Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Tera Melber: Welcome back to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Today we have a very special friend of ours. She has been a public servant, serving families and children for many years. Rebecca, welcome.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Tera Melber: Rebecca has worked for 21 years with the Department of Family and Children’s Services in Georgia. She worked for 14 years on the social services side, right? And currently she serves as Social Services Supervisor for Resource Development for Northeast Georgia. That’s a mouthful.
Rebecca: It is actually. I always joke that if you don’t like a title of DFCS, it’s cool, just wait six months, it’ll change.
Tera Melber: I love that.
Lynette Ezell: That’s awesome.
Rebecca: Because now it’s social service administrator for region II for the caregiver recruitment and retention unit. They just changed it all, so.
Lynette Ezell: Wow
Tera Melber: Well, you are a such a joy to know and I’ve learned so much from you and we are just looking forward to hearing your story today, and hearing how you can encourage the church to help foster families.
Lynette Ezell: So Rebecca, before we get started on that, explain to us what your role is with the department right now. What exactly does that big title mean?
Rebecca: The one that won’t fit on my business cards?
Lynette Ezell: Yes.
Rebecca: That one?
Lynette Ezell: That’s the one.
Rebecca: Basically I’m the head of a team of 12 people and our job is to recruit, train, maintain, love on, and support foster families and also adoptive families for 13 counties in North East Georgia.
Lynette Ezell: Wow, that’s amazing. You’ve been working in this space for a really long time now. So how have you seen the landscape of foster care change since you started working in the field?
Rebecca: Oh, there’s a huge shift. Many, many years ago in the dark ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I started, there was very much a distinct separation of church and state. DFCS kind of considered itself this little island all by itself trying to do this work, and about four of five years ago I saw a real C change coming over the organization. They began to realize that this is critically important work. It affects not just the families we work with, but entire communities, and that we had these wonderful preexisting operational basis of just superheros called our faith-based partners that we weren’t tapping into. So and effort was made to reach out and say hey, let’s do this together.
Lynette Ezell: That’s incredible. Well, how can churches come alongside your department and serve you and the children well so that it’s helpful, that we’re not in the way, that we’re not a burden, but how can we serve better?
Rebecca: There are just so many ways. I think the best way to describe is some of my personal experience with what churches have already done. They are helping us with children when they first enter care, they often have nothing but the rags on their back, and although the state, of course, has a clothing allowance, there’s that immediate need right here, right now, today to have supplies for that child so they are packing beautiful suitcases of donated, brand new clothing, hygiene supplies, et cetera, in these lovely little rolling suitcases. All we have to do is reach out and, boom, we have a suitcase for a child. That’s such a wonderful … it seems insignificant but it’s huge because in the midst of the trauma of a child entering foster care and the foster family and all of their disrupted daily pattern now as they’re accepting this child, to know that that little issue is taken care of. There will be clean clothes tomorrow, there will be hygiene equipment for tomorrow, it’s huge.
Lynette Ezell: And when we do that, when Tera and I first began to jump into that ministry, we just love kids and we began to call it restoring dignity, because I just want … I think about a young girl having to go to a new high school the next morning that she knows nothing about, and I just want her to have dignity when she goes there, so that’s what you’re describing to us.
Rebecca: Absolutely, America is starting to see a bit of a shift away from what we call toxic charity. There’s that old saying beggars can’t be choosers, and yet these children are incredibly vulnerable. They’ve already been through all this trauma. Dignity is important. Having something decent to wear, not something from a pile at Goodwill. Not that there’s anything wrong with Goodwill, they do great work too, but self image, particularly for the teenagers, is everything it’s everything.
Tera Melber: I remember, specifically, one of the families would get a call about … and the foster mom and I were talking on the phone and the child was a teenager, and I said okay these are some of the things that we have that are already in the unit and she said “Well, he really kind of has more that skater look” and I thought “Oh, I can totally fix that”. So, we had had a donation of gift cards and so I just ran up to Kohls and they’ve got all that skater look, and it was so fun to be able to shop for this boy knowing that he wasn’t just going to have to wear basketball shorts, which is what my boys would want but it’s not what he wanted.
Tera Melber: And to get him the Chuck Taylors and those kinds of things so that when he went to school that week, that he didn’t have to feel embarrassed about what he had on or, so that was just a small way that churches can really, quickly and easily, be able to serve the foster families right in your back yard.
Rebecca: Oh, absolutely, and they we had a Baptist church pull me aside and say “What can we do for you”, and I said “Well we need more foster families.” Kind of like our conversation.
Tera Melber: Right, exactly.
