City Religious Groups Help State Find Foster, Adoptive Homes
May 22, 2006
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer
One recent weekend afternoon, on a rare moment without the clamor of children in their house, Jay and Damaris Diaz reflected on how much their lives have changed.
Just a few months earlier, the couple, who had been thinking of adopting a baby, learned through their church about 4-year-old twins who needed a permanent home.
Since 2000, the House of Restoration, a Pentecostal Hispanic church in Hartford's North End where Jay Diaz is a deacon, has helped the state Department of Children and Families find foster and adoptive homes for Latino children.
The Diazes - who have three children from previous marriages - began to visit the twins, Julie and Daniel, then in the custody of their grandmother.
"They started calling us Mommy and Poppy right away," Jay Diaz said. The twins first came to the couple's suburban home to visit for a day, then overnight, and then on weekends. Now Julie and Daniel run about the Diaz home and play with Macho, the couple's boisterous Chihuahua. They live full-time with Jay and Damaris Diaz, who are adopting them, and they visit their grandmother.
"It amazed us, how smooth it was. I didn't think the attachment would be that easy," Damaris Diaz said. "They love their grandmother, and she's great with them, but I think they felt the need for a mom and a dad."
More than 6,000 Connecticut children are in some form of state care, including about 3,000 in foster care. About 1,000 of those cases are from the Hartford area. Nellie Cartagena, a former director of DCF's foster care and adoption unit in Hartford, had spent years scrambling to find adequate placements for children, particularly placements with the same language and cultural background as the children.
"We realized this work of protecting kids and helping families to be better was not the work of an agency, but of a community," Cartagena said. "Yet when you look at our communities - the churches are right there in the neighborhoods where the families are struggling."
But, she said, churches were long left out of the equation.
Two North End churches - House of Restoration and Phillips Metropolitan CME Church - are the anchors of the collaboration between DCF and city churches to find foster and adoptive homes for children. Known as the Queen Esther program, it has grown to involve 18 Hartford area churches and more recently spread to churches in Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven.
"It's become clear to us [that] many of the people who are interested in guiding children are people with strong faith, and they are motivated by that faith," said Gary Kleeblat, a DCF spokesman. "The faith community has become important in helping us to find homes for children."
When Cartagena first began making presentations to local churches, she discovered unexpected barriers. While some churches were interested in working with the state agency, many were not.
"What I found was a lot of pastors who were hurt about the way the department had treated them in the past," she said. "A family in their church might be going through an investigation and they would want to help and the department would look at [the pastor] like, `Who are you?' They felt hurt by that.
"So we did a lot of healing," Cartagena said. "I apologized on behalf of the department, and from that a new relationship grew between [DCF] and the pastors of the faith community in Hartford."
The program is named for the biblical Queen Esther, an orphan who was adopted by her cousin Mordechai and later became the Queen of Persia.
"Though she was an orphan, the king saw something in her," said Bishop Jeremiah Torres, pastor of House of Restoration. "And she became a queen who saved her people. And so, we see the value of these children, and who they could become."
At any given time, more than a dozen families at House of Restoration are involved in foster care and adoptions, said Torres, who has taken children needing emergency placement into his home. House of Restoration also oversees Queen Esther ministries at four other predominantly Hispanic churches in the Hartford area.
In recent years Silvia and Arthur Foote have been foster parents to several children who have stayed with them for periods of a few days to almost a year. The children who join them in their Ellington home become part of a family that includes the Footes' own three children. "We heard there was a shortage of Latino families, and also Christian families," Silvia Foote said. The foster children attend church along with rest of the family.
"Teaching them about God - it's something they can take with them wherever they go," Arthur Foote said.
Faith-based community outreach programs extend the faith and energy of a congregation beyond the four walls of the church into the community at large, said Allison Branco Tichy, community development officer for the Capital Region Conference of Churches.
"They're also a place of inspiration to look beyond oneself to the needs of so many in our communities who are without food and shelter, without hope and love," Tichy said.
The conference also collaborates with DCF on a family mediation program in which faith-based mediators "walk with" families who are involved with DCF, and offer parents advice and encouragement, in conjunction with the family's social worker. "Faith-based outreach programs are important," Tichy said, "because they are able to tap directly into a large community of people who believe deeply in our human obligation to care for others."
Phillips Metropolitan CME Church is an African American congregation led by the Rev. James B. Walker. Nine predominantly black churches in the Hartford area participate in the Queen Esther ministry under the auspices of Phillips Metropolitan.
"The beautiful thing about the Queen Esther ministry is we are able to use what the scripture tells us, to reach out to families," said Tanzania Cooper, who directs Phillips Metropolitan's program.
More than 100 families have been licensed through Phillips Metropolitan to provide foster care, Cooper said, including one family that has taken in 100 foster children over the years. The church has a weekly support group and services for those participating in the program.
"In the Bible it says to love our neighbor," Cooper said. "I think people see this as doing what God has asked them to do."
Cartagena, who describes herself as a "woman of faith," said there was a spiritual dimension to how the program was conceived and named. While working on the outreach program, she attended a women's spiritual retreat. When she returned home, Cartagena said, she received a call from the retreat's facilitator.
It was right around the time Cartagena was realizing the department needed to change its approach to the faith community. The woman told Cartagena that "the Lord was changing my name to Esther," that everything I touched would prosper, and that "I was being called for such a time as this."
Cartagena has now moved on to a different supervisory position within DCF, but she has since joined House of Restoration as a member.
The Diaz family similarly said that adding Julie and Daniel to their family is part of God's plan for them.
"You only live once. This is an opportunity to affect someone, maybe a whole generation, in a positive way," Jay Diaz said. "We wanted to bless them, but now the blessing is all ours."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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