Many people have fond memories of days gone by, better days. Days of neighbors chatting over the fence while watering lawns, of the whole family gathering around the one TV in the house to watch the show they’ve waited for all week long, of families going to church on Sundays, and meeting up with friends and neighbors at the annual town picnic.
I had the feeling that I had stepped back in time—to a better time—when I went to Austin, Texas, for the Central Texas Children’s Home benefit dinner. Central Texas Children’s Home (CTCH) still employs houseparents, a model of care for abused children that is almost extinct in the U.S. As I visited with one of the couples who cares for kids, I was moved by the truth that their work with kids isn’t a job to them; loving wounded children into wholeness is their ministry.
I spoke to all the kids at the home, and I marveled at how well-behaved and articulate they were. Vincent excitedly told how he had been accepted at TCU. Kaitlyn is a writer destined to be published. All the kids have dreams and hopes that those dreams will be fulfilled. How different are the attitudes of those kids and the life choices they’re making from many of the kids I have met in the child welfare system across the country.
Too many of the young people in foster care who I have met have “vacant eyes.” You can see in their faces that they feel hopeless. The don’t excitedly share their hopes and dreams, and plans for their good futures. Perhaps because they have none. They seem to be incapable of visualizing any future beyond the dismal present they’re in.
It appears that they have heard, seen, and felt nothing that would lead them to any different conclusion. The result seems to be souls that are on life support. Instead of talking about what school they want to attend and what they plan to do with their lives, they talk about their victimization. They seem to wear their “victim points” as badges of honor. They’re not looking forward. They’ve become firmly entrenched in the past. It appears that in their minds, victimhood is where their worth and value lies.
It’s not that the kids at Central Texas Children’s Home have been through less trauma. They have not. They’re bright, but perhaps no more so than other kids in foster care across the country. So, to what can we attribute the differences in the attitudes, behaviors, and choices they’re making?
The young people who are cared for by Christians in Christ-centered child welfare organizations across the country, have been persuaded, or at least have dared to believe, that they are valuable children of God. They’ve been told about the One to whom they belong. Because the good people whose life ministry is to serve in these organizations believe these children are valuable, the children, too, have begun to believe, some for the first time, that they have worth and value.
There is a stark difference in the eyes of young people who have hope. Their countenances and body language are distinctly different. There is vitality in their conversation and a bounce in their steps.
Why the difference in attitudes of the young people cared for in different child welfare organizations? The difference is actually much more than in the apparent attitudes of the youth in care.
It is my opinion that the children and youth in foster care are safer and enjoy better outcomes when cared for by Christians in Christ-centered child welfare organizations.
For decades, most of Christian child welfare operated with what was called a House Parent model of care, like that still in place at Central Texas Children’s Home, Southeastern Children's Home, and Chestnut Mountain Ranch in West Virginia, and others scattered across the country.
The traditional Christian house-parent model of care in which the same people who put the
children to bed at night are the people who comfort them when they have a nightmare in the middle of the night. And they’re the same people who wake them up and get them to school the next morning. They are the people who make sure that they brush their teeth and help with homework. In other words, the model of care is all about relationship.
In these organizations, children are much more likely to feel like they’re part of a family than the feeling that they’re institutionalized. They don’t have to feel anxiety about people coming and going with the changing of the staff every 8 hours, especially while they’re sleeping. They don’t have to try to form relationships with the staff who come and go with rates of turnover at sometimes almost 100% annually. (You wouldn’t feel safe enough to sleep well either if you knew that people would be coming and going throughout the night.)
Christian child welfare organizations tend to have a much lower rate of turnover of caregivers and a longer length of stay for children than in secular child welfare organizations. In fact, a long length of stay in care is now considered a negative measurement in child welfare organizations. It has been estimated that the average foster child is moved 4 times per year.
Sadly, the traditional Christian childcare model of a married couple employed by the children’s home and living there full-time as their ministry is all but gone. Labor laws and unfriendly regulations have made it nearly impossible to maintain this traditional, and what some call outdated, model of care.
Many people equate foster care with this houseparent model, and although similar, the differences are significant. A houseparent’s full-time work is loving into wholeness children who have been wounded. The same ministry goal is true for Christian foster parents, but in most cases, foster parents are financially unable to make parenting their full-time vocation. Given the cost of maintaining their own housing, many simply cannot survive solely on foster parenting reimbursements. Consequently, one parent of most foster families works outside the home. I’m not condemning this, but rather making this distinction because many children in foster care need a level of supervision that is very difficult for only one parent to provide.