Rebecca: And they said “No, no, no, we get that and we’re willing to help with that but give us something we can do right now” So I said “Well, I need somewhere to hold a Christmas party for my foster children, my foster parents.” And they were like “Right, you’ve got it.”
Tera Melber: That’s amazing.
Rebecca: From that, they made sure every child that walked through the door had a Christmas present. We had a wonderful day of training, and fellowship, and love, and out of that partnership now they’re permitting us to use their facility to hold classes to train future foster families.
Tera Melber: That’s great.
Rebecca: So, it’s huge.
Tera Melber: So, I remember the day that we met. Lynette and I just called, we were … we said to one another “Hey, we really want to jump into this space and see how we can serve.” And so we just called, actually we just looked up names on the internet and called, and it was a little bit intimidating because we didn’t know what to expect, and so what would you say to somebody who, in their own community, how would you ask them, or think that it’s the best way to approach someone who’s working in the department to be able to maybe see what they need?
Rebecca: Well, I think they need to go down in person to their local … whatever that looks like where they’re at, because I know that this podcast goes pretty wide all over the country, correct?
Tera Melber: Right, mmm-hmm.
Rebecca: Go to their local department and say “My church my organization, we just want to help, get me in touch with the right person to talk to about what it is they need.” Part of the problem with charitable organizations, well it’s not really a problem, but what their concept of what is needed and what is actually needed, sometimes doesn’t quite mesh, so if they can get a sit down with a live, breathing human being. Which I know that can be difficult sometimes, and say “Hey what is it you need?” Much like you did that day, and off the top of my head I said “Uh, we have nowhere to store anything.”
Tera Melber: Right.
Rebecca: Boom, storage facility. It was amazing. So, a chance to talk with a person, and also they should look for organizations similar to Promise686, which already have a framework custom designed to click into churches and set up support communities to help foster families.
Tera Melber: So, Promise686 in Georgia is like a coalition of different organizations and people groups, or people together who want to make a difference. Lynette and I went in with preconceived notion of maybe what you might need, but then to just say “Okay, then you tell us what you need.” And we were considering, “Oh, let’s do the rolling suitcases, let’s do the clothing”, but then you said “Well, really don’t have a place to put all of that.” And we were thinking “Oh, well that didn’t even dawn on us”, that you wouldn’t have a place to put it, so that’s where the storage facility came into being. So, I think that was really good to just be able to go in and say “Tell us what you need.”
Lynette Ezell: Right, and a visual for that. We were able to set up a visual and we’ve seen other churches duplicate that because we kept it simple, and we just tailored it to what you needed, not what we thought. That’s what Tera was saying, not what we thought that you needed. So, say we’re with a church that’s never jumped in this. That just doesn’t really understand how it all works. How would you suggest to them where to begin, just the very beginning steps?
Rebecca: I think the first step is to contact someone from the local department and ask them to come to a meeting of, either the church elders, or small group that’s passionate about starting journey with the division, and sit down and have a conversation. Have a conversation about where that particular community is at.
Lynette Ezell: Because they don’t all look the same.
Rebecca: Oh absolutely not, every county is different. In the 13 counties that I administer the program for, Hall County, I call it our special needy child because we have, I think close to 270 children in custody in Hall County.
Lynette Ezell: Wow.
Rebecca: It’s a staggering amount, and we only have 34 foster homes from the Division of Family and Children Services. We’re working on creating more, at one point we were down to like nine, when we took over three years ago, so we’ve steadily built it. But, what Hall County needs, in the way of foster homes, may not be what Habersham needs in the way of foster homes. So, each county, each individual area needs to sit down and have that conversation and then pick a project and pick a project leader. Organization is critical, there has to be point persons that … okay this person is in charge of sending out communication, and this person is in charge of collecting, and there’s so much that churches can do: storage, diaper drives, suitcases. We have a church up in the north mountains where the ladies auxiliary crochet or knit these beautiful little blankets, these beautiful little … I almost like a receiving blanket but for older children, and they donate those.
Lynette Ezell: Wow, for older children.
Tera Melber: That’s awesome.
Rebecca: Yes, yes, because again, often they’re coming in with absolutely nothing, and when something is given to a child, particularly a child coming from extraordinary neglect and deprivation, something as simple as a blanket that someone took the time to hand-knit, can be huge. And that’s their blanket, it goes with them …
Tera Melber: Wherever they go.
Rebecca: Absolutely, absolutely.
