Confronting a crisis

Two interest meetings drew 550 people primarily from Seacoast Church but also from seven others to the church’s Mount Pleasant campus in November.

In October, Seacoast’s Mount Pleasant Campus pastor took the stage to tell its 14,000 weekend attendees that he felt God calling the church to alleviate, even end, the local foster care crisis.

A few weeks later, 550 church members showed up for two interest meetings to learn more. An orientation meeting drew nearly 100 serious about becoming foster parents, almost as many people as licensed foster homes existing in Charleston County today.

Next week, the first series of foster parents licensing classes is full with 20 couples.

One of those enrolled, Michael Jenks, recites a passage from Psalm 82 to explain why he and his wife stepped up: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed ...”

It is all rare good news for foster children in a state with nearly 1,500 fewer licensed homes than children in dire need of them. Charleston County faces among the state’s most severe shortages with 283 more foster children than homes to place them, according to the state Department of Social Services.

“There is a desperate need for homes in these areas,” said Carl Brown, executive director of the S.C. Foster Parent Association.

Just last week, child advocacy groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the acting director of DSS and Gov. Nikki Haley alleging, among other things, that some of the most vulnerable children are being housed in institutions and even detention centers due to a severe shortage of foster homes for them.

Can one huge church end one huge societal problem?

Jen Cameron, local missions director at Seacoast’s Mount Pleasant campus, says yes: “It’s the body of Christ in the world making a difference.”

It is clear in their minds now that God was preparing them for this, putting the right people in their paths and leading their church along a similar journey.

Last fall, Rachel and Michael Jenks paused to listen closely when their pastor said he felt God calling the megachurch to mega-action to tackle the foster parent crisis.

The Jenkses already had close friends who foster parented newborns. A family member had adopted a child from Ghana. And the couple had been considering adoption as a way to share their Mount Pleasant home, one bustling with biological daughters ages 9, 7 and 3.

Should they become foster parents instead?

“God put it on my wife and my hearts,” Michael Jenks said.

In Scripture, he noted, Jesus repeatedly urged the faithful to minister to the unloved and outcast. That’s why Seacoast, with other local churches, has launched this huge effort, even funding social workers and other staff to address the myriad needs of children removed from their biological families due to abuse or neglect.

“God is calling us as a church to get involved in this,” said Josh Walters, pastor of Seacoast’s Mount Pleasant campus.

When he unveiled the plans, the father of five reminded the congregation that several years ago, the church’s Senior Pastor Greg Surratt saw in the news that North Charleston had the nation’s seventh-worst crime rate. In response, in 2008 the church launched the North Charleston Dream Center, which today fills huge needs in the area, from medical care and food to mentoring and academic help. Crime in the area has dropped.

Now, Walters added, God has revealed a new need: foster care. About 3,745 kids are in foster care statewide. Of those, about 536 live in the tri-county area where there are only about 312 area foster home spaces for them. That shortfall leaves many children in situations where the best DSS caseworkers can do is get a roof over their heads.

When Walters moved to town, he landed a job at Carolina Youth Development Center, a North Charleston group home and emergency children’s shelter for kids suddenly removed from their homes with no place to go. He worked third shift.

In those dark overnight hours, children often arrived freshly torn from parents and siblings, terrified, with no idea where they were going. Many lacked even a special blanket or stuffed animal.

It got Walters to thinking. And praying.

“God’s word is clear about his heart toward the orphan,” he said. “All through Scripture we see God giving special care to the orphan.”

And who more than foster children are at risk of believing they aren’t loved or valuable?

“We believe he has called us as a church to get involved,” Walters said. “Now that we know there is a crisis, we can step up.”

What if only 3 percent of Seacoast’s more than 8,500 members in the Lowcountry alone become foster parents?

“We could resolve the immediate need,” Walters said. “That’s just incredible.”

Hundreds arrived at Seacoast’s Mount Pleasant campus one day in November, filing into its ministry center. They came mostly from Seacoast but also East Cooper Baptist, St. Andrew’s City Church, Freedom Church, Lighthouse, Life Park and more.

Just a few weeks had passed since Walters introduced the massive effort. Now it was time to gauge interest.

On hand were two women from Lifeline Children’s Services, a global Christian adoption and orphan ministry that also partners with local churches and children’s welfare services in several other Southeastern states to address foster care needs. With Seacoast’s funding, Lifeline opened an office in South Carolina to partner with churches and DSS in this effort.

Casey Voorhees, casework supervisor for Lifeline in South Carolina, stepped on stage.

“Parenting a child through foster care is a lot different from parenting a biological child,” Voorhees warned.

She explained the licensing process including a nine-week mandatory class to learn how to parent and discipline children from traumatic backgrounds, how to prepare kids already in their homes, how to interact with birth families, and other critical matters. Families also must undergo home studies to assess if they are in a good place to take on foster children.

Many on hand want to know basics: Can they decline to take foster children at any point in time? Answer: yes. Can they specify what age or gender of children they would care for? Answer: yes.

And will they be asked to foster a child as soon as they are licensed? Answer: Most likely, yes, due to the huge need.

But they will get training. Because foster care is born of trauma and tragedy, foster parents must be well-equipped, said Angie Rylands, Lifeline’s statewide director.

They explained a range of supports that will be in place to help parents including babysitting, meals and mentors.

“It’s going to take an army of people spurring each other on to reach our goal to provide a foster home for every child in this area who needs one,” Cameron said. “But I feel like that army is rising up.”

Although Seacoast has 12 campuses across South Carolina, this project targets its seven Lowcountry sites from the Sea Islands to Summerville to McClellanville.

The church also is putting money where its prayers are. It committed almost $250,000 over three years so that Lifeline can expand its local office and hire staff, including a social worker and administrative assistant. It is looking for a second social worker now.

Churches already are among the best recruiters of foster parents for DSS, said Darrell Morris, deputy director of the DSS Charleston office. Now he looks forward to what Seacoast brings.

The state’s foster parents association leaders agrees.

“We are always in need of loving, nurturing homes for the many abused, abandoned and neglected children in South Carolina — and we feel the faith community has much to offer our foster parents and foster children,” Brown said. “We look forward to a great partnership with them.”

But it’s not just about foster parenting. Church members have signed up to take classes to become guardian ad litems. Others offered to tutor foster children who often face academic problems due to traumas and upheaval.

Still others want to become involved in the “wraparound” services Seacoast will organize, from babysitting and respite care to meals and housekeeping to prayer and small group support for foster parents. The goal is that parents have an entire church to walk with during what can be a daunting journey.

That promise spurred the Jenkses to get involved.

“It’s definitely reassuring to have that support to fall back on,” Michael Jenks said.

After all, what prospective foster parent hasn’t grappled with: Am I a good enough parent? Can I handle this?

“We can all be crippled by our fears,” Rachel Jenks said.

For future foster parents like the Jenkses, that’s where the faith part comes in.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.