Ellena McConnell is a high school sophomore in Richmond, Virginia. She does well in school, enjoys playing tennis, and wants to study marine biology at Virginia Tech.
But McConnell, now 17, didn’t always have such an optimistic outlook on her future. She grew up in an emotionally and physically abusive home, and said she was always getting into trouble.
“I pretty much raised my little brother,” she said. “My mom was out all of the time and my dad left when I was four.”
The state removed McConnell and her siblings from her parents care when she was eight, and she spent the next two years in foster care. During that time McConnell was hesitant to get involved in school or to make friends; she was afraid to lose them if she moved foster homes.
Her life changed when she met Laurie McConnell, who adopted her when she was 11. Six months after meeting for the first time, which McConnell described as an instant connection, she moved into the first stable home she had ever known.
“There’s an overall security now,” she said. “With adoption I have a final stop and know this is where it’s going to be ... It’s OK to get attached now.”
Unfortunately over 400,000 children currently in the U.S. foster care system, over 100,000 of whom are eligible for adoption, haven’t been as lucky as McConnell. According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, foster care is intended to provide a temporary safe haven for children who have been neglected or abused, or whose parents can’t provide adequate care.
But for far too many children what was meant to be temporary has forced them to grow up without a permanent family. That’s why an increasing number of lawmakers, churches, nonprofit organizations and child welfare advocates are dedicated to reducing the number of children in the foster care system, better caring for those already in it and continuing to support those who have left it without a permanent family.
The task is easier said than done. But a growing number of partnerships between government and civil society are proving to be a powerful force in making it a reality.
Campaign for 1000
In the past six months, a new initiative in McConnell’s home state has made it possible for other children to find the same kind of loving family she did. Virginia Adopts: Campaign for 1000, launched in May 2013 by Governor Bob McDonnell, set out match 1,000 children in Virginia’s foster care system with 1,000 adoptive families in the state.
“The absolute best therapy a child can have is in a permanent, loving home,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly, who has been heavily involved with the campaign. “That’s what the goal of Virginia Adopts is.”
Virginia Adopts works with 13 adoption agencies to help find parents, Kelly said. Through special events and social media campaigns, 800 children have already been matched with adoptive families.
“A lot of these changes can happen just by giving adequate attention to the problem of these children waiting in foster care to be adopted,” she said.
Policy Catches Up
Unfortunately the problem of children languishing in the foster care system isn’t a new one. Throughout the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the foster care population boomed. Rising rates of family poverty, teen pregnancy, substance abuse disorders, and AIDS cases contributed to this influx, according to a report by the Administration for Children and Families. In the early 90s, child welfare services focused primarily on intervention after the fact, rather than prevention in the first place.
That began to change with the bipartisan Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) enacted in 1997. The Act created a more efficient system that prioritized a child’s well-being, safety and permanency, recognizing it was far harder for children to thrive without a permanent family.
ASFA also reauthorized the Family Preservation and Support Services Program, which included adoption promotion, support services, and mandatory criminal record checks for foster and adoptive parents receiving federal funds. It worked:
A 2009 report by the Center for the Study of Social Policy stated, “Evidence from every angle—state enactment and implementation of laws, changes in child welfare agency culture and practice, and findings on outcomes—supports the idea that children’s prospects for adoption and guardianship improved to some degree following ASFA.”
The New York Times called ASFA a “fundamental shift in child-welfare philosophy, away from a presumption that everything should be done to reunite children with their birth parents, even if the parents have been abusive. The legislation would instead give more weight to the child's health and safety.”
Family Fills a Void
But Becky Weichhand, director of policy at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, pointed out that while the system is more efficient, there are still thousands of children in need of stable, permanent homes.
“One of the things we’ve realized is that while we have this law that moves children down that track more quickly than ever before… and makes the system move faster, we need to have the families ready to provide the loving and supportive homes,” said Weichhand.
Elected government officials are echoing that call. As Congressman Dave Reichert (R-WA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means,said during a recent adoption hearing, “While tens of thousands of children are adopted from foster care each year, twice as many foster children are still waiting for a permanent home.”
Congressman Reichert’s observation is at the heart of the issue. While government has made successful strides towards prevention and efficiency, it is limited in its ability on the other end: government can’t provide families to mentor, foster, or adopt a child. Instead, the unique roles different institutions in society like government, family or nonprofits have must be encouraged and affirmed.
Government can and should protect children, but only a permanent family can provide the love, nurture and stability children need.
“Brain science points so clearly to the fact that children flourish best in the family,” said Weichhand. “The family is actually a tool of protection for the child.”
