Chris Palusky, New President at Bethany Christian Services, Talks ‘Fierce Love’ and Foster Care

Founded in 1944, Bethany Christian Services has evolved over the years from an adoption agency into a world-wide social services agency supporting family preservation, foster care and adoption. The organization has foster care programs in nine states, and is growing a network of foster care programs globally.

Today, there are approximately 1,200 children in Bethany’s foster care program nationwide and in 2016 it had almost 1,200 licensed foster homes. Through the organization’s domestic foster care program in 2016, there were 291 family reunifications, 92 legal guardianships and 369 adoptions from foster care.

Bethany recently hired a new president, Chris Palusky, to succeed the retiring Bill Blacquiere, who led the organization for 12 years and has worked at Bethany for 31 years. Palusky talked with The Imprint about the domestic and international future of the organization’s services.

Chris Palusky, president of Bethany Christian Services

What’s the background of your work prior to coming to Bethany?

I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for about 20 years now. I’ve worked domestically. I started off about 20 years ago resettling refugees in Atlanta. From there, I’ve worked all over the globe … doing relief and development work. But primarily was focused on vulnerable children. The past three years I was in Tacoma, Wash., with World Vision. I was the vice president of private funding and I oversaw a privately funded campaign, sponsorship programs and emergency work.

What are you most excited about with the new position at Bethany?

I’m excited that I get to work with one of the largest organizations in the world that’s focused on kids and hoping to expand that work to work with more kids in vulnerable situations.

How many states do you have foster care programs in?

We have our footprint in 36 states. Not all of those have foster care, but Bethany is in 36 states and 15 countries.

How long has Bethany been working in the foster care realm?

Bethany has been around coming up on 75 years and it started really in this area. It started off with foster care and then it went into adoption. Then it went to much larger foster care adoption and then we went with international adoption then we went with refugee resettlements that were kids who were needing foster care. Now we’re doing international work with adoption and foster care. In places like Ethiopia, we’re doing foster care through the church and we’re also starting up some work in refugee camps doing foster care.

Why are you taking that foster care model internationally to countries where intercountry adoption isn’t an option anymore?

Internationally, there’s a global refugee crisis right now. We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime and actually any of our parents’ generation. There are more refugees now than we’ve ever seen. In that refugee population there are many what we call unaccompanied minors, so kids without parent. A good example would be in Gambela in southern Ethiopia, there are 25,000 kids in a refugee camp who are unaccompanied minors who are in need of foster care. With the global refugee crisis we see a lot of kids without parents and we need to respond to that.

Ethiopia is a great example. We’d been doing intercountry adoption and we’re still doing intercountry adoption. There will always be a need for intercountry adoption, at least in my lifetime, but that’s definitely going down as a trend. But it’s not meaning that there’s a less of a need for homes for vulnerable kids. It just means that places like Ethiopia have said “we don’t want that as part of our model.”

We’re working with the church in Ethiopia to do in-country adoption and foster care. The need is still there and we feel like we have the expertise in foster care and adoption. So let’s use it in the places and the countries where we’re at.

Do you feel like the fee increases with the new intercountry adoption accrediting agency is going to impact Bethany as well?

That’s something we’re working through. We’re having discussions about and I would hope it that wouldn’t have a huge impact.

How do you see your role changing in foster care, especially as intercountry adoption continues to decrease?

I think we’re going to see our growth in two primary areas. In the United States, there’s a growing need for foster care. Right now, there’s over 400,000 kids In the U.S. in need of foster care, and 100,000 of those … are looking for adoptive homes. So that’s only growing, that need for foster care. In L.A. [Los Angeles] County alone, there are 35,000 children in need of foster homes. It’s just a growing need. We feel we’re well placed to help out with that.

How do you feel Bethany is unique in how it deals with foster parents?

We have a big geographic spread – it’s over 100-some-odd offices in 36 states. We’ve got the technical experts. We’ve also got the background with church partners. We believe as we move forward, we want to bring the church along with us. So, it’s not just Bethany moving forward, but it’s the church moving alongside Bethany and opening up more homes for kids that are in need, especially vulnerable kids.

We believe people of the church are well fit. We want to work with them to train and equip them to develop great foster care homes.

What are some things you are doing to maintain foster parents and recruit new ones?

There’s the faith-based component to it. We are recruiting primarily from churches. We’re calling the church to be the church, talking about it not only being a good thing to do, but we also believe that God’s calling us to do this. And it’s talked about in the Bible in helping widows and orphans. Jesus talked about children and how they’re our responsibility. We have to ensure the protection of these children. We emphasize that when we’re working with churches and we feel churches can grasp onto that. It’s wrapped in one’s faith and so we feel there’s a higher retention rate because it’s part of the faith.

What do you see driving the shortage of foster parents right now?

It’s partly because we live in a broken world. We’re seeing the opioid crisis, so we’re seeing just kids who come from homes where the parents are hooked on drugs and that’s only growing.

May is National Foster Care Month and Bethany is celebrating what we call “Fierce Love” with those who’ve opened up their hearts and homes to vulnerable children. We’re also reaching out to additional churches to say now is the time to take action. We’re trying to not only get the ball rolling, but to increase the impact through the church.

When you work with these families, who end up adopting kids from foster care, what type of post-adoption services does Bethany provide?

We provide the training to the parents before they even decide to foster. As they’re going through the fostering process we have counseling. We have caseworkers working with those families to ensure that children are in good homes and their foster families are able to handle that. We hope they go through permanency where those kids are in the homes for the rest of their lives, or at least their youth.

We see Bethany as a full-service organization, not just looking for a home and dropping off a kid. And also as challenges arise, and they do in many cases, we can help equip the families and the kids being adopted to have a successful placement.

We want to make sure that we’re tracking the kids, not just after they’re just adopted, but want to make sure there’s a success story there. We want to make sure there’s long-term successful families.

Philadelphia recently stopped making foster referrals to you and Catholic Social Services because of your policies about recruiting foster and adoptive parents. Will you be pushing for state legislation similar to the law passed in Michigan to shield faith-based organizations from such decisions?

Right now, we’re having conversations with the city of Philadelphia and we’re going back and forth. What we’d hope is we can have a big tent approach in meeting the needs of vulnerable children … As we’re going through this process with the City of Philadelphia, we just keep on going back to [the fact that] we just want to serve our kids.

Does Bethany believe that states should guarantee any qualified person or couple a chance to foster and adopt?

We believe qualified couples should be given an avenue to foster or adopt. It could be through Bethany. It could be through a different agency … we want to make sure more vulnerable children are being taken care of and there’s a lot of different avenues to do that.

Do you have specific goals for Bethany that you’re putting in place now that you’re leading the organizations?

We’re starting with a strategy development process in about two weeks from now. We’ll put indicators and goals together. We want to look at how we can grow intentionally to meet the needs of what I call the most vulnerable children. Those numbers and targets will be informed by where’s the greatest need. Is it Los Angeles? Is it in Atlanta? Is it in Grand Rapids? We have to define where’s the most vulnerable and where can Bethany fill the greatest need. Our goal is to meet the needs of the greatest number of vulnerable children that we can.

We’re looking forward to working with partner churches as we go forward in this process.

It’s an exciting time to be part of Bethany. Bethany is a great organization and it’s an honor to be part of it. And I’m looking forward to the next couple of years as we’re defining this and setting all the targets and figuring out how we can help more vulnerable children.

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