In recognition of foster care awareness month, this month’s Red Letter Carpet features Aaron and Amy Graham. Aaron and Amy have a career-long history of helping those in need: prior to moving to DC, Aaron started the Quincy Street Missional Church in a low-income neighborhood of Boston where he served for five years, and Amy served as a foster care social worker. In 2013, they co-founded DC127, a faith-based non-profit with a mission to unite churches around reversing the foster care wait list in Washington, DC. It both recruits and supports foster and adoptive homes and prevents children from entering the child welfare system by supporting families in crisis through its partnership with the national Safe Families for Children movement. Aaron and Amy also founded the The District Church, where Aaron is lead pastor and Amy is the discipleship pastor. They have adopted two children, Elijah and Natalie.
Your organization, citing James 1:27, calls upon the Church and church members to provide support and care to foster youth. Do you see this care as something that all Christians are, in one form or another, under a duty to perform?
We do not believe that all Christians are called to adopt or foster but all Christians are called to care for orphans in their distress as it says in James 1:27. Not everybody is in the position to bring a child into their home, but everybody can do something to help a child in need, whether that is by providing babysitting, mentoring, or donating money or items to a family adopting or fostering a child.
We believe that there are no orphans in Heaven, and so we should work to ensure that everybody has a family here on earth, especially here in our nation’s capital. As Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Children in foster care are some of the most vulnerable children in our city. They are often the most susceptible to dropping out of school, being trafficked sexually, being unemployed, and having their own children enter the foster care system. So to care for these children is to care for a wide range of social issues that are close to the heart of God.
We have public agencies staffed by trained professionals to care for and protect abused and neglected children. However, case workers for these agencies are notoriously overburdened, and are often criticized for various reasons: needlessly removing children from their families; leaving the children home when they should have been taken into protective custody; and for children coming to harm, sometimes even fatally, while in foster care. At a policy level, what change is needed to remedy this?
There are so many professional social workers and lawyers doing heroic work to care for children in need in the foster care system. They do not get enough credit and typically just get blamed in the media when something goes wrong. We need to do a better job of supporting and honoring them for the long days they work and the burdens they carry.
At the same time we need to work to eradicate the foster care system. It doesn’t mean we stop recruiting foster parents and don’t respond to the existing needs, it just means we need to go upstream. The system is not working for kids. It is either removing kids too late, too soon, or keeping them in the system for too long.
In ancient Rome, babies were often abandoned on the outskirts of the cities. The practice was called exposing. The child was usually unwanted because they were the wrong gender or had a disability. They were literally taken outside the city walls and left to die. Yet Christians, who were often a persecuted minority at the time, made a practice of going outside the city walls, finding these children, and bringing them home, sometimes even raising them as their own. Jedd Medefind, President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, says, “Throughout history, Christians at their best have reflected the same commitment. Candidates for leadership in the early church were to be “lovers of orphans” and this heart has always been visible in healthy Christian communities.” (Becoming Home, Barna Frames)
This is what we are praying for here in DC. We’re praying that the sacrificial love of Christ is put on display to our city. We are praying that the church is known for how we care for children in foster care and their families. DC127 is truly a citywide initiative, not simply an initiative of our church, The District Church.
Lack of community support for at-risk families is often cited as leading to abuse or neglect. How does lack of community correlate to harm of a child, and how can we—people who may not be connected to those most in need—provide authentic community?
The government and professional social service agencies have had to step up because the church has not. We need a revival of practicing radical hospitality in our churches where we open up our homes to families in crisis. If volunteers in churches would help provide care before the state has to intervene and remove kids from their homes, we would have fewer kids in the foster care system. This is why we recently launched the Safe Families for Children initiative in DC through DC127 to address the root causes of why children enter foster care. Social isolation and the lack of a supportive network is the biggest reason families come to Safe Families for Children. The church at its core is a community of people who care about one another and when we open this community up to our neighbors and those in crisis, we can very practically intervene before a family hits the point of crisis where a child would need to be removed into foster care.
At the policy level, we need more attention, financial support, and the support of local Child Protective Services to go towards empowering local communities and churches to providing volunteer support to families in crisis. We’ve received amazing support for the Safe Families initiative in DC, but national-level awareness and local support in other cities certainly is not always there.
The problem of abused and neglected youth and at-risk families speaks to a wider variety of social concerns: drug abuse, mental health issues, sex trafficking, poverty, and lack of opportunity, to name a few. As they say, “children are our future.” Yet the Barna Group reports that only 3% of Christians have provided foster care. What’s going on here?
Foster care is tough work. It is a calling. Children have often spent time in a number of homes. They have experienced trauma and separation from their biological families. It’s not as simple as: open your home, provide a loving environment, and put food on the table. Many of these wonderful children are behind in school and have medical issues. Parenting is hard enough, fostering is even tougher.
Churches need to come around and support the families that are already fostering and adopting. Get volunteers cleared with background checks so they can provide babysitting for foster parents so they can have a night out. Send volunteers to a training and orientation to understand the challenges in the foster care system so that they can have more empathy and understand what these families are going through.
What ends up happening in many churches is that you have people who are “fans” of families that foster and adopt, but these foster families end up having very few “friends.” People who really are seeking to understand the unique parenting challenges they are facing and coming alongside them to support.
We are advocates of churches having foster care and adoption ministries that focus on providing support for these families. This support is even deepened when the pastor is willing to preach about the Biblical call and back it up with empowering leaders with the structures and finances to support these families.
What long-lasting, forward-looking change do you hope to bring about by increasing the number of families committed to helping foster youth and families at risk?
Our dream is to live here in a city where there are more families that are waiting to adopt and foster children than there are children on a wait list to be fostered and adopted. We dream of a city where the church is united around this common call to provide every child in foster care a loving and stable home until they can return home or be welcomed into a new family. We dream of a city where families in crisis can rely on local churches to be places of refuge and sanctuary when they experience crisis. We dream of a headline that reads, “DC churches unite to reverse the foster care wait list!”