Fighting for families

Sunrise, others leading the charge for children

By Chip Hutcheson

Published: September 1, 2019

Progress been seen in the fight to provide care and hope for Kentucky's vulnerable children — but those leading the charge in that battle say there's much more work to do.

In the trenches of that effort is Sunrise Children's Services. Sunrise president Dale Suttles bluntly stated, "No matter what, Sunrise will never give upon our fight for Kentucky's kids. We will not let drug addiction, poverty and abuse win this current war on families."

Sunrise is the Baptist arm of orphan care and Suttles encourages anyone wanting to help meet the needs of neglected, abandoned or abused children to contact the agency.

There have been ups and down this past year and a half. In January 2018 a fire destroyed the Activity Center at Sunrise's Woodlawn Center in Danville. That center served as a gathering place for boys, a place to exercise and learn life skills as well as relax by watching movies and sporting events.

In the summer of 2018, a donor's gift started the process of establishing in Winchester a "community of care" that will provide safe, loving homes that keep at-risk sibling groups together in a foster setting.

A building in downtown Harlan was purchased, aimed at providing services to families in eastern Kentucky. The upstairs will have six apartments that will provide living accommodations for young adults aging out of the system.

Suttles applauded the discussions and legislative action in Frankfort in recent times.

"Rep. David Meade took the lead to address the shortcomings in the system and to make some fundamental changes as to how we serve Kentucky's most vulnerable children," Suttles noted. Provisions to support Kentucky's hard-to-place children—children who because of age, race or behavioral challenges find it hard to receive a loving placement—needed to be addressed.

"Efforts to encourage the recruitment of families to provide stability and loving homes for these youth are certainly positive steps. Children should not be placed in a residential setting because they simply have no loving family willing to work with them.

Submitted photo

Chris and Alicia Johnson and their 10 children refer to themselves a the "Johnson Dozen." Chris and Alicia work to support the state's efforts to improve foster care and adoption.

"Other positive changes, such as contracting with those agencies that have the capability to provide loving homes that focus on child-driven results and a permanency plan for the child, will be welcomed by many."

Settles added, "Other changes, such as standardized home studies, conducted in a timely fashion that will not hold up the process of a loving family wanting to foster or adopt, is another positive step."

However, even with those positives, Suttles said Kentucky "still has a massive problem on its hands when so many children need to be served. Social workers have enormous caseloads and are mentally drained. Social worker turnover is out of control and cases of children that need home placements are many. And yes, there are not enough financial resources to do it all."

While acknowledging the help at the governmental level, Suttles called on Kentucky Baptists to become more involved.

"We need to have a can-do attitude and roll up our sleeves," he said. "Sunrise has provided care to the orphan for 150 years and Kentucky Baptists have stood up over the years to say this matters — that we will be the hands and feet of Jesus. Children deserve to be loved, cared for, to have a home."

"Kentucky has almost 10,000 children in out-of-home care. The need for foster parents has never been greater and Sunrise will be prepared to stand in the gap, to get into our Baptist churches to ask for their help in combating this runaway train. Sunrise will play a major role partnering with our church family across the state to ask for their involvement to solve this problem.

"The problem is a massive undertaking and only the church can solve it. We need a 'revolution of love' per se, and we ask Baptist families across the commonwealth to join hands with Sunrise to make a difference for the orphan."

A year ago, there were 9,608 children in Kentucky placed in out-of-home care, waiting for their "forever" families. Last year Sunrise completed 49 adoptions and celebrated its 420th adoption since 2006. It serves 1,200 children and adults daily.

Sunrise wants to recruit 100 new families in the next year, and Suttles encouraged all 2,400 KBC churches to rally and say, "All kids matter. We are mandated through James 1:27 to be the difference."

There is a broader issue to consider.

"Why are so many families in crises, why do so many children have the need to find a home?" Suttles opined. "It cannot be denied that because of substance abuse, poverty and bad choices, the family unit has become weakened and the collateral damage is always children. These families need the love and support from the church now more than ever. It is no exaggeration that we may lose most of a generation because of social ills. Yes, we need to help families in crises but when the child needs to be removed, we need loving families to say 'you matter to God.' In this country, no child should be without a loving home and if we don't heed the call as a nation, the cost spiritually and economically could be disastrous."

