8046 It's just another number, another statistic unless we pause and consider the human side and hear the cry of the children.
According to the agencies who care for them, there are approximately 8,046 little ones in OKDHS protective custody in the state of Oklahoma as of Jan. 2, 2011. It is a number, a big number. But not an insurmountable number if everyone reading this article would consider what he or she could do to help reduce the number. It's not like the national debt -- it's much more valuable. What if, maybe, one of these children became the next Steve Jobs or, even better, someone who could bring more jobs to Oklahoma?
The need is enormous, and resources in Oklahoma are slim, but the problem is only as big as the lack of awareness. What if...
Dickens of A Problem
The latest reports given by UNICEF stated that there are currently 143 million orphans worldwide. In the United States there are an estimated 450,000 children in orphan care. Of those, nearly 120,000 are currently available for adoption waiting for a family to come forward -- or in many instances, the system to be more cooperative.
For it is still way too expensive and way too convoluted for many to adopt. Certainly processes must be in place for the safety of children, but adoption costs can be several thousands of dollars and the wait time can be from 1-2 years or more, besides all the heart-rending uncertainties.
According to Deborah Shropshire, Medical Director for the children and family services division of OKOKDHS, there are an estimated 60,000 reports of child mistreatment in Oklahoma every year. While there are many reasons why, it is believed that nearly 80 to 85 percent are due to child neglect.
It becomes glaringly obvious that while OKDHS is an essential part of the helping equation, the needs are much greater than what any government agency can provide. A government agency can identify these children in need, get them to a safe place, and attempt to get them back into the home, but they can't be the family. They are incapable, in this contrived setting, of being able to provide the mom and dad family stability and structure that these kids so desperately need and long for.
Here's where the numbers get a little less abstract and a little more tangible for Tulsa. According to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, there are nearly 1,400 children in OKDHS custody in Tulsa County; 253 of whom are in state emergency shelters and 58 children in the Laura Dester Emergency Children's Shelter in Tulsa.
While a city Tulsa's size may not be able to take on 143 million orphans worldwide, it can mount an initiative to care for 58 who are housed within city limits.
Walk a Mile In Their Shoes
Stop for a moment and imagine being removed from the only place you have ever known. Take a minute and step into the world of the family-less.
According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the national average for length of stay in OKDHS custody is 28.6 months. While 52 percent of the children leaving the OKDHS system are reunified with their birth parent(s) or primary caregiver that means 48 percent are either adopted or eventually aged out of the system.
Nevertheless, over half of the children in the system spend at least one year away from their home. What happens during that one year plays a huge role in their future and their development.
Most can't imagine the emotional impact the average child in foster care has to face. For many, in transition between a birth home and transitional care, they are handed a trash bag and given a few minutes to take whatever can fit in the bag. Okay, it's time to leave. You'll be fine.
According to OKDHS, most children are removed from their families due to abuse, neglect, extreme poverty or abandonment and they are leaving the only place they have ever known. Overwhelmed with questions and confusion they are pulled from their homes and in a matter of moments they enter into a world with which they are completely unfamiliar.
Taken to a "shelter," children are introduced to strangers, more than likely split up from their siblings, and given a shower and a meal. As they lay their head down that night they can't help but wonder, 'will I be going home tomorrow or maybe the next day?' Unfortunately, it's all too frequent that days turn into weeks and even months.
This is story that is playing out almost every single day in our city and around the world.
On October 27, leaders, influencers, and care givers from Oklahoma came together in Tulsa for the 8046 Conference. Sponsored by OKDHS, FaithLinks Oklahoma, Arrow Child & Family Ministries, and several local Tulsa churches, the goal was simple: Something must be done to help change the current foster process and promote the human rights of the family-less in Oklahoma.
The 8046 Conference mapped out what a "typical" child in foster care goes through upon initial entry into the program. The journey may look something like this:
4:45pm: A OKDHS worker and a police officer show up at your house and tell you and your siblings you'll be coming with them tonight.
"I guess I should go with them, right? I mean, it's a police officer."
4:50pm: You're given a bag and told you have five minutes to fill it with the essentials. Choose wisely.
"Should I take my favorite stuffed animal or will I be back home tomorrow?"
5:15pm: You're driven to a facility where some nice strangers give you a meal, a shower, and then split you and your siblings up into rooms according to your age.
"Why did they have to put my brothers in another room? I bet they're so scared right now."
7:30pm: You're now in a room with other kids your age. You're the new kid so everybody is just looking at you.
"I wonder if all the other kids in here had the same thing happen to them."
8:23pm: One of the workers comes in and tells you to try to get some rest and we'll figure out more tomorrow.
"What does that mean? What are we trying to figure out?"
9:17pm: You're staring at the ceiling listening to some of the other kids in the room talk, thinking to yourself...
"What happened today? Will I see my parents again? I wonder if my little brothers are okay? Did this happen because I told my teacher what happened last weekend? Is there something wrong with me? Did I do something wrong?"
