The Role of the Church in Child Welfare and Child Well-being

A brief discourse presented to the Louisiana Interchurch Conference’s Fall Board of Directors Meeting, by Rick Wheat, President and Chief Executive Officer, Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services, on September 25, 2017, at St. Xavier Cathedral Catholic Church Complex, Alexandria, Louisiana.

Good afternoon! You cannot imagine how excited I am to share a few words with all of you about my appreciation for the role of the Church in child welfare and child well-being. You will discern quickly, I am not a theologian. Instead, I have invested the last 30 years of my life in child welfare work. And by the grace of God, I hope to do the same with the next 30.

Today, I will speak with you about the past, I will talk about my concerns for Louisiana’s children today, and I will tell you about the deep chasm I fear is opening before them tomorrow. I will share with you, from the perspective of a layperson, what I believe the role of the church must be.

In 1886, a Presbyterian “city missionary,” a Mrs. Wolfe, planted the seed that grew into what is now Methodist Children’s Home of Greater New Orleans. Mrs. Wolfe repeatedly entered the New Orleans Charity Hospital and rescued girls and their babies who were victims of sex trafficking – a phrase that did not exist at the time.

Let me pause here.

I am so thankful Louisiana now has Metanoia Manor, a safe, secure, 16-bed home for girls who have been sex-trafficked. The girls in Metanoia are cared for by nuns, members of the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy, who volunteer to meet the needs of these brutally traumatized girls with the assistance of clinical and medical professionals. Metanoia Manor is the newest example – and an excellent example – of the Church caring for Louisiana’s children today.

But back to the past. Mrs. Wolfe’s early Presbyterian work with children in New Orleans was supported by individuals from a variety of faith groups, and on April 15, 1888, this early interdenominational work was substantial enough to be named, “Memorial Home for Young Women.”

During that same century, the Church created numerous homes and services for children including the Protestant Episcopal Children’s Home, Father Turgus Asylum for Widows and Orphans, Immaculate Conception Orphan Girls’ Home, The Jewish Orphan Asylum, Margaret’s Baby House of the Sisters of Charity, Saint Elizabeth’s, The Protestant Orphans’ Home, Sacred Heart Orphanage, St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, St. Vincent Infants’ Asylum, the 7th Street Orphans’ Home, the Louisiana Baptist Orphanage, and coming last to the party, Louisiana Methodist Orphanage in 1902.

It is essential that you understand this: all of these services – and many more – were conceived, created, funded and operated solely by people of faith!

No state agency existed to perform or influence this early work of ministry to desperate children. Simply stated, the Church cared for Louisiana’s children.

Let us return to those late-blooming Methodists who waited until after the turn of the century to go all in for orphans!

In 1902, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, authorized the denomination’s first move to establish an orphanage. In December, Rev. Charles Campbell Wier introduced a resolution cosigned by 19 ministers, to the 47th Session of the Louisiana Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In presenting his resolution, Rev. Wier contended, “the Methodist Church was the only large denomination in the state that did not have such an institution or any interest in one.” (To me that sounds very much like an appeal to denominational pride. Whatever his tactic, it worked. We Methodists may have been slow out of the gate, but we have been methodical over the long run.)

And again, no state agency existed to do or to influence this early work on behalf of children.

The institution was chartered as “Louisiana Methodist Orphanage.” Since then it has grown into three children’s homes, a statewide therapeutic foster care program, and associated community-based services with 700 employees last year. This, too, is the Church caring for Louisiana’s children today.

Return with me now to New Orleans after the turn of the century. Experiencing the economic impact of World War I, the early interdenominational work at Memorial Home for Young Women struggled due to insufficient financial support. Consequently, Memorial Home for Young Women was adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1918 because by that time Methodists had the resources to continue what otherwise would have failed for financial reasons.

No element of state government was involved in any of that early work.

In fact, before 1938, when Louisiana’s Department of Public Welfare was empowered to license and supervise private agencies, the work of caring for Louisiana’s orphans was conducted almost exclusively by the Church without influence or constraint of state powers.

Then, in 1940, the Department of Public Welfare was granted “visitorial powers” over private agencies, and in 1942, when Louisiana’s Department of Public Welfare issued the first license to a private agency, the state took its first step into various and sequential arrangements and agreements with faith-based child welfare agencies to care for Louisiana’s children.

I believe this generally been a good thing.

When I look around Louisiana, there is no doubt that Louisiana’s children have benefited from partnerships of Church and State. We have done more for our children by acting together than could have happened if we had worked apart.

On the one hand, with the state government’s entree into child welfare in the 1940s, laws and methods were created to ensure basic safety for children. Minimum standards of care for private agencies were promulgated. The State of Louisiana began regulating school attendance; ensuring primary medical care was available like health screenings and vaccinations; and implementing laws to protect children from abuse, neglect, and child labor.

