Lifeline provides parenting class for parents of children in foster system

Allison Bright and her family started fostering children about three years ago, and it didn’t take long before she got upset.

“I just lost hope in a lot of how I saw the foster system working,” said Bright, a member of First Baptist Church, Trussville. “I was upset for the children we had in our home.” 

She had watched birth parents get right up to the brink of getting their children back then not quite make it. She had hoped along with her foster children they would get to go back to their
families and then they didn’t.

“We became so disappointed,” she said.

Parenting class

And then Bright and her husband learned about Families Count, a ministry of Lifeline Children’s Services that provides a six-week parenting class for moms and dads of children in the foster system.

“First and foremost it’s Christ-centered. It introduces these parents to Jesus, and family reunification is just the icing on the cake,” Bright said.

That kind of ministry was just the hope she was looking for in the midst of the brokenness she encountered. With help from volunteers at her church she began coordinating a Families Count ministry at First, Trussville.

Traci Newell, Lifeline’s education coordinator, said Bright and others are seeing God heal struggling families in miraculous ways.

“We’re seeing moms and dads come to know Christ, and we’re seeing parents really connect with churches on an ongoing basis,” she said.

The idea for Families Count first took shape six years ago after Lifeline’s staff had noticed some disturbing trends in foster care, Newell said. About half of children in foster care nationwide return to their families, but about a third of those reenter the foster system within three years of going home.

As she and others looked around for resources to help they found no Christ-centered intervention programs available. Lifeline was providing great training and support for foster parents, but birth parents weren’t getting the same help, Newell said. That wasn’t OK with her.

So they began to address the gap in services and came up with the idea for Families Count. It would be a Christ-centered program among the list of options for parents who needed to fulfill their court-ordered parenting classes. Families Count would offer incentives like free transportation, child care if needed and a meal beforehand.

And best of all the classes wouldn’t be offered by Lifeline — they would be offered by the local church, Newell said.

“In the process of reunification these parents are being told by multiple agencies what to do. We didn’t want them to see just another agency,” she said. “Remove the agency and insert the church, and something really powerful happens. People respond to these church volunteers in a way they’d never respond to a group of social workers.”

One-on-one mentorship

Each participant in the class is given a mentor, which allows a volunteer to invest in a parent one on one. Transportation to and from classes gives volunteers an opportunity to get to know the parents, and the meal accomplishes the same thing while also modeling how a family mealtime should look. 

Brenda Akridge, who teaches Families Count classes at First, Trussville, with her husband Mike, said many of the parents have never eaten a meal as a family before.

“There are so many things we take for granted,” she said. One of those is how to cuddle a baby. Another is how to get on a child’s level to talk to him or her.

“That was revolutionary for three of the women in our group,” Akridge said. “They just haven’t had role models to teach them these things.”

Even more revolutionary is the way the gospel has opened their eyes, she said. “One man said he had never felt love the way he felt it in the church building.” 

Made in God’s image

Another man’s whole demeanor changed after he read Genesis 1:27 and learned the truth that he was made in God’s image.

“We saw life change in him from the first week to the second because of that verse,” Akridge said.

Jenny Bailey, coordinator of Families Count at The Church at Liberty Park, Vestavia Hills, said one couple who came to their first Families Count class got marriage counseling, decided to follow Christ and were baptized.

“They are just about to get their kids back this summer,” she said. “It’s been awesome to watch their process and the healing we’ve seen in their family and individual lives.”

The classes have been life changing for the participants but also for the church, Bailey said.

“It’s an opportunity to reach people for Christ who are coming to your front door, and many are lost — they’re hurting and they’re very open and receptive to hearing the gospel,” she said. “They may have heard the idea of Jesus, but many have never had a Bible or heard Scripture the way it’s being presented.”

Deona Durham said the Families Count program at her church — Eden Westside Baptist, Pell City — has opened the congregation’s eyes to the struggles families face in the community. More than 100 families have taken classes at Eden Westside since the church started hosting the program in 2016.

“Many families have been reunified with their children as a result of Families Count,” she said. “Families within the church that are struggling also have prospered from the parenting classes. As a church we want to be a place that welcomes people no matter what they have been through.”

Newell said that’s the hope of the Lifeline staff — that Families Count would be a holistic ministry to parents with an overarching goal of getting them plugged into churches.

“The Lord has given us a vehicle to engage with these birth parents,” she said. “What we’re seeing is the Lord at work.”