(photo/JOHN RUEDA)

L.A. churches are at the heart of a growing movement that sees foster care as a means to addressing social problems and keeping families together

In 1997, Bishop W. C. Martin led his church on a journey. This journey would see his small evangelical church in Possum Trot, along the Louisiana border in east Texas, adopt 77 children from the foster care system.

“There were no Gerber babies,” Bishop Martin recalled recently. His own adopted daughter, Mercedes, had been in nine homes that year before she came to stay with his family.

But he believed that his family, along with others in his 200-member Bennett Chapel, had a God-given mandate to care for the children in their community.

Bishop Martin has a reputation as a powerful preacher and spiritual leader. He will be in Los Angeles later this month to keynote OneLifeLA, the Catholic archdiocese’s annual family festival and pro-life celebration.

“We’re looking at this adoption thing wrong,” he told Angelus. Too many concerns about the financial aspects of welcoming a child, or the stereotyping of children in the foster system, have led to apathy to their plight, he explained.

“These are flesh-and-blood children that God allowed to come into this world,” he said. “With all the churches in the world, there should not be any fostering and adoption system.”

Increasingly, this attitude has become a part of the Catholic Church’s vision for social change and renewal in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County alone has more children in foster care than any other state in the nation, according to Kathleen Buckley Domingo, who heads the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

Recent data from the county shows there are more than 35,000 children in the foster care system — nearly 21,000 of those children have been removed from their homes.

But even as caseloads have held steady, the number of families willing to welcome these children has steadily declined by more than half — from 4,522 in 2007 to 2,081 today.

There are signs of hope in the air. Faith-based organizations and communities are stepping forward to change the conversation around foster care, and they are awakening families to the needs of the thousands of Los Angeles-area children who could use a supportive and stable presence in their lives.

Opening doors

Domingo said the archdiocese began its partnership with local foster care organizations after meeting some of these groups several years ago at OneLifeLA, which is held each January and highlights the Church’s commitment to protecting human life and dignity.

“The Catholic community has been very slow to get on board with fostering,” she said. But since starting its efforts to connect parishes with local agencies, the response has been “overwhelming.”

With encouragement from Archbishop José H. Gomez, Foster All, a local nonprofit, has made more than 85 presentations at local parishes, signing up more than 300 people who expressed interest in foster care. Other parishes have hosted clothing drives or community breakfasts for children in foster homes.

The Church wants to help change the conversation around foster care, Domingo said: “These are kids who are just in need of having someone open their family and open their home.”

In the past, fostering has often been seen as a “last resort” for couples wanting to have children. Instead, she said, it needs to be seen as a work of Christian mercy — welcoming children in love, with the ultimate goal of reuniting them with their families.

Rebekah Weigel serves as a liaison with local churches for Olive Crest, a Los Angeles-area foster agency. She told Angelus the foster care crisis shows that “there are a lot of broken families in our city.”

Poverty is often the underlying issue. Many poor parents today themselves went through the foster care system or are victims of abuse. For many of these families, especially those headed by single mothers, all it takes is one event — an eviction, substance abuse, domestic violence, a medical emergency — and they can lose their children to the foster system due to abandonment or neglect.

Weigel stressed the importance of having compassion for parents in these situations. “A lot of times they need support, they need prayer and they need encouragement,” she said.

It is also important to assist families in crisis situations, before child protective services has to intervene.

Through its Safe Families program, Olive Crest tries to provide a “safety net” for children by connecting their parents, often single mothers, with families in local churches. These families welcome children into their homes, allowing the parents to focus on getting assistance and getting back on their feet.

Jaime Zavala, Olive Crest’s executive director, is proud of the program’s success: 95 percent of children who enter Safe Families are never forced to enter the foster care system. 

For single parents and families facing distress with few supports or social bonds, the program welcomes them into a local church community they know and trust. 

A changing conversation

Zavala also hopes to change how society views the children caught up in the system.

“People see children in the foster care system as a problem, and that couldn’t be any further from the truth,” he said.

Bishop Martin agrees. While children often arrive with significant behavioral issues, he said, those are symptoms of the trauma and instability they have experienced.

Bob Levy, a foster parent, told Angelus it is important to recover the sense that foster care is not a permanent “solution” but a work of charity intended to provide temporary assistance. 

About 50 percent of the time, a child will be returned home or to a relative, said Levy, who heads Foster All’s family recruitment efforts. “Really the role of a foster parent is to help that child during a really hard time in their life to transition, to get back home,” he said.

The role of a foster parent is not to take in “a problem child,” he added, but to “bring hope” into an unfortunate situation.

Olive Crest’s Zavala believes that, as he put it, “the local church is the hope of the world,” and churches can take a variety of approaches to help the foster care crisis, according to Katherine Hernandez, director of foster care programs at Foster All.

Churches can support foster families in simple but important ways — watching a family’s foster and biological children while the parents take a night out, welcoming new foster children with gifts or assisting foster parents with babysitting or transportation.

Deb Presson, a parishioner at American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach, wrote four articles during November highlighting adoption and foster care and organized a parish information night for prospective parents.

An adoptive parent herself, Presson said that she especially wanted to highlight foster care, in the hope that more families consider it.

“There are good kids out there that need a home, and our community is the one to provide that,” she said. “It’s important for the Church to open people’s eyes to this segment of those who are in need.”

For Bishop Martin, at the heart of the foster care system is a spiritual crisis.

“The only way we’re going to solve it is if the church rises up and says ‘enough,’ ” he said.

 

How to foster and adopt

For information on how to get started in your archla.org/adoption

• To foster, adopt or volunteer — FosterLAKids.com

• Don’t know where to start? FosterAll.org 

• Short on time? Volunteer as an advocate — CASALA.org

• Fostering creates strong families and safe kids — Olivecrest.org


Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.


Highlights

"Recent data from the county shows there are more than 35,000 children in the foster care system — nearly 21,000 of those children have been removed from their homes."