Dr. Michael Blackwell, president of the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, talks about a current foster care crisis in North Carolina.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Dr. Michael Blackwell, president of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina. Baptist Children’s Homes provides a multitude of Christian services to children, adults, and families in all 100 counties of the state, including several residential care facilities for children, teenage mothers, and developmentally disabled adults.
Founded in 1885, Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina is especially committed to serving families in crisis and children who have suffered abuse. Dr. Blackwell is with us to discuss what has been referred to as a foster care crisis in North Carolina. Dr. Blackwell, welcome to Family Policy Matters, it’s great to have you with us on the show.
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: Thank you very much John. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for all that you do on Family Policy Matters because family policy truly does matter. Thank you John and thank all associated with you.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you! Dr. Blackwell, as we begin, I’d like to give you an opportunity to introduce our listeners to Baptist Children’s Homes and the wide variety of incredibly important services you offer to people all across the state of North Carolina, not just in the realm of foster care—which we will be the primary subject of our discussion today—but in other areas as well?
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: Our ministry began with children that had no place to call home. This ministry began in 1885. Our date: November 11, 1885. A little girl from Ahoskie, North Carolina, nine years old, Mary Presson, came down on a train with her mother and that’s how the ministry began. Now that significant thread of our ministry has continued to this present day, almost 132 years now, and will always be a major focus of the work at Baptist Children’s Homes as we minister to the whole family from the infancy to the aging. We’re in 22 locations now in North Carolina, and an orphanage in Guatemala. We served 21,500 people last year in all of our services and we’re blessed to be able to do that.
JOHN RUSTIN: That is wonderful. As I mentioned in the introduction, many people have been referring to a foster care crisis in North Carolina in recent years. In fact, we have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of children in foster care in just the last five years, and the number of children in foster care is now well over 10,000 children in North Carolina. Dr. Blackwell, do we know why there has been such a dramatic increase recently?
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: I am not sure that anybody knows exactly why there has been such a dramatic uptick recently, but we do know that there are a number of variables that are now contributing to the increase. Most would agree that the opioid crisis across our nation is having a profound impact and effect on our children and families. In fact, you can hardly listen to the radio, watch television, or read a newspaper that you don’t see some young person today who is caught up in that kind of crisis and has become an addict themselves. In the past, when a family would face a crisis, the Department of Social Services (DSS) may find that they only needed to remove one child from the home to de-escalate the situation. Now though, when they find high levels of drug abuse, they routinely remove all children from the home. Now, there is a federal mandate to keep siblings together whenever possible and family foster homes are not typically able to take more than one, maybe sometimes two children. And so, that’s where high quality communities like the Baptist Homes of North Carolina plays a central role in the continuum of services to children and families.
JOHN RUSTIN: That is so important. Dr. Blackwell I can tell our listeners that certainly the opioid crisis that we’re seeing in our state and in our nation is very real. In addition to the drug addiction and things of that nature, what are some other scenarios and situations that may lead a child to be placed in the foster care system?
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: There are many paths that might lead a child to our open door. Most children that we serve are victims of abuse. And if there’s one thing that they have in common in all of our services, it would be trauma. They have a story of trauma to tell. When that happens, it’s going to require a lot of time, It’s going to require a lot of patience, it’s going to require a lot of hard work with staff that are loving, that are well trained in caring for children in these situations. What we always try to do, John, is have family reunification. That’s goal number one. When a child comes into care, the family will sign-off on a set of goals. The child will sign off on a set of goals. And we try to get the family back together. And we’re able to make that happen for many of our children. But there are a few that simply will not have that option. I was talking with one of our children recently that’s in one of our communities down east, and I said something about, “Where are you going to be spending the holidays?” And they said, “We’re going to be spending it with you because our mother does not want us anymore.” And that was painful and you could see the pain etched on that child’s face there. And so some children just don’t have that option. So, what we do here at Baptist Children’s Homes is we are committed to find the best permanent solution for them. Depending on their age or other variables, that solution could be adoption, it could be a foster family, or in some cases they will remain with us.
And our cottage parents, our childcare workers form an incredibly strong bond with these children. I’ll go back to an instance that I had just recently in a church with children who were in care at our outdoor wilderness camping program. These are kids that live outside in shelters that they’ve built and designed themselves. We have a home for girls out in the wilderness in Moore County, and a home for boys out in the wilderness in Moore County. And they bond with these chiefs that live with them 24/7 and they don’t have, in many cases, real parents—biological parents—who can care for them. And so our cottage parents form a strong bond with these children.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Blackwell, in your opinion and from your experience, what do children in foster care need the most?
