There are wonderful people involved in caring for foster kids within the government system of foster care, but despite that, the outcomes remain dismal as evidenced by the roughly 22,000 children aging out of foster care without permanency.
Everyone who's been involved with foster care for any length of time is familiar with the study that's commonly referred to as the Midwest Study, where more than 700 foster kids in four states in the Midwest were followed after leaving foster care.
In the first four years after leaving foster care, at the average age of 22, more than 50 percent of the young adults had been homeless. Fewer than 3 percent had a college degree. And the average annual income was $8,000 — clearly, not enough to rent a room, pay for food, public transportation, and the most minimal appropriate wardrobe for work. It’s no surprise, then, that the study documented homelessness, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, criminal “survival behavior,” and what appeared to be a dismal future for most of those young people, who had already experienced abandonment, neglect, abuse, and in some cases, rape-for-money, commonly referred to as trafficking, and officially recognized as CSEC — Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
Everyone agrees that these outcomes are unacceptable, and child welfare thought leaders and advocates have struggled to move the needle in a more positive direction. One of the promising practices we are seeing throughout the country is collaborations between public and private child welfare organizations with their surrounding faith-based community partners.
A growing movement of church involvement in foster care is seeing positive results of their work. Here are a few programs across the country that are showing positive signs of supporting and improving the lives of children and families in distress:
Safe Families For Children
Safe Families For Children is a grassroots movements that started in a church in Illinois 14 years ago in an effort to connect families in the church with struggling families in their community, the way the Christian community used to do before the government became involved in the care of children. The movement quickly spread, and now SFFC has quietly provided an alternative to foster care for more than 30,000 children. They are in communities throughout the US, and have spread to the UK, Kenya, Hong Kong, and beyond. In many states in the US, legislators have passed what is commonly referred to as The Safe Families Act, which essentially authorizes child protective services to use SFFC as an alternative to foster care.
The outcomes of children and families that have been helped by Safe Families For Children have been promising. In the 14 years that SFFC has been helping children and families in distress, more than 90 percent of the children who have been cared for by the families of SFFC have been reunited with their parents! In many cases, the “host” families of SFFC helped the biological parents of the children as well. The families often become connected for life. SFFC has eradicated social isolation for thousands of families and has proven that healthy relationships heal!
When measured in terms of comparison to outcomes of the traditional system, the results are remarkable. In 14 years, there has not been a single injury or death involving SFFC. Conversely, according to the National Data Analysis System, 326 children died in foster care in 2014 alone. This statistic doesn’t take into account children who were reported as injured in foster care. Unfortunately, accurate statistics on these injuries aren’t available because many states haven’t reported these incidences of injury to children that the state has sworn to, but cannot adequately, protect.
In addition to the immeasurable significance of helping families to become healthy before abuse or neglect, another significant difference is the cost. The average cost of caring for a child for the average stay of 45 days with a Safe Family is $1000. The cost to the American taxpayer of the average stay of 717 days in government foster care is $25,000 - $30,000 depending on the state. For more information, go to www.safe-families.org.
Royal Family Kids
Another Christian organization with immeasurable results in changing the trajectory of the lives of foster kids, is Royal Family Kids Camps and Clubs. Royal Family began with Wayne Tesch, a pastor in Southern California, who wanted to let kids who have been abused know that there are people who care about them and would never want to hurt them.
After significant training and certification, volunteers from participating churches take foster kids to camp for a week, and surround them with people who demonstrate to them what healthy, loving grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles look like. The children are treated royally, with experiences most of them have never enjoyed before. Many former campers have shared that their time of being accepted as part of God’s Royal Family at Royal Family Kids Camp was transformational. When others see value in children who have been wounded, they begin to believe that they are valuable and lovable. These testimonies affirm once again that healthy relationships heal.
More than twenty-six years after Pastor Wayne’s first camp for foster kids, Royal Family Kids is now helping foster kids in four countries, with more than 200 annual camp and monthly club locations, with approximately 13,000 volunteers every year, showing unconditional love to more than 100,000 foster kids and counting! Wayne says, “our goal is to create positive memories in the lives of abused, abandoned and neglected children in the cathedral of the God’s beautiful outdoors.” For more information, go to www.royalfamilykids.org.
Teen Leadership Foundation
Lisa Castetter, an apparel industry executive, volunteered at a weekend summer camp for teens in foster care that was hosted by her church. Over that weekend, Lisa watched a boy stuff his backpack with apples from the lunch table, fearful that there would be no more food. She saw the physical marks left by repetitive cutting some of the teens had used to cope with the trauma they’ve suffered.