Another factor in the hope of some kids in foster care may be that most Christian child caring organizations are connected to at least one church so that families from the church act as extended family for the children in care. They are able to provide healing connections, outings, and exposure to experiences that kids who are in secular child welfare or individual foster home placements that are less connected to the community get to experience.
An important factor that contributes to the hope of the children, staff, and everyone involved in Christian child welfare is faith itself. The essence of Christianity is faith, hope, and love, so when a Christ centered child welfare organization, and everyone involved with it, are fulfilling the mission of their faith through the care of physical or spiritual orphans, the atmosphere is infused with faith, hope, and love.
An additional factor that can contribute to the well being of some children is the sense of stability that the stationary physical location of the traditional “children’s home” provides. Many alumni of the child welfare system return to the places they inhabited as children in an attempt to learn more about their childhoods, family, and to try to piece together their lives and identities. It’s far easier to do that with a long-standing child welfare organization than with an individual family that may move away.
An important factor that many people are unaware of or fail to consider is that children are less likely to be injured or killed in a Christian child caring environment.
In over 25 years of protecting and defending the good people and organizations that care for children, I collected data on injuries, deaths, and substantiated allegations of misconduct. I also kept track of whether or not the insurance claim was from a child welfare organization that operated on a Christian model of care.
In those years, we found that the actual insurance claims of Christian organizations were fewer and less severe than for those of secular child welfare organizations. To break this down, there were fewer deaths of children in care. There were fewer allegations of misconduct. There were fewer serious injuries.
The confidential claims data of the child welfare organizations protected under my insurance programs, along with the anecdotal information shared by Christian child welfare organizations about former residents who have kept in contact with them through the years, suggests that the outcomes of kids who have been cared for by Christian houseparents appears to be better than the outcomes of kids who have been cared for in secular child welfare.
Consider the “Midwest Study,” which followed 758 youth for eight years after they exited foster care. The study showed that the outcomes of many foster kids aren’t good: The average annual income is $8,000, over 50% experience homelessness, and many become involved in criminal behavior. Of course, my claims data is not analogous to the Midwest Study, but it’s worth noting that the children who died in foster care were not considered in that study, or any other. The Midwest Study did not take into consideration youth who were injured or who died while in the child welfare system. Clearly, those young people were not safe in care. Making it out of the child welfare system alive is, perhaps, the most important outcome measure for children who have been abused and placed in foster care.
One possible explanation for the disparity in claims results between Christian and secular child welfare organizations is the model of care. My data showed that the number one most frequent trigger of injury or death to children was a break in relationship. Christian child welfare organizations typically operate on a relationship-based model of care. Secular organizations typically do not.
Because there isn’t constant turnover of Christian houseparents, counted as “breaks in relationship,” I would assert that fewer youth in Christian child welfare organizations are likely to be diagnosed with Attachment Disorder. (You might be diagnosed with attachment disorder too if the people in your life are different people every 8 hours who don’t stay on the job for long enough to really get to know you, or if you move multiple times every year.)
Another factor in the good results of Christian child welfare organizations may be that the expectations of caregivers are that children will do well rather than the sad expectation that is based on the dismal outcomes reflected in the Midwest Study. Christians believe that there is inherent value of each soul and that there is a good plan for each person. Christians believe that God can work all things together for good for the children within their influence. By believing in a young person, and recognizing and celebrating the goodness within them, the young person is more likely to begin to believe it too.
I know from my own personal experience as a child in foster care system that when someone sees good in you and believes that there is a good plan for your life, you are more likely to begin to make better choices that lead you toward a good life.
My opinion, based on my data and my faith, is that Christ-centered child welfare organizations tend to produce young people who make better choices, which leads to better results, and ultimately to productive lives. In national child welfare, we call that better outcomes.
All child welfare providers face challenges in this economy, but Christian child welfare organizations that do their best to adhere to their faith while navigating a very unfriendly regulatory and political environment, are doubly challenged because their model of care is not supported by the government. These organizations rely on the financial support of Christians who understand the difference that Jesus makes in the life of wounded children.
May God bless, protect, and sustain the people of Central Texas Children’s Home, all the members of the Association of Christian Childcare Administrators and all of the Christians in child welfare, and may He raise up the children in their care to be the mighty men and women of God that He created them to be.
About the author: Rhonda Sciortino, author of Succeed Because of What You've Been Through, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to start her own business and develop it, along with her other investments, into a multi-million dollar balance sheet. She credits Christian foster parents for changing the trajectory of her life. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to a great future.