On the other hand, with the expansion of government into child welfare, the many participants in the Church’s child welfare efforts were faced with decisions related to the separation of Church and State, distribution of power, and duplication of services. Consequently, some parts of the Church began abdicating their critical work in child welfare. For example, rather than transitioning their orphanages by modifying services to meet the identified needs of children as society evolved and government regulations increased, some denominations shuttered children’s services.

It is important to know that this abdication by the Church was no small thing in Louisiana’s history. For example, the list of shuttered, faith-related child welfare organizations which provided residential care to children – organizations which no longer exist in Louisiana – is very long. It includes more than 65 orphanages and asylums formerly in New Orleans alone. In the vernacular of the street, the Church “owned” child welfare.

Through the years, as the government increased its presence and power in child welfare, the Church backed off.

So, what has happened to the enthusiasm of the Church for children today?

More importantly, what should be the Church’s role on behalf of children in Louisiana today and in the future?

At one time, child well-being was the exclusive work of the Church. Now, the distribution seems about 20% Church and 80% government and public, for-profit corporations. I believe in the future, the government will no longer have the funds available to continue its current significant role. I also think public corporations will exit the field as soon as opportunities for profit disappear.

Listen to me.

When that time comes, unless people of Faith are ready once again to conceive, create, fund and operate child welfare ministries sufficient to fill the yawning cavern of care, Louisiana’s children will slide from 49th in the nation when ranked on child well-being to something horribly unimaginable.

What am I talking about? This: today, in 8 of our 64 parishes in Louisiana, more than 50% of our children under 5 live below the Federal poverty level. When the government steps away from child welfare, and when the public corporations follow, child well-being will grow tragically worse unless the Church is prepared to step up with resources for children as we did in the past.

The church has time, but it cannot be wasted time. I believe the Church must prepare herself today to step into and fill the gap that sits before us.

Now, allow me to shift gears again.

In Louisiana, we understand disasters. We hear the word “disaster” too frequently. Disasters have a tremendous impact on our well-being, and they interfere with our potential. Disasters keep us from a better future.

We live our lives responding to the consequences of actual and potential disasters related to flooding, hurricanes, sinkholes, and mosquito-borne diseases like Zika. This afternoon, we face the very real threat of nuclear war.

Daily, we read in our newspapers of the epidemics we face: “the epidemic of violence,” “the opioid epidemic,” and “two separate HIV epidemics.” We are confronted by the crises of coastal erosion, our state budget’s fiscal cliff, and most recently in New Orleans, the drainage crisis.

While we face a constant stream of trouble, we in Louisiana are exceptionally resilient. We know how to respond, and we do it well – however high the water – except in one case.

We implement comprehensive Disaster Response Plans. Our state government monitors events and launches emergency orders. We move men, women, and equipment. Helicopters carry officials to disaster sites. News reporters catch the action. The Cajun Navy launches and literally saves lives! Faith groups organize to pray, open shelters, feed people, create flood buckets, distribute clothing, and restore housing.

We in Louisiana are the nation’s disaster experts. When we see a threat to our well-being, we respond bravely and boldly – except to one particular disaster.

Louisiana’s children face an unnamed, steady-state disaster – it is an unrecognized epidemic, a crisis of such massive consequence that it places the future of Louisiana at risk in ways we are only now beginning to imagine and understand.

It is the disaster of child well-being.

How well Louisiana cares for her children today – how well we care for all our state’s children today – predicts our collective future much more surely and accurately than any other measure of our society.

The purpose of the Church is to act as the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I cannot imagine Jesus abdicating his love of children. The man who said, “allow the children to come to me” when adults were shoving them away – that Man inspires me.

I want all people of faith in Louisiana to be inspired, to be passionate about caring for our children, to think of every child as our own, and to act and advocate on their behalf. If we cannot do this, if the Church abdicates its responsibility, then our children (and, consequently, our society) are doomed.

The Church must prepare itself today to step into the gap and care for children when the government and public corporations walk away. When that time comes, the Church must be ready to conceive, create, fund and operate all the child welfare ministries necessary to love all the children of Louisiana.

A daunting task, for sure!

But do not fear. Remember, it may have been a while, but we have done this before!

You have a packet before you. It is filled with reports about the status of Louisiana’s children. This is not pretty stuff. For example, you will see a chart ranking Infant Mortality. On it, you will see that if Louisiana were a nation, we would be ranked behind 81 other countries on infant mortality.

I believe this is material which you who lead our faithful must know. This information must inform your perspectives and inspire your decisions. These facts about child well-being, about child welfare in our state, must fill your thoughts about the role of the church in Louisiana.

Thank you for this time together. May God bless each of you, those whom you serve, and all our precious children!