KATIE ISRAEL: I was running from the law and was making bad decisions and not worried about consequences, and I ended up getting pregnant.
LEIGH JONES, HOST: Katie Israel turned to meth after a divorce sent her life into a spiral. She ended up in prison and then missed a court date on probation. When the state checked up on her, they took away her 9-year-old son.
ISRAEL: I was on drugs and had drugs and you know, and my kid was there. So they did hair follicle tests on him and he failed. So he had drugs in his hair.
She was charged with attempted aggravated child abuse. Katie took off. But then, she realized she was pregnant. With twins.
ISRAEL: It's not the babies’ fault, you know, so I turned myself in and they ended up sending me to prison. And I didn’t know what I was going to do.
She arrived at the Tennessee Prison for Women on Thanksgiving Day 2019.
ISRAEL: So I'm just in there. Crying, distraught, didn't know. And so people were bringing around little gift bags for everybody because it was Thanksgiving. And Susan showed up…
Susan Moffitt directs Palmer Home Family Care, a program that connects incarcerated single mothers with families who care for their children while they’re in prison.
ISRAEL: …and she came in, and she's just like, I already looked up your information. I know, you're pregnant, do you have anywhere for your kid to go?
Katie started crying. She didn’t know where her babies would go.
ISRAEL: I had the babies and I'm handcuffed to the bed. It was rough. But yes, I had and I had to go right back to prison. I didn't even get to hold Maya at first because she had tubes in her and they were premature. So that was rough. It was really rough.
A volunteer couple helped care for Israel’s twins while she was an inmate. They never entered the foster care system, and Israel never officially lost custody. Now they’re a family again, and she still has a relationship with the couple who cared for them.
Palmer Home Family Care is one of many Christian ministries that are part of a shift in focus from adoption to prevention—coming alongside families in crisis before their kids enter the system … meeting them with more than material help. For many struggling families, it's all about relationships—connections that shatter their prison of isolation.
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything In It, this is Effective Compassion. I’m Leigh Jones.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
When it opened its doors almost 125 years ago, Palmer Home for Children had a different focus. William States Jacobs led the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Mississippi. He urged them to establish a home for children in need. Four years later, in 1899, it opened its doors as Palmer Orphanage.
Drake Bassett is president and CEO of Palmer Home.
BASSETT: So nearly 100 years later, what we're having to pay attention to is the need to be nimble, the need to adapt based on what the needs are, but also on what we've learned.
Now Palmer Home does a lot more than house and care for children.
BASSETT: It's very easy to just put your arms around that child and kind of take their story. And oh, let me help you. And let me do this. And all of that's good, and in some ways, very legitimate. But you have to remember that they're already part of another story. And that whole story, you know, we talk about ‘whole child’ a lot, but part of that includes understanding their whole story. That's part of a child's whole story and included in that is their family. And so if we're going to really serve them, we do need to have a connection with that family if possible.
Palmer Home now provides residential foster care on a sprawling campus in northern Mississippi where children dirty their hands in the garden and interact with animals by caring for cattle.
Palmer Home also places children in foster families. Another program helps 18-24 year-olds transitioning out of foster care become independent. But in 2014, Palmer Home partnered with a program that had a different mission: breaking the foster care cycle.
BASSETT: So what we've learned is that children thrive, now this is no surprise, they thrive in a family setting. But if you have historically been an organization that brings children to you, I think you have to think in terms of how do you put children back into the best possible places. So obviously, the first would be if the family can reunify, then you want to work with that family. I think we have a disposition of faith that says that the family is the ideal setting. And not only because it sounds good, there is a biological connection, that is something that needs to be respected. We're made in the image of God, we are connected to our one mother and our one father.
Palmer Home also serves incarcerated mothers like Israel in the Nashville area through its family care program.
BASSETT: You know, sometimes the families who have found themselves in this situation are the product of multiple patterns and multiple generational patterns of their own cycle. And so when you realize that they never really had the skills in the first place, or maybe never had the support, to become a family in ways that that we know can be productive.
