When faith makes a family
Oklahoma churches, including many in Tulsa, are partnering with the state to meet the needs of children in foster care.
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It takes a village
“The (Laura Dester Children’s) Center is kind of one of those places that’s out of sight, out of mind,” says Ulysses Allen, OKDHS foster care recruitment shepherd. “My first time there I was shocked, and my heart was wrecked from the thought of these kids living in a center. It’s a nice building, a nice facility. But I thought, would I be a guy who could function in society if I had to come home to a room with a bed, with no mommy, no daddy, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no friends?”
Allen, who also is a Tulsa minister, helps guide 111Project families through the fostering process. He says the ratio of children to beds drove OKDHS to expand foster family recruitment efforts to the faith community.
The goal of OKDHS is to reunite children with their biological families, according to Allen.
“However, if they can’t be with their family, we feel they should be in a more structured or stable place — the next best place — without moving them,” he says.
Children are moved from family to family for myriad reasons, often because the foster parents feel they are not equipped to handle a certain child or behavioral issue, Allen says.
But with so many more children than families to foster them, it’s unlikely placement matches will improve, says Candace Morton, child share coordinator at Oklahoma United Methodist Circle of Care, a 111Project partner that supports foster families by providing them clothes and other resources.
“I would love to have a line of people saying, ‘I’ll take some children into my home’ the moment they come into care, but right now we’re going, ‘Here’s 67 of them. How many can you help us with?’” she says. “And that’s sickening, that we have that many kids waiting on a family to step up and take them and their siblings.”
While OKDHS prefers to keep siblings together, sibling groups are even more difficult to place in a home than individual children. Jonette Coquat, 33, has experienced firsthand the challenges of fostering a sibling group. She has been raising three siblings, ages 8, 4 and 3, for the past 3 1/2 years.
Coquat, who is single and works full time, says she intended to foster only one child. In 2009, she formed a relationship with a woman and her young son.
The boy was taken into OKDHS custody, and Coquat was identified as someone who might foster him. A social worker called to ask if she was willing.
“He was just the coolest kid I’d ever met,” she recalls. “I thought about it, and I said ‘yes.’”
About a month later, OKDHS notified Coquat it would only place the boy in a home with his little brother, who had been living with another caregiver. She didn’t hesitate to take in both boys.
However, Coquat soon received another surprise: the boys’ birth mother was pregnant, and OKDHS wanted to place the baby with her brothers. A few months after the baby girl was born, Coquat welcomed a third child into her home.
Coquat, who attends City Church, told her pastor what she was doing and soon found church members stepping up to provide the assistance she desperately needed.
“I’m a single parent who was planning on taking one child,” Coquat says. “I wanted to be faithful to take care of these children, but I knew I had to have support.”
And support is exactly what she has received from church members, she says.
One woman has brought the family a meal every week for the past two years. A young man takes the boys to get barber shop haircuts. Ladies come over to paint her daughter’s nails.
A hair stylist cuts Coquat’s hair free of charge. Another woman surprised the foster mom by offering to create a scrapbook for each child, which she then presented to the family. And other donations aren’t hard to come by either.
“I haven’t bought any clothes (for the kids) between the foster care association and the church’s hand-me-downs,” she says.
Church members also provide childcare while Coquat attends a Bible study, where she enjoys adult interaction. As an outpatient therapist who counsels children all day, Coquat says this is her most pressing need.
Not having a male presence in the home has been a challenge, but Coquat says several men from her church take her oldest son to little league practice and games. Four men in particular are on “speed dial” for times when the boy has behavioral problems that need a dad’s perspective. A few times, she has called one of the men to come over and take him for a walk.
“I don’t know what they’ve said — man-to-man-type stuff — (but) they’ve helped me,” says Coquat, who plans to care for the three children for as long as possible. “Once (her son) knew I had people on back up, things changed.”
Her biggest challenge, she admits, is asking church members for help. She typically is the one helping others. But the reality is, “I need the church to foster me as I foster these children,” she says.
The support Coquat has received is a great example of what the 111Project seeks to do — encourage the local church to serve as a support system for foster families within their congregations, Myers says. The concept smacks of the old adage, “it takes a village to raise a child.”
“What we see over and over is, if families aren’t supported, they burn out,” Morton says. “Our biggest obstacle to overcome is that burnout because once a family is committed (to fostering), we want to keep them going. If we can build on the number of families we have instead of replacing those that we’ve lost, we’re going to have enough families.”
Coquat says the 111Project is important because it communicates that church members should serve where their talents lie, whether that is as a foster parent or in a support role. And even the little things people do help her more than they know.
“If I didn’t have that help … if I didn’t have the church, I’d tell people, ‘Huh-uh. It’s too hard, don’t do it,’” she says. “I can’t do it without the church.”
Including Coquat, approximately four families of City Church’s 300 or so members are somewhere in the process of fostering or adopting through OKDHS, says the Rev. Jim Moss, community pastor. For every one family, several have stepped up to provide support.
Moss says he believes in the mission of the 111Project because of his personal experience growing up in OKDHS custody. Moss never met his father, and because his mother could not care for him, he entered the foster care system at 5 months old.
After an initial placement with the Moss family, he went back and forth between his biological mother and the Mosses for several years. He stayed briefly at a children’s shelter when his mother kidnapped him in fourth grade, moving him from Woodward to Enid. When he was 8 or 9, the Moss family obtained his permanent guardianship, which Moss says “gave me a lot of peace.”
“Being on both sides of this, it works because it’s not our idea, it’s God’s idea, that these kids would grow up in a family and in a home,” he says.