Faithful Ambition: National Networks Tap Congregations for Child Welfare Permanency, Preservation

When Chelsea Geyer heads to the front of a congregation to sell them on helping Washington, D.C.’s child welfare system, the 27-year-old co-founder of DC127 comes with a two-pronged sales pitch that meshes the Good Book with the modern city.

“I make the argument that they’re the modern-day orphans the Bible talks about,” Geyer says of kids in the child welfare system. “The bible tells us to care for these children – now here’s how.”

It is not an easy ask. She wants them to adopt or foster children whose return home is in question, or help distressed parents get the breathing they room need to avoid having their children enter the system.

Chelsea Geyer
DC127 Founder Chelsea Geyer.

“I tell our churches that we can’t change rhythms of how our city operates unless we are willing to change the rhythms of how our lives and our churches operate,” Geyer says.

Christian-affiliated nonprofits, such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, have long had an outward role in the provision of child welfare services. Since the 1950s, those organizations have contracted with federal, state and local governments to carry out foster care, residential programs, home studies and myriad other services for children and families.

DC127, a small nonprofit with an annual operating budget of about $260,000, is at an interesting intersection of two organizational efforts to turn the Christian role in child welfare work inward, growing parishioner commitments to help the state and county agencies serving foster children.

The organization’s name reflects its affiliation with Project 1.27, a Colorado-based venture aimed at recruiting and training churchgoers to adopt or serve as foster parents. The group has helped find adoptive homes for several hundred children while adding nearly 800 families to the state’s available pool of foster parents.

DC127 is also the first D.C. organization to establish a Safe Families operation, a faith-based model developed in Chicago and aimed at preventing the need for either foster care or adoption.

Changes to state and federal laws on same-sex marriage have made working in child welfare a thornier world to navigate for some large Christian organizations.

But DC127, and groups like it, seek only to buffer the system by tapping into the congregation, which Geyer sees as an underused resource.

“It’s a group of people who are already in each other lives, get together once a week, are inclined to give money and listen to what the person in front is saying,” Geyer says.

Reversing the List

DC127 was launched as a project of the District Church, a modest congregation led by Lead Pastor Aaron Graham with two churches in the Washington area. Graham, his wife and fellow pastor Amy Graham, and Geyer co-founded the organization.

The mission was, as its Twitter handle suggests, to “reverse the list” and help D.C. clear its long backlog of foster children – whose birth parents had their rights terminated – but still lingered in foster care waiting to be adopted.

It was one of several new members added in the past four years to the network of Project 1.27, founded by Colorado Pastor Robert Gelinas in 2004. The name references a passage from the Book of James:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans… in their distress.”

DC127’s influence in Washington was demonstrated to the city’s Child and Family Service Agency in 2013, when then-CFSA Director Brenda Donald attended a breakfast hosted by the agency with powerful pastors and business leaders. The next day, DC 127’s awareness event brought 400 attendees from more than 20 churches to the city’s convention center.

“I think it just kind of showed our partner agencies this is something they should pay attention to,” Geyer says. “An assumption people make about churches is that we’re judgmental people who don’t like to do things well. But we are here for child safety and best practice, and not to proselytize.”

DC127 volunteers at an event
DC127 volunteers at an event. Photo: DC127

Preservation as Permanency

Shortly after the conference, Donald, of D.C.’s foster care agency, called Geyer and said she wanted DC127 to set up a Safe Families program for the city, a faith-based family preservation model. Safe Families started in 2002, a Chicago program founded by clinical child psychologist David Anderson in an effort to harness the volunteer capacity of churches to help families address child welfare needs.

At the time, the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services was in the process of drastically reducing its foster care rolls, per its settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

DC127’s focus had been on whittling down the list of kids whose parents had lost custody. Now, it was being asked to help parents avoid the path toward such a fate.

“I said that’s really cool but we don’t have any money and we only have one staff person,” Geyer says. “She was like, ‘Okay we’ll give you contract, we’ll pay for it.’”

There are three staple components of the Safe Families model. The central component is the host home, a household willing to take in a child or siblings on a short-term basis.

Host home volunteers are run through a standard criminal background check, and a lengthy interview and application process. Geyer says that while nobody has been rejected because of the background check, “we’ve had people share things that made us think they wouldn’t be a good fit.”

One main goal of the interview is to make certain that a host family understands and embraces its transitory role in the grand scheme of the child’s life.

“We’re not waiting for parents to become perfect, we’re waiting for them to become stable,” says Geyer. “So we’re making sure this isn’t someone who’s going to be like, ‘Well, they should be in foster care. I’m just going to try to adopt these kids.’”

The other thing DC127 is looking for are triggers: negative experiences in the host family’s lives that might be motivating them to volunteer, but make them a bad match in certain cases.

“We talk through really personal stuff like have you ever experienced sexual abuse, neglect,” says Geyer. “We get calls from abuse shelters. We can’t place with you if that’s going to be a trigger for you. We’re trying to figure out what could set you off.”

Accepted candidates proceed through a home assessment and training process. Among the major subjects: losing any potentially dangerous things in the home (potential weapons, alcohol), understanding the impact of trauma and grief, and cultural sensitivity. The latter is critical, says Geyer, for a network of mostly white families providing a home in D.C.’s child welfare system, which is almost entirely made up of black children.

