Religious families find calling to foster care

MILWAUKEE - Charonne and Kevin Ganiere never really pictured themselves as foster parents.

They’d always talked about adopting, maybe when their two small sons were older. But they couldn’t envision bringing children into their lives, loving them as their own and then letting them go - back to their biological parents or an adoptive family. It just seemed too painful.

That was then. Today, the Ganieres are parents to five children younger than 10, including three toddlers welcomed through the local foster care system, with no guarantees that they will be able to adopt them.

Devout Christians, the Germantown, Wis., couple sees their change of heart as divinely inspired. Now they’ve launched a fledgling nonprofit aimed at encouraging more Christians to open their hearts and homes to children in temporary need of families and helping churches support their members who do so.

“There are a lot of kids in the greater Milwaukee area in need of a good, Christian home,” said Charonne, who with husband Kevin is dual-licensed to take children both preapproved for adoption and those who are not.

“As we started going through the process, it just stirred our hearts to the greater need,” she said. “Yes, there are kids who need to be adopted. But there are also kids who need a home for just a little while.”

The Ganieres are founders of OneHope27, named for a Biblical passage that exhorts Christians to care for widows and orphans. Theirs, and similar initiatives around the world, are part of the larger so-called orphan care movement that has exploded in some Christian circles over the past two decades.

That movement had been dominated for years by international adoptions. However, that has waned as criticisms arose about corruption, the trafficking of children not truly orphaned and other concerns, and countries imposing tighter restrictions. As international adoptions declined from a peak of 24,000 in 2004 to 9,000 last year, many Christian organizations turned their attention to children in their home countries.

“In terms of foster care, there has always been a Christian presence but what we’re seeing now is a significant growth in the engagement of ordinary Christians in fostering, fostering-to-adopt, mentoring and family preservation,” said Jedd Medifind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which promotes its annual Orphan Sunday in churches around the country.

Advocates believe that good people with the right motives and proper training can help improve the lives of children and families in their own communities.

“We’ve seen through Charonne and our other faith-based recruiters that there are a lot of great families out there,” said Laura Goba of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services, an agency that licenses foster families.

“It’s not about being a savior to these kids. It’s about supporting the children and their families,” said Goba, whose agency is collaborating with OneHope27 on its recruitment efforts. “It’s really about wrapping around the whole family, helping them heal and helping the kids go home.”

At any one time, Milwaukee County has about 2,000 children in foster care, with fewer than 700 licensed foster families. Across the state, some 6,000 children are in temporary need of care.

The Ganieres, who attend Life Church in Germantown, are piloting the program there and at two other sites _ The Ridge Community Church in Greenfield and Christ Church in Mequon. And they’ve compiled a list of about 25 other candidates, churches that have 30 or more foster families already in their pews.

The program will differ depending on the site, but it might include informational sessions for families exploring the possibility of foster care, get-togethers for foster families and their children, meal programs, clothing banks or other initiatives that would be helpful to foster families.

“Not everybody can foster a child. But everyone can do something,” said Ganiere, “whether that is a meal when a family gets a new placement, supplies or clothing donations, or just someone to talk to when kids are running around screaming and you need some sanity.”

Families that are licensed to accept children in foster care are limited in just how much religious influence they can exert. Judges and placement agencies go out of their way to place children raised in a particular tradition with a family that holds similar beliefs. Likewise, foster parents are prohibited from forcing their religion on children they bring into their homes.

The Ganieres understand that and say it’s not about strong-armed conversions but sharing the love of Christ whether that child embraces it or not.

“Children who come into foster care are there often because of abuse and neglect, and I can’t think of anybody who needs love and hope more than they do,” Ganiere said.

“Are we ever going to sit a child down and say you must accept Christ or you’ll not move from that chair? No,” she said. “That’s not a relationship. It’s about exposing them to the love and hope of Christ, and hoping they choose that for themselves later in life.”