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: I think they need what everybody needs, what the world needs now is love. They need to know that somebody loves them, that it’s going to be the kind of love that Christ has for each one of us, which is an unconditional love. These children need structure, they need stability. In fact, I would say, John, that they desperately crave structure. They need their boundaries and they need stability because they’ve not had it in their families. They’ve had a mom or a dad or an aunt or an uncle or, in many cases, grandmother that has had to take over the parental responsibilities. So when they come to us, it’s just love. And at Baptist Children’s Homes, we don’t just serve children and families, we love them as Christ loves us and that is unconditionally.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know that you talked about reunification of the children with their parents, if at all possible. How does reaching out and ministering to the parents or caretakers of these children who are placed into foster care system factor into all of this and into your work at Baptist Children’s Homes?
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: Working with the whole family is essential now. In the early days of our orphanage, the family had nothing to do with the child and that really only began to change significantly in the 1980s and the 1990s. Now, we can’t imagine not working with the family. We’re still child-centered but we’re family-focused. We have to work with the whole family in getting the best outcome, which is reunification. You ask 90 percent of these children, “What do you want most in life?” “I wanna go back home.” Well, home is where the abuse took place. “Yeah, but that’s home.” Home is where your father did things he shouldn’t have done. “Yeah, but that’s my daddy.” We’ve got a wonderful staff that are able to work with the families and—and I underscore this—if they are willing, we can begin a path toward healing and creating positive habits and routines and traditions. A lot of times, the parents have been victims themselves. They’ve not been able to break the cycle with their children. I had a young person just recently stand up and say they had been abused, their parent had been abused. The child, who was in care, has children now. And she says, “I haven’t been able to break the cycle of abuse.” Now what we’re going to do here at Baptist Children’s Homes is pour as much time and resources as it takes to get the parents and the children on the right track, as long as they have a true desire to change. In many instances, what we find is that the parent is not the one who has the true desire to change. We have situations where the child will say, “I want to change. I want to do what I can.” And then they they’ll go home for a parental visit or whatever, and the child whose taking a step forward finds that the parent is maybe taking a step back. And so, we have to have the parent and the child on the right track and say, “We want to change. We want to make it right. We want to have a true family. We want to love our child. We want to be loved by our children.” And so, that’s why the whole family is what we have to do today to reach out and minister to the parents of children who end up in foster care.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Blackwell, what are some ways our listeners can get involved and help to improve the lives of children in families who are involved in the foster care system in North Carolina?
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: We’ve got a lot of opportunities for people to participate in our ministry at Baptist Children’s Homes. We always have lots of projects going on at any point, such as: painting, grounds work, construction. We have a lot of churches and a lot of individuals who like to come in and adopt a cottage and in some ways like adopt a child—maybe not legally or officially. But just say, here’s a child that I’m going to pray for; here’s a child that I’m want to make sure has a special birthday; here’s a child that, if this child has no place to go at Christmastime. And we have some children who woke up this past December 25 on a Sunday morning and they were with us. They didn’t have a family to go to. And we’ll have some good Christian people say, I want to make sure this child has a wonderful Christmas. And so we will have a lot of families that will say, here’s what we want to do to make sure that a child always feels that they are needed and loved. We’re always needing food. We’re in the middle of a food drive now. We’re needing toiletries and clothes and gift cards. That’s something that a lot of people are doing now and a lot of churches are doing is giving us food cards. But really, we just need prayer. We need fervent prayer and we need continual prayer. That makes all the difference in the world.
JOHN RUSTIN: Where can our listeners go to learn more about foster care in North Carolina and the great work that you do at Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina and how they can get involved.
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: That’s bchfamily.org. You’ll find, on that website, everything that you need to know about all of our services, how to give, and there will also be a link in there about how you can volunteer. We have thousands of women and men and young people who volunteer all across our facilities in North Carolina so that we can really make a difference in the life of this child who often feels abandoned, who has in many ways been traumatized, to say, “You are a child of God! You matter! God loves you and we love you too!”
JOHN RUSTIN: Well that’s wonderful. And with that, Dr. Michael Blackwell, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters and for your incredibly important work at Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, to really be the hands and feet of Christ to children and families in crisis here in North Carolina. We are extremely grateful for what you do and will continue to reach out in prayers for you and for your ministry and for all the individuals, especially the children, that you come in contact with.
MICHAEL BLACKWELL: Thank you very much John. And we’ll be in prayer for Family Policy Matters too. God Bless You.
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