What Can Be Done
While there are many organizations and individuals who are doing something to be a part of the solution, it's a grassroots thing that is far more important than any Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street soiree. One of the greatest challenges Oklahoma faces is educating people concerning the need to be responsible parents.
"We have great foster families in our state. The bottom line is that we need more of them. We need people who are willing to step up to make the greatest investment of all [for] our children," said Marq Youngblood, COO of OKDHS.
Although OKDHS steps in as an intermediary for these children, a government agency was never designed to function in the role of a parent or family. An agency can provide a safe place but it can never replace a family. As a result, OKDHS is determined to raise awareness and increase the recruitment of foster families. As Dr. Deborah Shrophsire, MD, Oklahoma City pediatrician put it, "OKDHS is not a parent. They can help identify these kids, protect them, and try to get them back home but they can't be a family."
The 8046 conference provided insight into the personal journey of an ordinary foster child; it taught leaders how to create and maintain foster care/adoption initiatives; it presented the current obstacles to foster care; and it showed individuals how to be part of the solution. If nothing else, it made us glaringly aware of the need and challenged us to at least "DO SOMETHING."
Mark Tennant, a former foster child and the Founder and CEO of Arrow Child & Family Ministries, has seen this process played out hundreds of times. The role of a foster parent is not always glamorous or attractive to those who desire the reward of instant gratification. "The greatest work will be done by families who will never become famous and yet they will be the most significant change agents in our world."
They will provide love where there has been rejection or neglect; they will provide stability where there has only been inconsistency; they will give hope where there had formerly been despair. And, as Marq Youngblood put it, "These children will get the opportunity to actually experience 'God's heart,'" within a healthy family context, possibly for the first time ever.
Ask a number of foster parents to tell you their story and more than likely you will receive a wide variety of responses. Some incredible stories of success, others a story of perseverance, and in some cases a match that just never worked out. What you will also hear from these foster families are stories that transformed them for the better and families that are now stronger than ever as a result of their generosity.
In an effort to aggressively promote an increase in the number of foster families in Oklahoma the 111Project was launched little more than a year ago -- it was a partnership between OKDHS, FaithLinks, and a handful of church leaders willing to address the issue at hand.
These church leaders acknowledged the reality that the church has been involved in foster care in Oklahoma for years making moderate advancements, at best.
The mission: "To leave no Oklahoma child without a father or a family." Could ONE church help identify ONE family for ONE purpose: to become a foster parent/family. If hundreds of churches were willing to help identify and support just ONE foster family in their church then the current state and city conditions would drastically change. The result would not just be an adding of another program to the long inventory of foster care initiatives, the result could change the entire landscape of foster care Oklahoma.
The stated strategy of the 111Project is clear: if Oklahoma has approximately 8,500 children in OKDHS custody with nowhere to go and there are over 6000 in-state churches -- what if every church committed to raising up just one foster parent/family? You do the math.
Could each individual church in Tulsa became a little less concerned with their own agendas, their own programs, and promoting their own name and actually become the church --unified, focused and more determined than ever? This isn't an attack on the church, it's a plea to start becoming the unified, world-transforming agent described in John 17:20-23. If church and state join together, something transforming can be accomplished; apart, each will continue to make mediocre steps towards the cause.
This is a cause so much greater than any one person, one church, or one organization. It is greater than any government agency or program. It will take a citywide and statewide effort of people saying, "I'll do my part. I'll do something."
A few weeks ago the 111Project was introduced in Tulsa County for the very first time -- it was a gathering of pastors, church leaders and community influencers. The question: would your church be willing to identify at least one, if not more, foster families and then have your church surround those families and children to support them on their journey? As a foster parent in our church so profoundly put it, "As a foster parent, would the church be willing to foster me as I foster these children?"
Caring for orphans is not one of the issues that should be optional for the church. It's not one of those areas where they get to pick or choose whether or not they are a part of the solution. It's an issue that is highlighted throughout the Bible and it's something that the people of God must address.
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." --James 1:27
Why do the "orphans" and "widows" receive priority treatment? It's because caring for these people is at the heart of God and is the essence of the gospel message of Jesus Christ. They occupy a special place in the heart of God. The church is called to defend those who can't defend themselves and to care for those who can't care for themselves or ever repay the action. We are all called to "do something."
Part Of the Solution
Part of the process of becoming aware of the issue of foster care in our state and city is becoming informed on the ways you can help. There is no way around this simple truth: we need more foster parents/families in Tulsa. At the same time, if you aren't able to be a foster parent/family for a variety of reasons there are still numerous ways that you can be a part of the solution. Here are a few options for you:
Talk to your pastor about your church partnering with OKDHS and other churches around our state: 111project.org.
Do you know a foster family/parent? Are there ways that you can currently provide support to this family? Ask them.
Contact a number of incredible foster care organizations in our city to find out their needs or how you can begin the process of being a foster parent.
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