Faith-based reform for Mississippi’s foster care agency

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, February 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Our final report in a series from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s an area where children seem especially at risk.

One surprising stat concerns child protection services: the state removes children from Gulf Coast homes at a 4-to-1 rate compared to the rest of Mississippi.

REICHARD: Today, we’ll visit a church there that’s creating change in the foster care system. It’s made an unusual collaboration with the state’s child services, courts, and churches of all denominations. One local magazine even labeled its success a “foster care revolution.” Here’s Kim Henderson.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: Busy Interstate 10 stretches nearly 2,500 miles from the Pacific Ocean to Jacksonville, Florida. One local pastor says it’s behind the high number of at-risk kids in South Mississippi.

KARNES: I think primarily the first reason would be the I-10 corridor and the drugs that are trafficked along it.

That’s Tony Karnes, pastor of Michael Memorial Baptist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. He believes the parents of kids in state custody represent the “Katrina generation.”   

KARNES: What I mean by that is that Katrina shook all the things that prior to that seemed unshakeable. The young people who went through Katrina saw that you can lose everything overnight. It created a lot of coping problems. When their world starts to get a little turbulent, a lot of them immediately mentally go to a place of losing everything again. I think it drastically increased the number of people that ended up addicted to drugs.

In the last four years, Karnes has learned a lot about children in state custody. In 2015 he began a sermon series about ordinary people doing extraordinary things for God. He didn’t realize he would instigate major change in the foster care system.     

KARNES: In the course of that sermon series, I came to a passage in the Bible 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. And I began to ask myself, do I know any orphans?

Karnes toured the Harrison County children’s shelter—a temporary housing facility intended for short-term needs, just a day or two at a time.

KARNES: It was completely filled with kids. Many of them had been there for months because there was nowhere to put them. And that was really a defining moment in my life. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen.

In 2015, Karnes called his church to an ambitious goal: 100 new foster families for their community.

Anna Griffin, her sister Amanda White, and their friend Jennifer Bardwell are among the 50 church member families who responded to Pastor Karnes’ 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.

VOICE 1: Now look what has come about—the biggest foster care revolution ever in the state of Mississippi.  VOICE 2: So they, started saying, well, we know a church that has an idea in Gulfport…

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. It was so successful it 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.

SMITH: 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, care closets that meet the physical needs of foster children.  

CHILD: Love you, mom. MOM: I love you, too. (giggle) MOM: I hope you have a great day.

Rescue 100 is dramatically changing lives. The Griffin family started as foster parents but went on to adopt their daughter, Skylar Rose, now 3 years old. The Bardwell family only accepts temporary placements so they can prepare parents for reunification.

BARDWELL: It was probably our third child into it and we actually were mentoring more the biological mom. That’s when God said, now this is your calling.

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. She helped her get a job. She helped her get her child back.

No one at Michael Memorial Baptist Church would say loving orphans is easy though.

KARNES: Our children’s ministries grew exponentially overnight.

That required more volunteers in those departments. And workers needed to be able to handle challenges like cuss words in the middle of Sunday School and kids with socialization issues.  

Rescue 100 continues to grow, with seven training weekends already on the schedule for 2019.

AUDIO: Sound of mother and daughter  

Christians on the coast are serving on the front lines in the fight against youth homelessness and child trafficking, too. They’re helping the least of these in the name of Christ. And bringing real hope to the Gulf Coast’s at-risk kids.

Kids like Jayden White, who’s learning what it means to love like God does.

CHILD AND MOTHER: Proverbs 25 and 21 and 22. If your enemy’s hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he’s thirsty, give him water to drink… 

KARNES. Exposure, it 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.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Gulfport, Mississippi.

(Photo/Rescue 100)

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