HURRICANE, W.Va. — Aiming to improve the state of foster care in West Virginia and addressing how to make a positive change for those in the foster care system, the All In Foster Care Summit took place Wednesday at the River Ridge Church’s Teays Valley Campus.
Church leaders, foster and kinship families, members of the West Virginia faith community and organizations focused on foster, adoptive and kinship care were invited to the summit, which included a series of panels, such as the Family Advocacy Ministries in the Mountain State panel, featuring Monica Robinson, Foster WV Advocate and RidgeKids 45 coordinator at River Ridge Church.
According to recent data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 6,200 kids in foster care in the state, making the state the highest per capita in the country. Thirty percent of those children are teenagers, at risk of aging out of the system, and with a 28% vacancy rate for social workers in the state, filling those vacancies requires higher rates of pay for social workers, as well as creating better working conditions, Robinson said.
“That’s what we’re still working on in our state,” she said. “I know some amazing social workers that are dedicated and they are hardworking, and that is one thing that has kept me going over the years.”
Additionally, Robinson said not everyone understands how the foster care system works; not all children in the system can be adopted, as sometimes they are removed from their home due to abuse, neglect or abandonment, and their parents, in most cases, are given an improvement plan to complete while children are placed with a foster family.
The average time that a child spends in the foster system or in a foster home is 20 months. During that time, while birth parents are completing improvement plans, it is the role of the foster family to take care of the children and provide stability, counseling, therapy and fulfill all other needs of the children, Robinson said.
“Their job is to promote reunification between that child or children, and if the parents complete that improvement plan, then they are reunified; if they do not, then they can either voluntarily relinquish or the court will terminate their parental rights,” she said. “At that point, the children become adoptable, and that can be, for many of our friends and colleagues, a long wait.”
Foster and adoptive families sometimes need support themselves to care for foster children, as well as biological children, which is where churches and other support systems come in, and a goal of Wednesday’s summit was to connect and encourage these systems of support, said Jason Hager, foster parent and member of River Ridge Church.
“We’re trying to activate the church, the faith communities, the local communities,” Hager said. “The system that we’ve outlined and have used is making a difference in helping foster families.
By helping foster families, we’re allowing them to foster longer and then become interested in fostering kids. That’s what today is about.”
Wednesday’s summit launched an initiative to bring in communities, faith communities, churches and those with an interest in talking about the foster care crisis in the state, Hager said.
“We’re calling it a crisis because it is; we try to lean on the positives of foster care and talk about the good things happening, but we do have a crisis with the amount of kids in the system right now,” he said. “By bringing these groups of people together, we feel like we can change that.”
River Ridge Church has a team of volunteers who provide support for foster families, taking some of the day-to-day burden off them, Hager said.
“One of the things that I’ve seen from what we have been doing is that when you wrap a group of people around a family who was fostering, we’ve seen them have less burdens,” Hager said. “The message we’re trying to get out is that by creating these support networks of people around foster and adoptive families, we can make a difference.”
Another guest panelist at the summit was Matthew Peiffer, who said taking part in the summit was important to him because it allowed young people with lived experience to be part of addressing change. Peiffer was adopted at age 3 and abused for 13 years by his adoptive parents, until age 16, when he entered the foster care system once more.
“So often people think they have the best ideas for what they think needs to change and happen, but they don’t really invite, per se, me to the table to have those conversations with them,” Peiffer said. “They just make these decisions on their own.
“Being invited to an event like this and having my experience being heard is the most impactful for me, but I think a lot of the people here in the audience are sort of wondering what they can do to make a difference and how they can spearhead different projects in their own communities, churches, government agencies, etc.,” he continued.
One way to make a difference is churches and other organizations creating programs to help better teach foster youth life skills, such as learning how to change a tire or how to tie a tie, Peiffer said. Government leaders can also acknowledge May as Foster Care Awareness Month to further spread awareness.
“A lot of people want to help but don’t know how, so if we can get communities more empowered to be helping and supporting families, that would be a big impact,” Peiffer said.
Originally from Indiana where he started his own nonprofit, Peiffer became acquainted with West Virginia foster care organizations, including Chestnut Mountain Ranch, and was invited to speak at Wednesday’s event, where he said he wanted to empower the state to include those with lived experience in discussions and policy.
“I just wanted to be a voice for so many other kids that are going through these types of abuse; there’s no reason a child should have to endure 13 years of abuse,” Peiffer said. “There should be people who are trained and can acknowledge when a situation is going on.
“I made it my mission to focus on child abuse, foster care and adoptions, how we can have safer communities, safer adoptions and also support foster youth and aged out foster youth. I work a lot on policy and trying to make a difference anywhere I can,” he continued.
Founded in 2006 by executive director Steve Finn, Chestnut Mountain Ranch is a Christian children’s home with a nationally accredited school.
“We started building this model that is being used around the country where, historically, foster care has been the church, and about 100 years ago, that pendulum shifted,” ” Finn said. “But the pendulum is coming back.”
A grassroots movement of churches and foster family support leads to children having stability, safer homes and a community around them, Finn said.
“We’re seeing this movement where churches are equipping and launching couples, not only getting them into the world of foster care, but they’re sustaining them in that role of providing care for those children by providing these care communities,” he said.