By Justin Horey
Hundreds of thousands of children in America are living away from their parents, desperately in need of a family to keep and care for them. Many Christians have seen the need. Here are some of their stories.
Alone and afraid, seated on a chair in the unwelcoming waiting room of a government office, holding a small plastic bag filled with a few personal belongings (or, worse, holding nothing at all). This is not the picture of an international refugee; this is how life in America’s foster system begins for thousands of children every year.
Tom and Peggy Smith know the scene all too well. In 33 years of marriage, the Smiths have welcomed 51 different children into their home: three by birth, four by adoption, and dozens of others by fostering. Over the years, they observed many children who entered foster care with little to call their own, so Peggy founded Expressions of Hope, a nonprofit ministry that serves children in foster care and their families.
Since 2009, Expressions of Hope has been providing “Bags of Hope” to children entering the foster care system in Napa, California. These backpacks (or diaper bags for infants) are delivered to children when they arrive at Child Welfare Services; they are filled with age-appropriate items intended to “bring a sense of familiarity during an uncertain time.” The bags include basic necessities like toothbrushes and toothpaste, as well as “comfort” items like stuffed animals, toys, and books (or makeup and fast-food gift cards for teenagers).
The Smiths initially collected items for these Bags of Hope at their home church, Hillside Christian in Napa, California, but the program has been embraced by more than 15 other local congregations—from across denominations.
At Willamette Christian Church in West Linn, Oregon, Angie Rettmann leads the adoption and foster care ministry. Willamette Christian is among the churches in the area that have provided “Welcome Boxes” to the Department of Human Services (DHS) for children who have just been removed from their homes. Congregations in Oregon have embraced the idea; when the program was introduced at Willamette, the church sold out of its initial order of 500 boxes in one morning.
Bags of Hope, Welcome Boxes, and similar “care kits” are important tools, and the children who receive them are grateful, but they are just small pieces of a very large puzzle. Once a child is removed from a dangerous situation and placed into a foster home, the real work begins.
Megan Fletcher, a member of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Anthem, Arizona (where her husband, Ryan, is on staff), serves with Arizona Baptist Children’s Services (ABCS), a ministry that recruits Christian couples to serve as foster parents. Though the organization is Baptist, the work is cross-denominational; a number of large Christian churches in the Phoenix area (including CCV) have joined with ABCS to recruit Christian foster parents from within their congregations.
In Arizona, where nearly 20,000 children are currently in foster care, the need is urgent. “These kids need homes yesterday,” Fletcher said. And they don’t just need homes. They need Christian homes, with loving parents who understand the concepts of restoration, reconciliation, and redemption—because they have experienced those things from their own heavenly Father.
Greg Nettle, former senior pastor of RiverTree Christian Church in Massillon, Ohio, said the situation in the Buckeye State is just as dire. Nettle and his wife, Julie, adopted their son Elijah three years ago after becoming aware of the size of the foster system in his home state. Nettle said, “If we, as followers of Jesus, don’t care for these kids, who will?”
Valerie Crane is dedicated to answering that question by recruiting and training Christian foster parents. Crane is director of operations at Help One Child and also attends Venture Christian Church in San Jose, California. In Northern California, roughly half of the children in foster care are currently living in group homes. Help One Child wants to change that. “It’s a huge, huge need,” Crane said.
While her organization is committed to recruiting, training, and supporting those who are willing to open their homes to at-risk children, Crane recognizes God’s sovereignty over the process. “There is really nothing we can say or do to get people to step forward. It’s the business of God at work, softening people’s hearts,” she said.
Raising up Christian foster parents is indeed challenging work. Megan Fletcher thinks that could be, in part, because while the Bible clearly uses adoption as a metaphor to describe our relationship with God, it is less overt about foster care. “We as Christians don’t really have to wonder if adoption is something that God wants us to be a part of. But foster care is different,” she said.
Yet, as Fletcher knows, Scripture has five times as many references to “the fatherless” as “adoption.” James 1:27 (“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .”) is often cited by foster advocates, but in fact dozens of other passages in the Old and New Testaments also command God’s people to care for orphaned children. Isaiah 1:17 is just one example: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
In Arizona, Fletcher described the need for foster parents as a crisis. Every year, more foster licenses are closed than opened, exacerbating the problem for at-risk children in the state. Angie Rettmann is passionate about recruitment, too. “Our desire is to grow the number of fostering families at Willamette Christian Church,” Rettman said. The need is great, but WCC is already making a difference. When Willamette launched its adoption and foster care ministry in 2012, the Tri-County area needed 884 additional foster homes. Today, about a dozen families from WCC are actively fostering some 20 children.
Despite the challenges and the sometimes heartbreaking nature of the work, Rettmann is enthusiastic and optimistic. “I’ve been involved in few things more exciting than this,” she said.
Training and Support
Of course, when couples do volunteer to become foster parents, the approval process is long and the work of fostering can be difficult. “I don’t believe every family is called to foster care,” Fletcher said, “but I believe we’re all called to support it.”
Rettmann has a similar philosophy, so Willamette Christian Church offers many other ways for families to be part of the solution. Rettmann and her team provide practical help to prospective parents by hosting training sessions and information meetings in partnership with the Department of Human Services. “These events help people understand how to get involved and navigate the certification process for foster care,” Rettman said.
