Missionary Donna Pewo plays with children at Clinton. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, GBGM
By Holly McCray
On Sept. 27, a small group dreamed of big actions to make life better for Native American foster children in Oklahoma.
Meeting together were representatives of the United Methodist Circle of Care (COC), Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC), and Department of Human Services (DHS).
At the United Methodist Ministry Center in Oklahoma City, they began a conversation on potential collaboration in the field of foster care. The participants were diverse, but their common purpose was clear.
They want to help kids.
Their desire congeals in a DHS statistic: 400 Native American children in Oklahoma County foster care, but only 56 Native American foster homes in the county, reported Larry Brown of DHS.
Intensifying their concerns is a mandated change in DHS policies, triggered by a legal case. Beginning Jan. 1, children younger than 2 cannot be housed in DHS emergency shelters for the homeless.
Brown said, "My job is to get more homes, more people to sign up [to provide foster care]."
Circle of Care already works beside DHS in that effort. COC recruits foster parents, DHS trains and certifies them, and the COC Child Share program offers continuing support, explained Circle of Care President Don Batson.
"We may have a baby in a hospital bed for days or weeks, who doesn’t need to be there, because of a lack of foster housing," Batson said. "As soon as we get foster parents trained, we’ve got a child for them."
Placement for Native American children is especially challenging, the agency leaders concurred. "There is distrust between Native American communities and traditional government support," Batson said.
Mahogany Gains directs the Deborah Roth Group Home in Oklahoma City. She works closely with OIMC because a high percentage of the Roth residents are Native American. All are teens who lived in foster homes at least eight years before placement at Roth, she said.
Donna Pewo of Weatherford said, "To stay in the bloodlines, Native Americans try to hand down the children who can’t stay with their parents. A lot of times the relatives aren’t capable, and [the children] are tossed to someone else. Displacement and lack of routine is so hard for them."
Rev. Pewo pastors OIMC churches at Clinton and El Reno and is a General Board of Global Ministries church and community worker. She ministers primarily with Cheyenne/Arapaho children.
"Church is a stable place, a place of refuge" for them, she said.
And more churches can be vital connections to meet the foster care challenge, the group agreed.
Batson described Child Share’s resources, from operating clothing and supply co-ops in several regions of the state, to hosting holiday parties and volunteering respite care. Oklahoma Conference churches undergird Child Share by organizing "diaper drives" and Undie Sundays, hosting family outings, and more, he said.
Jamie Howard of DHS said she has known about the program for 10 years. "Child Share really helps parents step into foster care," she said.
"I think more people would step up with a little bit of help from outside sources," Pewo said.
Circle of Care would like to partner with interested OIMC congregations, Batson said, to help recruit new Native American foster parents and churches’ support of them. The agency wants to help in ways a church views as most effective, he emphasized, not to tell a church what to do.
Certification as a foster parent takes time, he acknowledged. "But a church can open its arms immediately to help foster parents."
The group pondered best practices to share the urgent call to aid at-risk Native American children. OIMC Conference Superintendent David Wilson noted cultural "nuances" between Native and non-Native people.
Rev. Wilson said OIMC is respected among Oklahoma tribes because numerous church members hold tribal leadership roles.
He suggested a Circle of Care awareness campaign directed into Native American communities. Another entry point could be a COC presentation at an OIMC continuing-education event, with attendees from multiple churches.
He also affirmed a suggestion that a Native American child helped by Circle of Care could give a testimony.
Batson said, "One foster parent in a church gets help. Another church member sees that and thinks, with the help, they could be a foster parent, and we grow new foster parents."