Tera Melber: Wherever they go. And it’s just a great example of the Body of Christ, everyone has a gift. So, you may have a gift of communication, or a gift of organization, or a gift of knitting, or a gift of praying, or … We have ladies in our church that anonymously every Sunday there’s a 25 dollar Kroger gift card, and it’s incredible because we can use it for diapers, or formula, or wipes, or … in Hall County there’s a Super Kroger and you can even buy baby clothes. I don’t even know who gives those cards every single Sunday in the collection plate, but it’s just amazing to me that, faithfully, they keep doing it. And I mean every time we get one, within a week I’ve got a phone call where that somebody needs something that that can specifically can be used for. So, it’s really … everybody has a gift and we just need to figure out how to use it.
Rebecca: Absolutely, and people want to look at the problem with foster [inaudible 00:11:46]. Children coming in at 30 to 50 percent higher rates, depending on the counties. The opiod crisis, methamphetamine crisis, we are having pockets of communities that the family itself, the very fabric of the family, has deteriorated so rapidly due to mental health and substance abuse, poverty, domestic violence, that if everybody is willing to take just a little tiny piece of that pie, we can fix this problem. This is not insurmountable, people that watch the news and shake their head and go “Oh my gosh, this is horrible, I wish there I could do.” Well, there is something you can do.
Tera Melber: Right.
Rebecca: And, not everybody can be a foster family, but we critically need those. But if you can’t foster, you can perhaps volunteer to once a month deliver a hot home cooked meal to a foster home. Perhaps … One of my foster moms said “I wish there was such a thing as laundry fairies that just …
Lynette Ezell: I could use that myself.
Rebecca: “Magically appears at your house, washes the 10 loads of back load dirty children’s clothing and just disappears.” So, we’ve had some folks volunteer to do that, or mow a lawn. Some of these … they’re so busy because with each child there’s court appointments, there’s therapy appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, school counseling sessions, educational … We just recently had a cry out to educators, and teacher are stepping up to the plate and volunteering time to tutor children who are behind educationally.
Tera Melber: That’s great.
Rebecca: So there’s just so many ways people can help beyond just fostering, but we need foster homes.
Tera Melber: Absolutely. Well when you look at the staggering numbers of over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, if we bring it down to our actual county. When you think 270 kids, the church can rise up and they can foster 270 kids in one county.
Tera Melber: So I think it’s just education and making sure that people are aware of the need but that it’s not an insurmountable need, and then finding … I find often, we’ve seen a lot that as families volunteer to do those extra things, the wrap around care for foster families, then they begin to see a foster family in process and how it works and in their hearts many of the say “You know, I think I could do that.” So you start kind of in the fray, wrapping around care and then some even from that will come out and say “I think I can get trained and be a foster parent.”
Rebecca: You’re completely correct Tera, the fear factor starts to diminish.
Tera Melber: Right, yes.
Rebecca: We hear dreadful things, “Oh these foster children, they’re this, they’re that”, no they’re not. They are beautiful, beautiful children who, through no fault of their own, have been tossed into a whirlwind. Yes, some of them have behavior … trauma related behaviors. In my many years of experience at the bottom, at the core, they want consistency. They want care. They want love. And you’d be amazed, two, three, four, six months of consistent care, and love, and appreciation and as one doctor even said; adequate nutrition, hydration, sleep. They transform. It’s literally like watching the metamorphosis of a butterfly, so once that fear factor diminishes, yes more people do step up.
Tera Melber: Right.
Lynette Ezell: And we’re seeing, among our peers, and I’m seeing young single … I’m seeing singles within the church step forward to foster and we just had one close friend and she only had a little girl for the weekend. Her heart was set to have her for a long time, but it just happened to have her for the weekend, and she was just … she fell in love with her immediately. Your right, she was a beautiful little girl who wanted to thrive and wanted to be loved and it’s such a privilege to be able to do that.
Rebecca: It really is and as far as our church communities go, when I realized there was over 130 churches, registered churches in Hall County alone, imagine if each church had just one foster family step forward and then sponsored them with a support network around that family. Think about that.
Lynette Ezell: The church is enough, it is.
Rebecca: We would not have a foster care crisis in Hall County. We would, 100 percent, be able to meet the needs of those children in county, because every time we have to send a child out of county you’re multiplying the trauma. Because now they’re losing their schools, they’re losing their friends, they’re losing their activities, their connectedness to their community. I had one foster parent tell me a story of a little boy going home, he was being reunified and getting hugely excited at just seeing his Walmart.
Tera Melber: Sure.
Rebecca: “That’s my Walmart.”
Tera Melber: Right.
