By Brian Mavis
It began for my wife and me with a simple nighttime prayer with our young daughters: “God, take care of the orphans.”
We always imagined kids in Africa when we prayed that, and eventually we sponsored a couple of kids from Kenya. But that prayer kept doing its work on us, and it led to an obvious question for us: “Are there orphans in America?”
Orphans in America?
Surely there were some, a child here or there who had lost her parents. But if God wanted to use us to help answer that prayer and to “take care of orphans . . . in their distress” where would we find them? Soon after asking that question, a series of “coincidences” led us into the world of the U.S. child welfare system—also known as social services or foster care.
You may be tempted to stop reading now, and I understand. We were tempted to stop following when God led down this way. It’s a road pockmarked with bureaucracy, broken families, and broken hearts. But here is why we didn’t quit—when we heard these children’s stories, we realized they were America’s orphans.
Orphans in America have biological parents who are, in most cases, still living. But those parents have abused or abandoned their children to the point of losing their parental rights.
Change Who Waits
Here is a typical scene in your state and county each week. A small group of caseworkers meets around a table to hear about the newest children to enter “the system.” The caseworkers might get a dozen new kids that week. They hear their stories and then try to put the children in the best possible situation.
Take, for example, three brothers who enter the system. The caseworkers look at their current list of foster families, knowing they don’t have any family that can take all three. So they are forced to split the boys up.
Someone suggests a family that already has a foster child in their home. Another person says, “I know beggars can’t be choosers, but don’t put that boy there. They are pretty weird.” Another family is suggested. They are a healthy and loving foster family, but they have been overused and are starting to feel burnt out. But the caseworkers feel they have no other choice. So they call that family and hope they will say yes one more time for one more child.
The problem in virtually every county is that there are more foster children waiting for families to open their homes than there are families with open homes, and there are more “orphans” waiting for forever families than there are families willing to adopt.
Last year, LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, partnered with Boulder County (an unlikely partnership) to achieve a challenging goal: “Change Who Waits.” In other words, don’t make the kids wait for families. Instead, recruit so many families that families are waiting for the kids.
After a year of working together, we received this e-mail from the recruitment specialist at Boulder County Department of Human Services:
I wanted to share with you some very exciting news. With your help, dedication, long hours of volunteering, calling, referring, and bringing in families, we certified 104 families in 2008—that’s 89 percent MORE than last year. . . . From myself, the Family Enrichment Team, and Boulder County, we’d like to thank you. You Rock!!!
December 2008 was the first time in almost three decades Boulder County had enough homes and families for all their kids. Together we turned the tide and reached our initial goal of changing who waits.
The Church Can Be the Solution Jesus’ brother wrote, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27, New Living Translation). This is Christian Expression 101. Unfortunately many of us have chosen to treat this as an optional elective. But if we treated this as a core course, the church could revolutionize the whole foster and foster-to-adopt world—and serve as a great witness to the rest of the world. Of about 500,000 children in the U.S. foster care system today, about 130,000 of them are available for adoption. If a couple in half of the approximately 350,000 churches in the U.S. would adopt one child, every available child would be adopted. That would leave about 370,000 children in foster care. If every church would foster one child, this would more than double the current network of foster families and provide every child with a temporary home until a permanent reunification or placement occurred. This is a unique time and opportunity because large pockets of the U.S. foster care system are looking to the church for help. Two studies were conducted recently that highlighted the disconnect between where people learn about this world of foster care and foster-to-adopt and where people want to learn about it. When people were asked where they actually hear about fostering and fostering to adopt, these were the top five responses: • Social services/child welfare agencies (65 percent) • Adoption/foster care agencies (58 percent) • Family, friends, neighbors (41 percent) • Internet (26 percent) • Place of worship (20 percent) But when people were asked where they preferred to hear about fostering and fostering to adopt, their first choice was “places of worship” (see chart). The results of these studies were brought to my attention through Boulder County social services. Officials there said, “More people are receiving information from sources they do NOT prefer” and that the county knows “people prefer to hear about foster care and foster-to-adoption in their place of worship.” The North American Council on Adoptable Children conducted research that showed “those whose primary motive is altruism possess the characteristics that allow them to be successful resource families.” As a friend in the Boulder County agency tells me, “All our kids are broken-hearted. We don’t want families who need kids to fill their hearts. We need families who can give their hearts to the kids.” There are many ways you can start down this path. Determine which families in your church have served as foster families, or have adopted from foster care situations, and ask them about their experiences. Meet with your community’s foster and foster-to-adopt recruiter and learn about the region’s needs and how you can help. But perhaps the first and best thing you can do is add this request to your prayers: “God, take care of the orphans.” Then see what he wants to do through you.
Brian Mavis is externally focused director at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado.
How Big Is the Problem?
• There are 510,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. • 129,000 of these children are available for adoption. • In 2006, 79,000 children had their parents’ rights terminated by the courts, yet only 51,000 were adopted. In other words, more children become available for adoption each year than are adopted. • The average age of a child waiting to be adopted from foster care is 8 years old. • The average child in foster care has been awaiting adoption for 39 months. • Each year, 20 percent of children (26,517 in 2006) exit foster care at age 18 without an adoptive family. • More than 80 percent of the kids who “age out” end up homeless, pregnant, addicted, or in jail within a year. • 45 percent of Americans mistakenly believe children enter foster care because of juvenile delinquency. Rather, children enter the foster care system because of neglect, abandonment, or abuse.
Some Orphans We Know Intimately
• Kyle was born addicted to methamphetamine and some other drugs. His dad was in prison. He was the seventh child born to this mom (she had lost the previous six). He lived his first six months in a drug house and was taken care of by whoever was sober enough at the moment. He was brought into social services when his mom was arrested.
When we first started caring for him, he was sick, despondent, and afraid of normal, playful behavior. But within weeks he began to flourish and we fell in love with him as if he were our own. Eventually his grandparents adopted him.
• Alyssa was sexually abused as a toddler, and so was her older brother. They were placed in foster care as 3-and 4-year-olds. Unfortunately, they were separated from one another. Ten years later, Alyssa is still in foster care.
She has lived with several foster families—experiencing abuse in one of them. She is still optimistic and young at heart in spite of multiple losses and betrayal. And she still hopes to be adopted someday.
• Joshua and his sister experienced abuse from their mom that can only be described as evil (veteran case workers will still cry when reading his file). He and his sister were separated when brought into social services because so few foster families have the capacity to take on a sibling group.
Eight years later, Josh, now 16, wants to be adopted by a Christian family and live near his sister.