Leading the way in foster care: Mt. Bethel responds to the call

By Wayne Stoltz

There is a foster care crisis in the United States. Children are taken into foster care for three main reasons: deprivation, abandonment, and abuse. Cases range from homeless children whose parents have lost their jobs to two brothers whose mother committed suicide and an infant with numerous broken bones going straight from the hospital into foster care. These stories are played out throughout the nation.

Approximately 500,000 American children and youth are in foster care today, and there are only about half of the necessary foster families to care for them. The problem is large but the solution is local. One organization, which began in partnership with my local United Methodist church, is working to change the way foster care is done in America.

Like many good ideas, FaithBridge Foster Care began with two people with a vision for societal change. Bill Hancock, FaithBridge’s CEO and president, had spent his entire career in policy and administration of child welfare, and I was involved in missions at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. Each week, for many months, we met and defined a new model and new strategies for the way foster care should be done. Rather than considering the national problem, we considered it to be a problem in our local community, and we focused on developing a local solution that could be scaled to a national scope.

Our discussions centered on how to address three problems in the foster care system: capacity, stability, and quality. We developed concepts and strategies for FaithBridge, and I began talks with the missions committee and senior pastor about the possibility of Mt. Bethel starting a pilot program for FaithBridge. Our church had an active, dedicated missions program and in large part, this missions focus has helped the church grow to 9,000 members. We formed the Mt. Bethel Foster Care committee, garnered support, and were awarded a significant grant from the missions budget to fund the start up of FaithBridge Foster Care. This included setting up the non-profit status, working with the state to earn the designation of a child placing agency, and hiring Bill Hancock as its executive director.

“When I heard about this idea, I knew it was something we had to do,” said Pastor Randy Mickler, senior pastor at Mt. Bethel UM Church for 23 years. “As scripture says, ‘take care of the widow and orphans.’ We wanted to do whatever we could to help.”
“The foster care program at Mt. Bethel is part of our compassion into action philosophy,” Mickler continued. “We are called to go beyond our church walls and carry Christ out into the community. These children are batted around from one family or state organization to the next and it’s our honor and duty to provide them with a safe, loving Christian environment. This program makes Mt. Bethel proud to be a church.”

The FaithBridge approach
FaithBridge Foster Care believes the local church can act as a delivery channel for foster care, solving the problems of capacity, stability, and quality that are endemic to the current system. FaithBridge mobilizes and equips churches to provide the services that foster families need to be successful.

To do this, FaithBridge creates within the church a small group network known as the Community of Care, a team of volunteers who act as a support system to foster families and foster children. They help find resources, such as clothes and toys, and act as an extended family, providing respite services, mentoring, special recreation, and extra-curricular activities. Providing this kind of support is critical to encourage good, stable families to become foster families.

Nationally, almost half of the foster families drop out every year because they are overwhelmed by a system that lacks the resources or personnel to help them. The FaithBridge Community of Care model ensures they have the help they need when they need it. They are not alone. This approach also reduces the workload for government child welfare departments while increasing effective placement and quality care.

As founder and organizational leader, Bill has walked the walk and talked the talk. He and his wife have fostered more than 50 children throughout the years, and Bill knows firsthand how it is to feel seemingly alone in this world, having had to leave his own home at the age of 15.

Like Bill, I also have experience with foster children, as my wife and I had many young people come to live with us over the years. Some lived with us for six months, others just as a quick transitional home when they needed a change of venue.

“I believe there is a family for every child and our job is to build bridges between children and families—to bring them together and keep them together,” said Hancock. “Every local church in every community has the mandate and infrastructure to serve families in their local areas better than anyone and to respond to the needs of these families. We create a safety net in the community.”

Mt. Bethel families
Fifteen families at Mt. Bethel have fostered children since the program began in late 2006, with nearly 50 children served in the Mt. Bethel community. Many have helped with respite care. Some families have even moved forward and adopted their foster children.

Kale and Jeff McKisson, along with their seven-year-old son, fostered a sibling group of six boys. According to Kale, it was simply meant to be, as the couple had wanted another child of their own and had inquired about adoption. Kale and her family had been visiting local churches and had just visited Mt. Bethel for two Sundays in a row, when they heard about the foster care program and responded to the call.

“We thought we wanted an infant, but God gave us what we needed,” said Kale McKisson. “We started by fostering two of the brothers who were two and four years old at the time. In a few short months we had the six boys and their two sisters were with another family at Mt. Bethel.”

This story has a very happy ending as both the McKissons and the other family moved forward with adopting these children, and they all remain together as a family who attend the same church. The McKissons grew from a family of three to a family of nine and continue to say if there is a need they won’t turn their back in offering respite, short-term care to other children in need. In the words of Kale, “how could anyone not foster?”

Robin Freeman, who along with her husband and two children, has fostered six children, all under the age of two. According to Robin, being in a ministry together with her family has really helped them grow spiritually. It has also profoundly changed their children, who are now nine and eleven years old, to be more loving, accepting, independent people.

Julie Kirby, now chairperson for the foster care ministry committee at Mt. Bethel, and a foster parent herself, started with a smaller commitment, providing respite care and babysitting support, to being a foster parent of a 13-year-old. She understands that not everyone is able to foster, but they are able to support the program, which now is supported by a network of several hundred people.

This successful ministry is kept in front of the entire congregation with a bi-annual consecration service for foster families, along with many activities throughout the year such as giving a rose on Mother’s Day to all foster moms, and other opportunities to acknowledge and thank these families for their significant sacrifice.

FaithBridge continues to grow
Mt. Bethel was FaithBridge’s first church partner and helped launch the organization. Since then FaithBridge Foster Care has grown to more than a dozen church partners throughout Georgia and has plans to expand into other states in the near future.

Why is partnering with churches FaithBridge’s focus? Christian families understand the need and are more likely to respond to the call. By becoming involved in this societal problem, these families become missionaries in their own community.

“We continue to build awareness and educate people about the foster care crisis and look for church partners who have all the qualities of Mt. Bethel—willing to lead, positive example, a church of influence, with a focus on missions and outreach,” said Hancock. “So many churches and families are stepping up and it’s wonderful to see them making a difference in the lives of children.”

Wayne Stolz is co-founder of FaithBridge Foster Care and founder of Mt. Bethel Foster Care Ministry. For more information on FaithBridge Foster Care, please visit www.faithbridgefostercare.org.

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