In the same way churches have "adopted" schools, mentored students and encouraged teachers, the state is asking communities of faith to step up to the plane when it comes to the state's foster system.
Through its faith-based initiative, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is seeking to partner with churches, synagogues, mosques and the like to support the state's foster children and their families.
"The things that we can do together to help these families can be very powerful," said Tonya Fuller, the department's Region 4 faith-based specialist covering 23 counties.
Though the state agency's faith-based initiative is not new - it dates back to 2003 - it has been given new life.
Felicia Mason-Edwards is the division administrator for faith-based programs for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
She said with strong support from Gov. Greg Abbott and his wife, Cecilia, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman Jr. outlined a 10-point plan, in which the seventh point was increase faith-based involvement.
In January, Mrs. Abbott and Whitman sent a letter to all faith communities around the state asking them to get involved in the child welfare system.
Ms. Mason-Edwards said the commissioner strongly believes the faith-based communities are a part of the solution to the problems of child welfare.
Part of the reason for that is the numbers. Statewide there are more than 20,000 faith communities, Ms. Mason-Edwards said.
In Texas, about 30,000 children are in foster care, some 14,000 of those with relatives and 16,000 in paid foster care.
The thought is if every one of these faith communities supported (not adopted or housed) a foster child or family, almost all the children would be taken care of.
HOW TO HELP
So, what does supporting a foster child or family look like? Anything a faith community wants, literally.
The slogan for the faith-based initiative is, "If you can dream it, we can do it. Just don't lose faith in our process."
The options abound. One example is donating new items to the Rainbow Room. The Rainbow Room is an emergency resource center available to Child Protective Services caseworkers to help them meet the critical needs of abused and neglected children.
The room, which is located at the county's Family Protective Services offices, is stocked with new items such as school supplies, clothing, shoes, diapers, toys, car seats, beds, bedding and personal hygiene items.
Another example would be for a church to designate and provide a room to be available 24/7 for a child without a placement.
The state would use this when a child has to be removed from a home and there is no place immediately available for them to place the child. The state would provide the personnel to watch the child or children. The church would simply provide the space and ideally outfit it with a bed and other child-friendly items.
Birthday in a box is an option. This is when a person donates money so the state can purchase supplies such as cake mixes, icing, candles and plates. This allows children who are removed from their homes on or around their birthday and placed in a foster home to be able to have a birthday party.
Opportunities also extend to Child Protective Services workers. A church may want to provide snacks, gift cards or a lunch to these employees. Pastors could come to the office once a month to be available for support or confidential conversations if the CPS workers need to talk about a hard experience.
Foster families also need support, and churches can provide respite care or monthly meals to them.
Other ways to help include an exterminator providing services free of charge to a family that needs them, or a church member donating a bed to a family.
The options are endless and Ms. Fuller said there is a lot of freedom for churches to develop the ministry the way they want to develop it.
"We just want churches to know at the end of the day we need them," Ms. Fuller said.
CHURCH & STATE
The question that inevitably comes up is that related to the separation of church and state. Essentially that doesn't come into play in this situation. The First Amendment gives citizens the right to practice any religion they want and prevents the government from officially recognizing or favoring any religion.
The agency is clear this faith-based initiative is open to all faiths and though this is obviously targeted to faith communities, the department is happy to work with non faith-based groups as well such as the Lion's Club, Girl Scouts, etc.
In addition, foster families and/or children are not required to participate with a faith-based community or its activities, Ms. Mason-Edwards said.
Faith-based volunteers have to undergo background checks and training just like anyone else.
Finally, no money is being exchanged from the state to the faith-based communities. Everything the communities would do is voluntary.
Ms. Mason-Edwards said moving forward, her desire is to see this initiative expand to all communities of faith. She said because a state agency is involved, a lot of people are like, "what's the catch?"
There is no catch, "We're just asking you to partner with us," she said.
"Everybody can do something," Ms. Mason-Edwards said. "It's just a matter of what people are willing to do."
A CLOSER LOOK
The first step for local faith communities or individual members wanting to get involved with or learn more about the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is to contact their regional faith-based specialist. In East Texas, that is Tonya Fuller, who can be reached at 903-683-3847 or by email at Tonya.Fuller@dfps.state.tx.us.