A 3-year-old girl carries a Peppa Pig backpack around the Williams house everywhere she goes — she even sleeps with it at night, Celine Williams says. She puts as many of her things as possible in it so she can keep them close.
In May, the child was given the backpack by South Texas Alliance for Orphans, a foster and adoption ministry associated with Grace Point Church on the Northwest side, after she and her four siblings were dropped off at the Williamses house by Child Protective Services.
Celine and Lionel Williams both work full time and have five biological children — four of them are older than 20 and have moved out of the house.
Yet, within six hours of receiving the call from CPS, the Williamses were preparing their home to take in the little girl and her four siblings, who range in age from 7 months to 8 years old.
Families from Grace Point responded just as quickly. They brought high chairs and booster seats, plug covers and nail clippers — items to help with the transition.
“If it wasn’t for (Grace Point), I would not have been able to take in these children,” Celine Williams said.
The items came from the Vault Fostering Community — a Boerne nonprofit that stores supplies that families might need when they begin fostering.
Many of the volunteer families did not know the Williamses personally, but they rushed over to wash the clothes the children had come with, and to clean the house.
For weeks, the congregation provided meals for the entire family.
“When we all showed up, Celine said we looked like the Cavalry riding in,” BethAnn Jackson, one of the leaders of the foster and adoption ministry, said.
Spiritual mandate to help orphans
Jennifer Smith created the foster and adopt ministry in 2010. Four years earlier, while she was working as a physical therapist, Smith had felt the call to begin fostering and adopting. While she was diving in to the foster family licensing process, she became outraged by the problems within the foster care system.
As of May 7, 4,821 children were in the care of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. About 1,000 of these children have been placed outside of Region 8 — the 26-county area that includes Bexar, Comal, Gillespie, Victoria and Val Verde.
Almost 40 percent of the 1,705 children in foster care in Bexar County have had to be placed outside of the county, according to DFPS data.
For children that have already been traumatized by their biological parents or their time in the foster care system, moving out of the area they grew up in can further hinder their ability to recover.
Smith felt like churches should be doing more to fulfill “God’s mandate” to help orphans, so she started by creating a foster and adopt ministry at Grace Point.
She thought only a handful of families would attend her first presentation on it, but instead 100 people waited after the sermon to hear her speak.
“It just went off like gang busters from there,” Smith said. “We became known as the church that did foster/adopt, and we had people coming to our church, and other churches were asking.”
Seven years later, members at Grace Point Church have fostered more than 80 children, and have adopted 45.
“It was the blind leading the blind when we started this ministry,” said Jackson, who joined Grace Point in 2012 because she wanted to be part of the foster and adopt ministry. She eventually took over for Smith, who now attends church in Boerne.
Almost everyone in the foster/adopt world knows Smith, Jackson said, and they rely on her for information or connections.
In 2016, Smith formed the South Texas Alliance for Orphans to connect local churches with the foster care system.
“The entire foster care system is connected in Jennifer Smith’s head,” Jackson says. “She just made it official (by forming the Alliance).”
In September, 10 churches were either helping with foster and adoption ministries or had created one of their own. Within three months that number grew to 21.
“It was just very confirming that it’s not that the church and Christian families don’t want to get involved—they just don’t know,” Smith said.
Smith’s mission is to recruit 100 churches to the alliance in the next five years. She hopes that each of the churches will adopt 10 children, thus ending the need to send children to outside counties.
So far, Smith has had 100 percent success with every church she has approached.
“How do you say ‘No’? Like, ‘No, our church isn’t interested in helping abused and neglected children, sorry,’” Smith said. “So, it’s a pretty easy sell. It’s just, for churches … it’s been like foster care is like this huge elephant. They don’t teach them in seminary … They haven’t gotten involved because they have no idea what to do.”
Why families don’t foster or adopt
In 2014, Mike and Jacqui Sharrow sat in their car in the Grace Point parking lot. They were about to attend an informational session on the foster care system to support their friends who were speaking.