“Hair care, skin care and being sensitive to that,” says Geyer. “It’s a real topic. We talk a lot about transracial care.”

As the host home cares for the child, the parent is connected to a “family friend,” designated to support the parent during the host home placement. This person is not someone at the actual host home, Geyer says, because “the host home has to have the space to focus on the kids.”

Overseeing it all is a family coach, who is responsible for monitoring the safety and stability of several host placements. They are tasked with two central jobs: meeting with the children, independently of the host parents, to make sure things are going okay; and making sure the parent has access to any other services.

DC127 has amassed a network of 22 host homes, 19 family friends and 22 coaches. It has five active cases at the moment, and Geyer said she hopes to get its capacity to 15 active cases by next year.

It is neither an official child protection removal nor a foster care placement. It is a voluntary arrangement reached with the parent with the full expectation that the child will be coming back home.

Attendees at at a DC127 event. Photo: DC127
Attendees at at a DC127 event. Photo: DC127

“We have to get the sense that everyone is bought in on reunification,” Geyer says. “They’ve got to be wanting that and working towards that.”

The first venture did not go well, Geyer recalls. “Both the parent and child had needs that we couldn’t address,” she says.

The child ended up going into foster care after being returned home.

Since that first case, Geyer said, the next 13 children placed in DC 127 host homes have been returned to, and have remained with, their parent or parents.

About two-thirds of DC127’s referrals come from Washington’s child welfare agency. Among the other consistent sources are area crisis pregnancy centers and the Homebuilders program, a renowned family preservation model operated in Washington by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Homebuilders, which works intensely with parents for a four-week period, has referred families that do not have any family supports in the area.

“We recognized that those caregivers needed an occasional respite, and they could really benefit from having a relationship that could feel a little bit more authentic,” says Regina Humphries, who manages Homebuilders for Catholic Charities.

Humphries said she has not made a lot of placements to DC127, mostly because of capacity issues. “But the ones where it worked out, I think it was a great transition from us being in their homes eight to ten hours a week.”

All of the children referred to DC127 thus far have been young. Geyer says they get “a lot of calls for teens,” but that “none of them have panned out yet.”

Despite the fact that it’s the largest referrer to DC127, CFSA notified Geyer last year that it would not get city funding after this summer. Geyer said she’s confident that private grant funding will fill the gap.

Expanding Network

Project 1.27 and Safe Families can hardly be deemed today’s news, because both have entrenched themselves in the child welfare fabric of their respective states. Project 1.27 credits 330 adoptions and close to 800 foster homes to its recruitment efforts in Colorado.

A Safe Families evaluation of its Chicago operation found that 89 percent of the children sent to host homes were returned to their parents, and another 4 percent were returned to a close relative. In the wake of the recession, the number of Safe Families placements in the city went from 1,000 in 2009 to 3,000 in 2010.

But both entities have more recently begun to amass a national network to expand the reach of their ideas. Since 2011, Project 1.27 has set up affiliate organizations in six states – Louisiana, Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, New York and Arizona ­– plus the Washington, D.C., branch.

“About four years ago, the board felt like, ‘We’ve been blessed with so much knowledge, and we’re still receiving calls frequently from other states,” says 1.27 Executive Director Shelly Radic, who was hired early in the expansion process.

The original plan of establishing unique 1.27 offices was quickly replaced. “When I came on, the first idea was to do franchises, where we’d go into a state and start up,” Radic says. “As I got to know people in those states, I told the board I didn’t think that would work.”

Instead, she says, the plan became to “invest in someone that’s already plugged in.”

The network is a relatively loose one; Colorado has no leadership control over its satellites. The only true requirement, Geyer says, is that “you have to be what we call a bridge organization; not a church, and also not an agency. These are groups who mobilize churches and act as a bridge between the foster care system and the church network.”

Radic says Project 1.27 will be “proactive” about expanding further, especially in states and cities with large foster care populations. She specifically mentioned more presence in Florida, New York City and California.

The rise of Safe Families was catapulted by a 2009 feature by Katie Couric and CBS News, with a follow-up piece in 2010. The organization now counts 108 U.S. sites among its affiliates.

“It was huge,” founder David Anderson says of the coverage. “It was a big jump in terms of people interested in helping us.”

Now, he says, the organization is lining up a campaign to recruit 100,000 new host homes around the country in the next 18 months.

Children from a DC127 host family. Photo: DC127
Children from a DC127 host family. Photo: DC127

In Chicago, a randomized control trial is underway to measure the ability of Safe Families to prevent the need for foster care involvement. It will measure the most at-risk section of the Safe Families caseload: those referred by Chicago caseworkers that would otherwise have gone to foster care placement.

Project 1.27 added a Safe Families director this year to incorporate the program into its local operation in Denver. Radic says the plan is to push more organizations in the network toward DC 127’s outlay, doing both adoption recruitment and family preservation.

“We began to think that, shouldn’t it be part of our vision also to step back and preserve a child’s family?” Radic says. “And Safe Families was already doing that.”

Incorporating Safe Families has been challenging for an outfit normally asking for foster and adoptive parents, she says. Many of the churches, she realized, had come to see reunification as the “dark side” of child welfare.

“It’s taken us some real work to help churches see that family preservation is the redemption of a family,” Radic says.

The next state to join the 1.27 network, Radic says, is Illinois, the backyard of the Safe Families movement.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1071 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.