At the forefront of efforts to help children and families is State Rep. David Meade, who was honored by the KBC last November for his leadership in streamlining the process for foster children to be adopted into permanent homes. He was presented the "Guardian of Life Award" at the KBC annual meeting, but is quick to say there's more to be accomplished. He said that recent legislation has improved the situation — that judges he has talked with have started "using the tools we've given them to make parents stick to their plans and get children back to parents quicker."

Meade said Kentucky will be one of the first states to meet the guidelines by October of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which has the potential to dramatically change child welfare systems across the country. That act involves funds for prevention services that allow for "candidates for foster care" to stay with parents or relatives. The act places a new emphasis on family foster homes. Meade said the act "encourages opportunities to … hold families together."

Meade also wants to better the situation for youths who are aging out of the system. "We need to do better in helping them transition."

Kinship care is also on Meade's agenda. House Bill 2, which he co-sponsored, re-establishes the kinship care program, which allows blood relatives to be paid like foster parents to care for children. "We have about 100,000 children living with a relative, and this bill establishes a program to help families by offering additional services and possibly funds" so blood relatives can receive benefits similar to foster parents as they care for children.

Meade is among the chorus of voices which calls on churches to get involved. "I'm from a rural area, and there is not a lot of focus on foster care/adoption in churches. I would like to see more. We know that's the best place to find resources for these children."

He expects "preservation" to be the primary focus in subsequent legislative actions. "When families are able to get preservation services, 90 percent of the families stay together."

Also waging the fight for children and families are Chris and Alicia Johnson, chosen last year as special advisers in Gov. Matt Bevin's Office of Faith and Community Based Initiatives, tasked to support the state's efforts to improve foster care and adoption.

The Johnsons have 10 children — three biological and seven brought into their home to be "part of our forever family," said Chris. Over the years they've fostered about 40 children. Five of their children came into their home as teenagers who were nearing the time they would age out of the system. Foster care and adoption "is part of our DNA," said Chris, noting they call their family the "Johnson Dozen." They began foster parenting while Chris was lead pastor of a Southern Baptist church in central Florida. Their heart for vulnerable children was contagious — more than a third of the congregation became involved in foster care or adopting children. "It was a big part of our church culture," he said.

"You see a difference when the faith community steps up," said Alicia. Chris added, "We can make a tremendous impact and difference in the lives of kids and families and social workers. Those social workers are underpaid and overworked—things we can do to help them makes their job a little easier."

The Johnsons say they have seen encouraging changes in children's welfare in just over a year in their position. "We have had over 1,400 new families sign up to be foster parents in the last 12 months," he said. "That's a net gain of 800-900 families added to foster parenting roles. The adoption numbers are incredible—more than 1,200 children adopted. What's driving it is the good leadership at the cabinet and department level.

"House Bill 1 last year was really a landmark bill — now we're looking at what's working and how we can do it better, and looking at what's not working and how we can change it," Chris added. "There's a whole new spirit that is hopeful. We're seeing more of a sense of substantial changes being made. God has put the right people in the right place at the right time."

The Johnsons said that while there is definitely a need around the world for adoption, they encouraged Kentuckians to "not forget about the need at home. When you adopt out of foster care through the state, there is no cost and you get some support. There's free tuition to state universities. There are a lot of benefits and incentives."

Chris added, "People don't understand the need. We need to start in our own Jerusalem. No child should age out of the system without a family to support them. There is a great opportunity to impact our children and our state."

The Johnsons pointed out that not all people are called to foster or adopt a child. "But there are other things they can do," Chris noted. "Everyone is called to do something. We urge people to find something you can do. One of the things we love to do is meet with church leadership and help them recognize what their churches can do. We welcome any church, association or group—we'll answer questions or help in any way. We'd be honored to do that."

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