The prospects for many of the 400,000-plus children in the U.S. foster care system are dire.
By age 17, one in three is incarcerated, one-fourth abuse drugs and/or alcohol, and one in four exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. By age 19, around one-half lack a high school diploma or GED certificate. By age 21, more than 40 percent have been homeless .
The statistics are shocking. But a nonprofit founded in 1990 through Mesa Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Costa Mesa, California, by Wayne and Diane Tesch continues to make inroads to improve the plight of children in foster care. The organization raises awareness, which leads to deeper involvement from churches through mentorship, fostering and adoption, and camp.
Royal Family KIDS Camp for children ages 6 to 12 remains the backbone of For the Children, the new name of Royal Family KIDS. Becca Johnson, an RFK director and licensed psychologist, believes one week at an RFK camp can be as effective as a year of counseling.
The intervention camp ministry also offers year-round mentoring for children of camp age and older. Now, the organization holds more than 200 camps involving 10,000 campers and 26 denominations annually. One-third of churches partnering with the ministry belong to the Assemblies of God. Additionally, For the Children operates 32 chapters in eight countries outside the U.S.
For the Children has 20,000 vetted and trained volunteers nationwide, many of whom take a week of vacation a year to make a difference in the lives of kids through the intervention camp. In all, 136,000 children have gone through the program, which uses “trust-based relational intervention” developed at Texas Christian University for all its ministries. Many volunteers have decided to become foster parents because of their involvement with the Santa Ana, California-based nonprofit. In 2019 alone, RFK volunteers in the United States adopted 49 children.
Paul Edward Martin, For The Children’s president and CEO, notes that before the mid-1960s, the government didn’t take the lead in child welfare.
“Anything that had to do with caring for a child who experienced beatings, abuse, or neglect was done by nonprofits, especially churches,” says Martin, 55. In the early 1960s, the federal government instituted “common-mandated reporting,” which required teachers and pediatricians to report black eyes and other suspicious injuries to police or social services.
Even though the Bible calls Christians to orphan care, Martin says, in contrast to other social ills, foster care lacks public recognition.
“Awareness of family-induced childhood trauma doesn’t get attention like homelessness and sex trafficking,” Martin says.
COVID-19 lockdowns have worsened the already grave foster care situation, making child abuse and neglect an epidemic within the pandemic as many children remained home for much of the 2020-21 school year, he says. Additionally, there’s no way to know how many should be in foster care because of issues in the home.
“For the first time in nearly 60 years, children have been kept from the primary mandated reporters, who are schoolteachers,” Martin says. “Because of their socioeconomic status, they don’t have Wi-Fi and can’t hook up to a classroom easily and consistently, which means those teachers don’t have eyes on them.”
Martin compares the pandemic restrictions to a hurricane, during which time child welfare advocates can’t assess children’s needs.
“The hurricane is still going on,” he says, in reference to the fallout from the novel coronavirus. “There are children who should be in the foster care system we don’t even know yet.” Later this year, For The Children will launch a public relations campaign to get the word out about the hundreds of thousands of children not being seen by the teachers who know how to spot abuse and neglect.
Meanwhile, Rick DuBose, assistant general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, describes camp as an “on-ramp” for a congregation to become involved in foster care ministry.
“Nationally, we consider one of the best on-ramps for the local church is to start with participation in For the Children programs,” says DuBose, 64. “Many churches that aren’t ready to tackle a full-blown ministry to foster care kids can do camp.” Hosting a camp requires preparation work and a week at camp. Volunteers often return home and opt for greater participation in orphan care.
“Although a big commitment, it’s a great beginning place for any church,” DuBose says. For the kids, “it’s an incredible experience that can be life-changing.”
Photo: Child welfare advocates are (from left) Jay Mooney of COMPACT Family Services, Wayne Tesch, Paul Martin, and Rick DuBose.