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Culture Q&A

Janet Vestal Kelly

Committed to caring

Building a culture of foster care in the church

Committed to caring

Janet Vestal Kelly(Dean Hoffmeyer/Genesis)

November is National Adoption Month. Janet Vestal Kelly, a former Virginia secretary of the commonwealth, is a founder and leader of America’s Kids Belong, which is working on the adoption and foster care crisis in the United States. Older children in foster care are in particularly great need. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.

Four hundred thousand kids in foster care across the United States: not a happy situation. What’s the most important step in improving that situation? More quality foster families.

What makes for a quality foster care family? One that has the room and doesn’t necessarily need the money. It’s mostly a myth, but some foster families are motivated by money. The ones we look for do want to recuperate their costs, but they’re trauma-informed: They understand that kids who come from hard places have brains physiologically different from those who grew up attached to a loving parent.

Trauma-informed families … Are able to look at a child as someone who’s not “bad” but sad. They can look past the behavior to the need.

How do you walk the fine line between encouraging foster care and adoption, while at the same time warning parents that it will be very hard with kids who have been traumatized? When we go into churches, the first step is to encourage the senior pastor to talk about foster care and adoption. Many haven’t done that, even though the Scriptures are clear on how we should take care of orphans. Lots of pastors feel if they haven’t personally fostered or adopted they shouldn’t be talking about it from the pulpit, but they talk about tons of areas of Scripture they don’t have personal experience of.

Once that happens, how do you get the right mix of excitement and enthusiasm but also legitimate wariness and preparation? We hope to soften people’s hearts, then help them understand how difficult it is. It’s a personal, spiritual journey. We encourage the church to ensure that foster and adoptive families have support.

That’s crucial. A lack of social support is the number one reason why foster parents burn out. So we would never go into a church and say, “Everyone in this church should foster or adopt.” That’s not feasible or realistic. We would encourage one family from every small group, and have the rest of that small group wrap around them.

‘If you’re pro-life, do something! Shame on us that kids age out of the foster care system. Shame on us that there is a shortage of families.’

Is it easier to get people thinking about adoption than about foster care? Adoption has a great brand. You hear the word adoption and you go, “Oh, it’s lovely!” Foster care doesn’t have that yet. A lot of parents think, “Oh, I just couldn’t do that! I just couldn’t take a child into my home and then let him go to a birth family where I didn’t think they would take care of him again.” To those families we say, “That’s exactly why you should foster. If you’re going to love a kid so much that your heart gets broken, you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

What are some churches that are doing this well? Check Life.Church in Oklahoma City, Church of the City in Franklin, Tenn., North Point in Atlanta, Clover Hill Assembly of God in Virginia. Those are the four off the top of my head, but there are hundreds across the country working on this issue.

How specifically do church groups wrap around families that do foster care? They ask, “Do you need me to baby-sit your birth kids so you can take your child to counseling? Your car needs to be fixed? Let me take that and get the oil changed for you. I’ll start a meal train that will take care of meals for a month for you.”

You talk about “partnering with the state,” but what about those stories of heavy-handed government folks messing with both foster care children and the birth children? There’s a lot of fear out there. That’s a tough one. Most social workers are underpaid and overworked. They see more things in a day trauma-wise than I will see in my entire life. I could never do what they do. They have what’s called “vicarious trauma,” based on things they see. We encourage a culture of grace when dealing with social workers.

They entered the field to help people—but mostly shuffle paper. Absolutely. They read the Bible, know what it says, and ask, “Where’s the church?” We’ve walked into rooms and a social worker says, “I have been trying to meet with pastors my entire career.”

Christians are certainly active—but active enough? The church is at a great crossroads. We’re having an existential crisis, but it’s also an existential opportunity to practice what we preach. Here’s my challenge: If you’re pro-life, do something! Shame on us that kids age out of the foster care system. Shame on us that there is a shortage of families.

A matter of priorities? If each church took one child or fostered one child, this crisis would be over tomorrow. Instead, we’re buying really great houses and really great cars and really nice-looking clothes, but we’re missing the blessing. I feel strongly about that, can you tell?

I do have that impression. What about kids who age out of the foster care system at age 18, have no home, and all too often find their way into drug use or prison? What programs work with older kids to help them have a family by the time they’re 18? Youth Villages in Tennessee is doing great work. A Virginia program, Great Expectations, provides mentors and coaches to children going through the community college system, which they can go to for free because they’re foster children.

What happens when people with great intentions foster a child with serious problems, but find themselves over their head and drowning? They may feel ashamed, feel they have failed, and hide their problems. What then? We love scenarios where the church and the state can work together to do training at the church. When you do that, you get a group of 20 people going through the training together, and they all get placements together. You have, in addition to your own wraparound, those 20 people who are an ad hoc support group for you. There are also online support groups for you.

What about foster care for kids who are gay or transgender? There are kids right now that are waiting, and the only reason they’re not getting adopted is because they’re gay or transgender. I guess I would just say, “Is that child better off in a family that loves them and accepts them, or at least will work with them? Or are they better off on their own?” I have to err on the side of love.