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Help for Families in Crisis

Lonni Collins Pratt

Three-year-old Joseph Wallace had finally found a haven in his foster home in Chicago. But the authorities took Joseph from his foster home and returned him to his mother -- a violent, mentally ill woman. Two months later, Joseph was dead. The mother admitted she hanged her son with an electrical cord. Tragic cases like this abound across our country. Social workers are overloaded-some have more than 200 cases. And they simply can't manage all their cases effectively. With 430,000 children in its care, the American foster care system faces what some experts have called a national crisis. Phyllis Stoner, a foster care coordinator in Colorado, says the foster care system across the country is in crisis because of a severe lack of foster care parents. According to Stoner, states such as California are resorting to institutionalizing children in what amounts to orphanages. Dealing with the crisis is more urgent than ever because children's lives are threatened. Nationally, three children a day are killed either in their own homes or in foster care. Children need safe havens. As a children's minister, you can go beyond the walls of your church building and work for change in the quality of kids' lives. Use your voice to speak out against injustices toward children. Use your influence to protect children through the foster care system. Here's how.

BECOME A FOSTER PARENT Foster care is a temporary solution for troubled homes. The goal of foster care is to reunite birth families. If the department of social services proves to the courts that a child's welfare is threatened in his or her home situation, the child is placed in a foster care home. The birth family may undergo alcohol or drug rehabilitation, parent training, or counseling to qualify for the child to be returned. Kids in foster care need the security a good home can provide while their own family gets healthy. "These kids need everyday things most children take for granted," says Carol White, author of manuals on child abuse issues. "You don't have to be extraordinary to provide for them. They need three meals a day, a clean bed, parents who come home, shoes, clean clothing, someone who'll pack their lunch and get them off to school, baths, a story at bedtime." Diane, a foster mother of twins, remembers, "When the boys first came to me at 7 years old, they had never seen a bathtub before." Another foster parent remembers a child who thought all children ate out of the dog's bowl and had beer with their snacks instead of milk. Besides offering basic care, Christian families can offer castoff children the only experience with Christ many will ever know. Children living in a Christian home see adults work out conflicts without violence. They hear prayers and happy singing. When children leave Christian foster homes, they may never brush up against a Christian again. How can you become a foster parent?

*Qualifications-The qualifications for foster parenting vary from state to state. Generally, applicants go through screening that may include a home study, fingerprinting with a background check for any crimes against children, references, a detailed self-study, an interview, and a medical exam.

*Placement-Once this screening process is complete, a child could be placed immediately. The foster parent can choose how many children to take; however, each state limits the amount to around four. The foster parent can also choose the age and sex of the children. After each placement, the foster family can take a break and have no children until ready again.

*Maintenance-While children are placed in a foster care home, the state will pay a fee for the child's basic needs. Each child has a caseworker who develops a personalized treatment plan and will visit in the home at least once a month.

SUPPORT FOSTER CARE PARENTS If full-time foster care is not for you, there are other ways to get involved. Perhaps your church could try what has worked for other churches:

*Educate church families. Invite a child welfare worker to your church to speak and answer questions. Include current foster parents. Provide practical information about kids in crisis and what people can do to help. Include foster care information in your family section of the church library. Contact your county's department of social services for materials. Help dismantle the myths around foster care. Minority and older children aren't more trouble. ChiIdren are very rarely taken from parents on a whim. And even though abuse happens in foster homes, foster parents who give good care and nurture far outnumber abusive ones.

*Recruit families. Look for families who are possible foster homes. Most family styles are good potentials: working couples, retired couples, single adults, couples with children. Ask if they've ever considered foster care. Make your approach nonthreatening and encouraging.

*Embrace foster kids. Welcome children in foster homes into the church family. Encourage them to get involved in your children's ministry program. Love them as Christ would and recognize your responsibility to help nurture them.

*Give a break. Weary, struggling foster parents sometimes need "respite care." Respite caregivers take children for short periods. Or you can give parents a break by giving kids rides to church or school activities. Offer to run errands for tired foster parents. Encourage church members to donate services to foster families; handymen, carpenters, doctors, dentists, therapists, and lawyers can join the foster parent's team to help troubled children.

*Honor foster families. Include these families in the lighting of Advent candles or other special traditions and ceremonies. Create a Christ-centered ceremony for foster families when they take a new child and also when one leaves.

*Provide counseling. Foster families have unique problems and special needs. By providing support, you can help them get through the difficult times. For counseling referrals or other information, call the National Foster Parent Association Inc. at (713) 467-1850.

*Contribute money. Although financial compensation covers the basic cost of caring for a foster child, it doesn't cover any extras. Your church could start a fund to help foster parents with birthday or Christmas presents, school clothing, and art or hobby supplies. "It's time to stop waiting for them-the government-to solve the problem," says White. "They're failing. It's time for Christians to look to ourselves and our resources-the church. We are a strong community. Inside the community are many people who can keep their perspective, set reasonable goals, and yell for help when they need it. They're the people who can make a difference."

Lonni Collins Pratt is a free-lance writer in Michigan.

Copyright© Group Publishing, Inc. / Children's Ministry Magazine

Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Originally published in January-February, 1994 in Children's Ministry Magazine.

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