Aaron C. Blake Sr. received a legal notice that a family court in Brownwood, Texas, was about to terminate parental rights of John’s* mother and father. Blake arrived at the courthouse early and not only sat through the case of his foster son — one of Blake’s six — but also heard every case on the judge’s docket.
What Blake experienced at the hearing for John, one of six high school football players he was fostering, as well as others shook him to the core. Once aware of needs he never knew existed, Blake engaged congregants he pastored to become involved in helping.
Ultimately it led the pioneer child advocate and now Assemblies of God pastor to create a program that not only impacts children and their families, but also offers a window into suffering that empowers churches to respond to community needs.
Blake’s vision became the faith-based initiative Clergy in Court for Kids, a partnership between judges and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to invite ministers and faith leaders to attend court, which connects the Church to community families in desperate need. This opens doors for caring faith communities to minister to those in crisis.
The process begins when a judge invites a faith leader to court proceedings. After the hearings, the judge, DFPS staffer, and a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) answer questions and discuss ways that the faith community can help families with support to decrease the likelihood of future involvement with Child Protective Services. The process allows judges to learn of church resources to help families in crisis.
Blake recalls that impactful day in 2002 in the courtroom of Brownwood, a city of 18,400 residents. John, 17, had been in state custody since he was 9 months old.
“I had no idea children’s court happened every week in my county or anything about the process of rights being terminated,” Blake says. “My heart was hurting for those parents and kids: Somebody, do something!”
John’s mom was an opioid addict with chronic mental health issues. Neither she nor John’s father showed up at their son’s final hearing. The judge conferred with the CASA representative and the social worker, who recommended that parental rights be terminated. Blake realized he was more bothered by John’s plight than anybody else in the courtroom.
The “somebody” God appointed to do something was Blake, who soon became such a family courtroom fixture that judges in Brownwood looked forward to his presence before the sessions and started explaining the case docket to him.
“What I learned and got out of that courtroom is what I want every pastor to experience,” Blake says. Each month, two or three pastors take him up on his offer to go to court with him and then out for a meal that he buys. Without fail, they, too, are floored by the sagas of shattered lives and crumbling families — and concern for what will happen to the mother and child.
Over the meal, Blake debriefs the newly initiated pastors with words meant to engage them into acting.
“This exposes pastors to information so they can carry the passion to fix it,” he says. “Nothing I could say would shock them more than the courtroom experience.”
Blake urges pastors to become ardent about foster, adoption, and wraparound care, and to issue clarion calls for congregations to become involved in helping.
After Blake’s first eventful day in court, as a foster parent he began attending other hearings to influence and encourage.
“He learned the young mothers and fathers coming into the court system were trying to do the best they could to keep their kids,” says Anna Blake, Aaron’s daughter, who is director of the Texas DFPS Faith-Based and Community Engagement Division. Often he provided connections for those in courtroom — a pastor, a church ministry, a trusted organization that a judge encouraged the family to contact.
Frequently, Anna went through a list of resources to find desperate parents help for situations that overwhelmed them.
“Families get disqualified because the baton gets dropped: if they don’t do this or that, their children will be removed from their home,” she says. “This program connects them to those who will tutor them through the process. Clergy in Court for Kids is designed to be an advocate to help the family stay intact.”
Rick DuBose, assistant general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, describes Clergy in Court for Kids, which has now spread across Texas, as an “incredible concept” and “life-changing experience” that is also an on-ramp to foster care ministry.
“The people we deal with are church people, and we’re in a community broken and falling apart and we don’t even know what goes on around us,” says DuBose. “When a pastor sits in family court and sees all the pain and the struggle and brokenness in families and kids, it’s an awakening moment.”