Every two minutes, a child enters foster care in the United States. About 400,000 children live in these temporary homes, a quarter of them permanently separated from their biological families and available to be adopted. Many never find permanent families; the lucky ones wait an average of more than three years to be adopted.
The New York Times recently described a child who bounced through more than 40 different homes after entering the New York City foster system at age 12. In 2011, 26,000 foster children turned 18 and aged out of the system – up from 17,000 in 1998.
Foster children who reach adulthood with no family connection have a difficult road ahead: By their mid-20s, 80 percent of the young men have been arrested, and almost 70 percent of the women are on public assistance. A 2009 report found that the costs of letting a single year’s cohort age out of foster care without a permanent family were almost $8 billion.
Meanwhile, children still in foster homes face challenges. Many have psychological and behavioral problems. Some suffer neglect or even abuse from foster parents. With a chronic shortage of people willing to take in these kids, states’ standards of selection for foster homes aren’t as stringent as might be desired, and the agencies charged with monitoring and supporting those homes are often understaffed or overly bureaucratic.
But, as a new program initiated five years ago in Georgia suggests, these hurdles aren’t insurmountable. The nonprofit FaithBridge was started by Bill Hancock, a director of counseling programs who had lived on the streets as a teenager, and Rick Jackson, an Atlanta businessman who had spent time in the foster-care system.
Hancock wondered why churches weren’t more involved in finding solutions. He said he noticed that in Cobb County, Ga., there were 1,100 churches and 300 children in foster care. He liked the odds. Plenty of people he knew had an extra bedroom and understood the needs of children. He began to break down the problem.
He would find out the number of children in a particular ZIP code in need of a foster home, go to a church in the area to present their stories without using their names, and see what happened. He announced at one church that there were 11 kids in his own ZIP code, representing four sibling groups. Four dozen people showed up at a meeting to volunteer.
Some of them went through the training required and became foster families. The remaining ones formed a support network. Some of those support families shuttled children to and from sports practices or doctors’ appointments. Others watched the kids for an evening or a weekend to give foster parents a break. Each foster family had from 12 to 15 people serving as a support network. Today, FaithBridge also has a “care coordinator” for each child, someone who will help a family navigate the public bureaucracy.
In the past five years, FaithBridge recruited more than 200 families for Georgia’s foster care system through churches. Financed by Jackson, who wanted a model before starting to seek other funders, FaithBridge has also recruited 400 volunteers and offered training in 10 locations. The organization says it spends about $3,600 a case. Hancock compares that with the $90,000 that the state government spends annually on a child in a regional detention facility.
Building on its work in Georgia, FaithBridge’s team has identified 17 metropolitan areas – representing three-quarters of the foster-care needs in the U.S. – where it believes its model can be duplicated. The organization picked communities that had at least two of three qualities: a critical mass of volunteers, a willing funder and a government official who would facilitate the program.
Jackson, who was born to a dysfunctional family, was sent to a foster home at 13. “It was the first time I ever saw a family sitting around the dinner table eating together,” he says. The idea that a family would pray together and have conversation in the evening had never occurred to him. “It gives a vision to children of the way life could and should be,” Jackson says. He wants other children to have that same opportunity.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.”