In California, Expressions of Hope is leading what it calls a “faith-based initiative” not only to recruit, but also to train, equip, and—most importantly—retain foster parents from local churches. Simple strategies like “Foster Parents Night Out” help parents by providing free babysitting (and a much-needed break). Willamette Christian Church offers a similar program.
Even with these programs in place, Christian-based organizations find that they need to build strong partnerships with government agencies in order to succeed. In some cases, working with the state or county requires even more time than working with local congregations. Valerie Crane said, “We collaborate with churches almost as much as we collaborate with the government.”
In Oregon, Willamette Christian Church supports its local Department of Human Services through a partnership with Embrace Oregon, a division of the Portland Leadership Foundation that “connects caring community members with vulnerable children and families.”
To meet a very practical need, Willamette launched a Sunday morning campaign that raised funds to “make over” nine visitation rooms at the local DHS office. Now, when a foster child goes to DHS for a supervised visit with his or her birth family, they meet not in a sterile and intimidating room, but a warm and comfortable space.
Roughly 400,000 children are currently in foster care nationwide. While the goal of foster care is always to reunite the child with the biological family, that is not always the outcome. More than one-quarter of the children who enter the foster care system will ultimately become eligible for adoption when their parents’ rights are “terminated” by the court.
It has been more than a decade now, but Brian Mavis can still remember how shocked he was when he learned this troubling truth. Brian, the community transformation pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, and his wife, Julie, had been fostering a baby boy. When the court terminated the rights of the baby’s birth parents, he became eligible for adoption by another family. Brian and Julie met with their social worker, and she tried to reassure the couple about the baby’s future, telling them, “He’ll be fine. We have a line of people waiting to adopt babies.” Brian and Julie were both shaken when she added sadly, “I wish I could say the same for the older kids.”
Today, some 10 years later, Brian and Julie Mavis are actively working to raise awareness of, and find solutions to, the largely unknown plight of these orphans in the United States.
In 2006, Julie went to work for Boulder County, finding “forever homes” for older children who were waiting to be adopted. In her first year, she placed 20 children with adoptive families. In 2007, Brian and LifeBridge accepted a challenge from the county to help “change who waits.” Cindy Mollica, a former nun, was employed by Boulder County and had a dream to create a waiting list of adoptive families ready to receive children—to replace the county’s list of available children. In the first year, that partnership helped increase the successful recruitment of foster families in Boulder County by 84 percent.
Brian Mavis said, “It wasn’t easy, but it was simple. It turned out that the best recruiters were the kids themselves. They needed to be seen and heard.” He and Julie implemented a traveling exhibit for churches called “The Heart Gallery” (which originated in New Mexico in 2005). The exhibit shows professional photographs of “waiting” children along with their stories.
Out of some 3,000 churches in Colorado, roughly 70 congregations have participated in the program. But Brian Mavis said, surprisingly, “That participation rate seems to be almost enough.” Since 2006, Adopt Colorado’s Kids—the organization he and Julie founded—has helped reduce the number of waiting children in Colorado from more than 800 to less than 300.
Through a partnership with Janet Kelly (who had run the successful government-sponsored program “Virginia Adopts” in her home state), the Mavises recently expanded their ministry nationwide. Their new organization, Adopt America’s Kids, is in talks with other states to begin work in 2016.
Brian Mavis said, “We are doing a multiyear, multisector, coordinated campaign to end the adoption crisis and the aging-out crisis in the foster care system.” Their goal is to end the adoption crisis in foster care throughout the United States. Brian believes the church is essential.
Peggy Smith agrees. She said, “Churches are the answer to the orphan crisis in this country.” With more than 300,000 congregations in the United States, just one family from every church in America could solve the orphan crisis. Brian Mavis said it another way. “In short, the government has the kids. The church has the parents.”
Greg Nettle found that to be true in Ohio. When he was senior pastor at RiverTree Christian Church, his family fostered multiple children, and adopted their son, Elijah. The church followed the Nettles’ lead; in the last decade, more than 200 families from RiverTree have also adopted! At Hillside Christian Church in Napa, California, where Peggy Smith attends, senior pastor Eric Daniel and his wife, Angela, recently adopted as well.
Really, though, Christian people must rely on God and his power to accomplish his purpose for these needy children. Joel and Emily McAnear live in Houston, Texas, with their four children, three of whom they fostered and adopted while attending Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California. Their experience not only enlarged their family, it strengthened their faith. Emily said, “If you are not a believer before you start this process of adoption, you certainly will be by the end. There is no one to rely on but God himself.”
Thankfully, God is faithful. So the McAnears, like many other Christian foster and adoptive families, continue to stand on the promise of Psalm 10:14: “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.”
Justin Horey is the husband of a former foster child, the father of two biological children, and was adopted “to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with [God’s] pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5).
How You or Your Church Can Get Involved
Care Portal | The Global Orphan Project
Notifies local churches of practical needs from hurting children and families, as identified by child welfare workers.
CASA for Children (Court Appointed Special Advocates)
Recruits and trains volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities.
Child Welfare Information Gateway
Provides information, resources, and tools to child welfare professionals and individuals.
Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO)
Inspires and equips Christians to care for orphans and vulnerable children. Also hosts the annual CAFO Summit.
Empowered to Connect
Provides training and interactive learning experiences for adoptive and foster parents.
Offers financial grants to help families meet the monetary costs of adoption.