Looking for ways to attract more foster parents, the Florida Department of Children and Families is beefing up its efforts at recruitment among faith-based organizations.
DCF Director of Faith Based Development Erik Braun told child welfare professionals Friday at a conference in Panama City that Florida has 12 million residents affiliated with a Catholic or Protestant church, 1 million Jews and 400,000 to 600,000 Muslims.
"We need to tap into those resources," he said.
Braun was the closing speaker at the "Conference by the Bay: Partners in Progress," co-sponsored by DCF, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program and Florida State University. A former church leader, he noted the need to maintain the separation of church and state.
"Here's an example: 'If you want access to (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and our entitlement programs, you need to listen to my spiel on why Jesus is Lord,' " he said. "No, you cannot do that…That's coercive. If you're in this room and you're doing that, stop."
To avoid coercion, he said, the faith-based initiative must engage religions other than Christianity.
Braun also led a breakout group of foster parents, child protective investigators, church members and administrators in a discussion of how to approach the leaders of faith-based organizations. He advised a strategy that makes fewer demands on a busy pastor's time but seeks out other ways to get a foot in the door, such as a church women's group.
"I want to have a good ask," Braun said. "It's all salesmanship."
His advice resonated among child welfare workers in DCF's heavily rural northwest Florida region, which has about 400 investigations and 28 to 30 children removed from their homes every month, according to DCF community development coordinator Courtney Stanford.
Stanford said there is already a "faith network" in a Panama City-based DCF circuit that includes many rural communities. The network includes local pastors and staffers from the Department of Juvenile Justice, along with child-welfare officials.
"We are such a small community, we didn't want to be competing for resources," Stanford said.
In the Orlando area, on the other hand, a Longwood church with at least 10,000 members and 10 to 15 ministries is fast becoming a state model for the faith-based approach. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gretchen Kerr, a director of Northland, A Church Distributed, to the Florida Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council on Thursday. And DCF Secretary David Wilkins led a recruitment drive for foster parents there last month.
Kerr said Northland has a disaster response team that just returned from tornado-torn Oklahoma and a Safe Families Ministry to help families stay together in the face of emergencies, such as homelessness or an incarcerated parent. It also has ministries to help the homeless and curb human trafficking --- and now, an "orphan care" ministry to recruit foster parents.
Wilkins and his wife, Tanya, have appeared at 17 events this year that have involved faith-based recruitment of foster parents.
Braun said his main goals are to help DCF increase its recruitment and to identify a lead church in every region.
"Erik has asked us if we would like to pilot this whole concept," said Northland's Kerr.
Vicki Abrams, director of DCF's Northwest Region, said that given the ongoing need for foster parents, she expects to add the faith-based component to the region's action plan.
"Erik's taught us a lot about engaging the faith community," she said.
Braun seemed to inspire a number of attendees at the Panama City conference, who said they'd never realized how their religious convictions might dovetail with their work helping children.
"There are probably 20 different churches (represented) in this room," said Kasey Killebrew, a recruitment and retention specialist at the Life Management Center of Northwest Florida. "Think of what would happen if we each went to church and told 20 people."