“In the parking lot my wife was like, ‘We are not getting involved, right?’” Mike Sharrow said. “And I was like, ‘Oh no.’”
Jennifer Smith was one of the presenters at the meeting. The Sharrows were blown away by what she was saying about Texas’ foster care system.
“We were like, ‘Really?’ In a Bible Belt city there are almost 5,000 kids in foster care … you’re kidding me,” Sharrow said. “Here? In this wonderful Christian, sleepy city?”
Smith started listing the reasons families choose not to adopt. She said families worry that it will mess up their lives, that the child will be badly behaved, or that they will get attached when the child has to go home.
Generally, says Smith, families are ill-informed and have only heard horror stories of disruptive teenagers.
“Are you OK knowing there’s a kid out there who has never experienced God’s love and the loving safety of a family which you could provide?” Sharrow recalls Jennifer saying. “Out of selfishness you [would] rather protect your own emotions and say, ‘Leave them in a shelter. Leave them in a CPS office. I’d rather them never be loved then me love them and possibly be disappointed one day.’”
After her speech, a card was passed around with various options for families to check off, ranging from “I want to donate money” to “I want to foster/adopt.”
Jacqui Sharrow looked at her husband and said she didn’t want to foster or adopt, but she could no longer find a good reason to, “tell God, ‘No.’”
Two years later, on Dec. 21, the family, including their two biological daughters, were looking at Christmas lights when they received a call from CPS. Forty minutes later, they had a three-week-old premature baby in their home.
Growing the Alliance
Mike Sharrow also wanted to tap into the power of the church system.
At the same time, Greg and Kristin Leininger, a local Christian couple, began bringing like-minded couples together to start 4KIDS of South Texas, a faith-based foster agency that calls on churches to help orphans. Mike Sharrow jumped on board to offer his advice and support.
Churches can make sure children are loved and that families are supported so they do not “burn out” in a way that the government never could, Sharrow said.
They also have more interest in helping the biological family. Sharrow feels like God does not just push him to help orphans, but to reach out to their biological family when possible.
Their first foster child, Mary, was adopted by her grandmother, who is a single mom with five children already. Each weekend, the Sharrows watch the three-year-old while the grandmother goes to work.
When Mike Sharrow takes his two girls to daddy-daughter dances, he takes Mary because “she doesn’t have a daddy to take her … I sort of play the role of her surrogate dad.”
Relationships like these cannot be arranged through the government, Sharrow says. They’re unique to faith-based communities.
Another issue is that because foster agencies are paid per child, per day, sometimes they prioritize placing children in foster care instead of in adoptions or with their biological families.
4KIDS of South Texas seeks out private funding so they can better help children find permanent residences.
Since 4KIDS began operating in August 2015, it has licensed 70 families and helped 150 children.
Their biggest measure of success, however, is that no child they have placed with a family has ever had to be taken from the home because the parents were unable to handle the situation. Typically, children in the foster care system are shuffled around 2-3 times a year, said John Wilhelm, 4KIDS program director.
The Sharrows have decided that if they grow their family, they’ll do so through adoption or fostering.
“I honestly don’t know what you would do if you didn’t have faith in something bigger than yourself, some bigger plan, because this is all a mess right now,” said Robyn Werner, who has one adopted child and is fostering a baby. “[It’s] like,: ‘Only you Lord could make something beautiful out of this huge mess.’”
When Werner and her family moved to Midland, she started a foster support group with several other families at her new church, and they have borrowed their practice ideas from the foster/adopt ministry at Grace Point.
Many of the families from Grace Point have moved to other churches in San Antonio and built foster support groups.
Smith believes that churches could stop children from being forced out of San Antonio. Sharrow thinks that churches could end the foster care crisis entirely if they got more involved.
Smith and her family have adopted two children and have fostered four others.
(Note: An earlier version of this article misrepresented the founding of 4Kids of South Texas. It has been corrected.)