At the tender age of eight, Carly Souza witnessed a classmate's adoption and it made a lasting imprint on her heart. Watching that journey unfold, Carly knew that one day she wanted to adopt. Little did she understand then just how profound that dream would become.
Fast forward to today. Carly and her husband, John, have seven incredible children; five by the gift of adoption through foster care and two by birth. She's also leading Fostering Hope, a Las Vegas church-based ministry she founded in 2012.
Fostering Hope is working alongside churches in the Las Vegas valley to grow the number of certified foster families, provide ongoing support for current foster parents, bring awareness and education to the unmet needs in the valley, and meet the practical needs of local agencies caring for children.
In the United States, there are roughly 500,000 children in the foster care system. In Clark County, Nevada, where Fostering Hope operates, there are approximately 3,500 children in foster care ranging in age from birth to eighteen years old. A heart wrenching 28% of these children have experienced four or more placements within the system. In February of 2017, Clark County reported 1,002 licensed foster homes, leaving a large discrepancy between available homes and children needing placement.
While the goal of foster care is reunification, there is a tension to provide beneficial and healthy interim care for a child who has been removed from their biological home. As a result of these experiences, children will likely have experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect. The statistics are dire for older children. More than 23,000 kids age out of U.S. foster care each year. Without the support that comes from an adoptive family or permanency connection, these children face tough odds. Many will end up with chemical dependencies, criminal records, pregnancies and even being trafficked. Few will graduate college. It's a critical opportunity for every congregation to act on the biblical mandate of James 1:27.
According to Jason Weber, National Director of Foster Care Initiatives for Christian Alliance for Orphans, in the past "the church would kind of sit back and sometimes be critical of the state and talk about all the ways they're falling short to a different approach of humility." But now, states Weber, "Churches are saying, 'Man, we were supposed to be at this party a long time ago. We're here now. How can we help?'"
There is still a challenging amount of caution from all facets when it comes to engaging the church and foster care. Carly experienced that first-hand. She and her husband were thrust into the foster care world by accepting a placement of four siblings ranging from 7 months to 5 years of age, just five weeks after fast-tracking from attending the first informational session on how to become a foster parent to bringing the four children into their home. While she and her husband had a strong support system of family and friends to help, she realized the desperate need she had for a community who understood her specific situation and all the physical, spiritual and emotional needs that come with caring for kids with a history of trauma.
So Carly opened up her home to other foster families to meet once a month for encouragement and support. The group outgrew the space of meeting at her home so she asked her church if they could hold the support group there. With hesitation, they agreed. It wasn't until a few years later, after hearing Carly's heart to grow what was becoming a vital resource to foster families, that the church stepped in to provide more space, childcare, assistance, and now, a fully engaged church - even to the point of calling foster care a core ministry of the church and bringing on Carly as a staff member to run Fostering Hope.
Even the Department of Family Services (DFS), who was skeptical that a church could host and facilitate classes to certify families to become foster parents, reached out for greater engagement and partnership.
To date, Fostering Hope has had 300 individuals go through certification classes, including families from outside the church. Every week, over thirty foster families meet for fellowship and community while the children in their care spend time learning about Jesus and are loved and cared for by the church body.
But foster care is messy and redemptive and hard and beautiful, all at the same time. There is no simple reason a child is in foster care and Carly is forthright about the fact that there is a lot of spiritual warfare that takes place.
"The spiritual battle in the foster care system is unlike anything I've ever seen, and we must stand in the gap for these families. Their eternity depends on it," Carly says. It's not just a temporary need that she sees being fulfilled by fostering kids. The end game - the long term goal - is to reach Las Vegas for the Gospel, through kids.
"Isn't it just like Jesus to use a child to reach an adult, even bringing foster families to Christ?"
In the foster care system, a healthy family reunification is seen as the best outcome, whenever it's possible, for the child. Adoption is not a miracle cure because children have experienced different levels of trauma that impact their brain, behavior and their emotional wellbeing. Families willing to step into that need ongoing support and encouragement. Embracing a child, with all of their trauma, beauty, joy, and fear is costly, too, because a person will share in the pain these kids have known. There will be a level of suffering.
"I knew following Jesus wouldn't be easy but there is a holy element to suffering. What we experience is nothing compared to what Jesus suffered for us," said Carly. "Any suffering we experience is worth it if it grows the Gospel."
Megan West is Media Director of My Faith Votes is a nonpartisan movement that motivates, equips and activates Christians in America to vote in every election, transforming our communities and influencing our nation with biblical truth. By partnering with national faith leaders, My Faith Votes provides resources to help Christians Pray, Think, and Act to create an America where God is honored in the public square. Visit MyFaithVotes.org to learn more.
If you'd like to learn more about Fostering Hope, find out what you can do in your own community and also connect with Carly Souza, visit www.fosteringhopelv.com.