Palmer Home Family Care program director Susan Moffitt used to work as a therapist for children in foster care. She says the key to success is keeping mothers connected to their children.
SUSAN MOFFIT: When I worked in foster care, previously, all those parents had lost custody of their children. So we really value you know, that we're able to help moms keep custody.
That gives mothers hope. In 2020, just under half of children in foster care returned to their parent or primary caregiver.
MOFFIT: Sometimes women do give up more easily when they've lost custody because it looks like an impossible list of to-dos. I mean, we really try to own that list with a mom, you know, that she doesn't feel like, she's just been given a list. But you know, we all love this baby, we all love this mom. And so we all will hurt to have those things. And we all feel some joint responsibility in helping her have those things.
Many of the mothers are still battling the drug addiction that landed them in prison.
MOFFIT: Sometimes we have moms who are able to get through good treatment programs and do really well. And then sometimes, they struggle initially, and it's a couple of years later before they do well.
But they aren’t doing it alone. Caregiver families walk alongside the mothers during and after they provide care for their children.
MOFFIT: It's such a calling. You know, a lot of families are willing to care for newborns. But we're looking for families who are able to develop a long term relationship with another woman, with a mom, for a long length of time, hopefully.
While they’re in prison, that means frequent visits or video calls.
MOFFIT: And so we we want to try to, you know, help a mom stay engaged and try to keep her from hardening her heart, you know, to try to keep her really engaged in the life of her baby so she's also actively parenting, you know, to the best of her ability from the inside.
Palmer Home Family Care matched Katie Israel with Kevin and Kristy Fouraker. They met for the first time over FaceTime. It was the not-knowing who would care for her children that scared Israel the most about foster care. And she still worried about family care. Israel refers to the program by its old name, Jonah’s Journey:
ISRAEL: I was very scared. Just to let you know, even with Jonah's Journey, they were gonna go to a family that I didn't know, I had never met, you know what I mean? So there's still, I'm still scared of that.
But the Fourakers slowly built trust along with a lasting relationship. Israel transferred to a county jail where visitation was strictly limited. Even so, the Fourakers kept her involved with the twins as much as they could. Every other week she talked to them over a video call.
ISRAEL: They were just so beautiful. She'd lay him down on the floor on their bellies, and she'd set the little tablet up, just prop it up. And I would just talk to them. You know: ‘I just love you.’ And she would just set it up and I would just sit there and talk to babies while she was doing whatever she needed to. Until they started crawling and rolling. They'd start rolling away. I'm like, Oh, we lost one. She had to bring it. It was usually Messiah. He's a go-getter.
The Fourakers live in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and have five kids of their own. The twins were their third Palmer Home Family Care placement. They’re also licensed as traditional foster parents.
KRISTY: And I'm glad that we've done that, because we get to see both sides of things…
KRISTY: We get to see what it looks like from a traditional foster parents side funded by the government, and what it looks like from a nonprofit, Christian organization. And man, I will tell you it is night and day difference, for sure, all the way around.
She says moms have more hope that they can change because they don’t lose custody of their children.
KRISTY: I think, just the one sole fact that their kids, they have full custody of their children, even though they're not physically with them, is the number one motivator for them to do the things that they need to do.
The Fourakers cared for the twins for about the last five months of Israel’s year and three month sentence. Israel’s sister took them for the rest of the time. Like she does for all her placements, Kristy documented the twin’s milestones for their mom.
KRISTY: Probably the one thing that I tried to do, that's my, my always my goal is I have like a milestone blanket. And so I, every single month, I'll make sure to take a picture of that child and make sure I print those off and give them to mom or any big milestone, like they rolled over or something. So that's something that I always try to do with all of our placements.
Israel got out of prison in December 2020.
ISRAEL: They didn't give me an advance on when I was leaving jail. I was just got done eating dinner. And that one of the CEOs was like Israel, they need you up front. So I went up there and they're like, How quick can you have somebody come pick you up?
Her sister drove up to the front gate later that evening. Once Israel figured out when she could start rehab and if she could bring the babies with her, the Fourakers drove the two and a half hours to deliver their precious cargo.
