Jennifer and Zachary Lynch were at church one Sunday morning when they heard a presentation about the urgent need for foster parents. Married for four years, the Lynches were eager to expand their family, but the idea of fostering hadn’t crossed their minds.
“With so many more children entering care, we learned there was a critical shortage of licensed foster homes to take them in,” Jennifer says. “Wondering if we should get involved was all we talked about on the drive home.”
The North Carolina couple began attending training classes, and then completed the necessary paperwork, interviews and background checks to become foster parents. Their first placement – a newborn – arrived two weeks after they received their license.
The Lynches credit the Fostering Communities initiative for launching and supporting their journey. Funded by The Duke Endowment at Crossnore Communities for Children in North Carolina, the program is designed as an opportunity for congregations to live out their faith through service, leading to more successful outcomes for foster parents and the children in their care. The Endowment is supporting similar efforts at Epworth Children’s Home in South Carolina as it partners with United Methodist churches across the Palmetto State.
“Not everyone can be a foster parent,” says Brett Loftis, Crossnore’s CEO. “But through Fostering Communities, everyone can have a role to play in the foster care world.”
Bridging the Gap
On any given day, nearly 15,000 children are in foster care in the Carolinas. It’s the job of the child welfare system to find a place for them to feel safe and nurtured until they are reunified with their primary caregiver, placed with relatives or adopted.
Ideally, this safe place is in a family-like setting with properly trained foster parents. But with a shortage of licensed families, children sometimes need to spend their first nights in care at social services offices or hotels. If their time in care continues, they may be shuffled between temporary placements or placed in group homes or emergency shelters, which research suggests can be less effective. Disrupted placements are hard on a child, and the negative impact adds up. For each move a child makes, the likelihood of having a successful outcome shrinks.
Being a foster parent is a daunting, though meaningful, calling. Most foster parents volunteer for the role because they want to contribute – but the average commitment lasts only a year. Many opt out because they felt ill prepared or under-resourced.
Leaders at Crossnore and Epworth say faith communities can play an important role in addressing these tough challenges.
“Children in foster care have many needs,” says Angela Bollo, the Fostering Communities coordinator at Crossnore. “One is to have a foster family that loves them unconditionally. But those foster parents, as well as the children, need a community to rally around them. Churches can be equipped to build that network so that children and families can have successful outcomes.”
The Rev. John Holler, who retired this summer as Epworth’s president and CEO, agrees. “From praying to cooking meals to recruiting foster parents,” he says, “every church in some capacity can be part of this work.”
Building a Network
Fostering Communities launched as a partnership with United Methodist congregations in 10 rural North Carolina counties, but it has expanded to other rural churches as well. Since getting underway in 2018, nearly 100 new foster families have been licensed through the initiative. About 45 of those families live in rural counties with scant resources for foster parents and children.
The work begins by helping faith communities understand the trauma that children in care have already experienced. Crossnore uses an evidence-informed training model called Together Facing the Challenge, which was developed at Duke University. Loftis believes an important first step in establishing a good support network is understanding trauma and its impact.
Crossnore also helps churches host foster care training, line up volunteers for respite care, and organize donations of supplies, groceries and meals. Through workshops and conferences, it has reached more than 500 foster families in 25 North Carolina counties and provided more than 48 hours of training.
“Not all churches bring the same resources to the table,” Bollo says. “We come alongside and help them figure out what their niche is.”
At Epworth, in Columbia, leaders are developing a Child and Family Well-Being Institute to serve South Carolina. Part of the Institute’s mission is to expand the capacity of United Methodist churches to recruit, license, train and strengthen foster families.
Epworth, which also uses Together Facing the Challenge for training, has licensed 88 foster families and partnered with churches across the state to become “missional hubs.” Silver Hill United Methodist Church in Spartanburg, for example, provides office space for foster care trainings and workshops. Washington Street United Methodist in Columbia hosted a food drive, and then delivered the groceries to foster homes.
“There are nearly 1,000 churches in the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and we’re trying to get every single one, in some capacity, to become involved in this work,” Holler says.
From Food to Babysitting
When the Lynches met their foster daughter, she was 36 hours old and weighed 4 pounds. Born a month early to a mother who struggled with substance abuse, she was placed in protective care before she left the hospital.
Jennifer and Zachary were thrilled when their church in Marion, N.C., prepared meals, delivered supplies and scheduled babysitting shifts. With no extended family living nearby, the couple welcomed those uplifting offers of care.
In August 2019, the Lynches officially adopted their foster daughter, who’s now 3. The next month, as they were readying their home for a second placement, they discovered they were pregnant.
Along with other couples from the congregation who became licensed foster parents through Fostering Communities, Jennifer continues to be grateful for her congregation’s help. Now with two young children at home, and frequent therapy appointments for their oldest daughter, the Lynches say that connection is essential.
“Someone will check in with us and ask, ‘Do you need a meal?’ or ‘Could you use a gift card for a date night out?’” Jennifer says. “Having a supportive community has made all the difference in the world on our foster care journey.”
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child and Family Well-Being
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church