Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church didn’t have foster kids in mind when Pastor Gailen Reeves and his team created a teen mentoring program a decade ago. They just wanted to make sure that every young person at church had an adult hand to hold.
“Our target was anybody who wanted a mentor,” said Vanessa Howard, who helped launch a youth program at the South Los Angeles church. “We had kids from single parent homes, kids being raised by grandparents, kids from all kind of families.”
One of those kids was Jamilah Sims, who’d spent years in the Los Angeles County foster care system, drifting from family to family. She was a teenager with a toddler son when she was matched with a mentor at the church. Now she’s a college grad launching a childcare business of her own.
She credits her mentor with providing the kind of life-changing advice that helped her rise above the circumstances of her life. “She taught me that I didn’t have to be a stereotype,” Sims said. “That I have the drive … to do better than what my mom did.”
All across Los Angeles, going back for years, children stuck in foster care have benefited from the benevolence of churches, mosques, synagogues and faith-based groups.
Some, like All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, even have their own foster care ministries, with a broad array of programs and dozens of donors and volunteers. Others routinely take on special projects: donating backpacks, providing Christmas gifts, offering mentoring. But that kind of generosity, while gratifying, is often hit-or-miss. And it’s not enough to patch the holes in the child welfare system’s fraying safety net.
Now the county is trying to build on that altruistic spirit by creating a checklist of pressing needs and recruiting churches willing to commit to helping meet those needs.
In the past, individual case workers shouldered most of the load of soliciting church support. As social workers moved around, programs came and went. This would institutionalize those informal relationships, by braiding together faith-based groups that have pledged to work with the department to assist foster children and their families.
An analysis of faith-based efforts in 2016 found a few great programs and a lot of untapped opportunity in Los Angeles County. The new campaign began last year, with a half-dozen churches in South Los Angeles signing on. Ultimately the plan is to take the effort countywide, so that each region has its own network of faith groups tuned in to local resources and needs.
“We’re in a crisis,” acknowledged Elizabeth Cohen, associate director of the Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships, which is housed in the county’s Chief Executive Office. “We don’t have enough resource parents to take care of all the kids who need to be in out-of-home care.”
Cohen oversees the recruitment of faith-based groups across Los Angeles County. She envisions a comprehensive system that would augment the depleted ranks of foster families and give the department more options and greater flexibility to meet children’s needs.
Between 2005 and 2015, the county lost more than 50 percent of its foster homes – now called resource families – in part because the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has been stretched too thin to provide all the support that resource families need.
The department is enlisting faith communities to stand in the gap. The coalition of churches in South Los Angeles is already making good on its pledge to help recruit new foster parents and guide them through the process.
“Churches are great with the kind of tangible support that is hard to come by,” Cohen said. “There’s a personal, deep spiritual connection that is just unique.”
Reaching Out to the Faith Community
Since last year, Cohen and her team have been meeting with local churches, asking them to mine their congregations for foster parent prospects and offer the kind of supportive services that will encourage them to stick around.
They started by hosting a series of luncheons for pastors and church leaders in South Los Angeles, where the number of foster children far exceeds the inventory of foster homes, and recruitment of new resource families is a priority.
The goal, Cohen said, is to keep children from being uprooted, forced to change schools and separated from relatives, coaches and friends because there aren’t enough alternatives in their neighborhoods when out-of-home placement is needed.
“We’re trying to build a network [of resource families] all across the county, so children can maintain relationships and have more stability,” Cohen said. “The faith community brings something special to that process.
“When you’re a member of the church, you’re not just taking a child into your home, you’re taking them into a church community. There are a whole lot more arms to wrap around that child.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formalized the campaign in September, directing the department to “develop a coordinated faith-based engagement strategy” that provides for resource family recruitment, family visitation centers, respite care and supportive services like mentoring and substance abuse counseling.
Nationally, many states are struggling to meet the need for foster homes. According to an analysis by The Imprint, half of all states in the country have lost foster care capacity between 2012 and 2017. Some have reaped tremendous gains by partnering with faith communities. In Arkansas, the number of foster homes increased by five fold over the past decade thanks to a Christian nonprofit that takes no state funding.
But in other places, the desire to involve the faith-based communities has included controversial legislation that permits them to discriminate against same-sex couples and single people.
‘A Spiritual Calling’
Since the recruitment effort was launched last year, churches in South Los Angeles have begun opening their doors to provide safe spaces for foster children to visit with birth parents or spend time with siblings they’ve been separated from.
Churches are also creating networks of volunteers to support resource families – whether that’s by loaning cribs and car seats, or serving as respite caregivers so foster parents can take a day off or enjoy a night out.
