-Me in the 1990s. He was so impacted by the unconditional love he experienced, he came back to manage the New Life Unit at Mayview, Missouri. Because he successfully worked through his own heartache, Darrin had a unique ability to relate to the young men under his care. “He made a phenomenal difference,” said Culler.
In spite of the high success rate, child and family service ministries reach a tiny fraction of the millions of maltreated children in our nation. Christ’s directive in James 1:27, to “look after orphans and widows in their distress,” speaks to all of us. Yet, with the worsening economy, funding is tougher to obtain but the needs are greater. At times like these, families that are already on the brink of crisis topple into greater abuse and neglect of their children. Government agencies wait longer to put needy children into foster care. Because of reduced giving, churches cut their support at a time when the children’s homes need funding most. The church has a golden opportunity to step up and show the stuff of which our pure religion is made.
Local churches can help in several ways. They can serve as prayer partners and short-term mission workers, and provide home and school supplies. Area adult Sunday school classes can “adopt” one of the residential units: sending kids birthday cards and taking them out for a movie, dinner, or shopping. “We need people who will get involved in the kids’ lives and love them,” said Porter.
Children’s home ministries show it is possible to give wounded children hope and a future. The local church can help target children in need and make referrals. Families who see foster care or adoption of at-risk and special-needs children as a ministry are desperately needed. Some child-care ministries offer assistance in the adoption process. One of the greatest needs is for workers willing to make a lifelong commitment to the ministry so children can find greater stability provided by long-term workers.
The needs of at-risk children are overwhelming, yet Christ calls us to care about the hurting child. Matthew 25:40 quotes Jesus as saying, “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me” (The Message). To this, Bayless adds, “These kids are our future. If I don’t do something to help, then I am sending them a message that the church doesn’t care, can’t be trusted, talks about love, but doesn’t live it.”
“Wounds we overcome empower us,” notes Chad Puckett. “Investing in children to overcome their past is essential for society’s success.”
1National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System 2008 report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
Karen Wingate is a minister’s wife and freelance writer living in Roseville, Illinois.
You Can Help Too!
Curb the number of at-risk children:
1. Do everything possible to keep marriages together.
2. Train up godly men to become leaders in their church and community.
3. Become involved with families in your community. Refer those in crisis to Christian ministries and professionals for assistance.
Help children in trauma:
1. Know there are hurting children hanging around every church.
2. Be receptive to children who look and act different.
3. Listen to children from dysfunctional homes; take them seriously.
4. Care enough to confront abuse and neglect.
5. If kids are likely to be taken into custody, provide alternatives and work with the family to guide them toward Christ-centered help.
Sources: Rick Bayless, Cookson Hills Christian Children’s Home, and Gary Porter, Christian Children’s Home of Ohio