Pastor Philip Pattison may be a third generation foster parent, but it wasn’t until he and his wife went through the requisite coursework to bring a foster child into their home that they learned the statistics for kids associated with the system.
Up to a third of foster youth become homeless after aging out of the system. Less than 3 percent of foster youth go on to earn a college degree. Thirty percent of inmates in California prisons have spent time in the foster care system, and the list continues.
“It was absolutely breaking our hearts,” Pattison said. “So I thought, ‘shoot, we’re doing this as a family, but I’ll leverage my platform as a pastor and invite our church into it.’”
In early 2015, Pattison stood up in front of his small congregation of roughly 100 people in South San Jose to make his pitch: “Let’s raise up and support one new foster family from within our church.”
Today, Foster the Bay, the nonprofit co-founded by Pattison, has spread the “one church for every foster child” model to more than 25 churches in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The organization relies not only on individual families, but also on what are called “support friends,” individuals who blanket foster families with services like babysitting, meal prep and transportation so foster parents are less likely to burn out.
To date, Foster the Bay has recruited more than 150 support friends to assist its 69 foster families, and over 70 kids have been placed into homes with Foster the Bay families.
“Foster parents can feel so alone,” Pattison said, “but within a faith community, there’s already so much built-in support. When you know that you’re not alone, it changes everything.”
Meet the Parents
Aftan Murphy and her husband, Jeff, wanted to be foster parents long before they learned about Foster the Bay in 2016. They became certified in March of 2017, and since then, nine foster kids have spent time with the Murphys.
And they have no plans to stop anytime soon, which is impressive, considering both Aftan and Jeff work full-time running a small graphic design company out of their home office in San Jose.
“Fostering became our call,” Aftan said. “It’s how we wanted to start the path to parenting in our lives. Our goal is to continue fostering long term, until we can’t do it anymore.”
It hasn’t been easy for the Murphys, and welcoming kids into their home has been coupled with the trials and tribulations associated with fostering; however, they remain optimistic that they won’t burn out because they can rely on their support team, who babysit, deliver meals, run to Costco, pick up diapers, help with visitations and do so much more.
“It’s single-handedly the reason we’re still fostering today,” Aftan said. “I have these people standing around me, so I know I have someone to fall back on. They’re my support net.”
Lean On Me
Support friends are an integral part of Foster the Bay’s model. They’re individuals who see the problems associated with the foster system, but, for various reasons, aren’t able to open up their homes to a child. Instead, they’re committed to helping these foster kids by supporting their foster families.
Foster the Bay recruits both foster families and support friends in the context of local churches, and the faith alliance aims to have a four-to-one ratio of support friends to foster families, although right now that ratio is closer to three-to-one.
“We need more,” Pattison said. “They’re the heartbeat behind the whole thing.”
Pattison would know — he and his wife rely on a support team to juggle the couple’s three biological children and 1-year-old foster child.
Lorraine Lee is one of the Pattisons’ support friends.
“I really wanted to get to know more about how the system works,” Lee said, “and to support another family with what they’re going through.”
For over a year, Lee has been a support team lead, meaning she coordinates a quarterly meeting with the Pattisons’ other support couples and liaises communications between the volunteers and the family.
Having a point person to coordinate babysitting, meal prep and transportation ensures that all of the responsibilities don’t fall on the shoulders of one support friend or couple. Similarly, because everyone is committed to helping out the Pattisons, if someone, for example, forgets to drop off dinner on his or her scheduled day, it’s Lee’s job to bring it up with the team without having to loop in the foster family and make things awkward for them.
Both Lee and Pattison say that the biggest form of support is babysitting.
“It’s hard for my wife and I to go out on a date because it gets really expensive to hire a babysitter for four kids,” Pattison said. “But because we have support friends who care not just about our family, but also my wife’s and my ability to be sustainable in our journey, we get a date night twice a month, for free.”
Lee has had a positive experience as a support friend and has learned a lot from the Pattisons’ ups and downs.
“To see the emotional rollercoaster that they’re going through has been the biggest thing,” Lee said. “I’d heard about [the difficulties of foster care], but never really got to experience them through somebody else.”
One Church, One Child
Foster the Bay isn’t the first organization in the country mobilizing churches to raise up foster families and support friends. There are similar efforts in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Texas.
Jason Weber is the national director of foster care initiatives at the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), a faith alliance committed to care for orphans and vulnerable children. He says that the support friend model has gained momentum, especially over the past few years.
“By creating a model like this,” Weber said, “you’ve created a way to engage people in foster care that don’t feel like they can foster right now — that eventually encourages people to get involved in other ways, and that turns into more foster parents.”
And the system needs more foster parents.
According to a Chronicle of Social Change capacity report last year, while there was an 11 percent increase in the number of youth in foster care between 2012 and 2017, the number of foster homes in at least half of the states in the U.S. decreased, either because the number of foster homes was less than the number of foster youth, or because there was a greater increase in the number of foster children compared to any increases in the number of foster beds.
More so, even though it isn’t tracked, it’s estimated that the national foster parent turnover rate is between 30 and 50 percent, although that number can skew even higher in certain locations around the country.
Weber argues that it’s more effective to address the system’s foster parent recruitment woes by focusing on retaining current foster families. He argues that if current foster families were better supported, foster parent burnout wouldn’t be as high as it is today.
“The best foster families are supported foster families,” he said.
Foster the Bay has the greater 12-county Bay Area in its sights. It’s hoping to expand to four counties and reach 100 foster families by the end of 2018.
“What would the stats look like in the Bay Area 10 or 15 years from now if every single child that entered into the foster care system was able to experience a loving home?” Pattison asked. “Even in a small little church, there’s probably one family that could open up their home to a foster child.”
The Collins family opened up their doors to a foster child.
Roughly two years ago, Julie and Robert Collins were drawn to Foster the Bay. The Gilroy couple, along with their three children, welcomed a 10-year-old girl into their home.
“It’s so easy to get burned out,” Julie said. “If there’s a lack of resources, then you introduce chaos into your biological family. That’s not what we wanted. We knew we’d need help.”
“Some parents may not feel a specific passion for fostering,” added Robert, “but others gave us the opportunity to foster by making our lives a little bit easier.”
Shane Downing is a San Francisco-based writer covering neighborhood news, homelessness and city planning. His articles on foster care and at-risk youth have been published in Fostering Families Today, The Chronicle of Social Change, ThinkProgress and Hoodline. Follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.