Rebecca: And at the Christmas part this year, the smallest things just mean the world to these children. This one little girl was going through one of the gift stockings and she’s putting aside little gift cards and putting aside little toys, and at the bottom there’s a little package of peanut butter crackers. She was so excited to get those peanut butter crackers. She was just waving them over head and screaming “I’ve got crackers!” So you just, you don’t know and when you touch the life of a child and the birth family, because we asking foster parents nowadays, when safe obviously, to step up and model what a functional family can be, what it can look like. You might not just be modeling a different set of choices and changing that child and that families’ life, you’re affecting the entire community, because if you can change that child from re-entering foster care. You might’ve also saved that child’s children from coming into foster care.
Tera Melber: Right, break the cycle.
Rebecca: Absolutely, it’s huge.
Tera Melber: You all are frontline soldiers in this space, people who are working in this arena, and so the church … 130 churches even if they had two they would eliminate the need for other foster families and so the church can raise up to be foster parents, they can rise up to use their gifts for wrap around care for foster families in all sorts of ways, but there’s also something that the church can do to bless social workers, and the case managers, and the people who are working in that front line seeing the really difficult, being the ones who are having to remove the child in a traumatic situation, seeing a lot of neglect and a lot of really hard things. So, how can we serve you?
Rebecca: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. We’ve had beautiful outreach over the years, we’ve had prayer cards, and thank you notes, and platters of cookies, and I know this is not visual but as you can see I don’t need anymore cookies. I’m doing fine without cookies, but just those little gestures to know that someone out in the community is thinking about them. It can change their entire day. We are trying to get more staff on board, of course there’s state budgeting restrictions. In my unit I have two vacancies truly hoping to fill, but for the existing staff, that is sometimes doing the work of two or three people, and they’re not there for the money. They’re not there for the glamour. They’re there for the children and the families because they really care. Just that little bit of extra love, it matters, it really does.
Lynette Ezell: Every time I’ve had the opportunity to draw close to or get to know, as a friend, a social worker, I realize that when he or she leaves that job they go home to their family.
Tera Melber: Right.
Lynette Ezell: And they really don’t ever get a break, they have to on purpose do things to kind of clear their mind a little bit. If the church can be a part of that to help hold up their arms, we want to encourage everyone to do that, to take some kind of part and play a role in wrap around care for social workers and for foster children.
Rebecca: That would be amazing. Vicarious secondary trauma is very much a real thing.
Lynette Ezell: It is.
Rebecca: For instance, my phone, it’s on 24/7, 365, even when I’m on vacation it’s on. I sleep with it by my bed, if there’s a crisis at 3:00 in the morning, my team and I we’re up, we’re on the phone, hey what can we do, how can we help? It’s just, it’s a lot. I’m not going to lie to you, there’s been nights where I’ve woken up in the middle of the night crying and my husband’s going like “What’s wrong?”, I’m like “I don’t know!”
Tera Melber: Right, just overwhelming.
Rebecca: Especially with the front line investigators, the child protective services, adult protective services, they are going into unimaginable locations. Often with very little back up or support.
Tera Melber: Right.
Rebecca: We were often the first ones into a meth house, we were the first ones into an incredibly abusive situation. They’re brave, they are real … they are heroes. They really are. I did that for many, many years in the field, and my hat’s off to them. It’s a young person’s game. I don’t do that anymore. I knew it was time when you can no longer jump on the car to get away from the dog, it’s time to shift to a different profession, but they need all the love and support they can get. So even if, maybe a church wanted to throw like a, I don’t know, a weekend mental health break, or Mom’s day out for social workers where they could drop their own children off and go get a pedicure or something to that effect that would be beautiful.
Tera Melber: The Christian Alliance for Orphans has a whole segment of free resources of ideas to bless social workers and they have one called, it’s help week, and it’s in May, this month. And so it’s honor, encourage, love, and pray, and they have lots of different opportunities and thoughts about different things that you can do, but just remembering that it’s not just the foster child, it’s not just the biological family, it’s the front line people who are in and out working this on a daily basis. It’s a whole group of people and we all have … we’re not all going to be foster parents, but we can all do something and I think that’s our mantra most all of the time is that we really can all do something.
Tera Melber: And you’re right, these are our communities, so what you’re doing, everything that you do, whether it’s cut somebody’s grass, or take them a hot meal, or take lunch to the case managers at your local department office, all of those things are impacting your community. It’s the place that you live. It’s your backyard. It’s a mission field five minutes from your house, so we can all do something.
Lynette Ezell: That’s right. Rebecca, thanks for joining us today. You are a wealth of information and we would love to continue talking with you and hearing more about your story, so if you can hang tight we would love to continue this conversation.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Announcer: You have been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast, and other relevant resources, visit SendRelief.org.