ISRAEL: It was amazing. And it was kind of sad because the babies were, they didn't really know me. So they didn't want to leave Kevin and Kristy. So I kind of felt bad. But you know, I was like, they don't know. But it did not take them long. They knew I was mama. They knew who I was right away. So yeah, it was amazing. And to meet Christie and Kevin, I just hugged him and I couldn't stop crying and thanking them.
The placement was over, but the relationship was just beginning.
ISRAEL: Whenever she brought me the babies, she’s crying. We're both crying. She's like, Please, can we still be part of, part of the babies lives? I said, Of course. You're not getting rid of us that easy.
Israel started rehab at a residential program in Nashville. The Fourakers stayed in touch and called her every so often to ask how things were going.
KRISTY: It was a lot, it was very overwhelming for her. And, you know, we just walked through it. And, you know, I think just because we had that relationship, her and I, she could talk to me as more of a friend and a mom and another mom.
Many children at risk of entering the foster care system have parents struggling with substance abuse. According to a report by the Administration for Children and Families, substance abuse accounted for 36 percent of removals in 2021. A parent’s incarceration accounted for 6 percent. For 12 percent, it was physical abuse.
But for most, it’s a vague category known as neglect. Sixty-three percent, about 130,000 kids, entered foster care for that reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines neglect as “the failure to meet a child’s basic physical and emotional needs.” That includes housing, food, clothing, education, medical care, and responding appropriately to a child’s feelings.
Critics of the broad use of the category worry it punishes families for poverty—even families doing their best to love and care for their children with the little they have. Jason Weber is the national director of More Than Enough, an organization that equips and coordinates churches and ministries working in foster care, adoption, and prevention.
WEBER: Our child welfare professionals are working with families who they don't want to remove the children from their home because there's not a reason to. But that family still needs support.
Weber says there’s more effective ways to protect children of families who are in crisis because they lack material resources.
WEBER: So let's say hey, we've got to get you and your child out of this apartment where you're crammed in with a whole bunch of other people and influences that aren’t good, and we need to get you your own apartment. However, you don't have the resources you need to furnish this apartment.
But he says help that actually helps isn’t just buying furniture or providing a meal.
WEBER: But then from there developing an ongoing relationship. And that's one of the things I would just emphasize the most is we have to remove ourselves from our traditional understanding of the service project mindset that hey, we just want a place to serve food, you know, for one day a year at the holidays.
Weber and his wife served as foster parents for 10 years. He remembers getting the call from their social worker about their first placement: preemie twins who weighed around 2 pounds at birth. One of them had open heart surgery at 11 days old. At the time, Weber and his wife were working with a ministry in inner-city Denver. He remembers visiting the neonatal intensive care unit.
WEBER: I've never in my life been in anything like this and to see all of the tiny babies in this unit, one of them for one and incubator after incubator and we walk all the way to the end of the unit. And there's just one room remaining. And there are these two baby girls in this crib, this giant steel crib together, and they've got tubes and cords and running everywhere. And the feeling that I have looking at them and looking at the care that they needed was, Lord I did not have what it takes.
Now the twins are 22. The Webers eventually adopted them along with three other children in foster care. But they cared for many others.
WEBER: The church has generally seen foster care as a way of taking children out of quote unquote, bad families and putting them into good ones. If there's anybody on the planet that should believe in the ability for somebody to redeem their life to get things back on track, to have the broken things in their life restored, it ought to be us and the church. We ought to be the ones who are most familiar with that territory. If we are not familiar with the territory of brokenness, then there's something wrong with our theology, because our entire theology is built around a God who takes broken things and restores them.
And sometimes that means simply coming alongside a family whose children are at risk of neglect by meeting a need and building a relationship. CarePortal is an organization that gets local churches involved in meeting these needs.
WEBER: CarePortal is a fantastic organization that has partnered with social service agencies all over the country. That social worker can go to this online platform. They can put in a need and say in order for this family to stay together, we're going to need some bunk beds and a couch and and we might need a utility bill paid for the month.
That request is distributed to local churches.
