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Churches are helping orphans, changing lives, saving taxpayers, AEI panel highlights

The recent devotion of churches to caring for orphans has changed the lives of not only the children they saved, but the communities in which they serve and the churches themselves, panelists pointed out at a Wednesday event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. With 400,000 kids still in foster care in the United States, though, there is more work to be done.

When churches get engaged in the orphan care issue, it changes whole communities, explained Jason Weber, national director of foster care initiatives at the Christian Alliance for Orphans.

The outcomes of those who “age out” of foster care, or reach age 18 without being adopted by a family, are terrible, Weber said. They end up costing the government a lot of money in social services because of these poor outcomes. Weber cited an article by Bloomberg noting that the 20,000 to 25,000 kids who age out each year cost taxpayers almost eight billion dollars. The cost, therefore, of churches not getting involved in orphan care is “enormous,” Weber reasoned.

The good news, Weber noted, is that 10 to 12 years ago churches started becoming more engaged with the issue, so now communities are beginning to see the results of that engagement. Weber described some programs begun by churches in Colorado, Florida, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

These programs have shown that when churches get involved, they can “impact a lot of kids, change communities, [and] change the course of history,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Weber lined up a set of dominoes: “All that has to happen is for that one domino to tilt, ever so slightly, in the right direction, and it can have a tremendous impact on other things. … That’s what we’re seeing across the country. … We all have a domino. Lean it toward the kids.”

Aaron Graham, lead pastor at The District Church, Washington, D.C., launched DC127 (named after James 1:27) to get area churches involved in adopting kids. There are currently about 600 churches and 300 kids waiting to be adopted in the D.C. metro area, Graham pointed out.

“If one in two churches takes in a child, we could reverse the adoption wait list in D.C.,” Graham said. “Our dream is that there would be more families that are waiting to foster or adopt children than children waiting for families.”

Kathryn Edin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, has conducted research on the impact of social welfare and urban poverty on family structure and child well-being. Rather than talk about her research, though, Edin spent most of her time on the panel speaking about her experience as the adoptive white mother of a black child.

Edin was doing research in South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo when a mother of four with a tarp for a roof asked her, “will you take my baby?” As researchers are apt to do, her next step was to find a library to see what the research says about white families adopting black children.

Whether or not orphans do better when adopted by a family of their same race is “an open question,” Edin said, but “the demand [for a family among black orphans] outstrips the supply [of black families looking to adopt].”

“We ended up adopting one child on her way to foster care and another child in foster care,” she recalled.

“My best defense,” for adopting a black child, Edin added, “is that this experience has really changed me. More folks like me really need to understand what folks who are not like me experience.”

As an academic, Edin researches issues of poverty and inequality, but she has learned more about those issues as a parent in a mixed-race family through adoption.

“I probably learned more about poverty and inequality in America from my experience as an adoptive parent than I did from all of the years I spent researching low-income communities,” she said.

Edin recalled some of the things she experienced while raising her children, who are now 21 and 19. At times choking up and holding back tears, she told the audience about learning to cornrow her daughter’s hair, the time the principal of their elementary school did not believe she was the mother of her children, when her child was placed in remedial math even though she scored in the 95th percentile, the many times they had waited in the lobby of a restaurant and were seated at different tables, and the first time she heard her daughter called the n-word while walking along a street in Charleston, S.C.

“I remember the incredible pain that almost no white person can understand unless it’s their child who is the victim of this remark,” she said.

Edin also remembered the time her daughter was accused of stealing a phone and she witnessed “the strong sense of solidarity and community than can be available to a child of color from the larger black community” as the other black students rallied to her defense.

“In many ways, it’s been a privilege to sort-of, kind-of be a black family,” she said.

And when her daughter went to college and was no longer the daughter of white parents but “just another black student,” “I remember how the stripping of the privilege hurt her.”

“I remember the haunting legacy of her early hardship my younger daughter experienced. These are truths we have to face and we need to know,” Edin implored.

Being white and adopting a black child has made her a better person, Edin insists, and has made her into an “adoption evangelist.”

“It’s not easy. It’s wonderful, it’s painful, it’s terrifying. It’s the best thing you could possibly do. You will learn more about your country, your faith and your family than you could imagine,” she said.