By Jon Hembree
The county where I live has a serious problem. By all appearances, Barton County, a rural area that’s almost precisely the geographical center of Kansas, is a nice place to live. It’s population isn’t quite 30,000, and the people who live here are, in many ways, hardworking and kindhearted.
This county, driven by agriculture and oil, offers quite a bit for the people who live here. The county enjoys a small zoo, a number of restaurants, a local water park, and, perhaps, the pièce de résistance: a 24-hour Walmart Supercenter! Woo-hoo!
When digging beneath the surface of a seemingly charming place to live, a problem comes to light: Barton County has a ridiculously high number of kids in foster care. Shortly after moving here in early 2015, I was made aware of this issue when I met with a local ministry leader. She told me Barton County has been as high as No. 1 in Kansas for children removed into state care, per capita, but she said that, to her knowledge, it had dropped to No. 3. (That’s not much better, we both agreed.)
There are about 74 million children under age 18 in the United States1, with about 415,000 of them in foster care2. That translates to about 0.56 percent, or 5.6 kids per 1,000. But in Barton County, out of 6,722 children in the county, 134 were in “out of home placement” as of June 30, 20163. That’s 1.99 percent, or 19.9 kids per 1,000 in Barton County. This is not OK.
To my understanding, this isn’t a new phenomenon here. We are dealing with the fallout of years and years of brokenness among families in our community. But what can a church do, especially a small church like ours?
What We Can Do
We recognize the biblical precedent. We understand 1 John 3:17: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (English Standard Version). We understand what Jesus talks about with the “cold cup of water” in Matthew 10:42. We know the call to care for widows and orphans—and we’ve got a lot of orphans on our hands here—but where do we even start?
It’s a dark situation, but some light has been peeking through the clouds. There are a handful of members at our church who have gotten actively involved in the process. It’s incredible to hear some of their stories. Read two of them below.
Families like these are doing incredible good by becoming foster parents. Meanwhile, I’m seeing a push from the church (and I’m proud to say I’ve heard it from a number of Restoration churches) encouraging people to explore becoming foster parents.
These children can’t help that they are taken from their homes. Whether the children are removed because of abuse, neglect, parental drug use, or a dozen other possible reasons, these kids need to be shown they are loved and cared for, even if it’s just for a short time. Jesus followers should provide these loving homes. Really, there should be no better home.
But foster parenting isn’t for everyone. It’s really, really hard work, and it takes special and wonderful people to do it successfully. So if that’s not your calling, what do you do? What can a church do? We can’t just sit idly by while this type of issue is in our own backyards.
In an elders’ meeting, while discussing a possible ministry in this area, Bob, one of our elders spoke up. As a boy, Bob’s father served in the Air Force; Bob is a tough guy, but he cares deeply. With tears in his eyes, Bob told us about foster kids having to take their things from house to house in garbage bags, which instilled in them the image and idea that they are garbage. No child should ever feel that way. He was crying as he spoke: “I don’t care what we do, but we have to do something.”
An Opportunity to Care
The ministry we chose is called CarePortal. As of this writing, we’re only a few months into implementing the program in our community, but we love the opportunity it presents. CarePortal (www.CarePortal.org) connects families in need to churches that can meet those needs, through social workers, primarily working in the fields of child and family services.
The agency that oversees child welfare and adoption services locally is St. Francis Community Services. St. Francis essentially works as an arm of the Kansas Department of Children and Families.
When a social worker from St. Francis finds out about a legitimate need from one of its clients—be it an electric bill that needs to be paid, an infant car seat, or a dresser for a foster child’s clothes—a representative can put that need onto the CarePortal database. CarePortal then sends an e-mail to the point person at all the participating local churches. Those point people make the need known to their church family, and if someone can meet the need, they respond, and arrangements are made. And there you have it—the church is meeting the real needs of real families and children right in our community.
This is a growing problem in our county and our nation. Once we became aware of what was happening in our backyard, we had to take action. We’re not solving the problem overnight. But we’re taking steps to bring light, little by little, into a dark situation.
¹Forum on Child and Family Statistics (www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/tables/pop1.asp).
²Child Welfare Information Gateway (2016). Foster care statistics 2014. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau (www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/foster.pdf).
³Children in Out of Home Placement by County on June 30, 2016; Kansas Department of Child and Family Services (http://bit.ly/2dGqMbC).
Jon Hembree serves as senior minister with Community Christian Church in Great Bend, Kansas.
A Familiar Home in a Familiar Location
A neighbor boy, Ethan, would often come hang out with Jason and Pam’s family. He’d come over to play video games with their son Justin, or just to spend time with their family*. When the couple started to notice things weren’t right at Ethan’s home, they decided they’d go through foster parenting classes in order to give Ethan a familiar home in a familiar location if he needed it. That’s exactly what happened.
The ideal situation would be for every child to go back home with Mom and Dad after things got better. But Ethan’s parents have drug issues. Not only was Ethan removed from his parents’ home, they were not allowed visitation rights with him until after three consecutive negative drug tests. But eventually the parents just stopped showing up to take the tests. Things weren’t getting better.
Pam decided to do something a little different. Ethan’s parents could give every excuse in the book for why they missed their drug tests, but Pam wanted to take away their excuses. When she would learn the parents didn’t show up to be tested, Pam would go to their house. She’d tell them to get in the car.
“Well, we missed our appointment,” they said.
“Late is better than never,” Pam would reply.
Unfortunately, Ethan’s parents haven’t turned their lives around yet, but Jason and Pam continue to give this boy a loving, stable home.
*Names have been changed.
‘I Had a Lot More Love to Give’
Sandra is a learning disabilities teacher at a local elementary school who, at 64, is one year away from retirement. She’s also a single parent, foster mom to two beautiful and rambunctious little girls, Elizabeth, a preschooler, and Maleah, who’s in kindergarten*.
Why would a 64-year-old woman want to take on small children? Sandra’s answer is simple, beautiful, and quite frankly, amazing: “After my husband died, I knew I still had more love to give.” As a schoolteacher, she’s had a front-row seat to many of the foster kids our county has produced. And she felt like she could do her part to help show these kids they are loved.
Sandra has ridden the roller-coaster through the ups and downs of it all. The downs can be so frustrating.
Sandra’s is the only home Elizabeth can remember, as she was placed in Sandra’s care at 9 weeks old. Elizabeth would have severe anxiety about making visits to her biological family. She’d have to leave with a stranger (a social worker, but still a stranger), ride an hour to visit family, and leave with that stranger who drove her an hour back home. She’d work herself up so much, even as a baby, that she’d throw up. As she got older, she’d tell Sandra, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be back home soon.”
Maleah has been with Sandra for about two years now. In all that time, her birth mother has lived two hours away, and often she would not show up when Maleah was taken to visit her. Sandra has been there to comfort and love this little girl as she’s dealt with the anger and frustration, though Maleah is too young to really understand the depth of it all.
When Sandra found out that Elizabeth’s parents’ rights were going to be severed, she prayed fervently about the situation. It would be hard for Elizabeth to transition into another house, but was it a good idea to try to adopt her? Sandra prayed for wisdom, and for the best outcome for this beautiful little girl. One day, 3-year-old Elizabeth said out of the blue, “Mom, you’d just as well keep me.” The ups have been pretty wonderful, too.
*Names have been changed.