GARRETT: My name is Marquita Garrett. I work for CarePortal. I'm the regional manager for this area. We're launching Care Portal in Shelby County.
Shelby County is a rural area in East Texas with a poverty rate more than double the national average.
GARRETT: CarePortal is trying to break that foster adoption cycle. Because we feel a lot of times some kids are not being abused. It’s just a poverty level. And they could be in the home with their loving parents. But sometimes those parents need assistance and help to keep their children in their home. Because you want those parents that love their kids, and that just might be going through a rough patch, to be able to keep their children in their home.
Children spend 20 months on average in the system once they enter foster care. And researchers estimate about 90 percent of children experience a traumatic event while in foster care.
GARRETT: Because a lot of times we have kids that are just stuck in the foster care system and sometimes, I’m not bashing foster care. Sometimes it's not a healthy place for them so if we have a child in the home that their parent can't pay the light bill, they can't have running water or something, just because of financial situation, then I don't feel that child should be removed. Their parent just needs help at that time.
Garrett grew up with a lot of adopted cousins. Twenty-three local families adopted 72 kids out of foster care. Many attended her church, Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist. You’ll hear more about their story in Episode 10. Garrett witnessed the irreplaceable role of the church in caring for vulnerable children.
Now she recruits local churches to get involved in prevention…and trains them to use the CarePortal technology.
GARRETT: So the churches when they sign up, they will set up their dashboard to have a mile radius, because you want that church going to that family in their community. So you don't want a church that is 50 miles away coming to meet needs in your community.
Instead, Garrett says the portal helps local churches build rapport with their communities and connect with struggling families for the long haul.
GARRETT: You want the church to be that pillar in your community. And you want those kids to eventually, you know, hopefully the goal is, you know, to meet Jesus Christ and be saved. So you don't want the agency going out. They’re already doing that. Governmental agencies already doing that. So you want the church to do it. I mean, God left it to the church to do. Because otherwise, it'd be just like any other governmental agency, just going out and meeting the needs, but it's about the connection.
About four hours west of Shelby County, The Texas Baptist Children’s Home in Round Rock, Texas, also works to keep children with their families by providing a safe haven for single moms.
WORLD’s compassion reporter, Addie Offereins, visited the campus to learn more about the group’s work.
ADDIE OFFEREINS, REPORTER: A little stone chapel with white pillars and a white steeple chimes old hymns from five to six every evening. The children’s home sits at a busy intersection.
Seventeen cottages house single mothers and their children. Others shelter 18-24 year olds transitioning out of foster care or facing homelessness. Like Palmer Home for Children, Texas Baptist Children’s Home started out just serving children in need. The founders wanted to do something different than the typical dorm-type facility. They wanted to create a home.
RIPSTEIN: When we opened our doors in 1950, this cottage design was the format. And that's how we are, even the cottages that are still here today are 73 years old and still functioning.
President Debbie Rippstein has been on staff since 1985.
RIPPSTEIN: But today, our biggest program is our Family Care program. Keeping those families intact, but helping the mom get the resources that she needs, so that she can take care of her family. And that is looking at needs, emotional needs, physical needs.
In the late ’70s, one of the girls who grew up at the home came back because she was going through a divorce and didn’t know how to care for her children.
RIPPSTEIN: The best thing she knew to do was to place her two children here. And our administrator at the time felt like he hated to see that cycle repeat itself.
So the staff got together and came up with a new program … Family Care.
RIPPSTEIN: And I was sharing this with our alumni one day and sat down afterwards and someone came up to me. A lady said can I speak with you out in the hallway? And with tears running down her face, she said I was that mom. And so in 1979, she was the first mom to move into our Family Care program with her two children.
When a mom moves in, social workers create a plan of service. They outline her goals for parenting, employment, education, housing, and healthcare. The moms and their children live with a few other families during the first stage of the program.
RIPPSTEIN: They've all been isolated and lonely. And so one of the benefits of First Steps is the group living. Instead of just putting everyone into their own individual apartments, which would keep everyone isolated. They live in this group where there's four families living together. When they move over to the next steps, and they're only sharing the house with one person, they're better prepared for that. Because the last thing we want is for them to get into isolation again.
