IN 2014, the leader of Southampton City Life Church, Paul Woodman, launched a campaign to find foster homes for 40 children (Features, 9 May 2014).
Mr Woodman and other faith leaders in the town were responding to a call for help from the council. An artwork of 40 keys on a board was presented to the Southampton Fostering Team as a sign of commitment.
In total, 60 families came forward to say that they would be interested in either fostering or adopting a child.
Mr Woodman and his wife, Susannah, have themselves been foster parents since 2010. Today, seven families in his congregation of about 200 people foster or adopt, signalling, he says, a culture change.
“There’s not only a greater prevalence of foster families, we are also seeing younger people stepping up,” he says. “They are often at the point where they’re thinking about children, and they are opting as a first choice to foster and adopt.
“In our congregation we have a single 27-year-old, and she fosters a 16-year-old girl — she’s only 11 years older than the girl that she’s fostering.
“When she received her foster-care child, her [school] attendance was way down in single figures, and she’s now up to 100 per cent, which is a massive life outcome for someone who is in their final year at school.
“We also have a couple — both 25 — who have fostered a ten-year-old boy, and they are now looking to adopt him; so they are, again, only 15 years older; they’ve fostered him for the past two years.
“The whole-church approach [has become] steeped in our culture. Last week, a husband and wife who provide foster care for two children became unwell, and she spent most of the week ill. We didn’t have to mobilise them to do it; the church automatically provided meals for the foster family during the week, and then also organised some stay-and-play times, to take the pressure off the foster dad, and offer him some respite too.”
Mr Woodman says that churches that have significant numbers of foster carers, and adopters have needed to change the way in which they work with families.
Inspiring idea: Paul Woodman, with his wife Susannah, and their birth children“They’ve either provided more training for their Sunday-school teachers, so that they are more geared up to understand the needs of looked-after children, and have an understanding about detachment disorder and how to handle behaviour, or a lot of churches have moved to all-age services, making sure that foster-carers and carers are with their children during the service. We’ve done that in our church.”
Churches in Southampton still work with the local authority to promote fostering and adoption: typically on Home for Good’s Adoption Sunday (this year on 5 November), and on Mothering Sunday, and Father’s Day.
“But now it’s just quite commonplace,” Mr Woodman says. “I was talking to some local church leaders [the other] week and one of them mentioned that their adoption leave was coming through, and I did ask whether it was compulsory at their church. If the Church redefines what family looks like, that’s a really exciting thing, isn’t it?”
THERE is a pressing need in the UK for foster parents and adoptive parents. Last year, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service reported that the number of children coming into care was at a 30-year high, nationally. And figures published this year by the Department for Education showed that the number of children in care has increased every year for the past nine years. As of 31 March this year, there were 72,670 looked-after children: an increase of three per cent since last year.
This autumn, for the first time, there will be more children in need of a home than there are parents available to place them with, Adoption UK’s chief executive, Dr Sue Armstrong, says.
A recruitment drive is now likely, and churches are well-placed to step in, Dr Krish Kandiah, the founder and director of the charity Home for Good, which aims to make adoption and fostering part of the Church’s ministry, says.
“The amazing work of the Southampton churches really transformed our work, and gave us fresh vision to see what could happen if a city network of churches really took responsibility for caring for our most vulnerable children,” Dr Kandiah says. “Because of Southampton, we’ve seen other movements develop in Reading, Worcester, Bath, and Liverpool. It really lays down a challenge to other church leaders who might have a vision for their towns and cities.”
The charity has developed “good expertise” in working with councils on city-wide initiatives on fostering and adoption, and any churches that are interested can contact the charity, Dr Kandiah says.
“When a council does work with Home for Good, they get time to train senior staff — social workers, panel members — in faith-literacy, to figure out the best way that they can work with churches. That’s been really revolutionary, and the city-wide approach has built a closer partnership with local authorities as a result.”
EARLIER this month, the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham hosted its second information evening on fostering, which is part of a partnership with Nottingham City Council. “We are looking to get more churchpeople interested in fostering,” the diocese’s director of communications, Richard Ellis, says. More than 600 children are currently in the care of the City Council.
Other information evenings will whuiollow, and display materials will be developed and sited in churches to promote the idea of fostering to congregations. Besides finding new foster carers, it is hoped that the information evenings will help others to know how to support those already fostering in the church.
“It is an essential expression of our Christian faith that we should demonstrate our concern for the well-being of vulnerable children and families in our society and neighbourhood,” the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, says. “Everyone can play a part, whether that means supporting someone who is fostering, or by becoming a foster carer themselves.”
Dr Kandiah says: “We’ve been using the expression: ‘It takes a whole church to foster or adopt a child,’ because we’ve seen so many benefits when the church acts as an extended family around a looked-after child and their carers. So a lot of people now are describing themselves as foster auntie or uncle, or foster grandparent.
“From the very beginning, our mission has not just been to change the numbers of people coming forward for adoption, but to change the mindset of the people coming forward. For a long time, there’s been a lot of adopters waiting for children . . . and there was, sometimes, the mentality that they were waiting for the perfect child, or they were waiting for a baby.
“We are trying to say: actually, it’s about us stepping up to adopt the children that need us most; so it’s not about finding children for families, it’s about finding families for children.”
This month, Adoption UK has made its telephone helpline available to provide support for anyone affected by adoption, or for anyone thinking of adopting. Phone 07904 793974 or 07539 733079.