Who is willing to foster a child? It’s a question that has vexed policymakers and civic leaders for decades. Most states have experienced a chronic shortage of foster families. Public service announcements tout the need, with the most recent theme being, “You don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.” But fostering a child is a lot to ask of any family.
This is why some leaders might want to pay attention to a recent poll showing that Black adults are more likely to consider fostering than adults of other races, but they are also less likely to express confidence in the foster system. According to Gallup, a third of Black adults have considered providing foster care, more than 10 percentage points higher than other Americans, and a quarter have considered adopting a child out of foster care, nine points higher than other Americans. But they are also more likely to believe that the foster system will be harmful to children rather than helpful.
There are a variety of reasons for this. There has long been widespread suspicion of child protective services in the Black community — and sometimes with good reason — but in recent years, distrust has been fomented by racial activists who have harped on the ways that the child welfare system (just like the police) is systemically racist. Black families are more likely to have contact with the child welfare system as well, meaning that from a young age, Black people are more likely to think of child protective services as intruding in their family lives. But Black families are also more likely to know someone who is in need of foster care and may want to provide it.
So what are the obstacles standing in their way? According to Gallup, one is money. Black Americans are unique in placing “the amount of money required to provide foster care” on the list of the top five barriers to fostering. There are some popular misconceptions about fostering or adopting out of foster care, among them that it costs money to adopt a child out of foster care. It is true that if someone is already having financial difficulties, adding a foster child to the mix is probably not a good idea.
That being said, there are plenty of middle-class Black families who can afford to take in a foster child. But like other economically stable families, they need support and they need a sense that fostering a child can actually be beneficial to that child. This is where churches and other faith-based institutions come in.
In recent years, many of these institutions have revolutionized the way foster and adoptive parents are recruited. Instead of commercials on network television or specials on the nightly news, pastors have told their congregants that there are children in their ZIP code who need homes tonight. The immediacy of the message has made an impact. Organizations such as FaithBridge in Georgia and The CALL in Arkansas have used this method.
Similarly, many of these institutions have taken over the training of foster parents. In addition to the information the state requires, these organizations have provided additional education for foster parents. These include extra classes on how to handle children who have experienced severe trauma. And finally, these organizations have created a support system for foster families. Churches have enlisted other families to help with respite care, deliver meals or simply pray for families doing foster care.
While many of the churches engaged in this work are largely white or multiethnic, some Black churches have done this as well. DeForest Soaries, the former pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, founded the Harvest of Hope Family Services Network, which helped to recruit individuals for foster care as well as train other churches to do this work. They have found foster homes for almost 1,500 children, as well as adoptive homes for hundreds.
Trust in any government institution is not high these days. And child welfare agencies have a kind of power that makes many wonder whether they are doing the right thing when they remove a child from their home. The way to increase trust in these agencies and ensure that the people doing foster care are the ones who care most about children is by building relationships between these agencies and the private sector, particularly faith-based institutions.
Churches can act as go-betweens, ensuring that individuals have a stronger voice in dealing with government authorities and that state bureaucracies are better at dealing with children and families. These relationships can go a long way to increase the pool of foster parents and increase the chances the most vulnerable children can find a safe and loving home.