Most of the moms are struggling to provide for their children.
RIPPSTEIN: Almost everyone that comes here is financially impoverished, you know. So you might be middle class, but suddenly, everything falls apart, and that $1,500 a month rent payment, or $2,000 and a car payment, you can't make it anymore.
And not all of the moms are young.
RIPPSTEIN: One of the things that comes up every year is people in their minds think that the average age of a mom is probably the young 20s. An average age is typically early 30s. So the client is typically someone who's had a couple of children, maybe been in a marriage for a while, and, you know, has hit pretty much rock bottom, and is ready to really make some changes in their life.
Susan Kinney was one of those moms.
KINNEY: I was in a very abusive marriage. And I, one day, I really knew that if I did not leave, we would not survive. So I reached out to the local Williamson County crisis center. And they wanted to take me and my two small children right into a shelter. But I didn't feel like I could take my two children into a shelter. So the Williamson County crisis center referred me to the Family Care program at the Texas Baptist Children's Home…And the first time I saw a cottage, I mean, it just felt like home. And I knew that I could bring my three and five year olds to live there.
When she arrived, Kinney was on every government assistance program available. Mentors helped her realize that she was getting a handout not a hand up.
KINNEY: I stayed in the program about 11 months, and after I moved into housing in Georgetown, and was working at a job in Austin that I was able to provide for my kiddos, making okay money, and slowly the government assistance, I was not on that anymore.
After working for a while, Kinney felt called back to the children’s home. Now she’s been on staff for 20 years. She’s a First Step supervisor and the coordinator for two cottages.
KINNEY: My daughter's 30. And my son is 28. And they live close by. And they're both active members of the community and love the children's home and serve at every opportunity that they can. And my daughter is actually a foster parent of a 13 year old and 11 year old. And she says that she learned that from being raised here at the children's home.
When a mom arrives at the Texas Baptist Children’s Home, she becomes part of one big family. Staff also encourage moms to build community outside the home in a local church.
KINNEY: Valentine's Day is coming up, we're gonna have a Valentine's Day dinner, and parties. So it's a really fun place. I mean, it is like my, my son said, he didn't know we were living here because I was having a hard time because of all of the activities and the fun and you build community. And we encourage moms to find a church in the community. I invite moms to church and drive them to church and we take the teenagers to church on Wednesday nights.
Currently, 42 moms, 77 children, and 11 young adults live on campus. Inside, the cottages are bright and well-decorated. Each kitchen has more than one stove and multiple refrigerators. The living spaces are divided to give each family privacy while encouraging them to participate in community.
Melanie Martinez walks me around the spacious campus. She’s the vice president for programs and services. We visit a few cottages and take a tour of the on-campus food pantry and clothes closet.
Around five, children start arriving from school. They head over to the campus recreation center to play before going back to their moms at the cottages. Several high school and middle school-aged girls roast marshmallows outside around a small fire while the activities director leads a Bible study.
It’s another small step toward building lasting relationships and breaking the cycle of isolation that too often ends in family separation.
Debbie Rippstein said it comes down to giving families in crisis hope…and a community that isn’t going anywhere.
RIPPSTEIN: So we really try to leave them with hope. That's our biggest thing is we want to give someone hope. And I think I'll never forget a mom who came here and she said: I didn't just sleep last night, I rested. Let me tell you, that's a huge difference. And, you know, to instill hope in someone that hasn't felt that ever in their life is a huge difference maker also.
LEIGH JONES: Next week, we’ll step into the shoes of a caseworker … and find out how Christians are carrying their faith daily onto a battlefield of brokenness.
WHEELER: I remember feeling a heavy weight with every child that tells you every horrific story of abuse and feeling so much emotion, that it's like you try not to carry that weight. And so then sometimes you can do the exact opposite, where then you don't feel anything at all, because you're trying so hard not to feel.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Leigh Jones, the producer. Addie Offereins reported and wrote this episode. Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance from Rich Rozel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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