Center of Hope Pastor Geremy Dixon knows how much that can help. He and his wife Adrienne already had four children when they decided to become foster parents five years ago. They have fostered three children since then – infants who stayed with them from a few weeks to several months.
Theirs was a spiritual calling, he said. “We fell in love with the idea that we could invest in the life of a child, and change their whole trajectory by giving them a safe space to land until they could be reunited with their families or become part of a new family.”
Last year, his Inglewood church hosted a recruitment event for DCFS that drew more than 140 families from several area churches – and one-third of them began the application process to become resource families.
Dixon’s Center of Hope is part of a coalition of churches helping to get the county’s faith-based campaign off the ground. It now has a room set aside for family visitations and sponsors a teen club for young people in foster care.
“I’ve been blessed to see how our church has taken hold of this, personally,” the pastor said. “People are being certified, getting prepared to take foster children into their homes.”
Dixon believes it’s folly to expect government to meet all of child welfare’s needs.
“If we’re waiting for a government agency to sufficiently take care of all these children, we’re waiting in vain,” he said.
“Government can’t do the kind of comprehensive care that families require. But the church is uniquely situated to provide the ‘family village’ to a child in need … The whole story of scripture is redemptive, about adoption and reunification. And DCFS has become more open to partnering with churches willing to do this kind of work.”
Recruiting foster parents from among churchgoers “is the easy part,” said Nancy Harris, who is spearheading the community component of the South Los Angeles initiative, as executive director of the Holman Community Development Corporation, affiliated with Holman United Methodist Church.
“That’s one of the biggest things that Jesus wanted us to do: Take care of the orphans, provide homes for the homeless,” she said. “The more pressing issue is what we call retention and support – providing the care that individual foster families need.
“If a kid is exhibiting emotional problems, where do they go for help? If a new family is about to get a 6-week-old baby the next day and they have no baby bed, no supplies, what do they do? The church is going to walk with those families through the process and create a network of support so they know they’re not alone,” Harris said.
But many church-goers have no idea that so many children in South Los Angeles are growing up in group homes or being shuffled through multiple placements because of a shortage of foster family homes.
“I had very little knowledge about the gravity of the problem,” Harris admitted. “If you have not known anybody in the foster care system, it hits you like a ton of bricks: Here’s somebody that doesn’t have any family, nobody they can rely on.
“Once you’ve gotten into this, you’re not going to be able to step away. You have to do something about it.”
That kind of commitment is what child welfare officials are counting on, as the effort spreads beyond South Los Angeles.
The next stop is Pomona, where a DCFS partnership with a health services group and a local church has already laid the groundwork for a faith-based effort that is focused less on recruiting foster parents than on keeping children out of foster care by strengthening at-risk families.
Through an outreach program run by Prototypes Behavioral Health Center and Brown Memorial Temple church, local residents – called “cultural brokers” – are working to reduce tension between the department and the black community over suspicions that social workers target black families. Black families are overrepresented in the child welfare system, and black children stay in the foster care system longer than other children.
The program helps families access services that can help keep children in their homes, from counseling to financial help. The group has spent years running parenting classes, hosting meals for families and offering services like tutoring for struggling students.
“Our faith-based efforts are focused on prevention, so we don’t get the family in the system,” said DCFS regional administrator Angela Parks-Pyles, who heads the Pomona office.
“I don’t believe we can do this work … without the community – particularly the faith-based community,” she said.
“People feel more comfortable coming to the church than to the DCFS office.”
Churches like Brown Memorial have been supporting struggling families since before there was a process in place.Volunteers hold cooking classes and teach the basics of homemaking to young mothers who grew up in foster care, where they were never allowed to run the washing machine or help prepare a family meal.
Parks-Pyles said the efforts of churches and cultural brokers have already improved the relationship between the department and the black community. DCFS involvement with the church means more services for families, and that translates to more trust.
“The message is beginning to get out that as long as there is no safety issue, we’re going to do what we can to connect you with the resources you need,” she said. “Now when someone off the street shows up in our lobby, they don’t believe that’s going to mean automatic detention” of their children.
A few months ago, a mother walked into her DCFS office needing shelter for the night, Parks-Pyles said. “We called Brown Memorial and they had a voucher for housing and were able to connect her to community programs that understand her needs.”
Ultimately the county plans to expand the campaign countywide and involve a wider variety of faith-based groups.
“So far, we’re only working with Christian churches. But we plan to reach beyond that and connect with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other groups,” Cohen said.
“We have kids of all different backgrounds that need help. And we know that this is not something that only Christian churches will respond to,” Cohen said. “Once people know that this is a crisis and we need them, they want to help.”
Sandy Banks is a lifelong journalist and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She is currently a senior fellow for the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and a consultant on media issues.