Fostering Change: Bridging the Gap between the Church and the Foster Care System

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By Rachel Freeny

The seminary journey is one of exploration where ministers in training can explore and discover their callings. Sometimes one class assignment can change the entire direction of a student's ministry. That's exactly what happened for Paul Knowlton, a third year student at McAfee.

During his first year of study, Knowlton's Pastoral Care class wrote about painful life experiences and shared them in class. The assignment prompted Knowlton to open up for the first time about his experience as a foster child.

“I have always been very silent about my foster care experience, so I kind of came out with my foster care story,” Knowlton says.

The story was short, but when he finished reading it, the room was quiet.

“It was deadly silent, and everybody was staring at me. I had this wave of childhood anxiety, like silent rejection, “ Knowlton says. “As it turns out they were kind of blown away. It was a huge disconnect to see me now, someone who has been a lawyer and somewhat successful but [who has] had that experience.”

Soon after professors and fellow students began to encourage Knowlton to consider how God might be calling him to minister to kids in the system he and his siblings spent nearly ten years in.

“I had no intention of going back to foster care. That was an agonizing time in my life,” he says. “But maybe I've got a responsibility to go back to foster care and help others make this transition from foster care to adulthood.”

Knowlton refers to the current state of the foster care system as an epidemic, with nearly 400,000 kids in the system each year. The system was intended to be a short-term fix of state intervention for families that have fallen apart. Knowlton says more and more kids end up spending their whole lives in foster care.

“Those kids tend to become institutionalized,” he says. “They move from life in foster care, they [age out of the system], and they don't know how to operate. They can't function in the world. It's easier to go into prison or do whatever you think you need to do to survive and wind up dead soon afterward.”

Knowlton knows from experience how difficult it can be to transition out of the foster care system. “I figure foster care cost me about thirteen years out of my life. From the time I took my first college class to the time I graduated college,” he says. “When I graduated from law school I was 39. My daughter was 26 when she graduated from law school.”

It doesn't have to be this way though. Knowlton says he hopes to “condense the journey” for other people and the church is the perfect place for these journeys to begin. He is currently laying the groundwork for a ministry that would allow churches to partner with foster children. The premise is simple: open your doors.

“Like the church has opened its doors to Alcoholics Anonymous and Boy Scouts, it can open the door to foster kids,” he says. “They need a place where they can learn to trust and where they can learn about themselves.”

Churches provide the space and Knowlton provides a program for foster kids ages sixteen to eighteen. Each group would be a safe place for kids to deal with the challenges they face within foster care and transitioning out of the system. There would also be a mentorship component with mentors coming, ideally, from the church.

The place of the church in caring for foster kids goes beyond moral obligation⎯it's a biblical mandate. Knowlton points to James 1:27, where we are commanded to care for the widows and orphans. The church can provide a safe haven for kids whose lives are already filled with uncertainty and change.

As for the scary foster kid stereotype, Knowlton says the church has nothing to fear.

“That scary 15 year old, the one you're afraid of, that used to be me. I may have looked like a thug, but I was a future engineer and lawyer. A future minister,” he says. “You can mentor these kids, it's what you're supposed to do. It's our mandate.”

“We can plant gardens in the churches,” he says. “Let the kids meet. Let there be mentors. Let there be a safe and welcoming place.”

Paul Knowlton is still in the initial stages of forming partnerships and developing programs. He is launching a website with more detailed information about the ministry at the end of November. If you have interest in learning more or potentially partnering with Knowlton, contact him through the website when it launches: http://www.paulknowlton.com