At the end of the weekend, she watched a boy who's face was severely disfigured take his turn on the microphone to address what he felt was an obvious question: the source of his scars. He explained that the scars were from cigarette burns by his father as well as from the fire in their home that had killed everyone but him. As Lisa listened to this boy thank everyone there for accepting him as a regular kid, she knew that something in him had been healed, and something in her had been changed forever.
In 2008 Lisa left her prestigious career and "for-profit life" to launch Teen Leadership Foundation, a non-profit organization founded to give teens in foster care the types of experiences she had witnessed with the added advantage of leadership training to prepare them for success. Like Royal Family Kids, Teen Leadership Foundation does it’s life-changing work through volunteers from local churches.
Teen Leadership has since established The Launch Pad, which provides long-term residential support for young adults aged 18-24 as they “age out” of foster care. Volunteers from local churches help the young adults with a multitude of activities and supports, including creating personalized plans designed to meet their individual life goals, budget coaching, employment planning, daily living, exercise and fitness, and spiritual development.
Foster Care Closet
Leigh Esau entered foster care at the age of 3. She had been left alone in an apartment for an undetermined number of days. Cold and hungry, Leigh came into foster care in the dirty, old outfit she had on when she was found abandoned. Leigh was later adopted, married her high school sweetheart, and became mother to two biological children, four adopted children, and multiple foster children, many of whom arrived at her front door half-dressed, wrapped in the coat of the social worker who accompanied them.
Leigh knew personally what it felt like to be that child, and what it felt like to be the foster parent receiving a foster child late at night when all the stores were closed and scrambling around the house in search of something for the child to wear to bed. Leigh spent much more than her foster parent reimbursement to purchase clothes and shoes and coats for children who arrived with nothing. She understood intimately the self-respect and dignity gained by the child who receives a new, well-fitting outfit to wear during what may be one of the scariest times in the life of that child.
Leigh and Patrick Esau founded Foster CARE Closet, a non-profit organization, to provide new clothing to children entering the foster care system. Every foster child who comes to FCC gets to pick out new outfits and backpacks in the safety and security of a “store” filled with compassionate volunteers from local churches who do all they can to contribute to the dignity of the child. There is also a beautiful, safe intake space at FCC so that children can play in a clean, inviting space while social workers make placement calls behind glass walls so that they can supervise the child without the child hearing the many disappointing calls to people who are unable to take the child.
Importantly, Leigh established the first system of accountability for the clothing stipend provided to foster parents. FCC provides reporting to the state that shows specifically what the child received in exchange for the stipend. FCC is a “win” for everyone. The foster parents are able to get everything the child needs in one stop (often during hours that traditional retail stores are closed, because FCC will open it’s doors whenever it’s needed). The state has confirmation that the stipend was spent on relevant items for the child. FCC volunteers are enriched by the gratification of expression on the face of the child. The child receives much more than he or she would have had the foster parent purchased clothing at a retail store. And most importantly, the child leaves feeling cared for.
Leigh is working now to help others set up Foster CARE Closets in communities all over the US. She hopes to negotiate with children’s clothing manufacturers and national retailers to purchase clothing at deep discounts so that more money can be invested into program expansion to serve even more children. For more information on Foster CARE Closet or to bring FCC to your community, go to www.fostercarecloset.org.
What the people in these faith-based organizations are doing is showing their faith in meaningful, measurable, significant ways. Almost all of the people involved with Safe Families For Children, Royal Family Kids, Teen Leadership Foundation, Foster CARE Closet, and in many other faith-based organizations across the country are volunteers. These volunteers quietly and without recognition, donate their valuable time and often-limited resources to enhance the lives of foster children in their communities.
Unfortunately, not every community has the benefit of faith-based groups that collaborate to help kids. That’s why Successful Survivors Foundation has created a “blueprint” for the establishment of Faith In Motion for any community that has at least one person who wants to help kids and families that are in distress. If you, or someone you know, would like help in bringing together public and private child welfare, politicians, community leaders, and faith-based organizations in your community, contact me at Successful Survivors Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rhonda Sciortino represents the estimated 12 million former foster kids in the US. She has built two successful businesses, authored 6 books, hosted a radio show, and has founded Successful Survivors Foundation, a non-profit organization established to help victims of trauma mine the lessons out of their pain, and use those lessons to create personal and professional success.