Solution to a Texas-Sized Problem
Brownwood, Texas, faced a crisis. While the community of 19,000 was only 5.4 percent black, African-Americans made up a disproportionate number of children in foster care.
Whatever the reasons for Child Protective Services (CPS) removing kids from their homes — abuse and neglect, drug use, parental incarceration — the city lacked enough foster families to care for them.
Within that population were older children: difficult-to-place teenage boys. Aaron C. Blake Sr.’s heart broke for them. The biblical mandate of James 1:27 included caring for them, too. As pastor of Greater Faith Community Church of Brownwood, Blake wondered what would happen to the children without intervention by Christians.
Blake took action. He and his wife, Mary, the parents of six biological children, became certified as foster parents. Before long, not only were six Brownwood High School football players placed in their home, but Blake also opened an office in the church so others in the congregation could receive training and certification as foster parents. That office, which placed 55 children in homes each year for a decade, proved especially adept with placing older children.
By 2001, Brown became the only county in Texas with more foster parents waiting for children to take in than children needing families.
“We had no idea we were being watched,” Blake says. State workers and “all the powers that be came to Brownwood seeking out best practices. They asked if we could work with them.”
The scale of that involvement proved Texas-sized. Ultimately, then-Gov. Rick Perry asked Blake to chair the state Advisory Committee on Promoting Adoption of Minority Children.
In May 2016, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick met with faith-based leaders from across the state to identify ways churches could help children who are involved, or at risk of becoming involved, with the child foster care system. Those meeting with Patrick included Rick Dubose, superintendent of the Assemblies of God North Texas District.
“Faith-based communities have a long history of involvement with these children, and we need this partnership to grow dramatically,” Patrick said.
To that end, the North Texas district has established The Keep, a ministry that empowers congregations to engage in orphan care. Eric Porter, an AG U.S. missionary chaplain, serves as vice president of The Keep.
From that ministry has spun the Care Portal, an interactive website that helps churches connect with local children and families in crisis. Blake, who is now a minister with the Assemblies of God, directs the outreach.
The goal of The Keep, explains Blake’s assistant and daughter Anna Blake, is straightforward: Every church should have an orphan care ministry and an accompanying unwavering, sustainable ministry to foster and adoptive parents.
“We hope the AG would be able to lead out and help other churches in other denominations,” she says. African-Americans still comprise a disproportionate share of kids in the system: 34 percent vs. 15 percent of the overall child population.
“If we can’t take care of our kids, we’re in the wrong business,” Aaron Blake says.
The movement has spread through AG U.S. missionaries beyond Texas to Ohio, Kansas, Georgia, Missouri, Arizona, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. The Keep is assisting in speaking in churches to raise awareness, partnering with agencies to help foster parents become trained and licensed in the church, and helping them establish support ministries that further assist orphans and their caregivers.
Val Jackson, faith-based program specialist with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, is among the state officials with whom Blake works.
“Ultimately, government wants better outcomes for children and families,” Jackson says. “(We want to) help families to connect to a system that they’re going to be in after we close our case.”
Regarding fears that CPS would forbid churches and foster families from engaging foster children in spiritual matters, “CPS doesn’t want to step on the church’s role,” she says. While children removed from homes are under state conservatorship, “We absolutely respect the role of the church.”
Jackson notes that this collaboration through the Care Portal is for the connection of birth, kinship, or adoptive families with the faith communities. CPS must respect the religious beliefs of the children's families that are in CPS custody. This connection is for children and families prior to CPS taking custody, but CPS remains involved with the family because of abuse or neglect issues.
State workers charged with protecting children want to see families make positive connections, Jackson says, and the North Texas District became the first faith-based organization to sign on under Dubose.
“If we can get the faith community to wrap around the families, we’ll get a better outcome,” Jackson says.