It’s no secret that our foster care system is overburdened. More than 250,000 children enter foster care each year. We don’t have enough foster families to meet this demand, and we don’t have enough adoptive families either. At the end of 2017, 123,000 kids around the country were still waiting to be adopted into a family.
But what if the only answer isn’t recruiting more foster and adoptive parents? Are there other things we can do? What if the answer is recruiting more communities to get involved and to help support families before children are removed from their homes?
We see firsthand the issues in our communities that lead to growing numbers of children being removed from their homes. With the rise of the opioid epidemic, at least one in three children enter foster care because of parental drug abuse. An increasing number of them are infants and toddlers; last year, two-thirds of the kids who entered foster care were younger than 5 years old.
There are a number of other factors that can also disrupt a family to the point where removal is the only way to ensure a child’s safety, including alcohol abuse, incarceration, parental history of trauma and abuse, financial strains from unemployment or homelessness, extreme anger and frustration or lack of physical care and attention.
The foster care system is generally reactionary, but we have the opportunity to be proactive when it comes to the welfare of the children within our communities. The Christian faith, like many others, doesn’t only call us to care for vulnerable children – it calls us to care for those of any age who are overlooked and in need of compassion or help. This means supporting struggling parents before their children have to be taken from them for their safety.
The first step in the continuum of care should be keeping families together.
Many families don’t have extended families, friends or church communities to turn to when there is a crisis. When a crisis hits families without community support systems, their children are at a heightened risk of not getting the care they need and even potentially being removed from their homes.
Bethany Christian Services began to partner with the Safe Families for Children movement in 2008 to create community for families in need and to prevent unnecessary family separations by activating a network of social support for families in crisis. Safe Families for Children finds temporary, short-term homes for children in crisis until their families are better equipped to care for them and while their parents receive help to address their particular crisis or challenge. The result of this family-to-family connection is that children are cared for by a loving host family for a short time, and those same host families often become a foundational part of a new support network, enveloping a once-struggling family with love and care.
This model works. Josie*, a mother of five children and a nursing student from Memphis, was overwhelmed and homeless; she thought placing her kids in foster care was the only way to make sure they could be safely cared for, until she heard about Safe Families for Children.
Safe Families found volunteer host families for her children while Josie worked on getting her life back on track. The host families sent her encouraging messages and made sure she was able to visit and communicate with her children regularly. After she graduated from nursing school, Josie was able to find a job, and the family was reunited.
Stories like Josie’s are happening all over the country. And an incredible 93 percent of children who have been served by Safe Families for Children have been reunited with their parents.
An alternative to the temporary care model is offering intensive, therapeutic intervention services to parents and children in the home. The Homebuilders family preservation program was designed for families with children at imminent risk of placement into foster care. In the program, practitioners work with a family in their home for four to six weeks, providing services that can include teaching life skills, addressing mental health and addiction problems, and resolving conflict.
This model has been extensively tested and has been endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General, the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. Research consistently shows that 86 percent of referred families remain safely together six months to a year after services.
Foster care should not be the only option to keep children safe. We need to make prevention and family preservation programs like these a national priority if we want to change the trajectory of the foster care system. This means increasing the budget for prevention programs at the federal, state and local levels.
This also means coming together in faith to reach out with love, grace and compassion to those who are struggling with challenges in their lives. We need churches and community groups to help fund programs like these; to recruit and serve as temporary host families; to collect food and clothing for parents; and to provide outreach and encouragement, career and financial counseling and connection with local mental health, addiction or other services.
Every child belongs in a nurturing, protective family. Sometimes, a loving foster family is the safest place for children who have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect and need protection. But in many cases, early intervention can help a child’s biological parents become better equipped to care for them. And that can be a far better outcome for everyone involved.
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