Answering the Call
Illustrations by Brittany Viklund, www.brittanyviklund.com
A mom anxiously awaits reuniting with her children. She’s made mistakes, but she’s owned up to them and taken all the steps required by a judge to regain custody of the little ones whose faces spurred her progress. All that stands in her way is passing a drug test, which she knows she will do with flying colors. The problem is that test costs $110, and that’s money she doesn’t have. Her DHS caseworker wishes he could help, but, due to budget cuts, the office has no money to offer. She remains in a kind of purgatory, her children sleeping under another family’s roof.
Enter the CarePortal, an online portal that connects the needs of community members like this mom to church congregations ready and willing to help. The families helped through the CarePortal may be biological, who need extra support to keep their kids out of the foster care system or get them back after they have been approved for reunification, or foster, adoptive or kinship families who have immediate needs upon taking children into their homes.
“The church is waking up to the plight of these kids and families,” said Clint Chamberlain, executive pastor of Outside the Walls Ministry at Council Road Baptist Church. His congregation paid for that drug test through the CarePortal.
Churches across the state are stepping up to support families in crisis through the CarePortal and Chamberlain said OKDHS workers are starting to see how much the church cares about these families and the work they do every day to preserve them. He recalls a worker weeping in his office because a church member provided a bus pass to a mom in need. Particularly in light of budget cuts for the state office, the CarePortal is fulfilling needs that otherwise would go unmet.
“The saddest thing in the world is when you are a year and a half in [to a case], moving toward termination with a family because they haven’t been able to do the things they need to,” said Dr. Deb Shropshire, pediatrician and deputy director of child welfare community partnerships for OKDHS. “You look back and see they didn’t have transportation to get to their class. The CarePortal provides another tool to meet some of those things upfront, so there’s less likelihood of a family getting to termination because of a very basic need they couldn’t get met.”
CarePortal leaders in Oklahoma, DHS workers and partner agencies agree: the implications of supporting families in this manner before, during and after kids are in state custody will have a tremendous impact on child welfare in our state.
“We will see a drop in the number of kids in the system,” said Ryan Benton, regional manager for the CarePortal. “And rally around biological parents so kids are put back together whole after the trauma they have gone through.”
Bringing an international program stateside
The CarePortal is a division of the Global Orphan Project, which has been working internationally for more than 10 years to help communities care for children and families in crisis. Working solely through local churches, the Global Orphan Project provides family-based care for orphans and support to keep families together. About five years ago, Adrien Lewis, creator and national director of the CarePortal, says the team felt called to expand its mission to the United States. The team began work locally by asking churches to directly engage their members in adopting and fostering children in need. That request to “jump into the deepest end of the pool” met with some resistance, Lewis said, causing the team to broaden their vision from solely fostering and adopting children to supporting those touched by the child welfare system in many ways. Realizing the gap in both understanding and support between the church and the child welfare system, Lewis had a vision to connect the two with technology. The CarePortal was born.
When child welfare workers identify a need for a family or child, they submit a request for help through the online CarePortal. Using GEO Radius Technology, the CarePortal sends an email invitation to nearby partner churches. The points of contact for those churches reach out to their congregations to see if someone can meet that need. Needs can range from a foster family seeking clothing for a new foster child, a family struggling to pay rent or a biological mom in need of a mentor as she reunites with her child.
“There isn’t the government red tape,” said Jurhee Bilbury, regional district director for OKDHS child welfare services, of the ease in fulfilling requests through the CarePortal. “Our staff is so encouraged that they can access needs so quickly for our families.”
The CarePortal’s efficiency stems from its highly structured team of church point people, regional coordinators, state directors, the CarePortal’s central office advisory team and other partner agencies. Everyone on the team has a specific role to play, from ensuring requests are submitted and fulfilled promptly to providing system-wide direction for the CarePortal’s future.
The CarePortal officially launched on March 1, 2015, in Kansas City and several counties in Texas. Now the program is in eight states, including Oklahoma. The CarePortal launched in Stephens County in fall 2015 and has since expanded to Tulsa and Oklahoma counties. Lewis notes that the leadership team is not chasing after expansion but rather responding as people have an interest in bringing the CarePortal to their communities.
“The technology is an accelerator and helps to remove barriers,” said Lewis, “but it’s the relationships in the community that makes this work.”
Arranged in tiers of assistance, the CarePortal’s initial role in communities is meeting physical needs, like clothing or furniture. Once a community is successfully operating at that level, the next two tiers of care are considered. The secondary tier involves long-term relational care, including supporting families to prevent child removal when possible and building support networks for youth as they transition to adulthood. The third tier engages in recruiting and training foster families, alternate and respite caregivers, helping foster families build long-term relationships with biological families, housing older youth who need family as they transition into society and strengthening biological families that need mentors. Kansas City is the only community that has officially moved into the second tier of operation, but Lewis said as needs are being realized, communities are stepping up.
