The Foster Care Crisis: An Opportunity to Respond

by Robert R. Duke

The world watches Christians closely. Some look for evidence that they can trust what we believe and preach, others try to catch us speaking or acting out of accordance with Scripture—but make no mistake, they are watching. Our responsibility to both the truthseekers and faultfinders must be to constantly realign our lives with the Standard. As God’s instruments, we must regularly evaluate our lives to ensure we have not strayed from His will. Do we love our neighbor as ourselves? Do we care for the widows and orphans? Perhaps not as thoroughly as we should. The severe nationwide shortage of homes for foster children suggests this may be an issue that can help realign our focus, reflect our abiding love of God and obedience to Him, and demonstrate our faith to onlookers.

For the early Church in the Roman Empire, rescuing abandoned children was commonplace and integral to sharing the message of the Gospel by ministering to the whole person, especially children exposed and left to die. Early Christians’ commitment to these orphans eventually led Emperor Valentinian to outlaw child abandonment and infanticide in AD 374. For modern evangelicals, the Bible clearly instructs us to follow that example: “But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’” (Luke 18:16, NIV). Unlike the impossible number of children the early Church encountered, those needing homes in the United States today lie within reach.

At first glance, the numbers sound staggering. According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, 397,122 children live in the U.S. without permanent families in the foster care system. Of these, 101,666 are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32 percent will wait more than three years in foster care before being adopted. Although nearly 400,000 foster care children may seem too great a challenge for placement, the number of worship places mirrors these statistics. The Hartford Institute estimates that roughly 350,000 religious congregations exist in the United States. Of those, about 338,000 are Christian churches. Non-Christian religious congregations stand at about 12,000. If one family from every congregation in the United States committed to foster a child, the need for foster homes would nearly be erased. Closer to home, almost 20,000 foster children live in Los Angeles County, home to more than 3,000 evangelical Protestant churches as of 2010. These numbers suggest that several families per congregation could help solve the issue locally.

Several evangelical groups, like Focus on the Family and the Dream Center in Los Angeles, have already begun to turn the tide. According to the Wall Street Journal, “In Colorado alone, Focus has moved about 500 of the 800 kids in foster care into permanent homes over the course of less than two years. The group has had success helping infertile couples desperate for families, but also in placing children with couples who are older, some of whose children have already grown up and left home.” With a focused effort, the success realized in Colorado could spread nationwide.

The Dream Center in Los Angeles approaches the issue practically, helping families reunite with their children in the foster care system by providing items needed to meet county guidelines. Its Foster Care Intervention program provides food, clothing, diapers, cleaning supplies, appliances, and furniture to ensure that homes with minor children meet the requirements of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). In some cases, the simple addition of a bed or safe crib is all a home needs to welcome back a child and offer a redemptive presence in a very difficult societal issue.

Creative thinking at the local level helps as well. For example, my own Nazarene church and a local Vineyard church started a volunteer program with the local office of the L.A. County DCFS. This program could be easily replicated around the country.

Basically, we developed a volunteer list of vetted (background checks, fingerprinting, etc.) people available to entertain, play with, and monitor children who have been recently detained and are waiting for a foster home to become available. These extra sets of hands help social workers provide additional comfort to children whose worlds have been forever changed and offer a tangible way to love our neighbors.

My wife and I learned this firsthand. Over the past four years, our family has fostered three girls. One was a short placement (three months), one became our adopted daughter, and our current foster daughter will likely reunite with her birth family after being with us for two years. As a couple, we feel called to this, even though it is not always easy. Verses like James 1:27 (NIV)—“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”—caused us to reorient our lives and adjust to the challenges that come along with the transitions. However, the more friends we encounter along this chosen path, the more we realize that we are not alone, but part of a growing community of foster families heeding God’s call. When that happens, our choice to foster seems less dramatic and life altering. In a world that often finds fault with evangelicals, we take heart in John 13:35 (NIV): “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Robert R. Duke, Ph.D., is interim dean of the School of Theology and Azusa Pacific Seminary, and professor in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies. [email protected]

Originally published in the Spring '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.