Philip Pattison credits the longevity of his family’s relationship with the California welfare system to their babysitter. Their second foster child was especially difficult—a 7-year-old girl who had suffered abuse and regularly acted out by hitting and kicking people and breaking things around the house. Hiring a teenager to look after her wasn’t an option.
Instead, a woman from the Pattisons’ church regularly came over. She understood the situation and was prepared to handle the broken glass. She allowed Pattison and his wife to go out on a date and come home refreshed. He said knowing the woman was “on the front lines with us” made all the difference, adding, “It’s the little things, knowing that you’re not in it alone.”
According to the National Council for Adoption, more than half of foster families quit within the first year, creating unstable situations for children and schools and forcing the state to spend money recruiting and training new families. Across the country, families say they quit fostering because they don’t get enough support from state caseworkers to handle the challenges of parenting neglected and abused children
Foster parent and licensed clinical social worker Kelley Stanley of Waco, Texas, said that while her family originally fostered children because they felt their faith called them to, they ended up stepping out because of the trauma inflicted by a chaotic and broken system. She knew many friends who “quit after just one placement because they weren’t being cared for,” she said. “There’s just so much brokenness.”
A judge recently fined the state of Texas $50,000 a day for chronic problems in its child welfare system, especially overburdened caseworkers who can't meet the minimum requirements for supervising and supporting foster families. While states struggle to provide enough government-funded support for families who foster children, organizations are popping up across the country to help churches step in to fill the gap.
These local groups and churches have targeted various aspects of the system: Project 1.27 in Colorado trains prospective foster parents and provides a case manager in partnership with local churches, while Promise 686 in Georgia works with churches to recruit families, offers adoption grants, and coordinates other services.
In Northern California, Pattison started Foster the Bay in 2015 while pastoring a church near San Jose. When he proposed forming a partnership with the child welfare agency in Santa Clara County to recruit one new foster family, a social worker pointed out that a single church could not handle such a big problem and proposed an alliance of churches.
The leaders at Foster the Bay wanted each affiliated church to raise up one foster family and four “support friends,” individuals and families to support and care for them. “If there’s a whole community around that child, the family’s going to be able to foster longer and stronger,” Pattison said.
The organization has formed partnerships with about 100 churches throughout the Bay Area and includes 101 licensed foster families and 398 “support friend” households. The support friends and families have found a wide range of ways to help foster families, including making dinners, doing laundry, cleaning houses, babysitting, and taking the family’s biological children out to do fun things.
Foster the Bay’s success didn’t happen overnight. Pattison called the process “a marathon and not a sprint,” saying it generally takes several years after a family first considers fostering for them to take steps toward becoming licensed. He also noted that some partner churches have promoted foster care to their congregations year after year and still haven’t had anyone become licensed.
Supporting foster families presents unique challenges for the affiliated churches, as well. Dave Carlson was one of the first staff members at Foster the Bay, and the church he pastors, Neighborhood Bible Church in San Jose, was one of the first five affiliates. He remembers discussing in one staff meeting what to do after one of the foster kids hit one of Carlson’s children, as well as the child of another pastor, during church the day before. He remembers thinking, “That’s good; we won’t sue the church.” But they needed to find a way to manage the unique needs of the child while allowing the foster parents to worship on the Lord’s Day.
The church recruited volunteers who could provide one-on-one care for particularly difficult children in Sunday school. They struggled with a shortage of childcare workers, and they had to carefully prepare the volunteers to care for traumatized children. Church leadership regularly communicated with foster families, who alerted them if a Sunday was likely to be particularly difficult.
“We can make little adjustments on the fly,” Carlson said. “Many foster parents report feeling a deep sense of isolation. … It’s something really powerful when your church gets it on some level, and says, ‘We are going to make special provision.’”
The effect the churches have extends beyond the children directly in their care. Pattison said that after his difficult foster daughter reunited with her mother, the two ended up attending his church. Her mother was baptized this year.
“That was our prayer from the very beginning,” Carlson said. “God got the glory as Christians just responded to what’s already in their Scriptures, which is to welcome the vulnerable into their family because we’ve been welcomed into God’s family.”