“You meet the need of bringing a bed, and the next thing you know, you’re bringing a child into your home,” said Lewis. “There are relationships developed between churches and families that cross past tier one every day.”
Launching the CarePortal to Oklahoma
Lewis credits the success of the CarePortal in Oklahoma to the state’s dynamic team working hard to partner with local churches. After seeing the success of the CarePortal in Texas, a team of Oklahomans connected to child welfare and the local church’s efforts came together to determine how it could be duplicated here. Those team members include Shropshire, Benton and Chris Campbell, executive director of the 111 Project and state director for the CarePortal in Oklahoma.
“I have confidence in [Oklahoma’s] child welfare’s desire to see the church engage across the state,” said Lewis. “That can’t be said everywhere across the country.”
It was determined the best place to pilot the program was a small community and Stephens County became the launch point. The Stephens County DHS office embraced the program, and Benton was handpicked to lead the efforts.
“I’m humbled and blessed,” Benton said of being asked to launch the program and develop a model for future Oklahoma CarePortal communities. “When I had the opportunity to do this, it’s everything I’m about because of my own children.”
In addition to his role with the CarePortal, Benton is on pastoral staff at First Christian Church of Duncan, but "dad" is his most treasured title. Benton and his wife, Amy, drive their passion for CarePortal with their own experience fostering and now adopting two children. As the Bentons walk through the adoption process and ongoing relationship with their children’s biological parents, they have realized the need for support and care is crucial to keeping foster families engaged, or biological families together.
“The reason it has been really successful with us is because we had a support system,” said Benton.
While Benton agrees that not everyone is called to be a foster parent, he does believe everyone is called to support foster or struggling biological families in some way, making his role in the CarePortal’s success especially meaningful.
“This is the church fulfilling the commitment through scripture to take care of orphans,” said Benton.
The role of the church
The Global Orphan Project and CarePortal have always relied upon local churches, and Lewis calls that “a pretty significant marker in how we operate.” By bringing together groups of people who believe it’s their calling to help those who are hurting, the CarePortal is making impressive strides in Oklahoma, impacting more than 250 families and 560 children through 192 churches as of mid-June. DHS and church leaders alike agree that the church as a whole has been largely absent from supporting child welfare. The CarePortal has changed that, restoring faith in the local churches as an active advocate of families in crisis.
“The churches have been so responsive,” said Bilbury, who calls the CarePortal an answer to prayer. “We see the church wanting to understand what we do and come alongside us.”
Seeing a marked division between the church and DHS in the past has been troubling for Bilbury, but while she knows the church and DHS won’t always agree, she sees the CarePortal as a significant step in the two entities working together to create change. CarePortal leaders believe the ministry has the power to shift stereotypes about the church as well.
“When you say ‘my life, my comfort is going to be put on hold for the sake of those that can’t stand up for themselves,’” said Benton, “that transforms the church and calls us back to the reason we exist on this earth.”
Life.Church began its partnership with the CarePortal in March. The church’s small group ministry has already fulfilled the needs of hundreds of children. Through its affiliation with the CarePortal, adoption and foster care events, and a sermon series about foster care, Life.Church has engaged nearly 1,000 of its members to become or directly support foster and adoptive families, all with a focus on not just providing resources but also building long-term relationships.
“Through the CarePortal, the church can meet the needs of children, families and social workers much more quickly than a social worker trying to do it alone,” said Tony Doland, LifeGroups/Missions Pastor at Life.Church Oklahoma City. “By partnering with DHS, the church can embrace families and become part of the solution to the foster care crisis in Oklahoma.”
Benton explained the team doesn’t expect every church to transform its programming or rethink its ministries to support the CarePortal. Instead, they ask churches to look for how fulfilling these types of needs fits in to what they are already doing and what their congregations are passionate about.
“If a church has a ministry that makes meals for members who are sick, they might say when a foster family takes in a new child, we’ll make meals for them, too,” said Benton. “If a church has a ministry that sends cards to people who are hurting, they could also send notes to caseworkers to encourage them. There is not a church that isn’t already doing something that can’t be adapted into orphan care.”
As Benton has watched the economy suffer and families endure lay-offs, he sees the CarePortal as a beacon of hope.
“When I look at where we are as a state and the financial struggles within DHS, as well as every other agency, it’s perfect timing,” said Benton. “God is saying ‘this is a tough time, but I’m going to take care of the children.’”
