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Baptists partner with Tenn. foster care system

NASHVILLE (BP) — Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services has found a valuable partner to help improve the state’s foster care system: faith-based organizations like the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes.

Since December, TBCH has participated in a collaboration of government and the private sector to encourage foster parenting. Known as TN Fosters, the collaboration seeks to unite state government, faith groups, nonprofit organizations and businesses in recruiting foster parents and supporting foster families.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam voiced gratitude that “Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes has taken the initiative to bring community churches together to meet the increasing need for high-quality homes to serve children in Tennessee foster care,” according to a TBCH publication.

This year, TN Fosters has yielded 308 new homes approved to provide foster care, 51 children in pre-adoptive placements with families, five adoptions and two instances of children exiting state custody to live with relatives, according to the Tennessee DCS.

In 2017, TN Fosters is seeking to recruit a minimum of 100 “forever homes” for children, recruit at least 5 percent of the churches in various counties to assist foster families and increase the state’s number of licensed foster homes by 10 percent, according to TNFosters.gov. Currently, Tennessee has approximately 4,500 foster homes, DCS told Baptist Press.

For TBCH, participating in TN Fosters extends a foster care partnership with the state established in 2014. Over nearly two and a half years, TBCH has placed approximately 100 children with evangelical foster parents, said Alisha Worthey, TBCH vice president for foster care.

Under an agreement with the state, TBCH recruits families to foster then supports them with oversight and case management. The families are paid for their service directly by DCS, leaving TBCH free of restrictions associated with accepting government funds, Worthey told BP.

TBCH’s goal for foster children, Worthey said, is multifaceted.

In addition to placing at-risk children in safe homes, foster care “is a way we can … teach them about Christ and hopefully plant a seed of [knowing]: You are created and you are loved,” Worthey said.

Among TBCH’s greatest successes since TN Fosters launched is a foster family that mentored the birth mother of two preschool girls while it housed the girls. Eventually the girls returned to their mother when she overcame substance addiction, Worthey said.

“That’s one of the most wonderful stories we could share,” Worthey said, because the foster parents “did everything that we’re asking our foster parents to do — to love on the kids and also love on the birth parents to give them encouragement and direction.”

In another instance, TBCH was able to find homes for a group of six siblings and keep them all within “a few streets” of one another, Worthey said.

Sandra Wilson, executive director of DCS’s Office of Child Permanency, said foster families recruited through TBCH and other faith-based organizations are free to act “on their own unique” religious beliefs, taking children to church and teaching them about Christianity as long as the children or their birth families don’t express concern.

DCS “strongly feels that partnering with the faith community will only produce great results — prudent and supportive foster homes,” Wilson told BP, adding that members of faith communities who elect not to foster personally are positioned to act as a support system for foster parents.

The TN Fosters website encourages churches to support foster families through, among other actions, assisting with home repairs, sponsoring special events and supplying baby and toddler items.

Faith-based partnerships, Wilson said, likely were one of the factors that influenced an April 4 report by court-appointed monitors noting improvement in Tennessee’s foster care system. The report recommended DCS be permitted to exit 16 years of court monitoring stemming from settlement of a 2000 class action lawsuit, which charged the state’s child welfare system with violating children’s rights and subjecting them to physical and emotional harm, The Chattanoogan reported.

DCS deputy communications director Carrie Weir told BP TN Fosters is “an additional good way to reach out to the community” in an ongoing effort to improve foster care.

TBCH is among at least 23 Baptist children’s homes affiliated with some 20 Baptist state conventions