In many ways the greatest void in foster kids’ lives is a relational one, suggests Cristina Martinez, a Princeton graduate who wrote her senior thesis on foster care after an internship at the Miami State Attorney’s Office. She went on to create a mentoring program for teens who aged out of the system in Philadelphia, Pa.
Aging out occurs when children turn 18 (21 in some states) and are no longer eligible to be in foster care. The problem for many of these children is that they still have no permanent family; as a result, the outlook is very bleak. According to a University of Chicago study, 81 percent of boys and 59 percent of girls who aged out of foster care were arrested by age 21 and nearly one-third of girls were pregnant by age 18.
“I hadn’t turned a blind eye [to children in foster care] purposefully,” said Martinez. “But I wasn’t aware or knowledgeable of all the kids suffering in my own back yard and around the country.”
Through interviews with children adopted out of the system or who had aged out, Martinez discovered that most lacked meaningful relationships in their lives, especially with adults.
“I think of anyone who grew up in a family, and they say 'there’s no way I could’ve done anything without my parents,'” she said. “Family and community is a huge thing that children don’t get from a program or government agency.”
One of the most consequential ways for children to develop relationships with stable, loving families is through the church. Most Christians are well aware of the biblical imperative to care for the widow and the orphan, but translating that into action is often a challenge.
Increasingly, though, Christian organizations are focused on finding parents from within churches for these children. The Christian Alliance for Orphans is one of these organizations working to connect churches with the needs of foster youth.
“Christians caring for orphans is not something new, it’s been a part of Christians’ DNA from the earliest days of the church,” said Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. “It’s a reawakening to a historic role in the lives of orphans, and so you have a lot of Christians stirring to that vision.”
But churches aren’t the only answer, Medefind said. Instead, both government and the church have vital roles to play.
“Government plays the justice role that God gave to it to protect children from severe neglect and abuse… and there’s really no other institution in society that can play that role,” he said. “At the same time, government makes a terrible parent.”
Children need loving, committed homes to provide an environment in which they can thrive, and that’s something the government can’t do on its own, Medefind said. The church, though, can help to fill the relational void.
“Churches are not only the community from which families come, but it also becomes a community of support for foster and adoptive families as they go through the challenges of foster care, mentoring and adopting,” he said. “It’s vital to have the practical and emotional support of the whole church community.”
One Washington, DC based nonprofit has made connecting church families with foster care agencies its core mission. DC127 launched in March 2013 with plans to “reverse the foster care list in DC”. With 1,300 children in the District’s foster care system and over 600 churches in the area, the nonprofit is adamant that the number of families waiting to foster and adopt should outnumber the number of children who need a home.
“We’re part of a bigger movement of saying the church can be a leader in this, and that the church has the ability to respond to this crisis and to actually do something about it to see tangible results,” said Chelsea Geyer, project coordinator at DC127.
Echoing Medefind, Geyer emphasized that strong families are key in a child’s development.
Geyer said that one of DC127’s priorities is to ensure a support network within churches when a family is ready to foster or adopt. Whether it’s offering to make meals for the family, providing childcare, or simply visiting with the family, Geyer said there are numerous ways to help. This is especially true for young adults who aren’t in a position to foster or adopt, but who feel called to be involved.
“We really focus on uniting the church around recruiting and supporting foster children,” she said. “Kids need strong families, and families need strong communities to support them.”
Increasing support for adoptive families is also a key policy issue in current foster care legislation, Becky Weichhand said.
“If a family knows that they’re going to have the support they need when they step forward, they’re going to be more willing to step forward,” she said. “It’s very, very linked.”
Not Just the Next ‘wristband and bumper sticker’
It’s clear that there is a renewed call for churches to come alongside government efforts to support foster youth and adoptive families—and it’s worked so far. Focus on the Family’s Wait No More Campaign is just one example of a successful partnership. Through intensive church outreaches the campaign halved the number of children in the Colorado foster care system in two years.
And so while recent efforts have shown exciting progress in uniting church bodies with government and nonprofit organizations, Medefind warned that caring for orphans and foster youth can’t become just another fad.
“If it’s just a good cause, then someday people will just move on to the next wristband and bumper sticker,” he said. “But if we understand that caring for orphans is a calling that is rooted in the character of God and that in a special way it reflects the Gospel story, then caring orphans becomes a permanent mission of the church.”
-Katie Thompson is the Online Editor at the Center for Public Justice. Born and raised in New Jersey, a former college student in Boston, and now a young professional in Washington, DC, she's fairly certain she likes the East Coast. And New York sports.
Interested in learning more or even reaching out to foster care youth? The Christian Alliance for Orphans has a list of ministries working in the area of foster care here.