The CarePortal in action
The team in Stephens County has been fulfilling CarePortal requests since September 2015. They have provided clothing for several kinships placements. A local church supported a family whose sole breadwinner lost his job, providing a refrigerator, washing machine parts and winter coats for the family’s children. A group provided materials and built a wheelchair ramp for a child with Cerebral Palsy to safely get in and out of the home. They have supported a mother who successfully completed drug rehabilitation and was reunited with her three children but needed help paying rent. They provided a carseat to a mother who had fulfilled the requirements necessary to begin unsupervised visits with her child in custody but didn’t have a safe way to transport her.
When Benton got a request for a bed for a girl whose family had just moved into the community, that need was immediately fulfilled. Upon delivering the bed to the home, Benton realized the family had almost nothing else.
“I just shared some pictures of the house and asked people to help,” Benton said of reaching out to local church partners. “It was amazing that for about three days they continually received more and more things.”
Bilbury has seen significant impact on families whose kids aren’t in custody but who need support to keep their kids safe. One such family had an aunt taking in four additional kids so the biological mom could get back on her feet. Because the kids aren’t in custody, the aunt gets no financial support for the additional food and gas money she needs to transport the kids to school and counseling appointments. Eventually, something had to give, her bills got behind and her water and electricity were shut off.
“I think it was $113, and to the church that helped, it wasn’t a lot of money,” said Bilbury. “But to us in light of the budget cuts, it is a lot. That worker was so impressed by how quickly and easily it was taken care of.”
Bilbury hopes that as churches meet families like this one, they will surround them with love and support, so that as other needs arise the family knows where to turn.
“This will prevent kids from coming into custody,” said Bilbury. “Long after DHS is out of the picture, they will have made that long-term connection.”
In beginning to meet those relational needs, Shropshire envisions that the CarePortal could assist in connecting a mom who needs a ride to counseling sessions each week. When a case worker has a family that could use help learning to manage money, they could be connected to a church hosting financial coaching sessions. “Our families we serve don’t know how to find those things,” said Shropshire.
Supporting case workers
Benton speaks to various groups in Duncan about the CarePortal, and at one such event a woman in the crowd caused him to reconsider the full impact of the program. With tears streaming down her face, the woman explained that her husband, a DHS supervisor, has received such tremendous support for his clients through the CarePortal that he’s now able to come home at a reasonable time each night to be with his children.
“She said ‘my kids have a dad again, thanks to the CarePortal,’” said Benton. “I had never considered the impact on not just the kids and families we can reach, but also the support staff of DHS.”
Overworked and beat down by the pressures of the job, the calling of social work can seem futile even to the most passionate of workers.
“They are in social work for a reason,” said Bilbury, who describes the heartache of working with a mom trying to keep her kids safe in her home, but who has no money to buy them clothes. “We want to help these families, and this is such a blessing.”
Being able to provide for the families they care about has been a dream come true, but the encouragement of the staff may be the real prize.
“This is going to help with worker retention, to know they are supported,” said Bilbury.
Lewis agrees that the CarePortal team didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the CarePortal’s impact on DHS workers early on. He’s heard from various workers who say they no longer feel alone in their quest to support families in need.
“When you are in a government job and you feel it’s all on your shoulders, it shouldn’t be that way,” said Lewis. “God made it really clear that we are responsible to care for those in need. When it comes down to meeting the needs of a family who’s on the edge, it’s the church’s job to do that.”
The future of the CarePortal
Shropshire predicts a six-figure impact this year in Oklahoma in terms of goods, services and resources provided to families through the CarePortal. In Oklahoma County alone, 300 kids have been helped and a $30,000 impact tallied, all since May. Most importantly, Shropshire is confident the CarePortal will have a direct impact on cases.
“One of the things I love is the tool actually captures information about how the request will help the case,” said Shropshire. “It asks workers when they enter information will [the request] help the child stay at home, or get back home?”
Bilbury believes the long-term support of the families connected through the CarePortal will lower the rate of children returning to care.
“So much of why kids come into custody is because they don’t have a support system,” said Bilbury. “This builds the relationships between churches and child welfare.”
While there is still much work to be done, Bilbury has seen an increase in the number of foster homes in the state. As churches embrace the CarePortal, she hopes that translates into more individuals considering becoming foster parents.
“When the church’s people have a positive interaction with the CarePortal, they say ‘maybe we’ll take this a step further,’” said Bilbury. “What we all desire is that no child has to wait, that we have foster homes lined up for every kid who needs it.”
Sign up for CarePortal here.