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Mississippi’s ‘foster care revolution’

The Mississippi Gulf Coast is an area where kids seem to be especially at risk. Child protection services there remove children from homes at a rate that outnumbers the rest of the state 4 to 1.

I recently visited with members of a Gulfport church that’s making waves in the foster care system. Michael Memorial Baptist Church has an unusual collaboration with the state’s child services, courts and churches of all denominations that’s been labeled a “foster care revolution.” The work was birthed from a sermon series Pastor Tony Karnes began preaching in 2015.

“I came to a passage in the book of James that talks about pure religion that is pleasing to God is one that looks after orphans and widows in their distress. I began to ask myself, do I know any orphans?” Karnes recalls.

He took a tour of Harrison County’s children’s shelter, housing intended to serve for an emergency day-or-two stay. It was filled with kids. Many of them had been there for months because there was nowhere to put them.

“That was a defining moment in my life,” the pastor acknowledges. “I couldn’t unsee what I had seen.”

Karnes led his church to set an ambitious goal: finding 100 new foster families for their community. Fifty church member families responded to the fostering call, but their paperwork to begin the process remained in Mississippi’s Department of Human Services pipeline for more than a year. That’s a typical delay in today’s overloaded system. Steps to become a foster parent include gathering references, getting doctor approvals, securing life insurance, completing home studies, even vaccinating pets. Applicants expect it to take time, but the drawn-out process can be a deterrent.

Members at Michael Memorial wanted to streamline the process. When they proposed a bold 3-month licensing plan, Mississippi’s beleaguered Department of Human Services paid attention. The idea was to train and equip foster families through online courses and a 1-day event. They named their idea Rescue 100 in response to the need for 100 new foster families in their community.

In April 2016, the church hosted the first Rescue 100 weekend. Its success inspired leaders to expand the program statewide. The result? More than 300 new resource homes.

Sabrea Smith is a full-time employee of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. As part of the collaboration between Michael Memorial and the state, she now directs Rescue 100. She acknowledges the faith-based partnership is unusual: “More so than that, I think, is just the shift that we feel throughout the state of Mississippi. We have churches hosting support groups, hosting respite programs for foster parents and care closets that meet the physical needs of foster children.”

Rescue 100 is dramatically changing lives. I talked with the Griffin family, who started as foster parents but went on to adopt their daughter, Skylar Rose, now 3 years old.

I also talked with the Bardwell family. They accept temporary placements, with a focus on mentoring the biological parents for reunification. For example, Jennifer Bardwell taught one mom how to drive. They had Bible studies together around the kitchen table and discussed how to protect children from harm. Jennifer helped the young mom get a job. She helped her get her child back.

Rescue 100 continues to grow, with seven training weekends already on the schedule for 2019. And there’s other good news on the foster front. The day I was in Gulfport, the church was hosting an investiture service for member Mike Dickinson. The attorney/foster parent had just been elected Harrison County’s new youth court judge, which is really ground zero for the whole foster care program.

But as anyone involved would tell you, it’s the relationships where progress is most evident, like at the White home, where I heard their new son, Jayden, learning what it means to love like God does. I wish you could hear the sweet sound of them quoting together verses from Proverbs, “If your enemy’s hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he’s thirsty, give him water to drink . . .”

Pastor Karnes sums up what happened in Gulfport in one word — exposure. “Exposure will change you. And once we were exposed to the reality that was right under our nose, we, we had to do something. We had to get involved.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.