Introducing Cornerstone – the UK’s only Christian fostering agency

NOTE: If you want to contact Cornerstone to discuss a matter relating to fostering, adoption or any other aspect of their work, please phone 0191 565 6423.

 

Pam Birtle, Founder and CEO of Cornerstone, met with the Social Issues Team last year and we were so impressed with her work and vision. This is their story:

Adoption is a central theme of the gospel, and one organisation taking this seriously is Cornerstone – the UK’s only Christian adoption and fostering service. From its base in the North East of England, it is now looking to expand to help more precious children.

Cornerstone seeks to place children in Christian households, like that of Pastor Kevin Hornsby and his wife, Hazael, who says:

‘Neither of us enjoyed the quiet house as our grown-up children had left. We always had a desire to take children with disabilities as my brother was disabled and he died at 18, so my heart was always for disabled children. We moved to Teesside and didn’t have any idea about fostering, so I just went on Google and searched for Christian fostering and adoption agencies – and Cornerstone was the only result to come up.

I gave them a ring and realised they were just around the corner, the only one in the country – it was just amazing. They had been praying that a Christian family would ring them that day, so they were blown away and I was blown away and we just felt the link instantly. We wanted a Christian agency so we were singing from the same sheet and that was the start of our journey with Cornerstone. As Christians, it was fantastic to get together with social workers along our journey and pray with them.’

As well as four grown-up children of their own, the Hornsbys have now adopted James into their family and have recently made another addition.

‘God was written all over the story of James coming to us and we feel God is also all over the story of the girl we are currently fostering’ Hazael explains. ‘It was no coincidence how these things came about. After James, we were praying for another little child with disabilities and we were getting the Be My Parent magazine. One Saturday morning I remember the magazine coming through the letterbox… it was on top of the pile and there was this little girl looking up at me and I just picked it up and looked at her and thought, “Wow”. I took it through to Kev and put it on his desk and asked what he thought of the little girl and he thought she was beautiful.

At first they were looking for adopters which can be very difficult because you and the child need to know you are going to be comfortable with each other as they are going to be with you for the rest of your life when they have disabilities. But three months later we got a phone call asking if we were still available and we then found out this girl came from Aberdeen and all my family are based up there – I was blown away by that. We then found out this girl had been in care since birth and had been with the same foster carers all her life – and it was a pastor and his wife with four grown-up children – just like us! We were in exactly the same place and they had been praying for a Christian family to come along for this girl and I have goosebumps just thinking about it. We just clicked as soon as we met them. We have now gone through the adoption process with this wonderful girl and it is absolutely amazing how God has brought us together.’

The child was not expected to live, let alone achieve and yet she is now speaking, holding her own head up and generally defying all of the limitations put on her. She loves to sing and ‘dance’ in her wheelchair. She loves to worship and go to church where she is loved and accepted. Without God at the heart of their decision to foster and adopt, Hazael believes the journey would not have been possible:

‘Without the Christian element, without the prayer and support I don’t think we would have been able to do this,’ she insists. ‘It is like having a big family around us, guiding us and leading us. People who are not Christians look at us and think, “Are you crazy? In your late 50s taking on kids you will have your entire life.” But we just felt this was completely right. We know 100% that we have done the right thing. People sometimes fear these kind of things, but we have a peace knowing God has given us these children. If we didn’t have God in this situation with us then it would be very difficult… if you are relying on your own strength it is very hard.’

Kevin and Hazael know first-hand just how hard the roles can be. They support other Cornerstone families within their network who are loving and caring for children with lots of special needs and different challenges including those who have experienced loss, trauma, domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Having a great support team of friends, family, church and professionals is essential as the journey is by no means easy.

Speaking to the Hornsbys you hear their God-given passion for children, as is the case when you hear Cornerstone General Manager Pam Birtle’s story:

‘My own story is very much one of having been in the care system having been sent to a home for unmarried mothers ran by the Church of England,’ Pam explains. ‘My son was born the day before my 15th birthday and at that point if you were a teenager there was no expectation you would take your baby home; he was put up for adoption immediately, you didn’t have any choice! I left my ten-day-old son in the hospital and went back home and to school and pretty much was expected to get on with life in secrecy and silence. The trauma affected my mental health and I was on Valium at 15.

 At school the girl I sat next to, as God would have it, got “saved”. She had a real experience of Jesus as a teenager and she talked to me about Him and told me about a God I never knew. I had my own conversion experience which has altered my whole life. I remember saying to God, “I want to be a missionary. Send me.” I sat one day in sixth form and asked God what He wanted me to do and there was a Rolodex there with different careers and it landed on social work. I applied to my local authority and found out you had to be 21 to be a social worker. I wasn’t even 18, but they invited me for interview and they thought I had an old head on young shoulders so gave me a really rare post as a trainee. I started in that role at 18 and at 21 I was the youngest qualified social worker in Britain.’

As she continued to develop a career in the field, Pam felt God calling her to take a significant step:

‘I really felt God drop fostering and adoption into my heart. My husband Trevor and I spoke about this and I felt I should stop being a social worker and start taking children into our home and do things that would have a life-transforming impact,’ she says.

‘Trevor and I were first approved by Barnardo’s, who recently declared that their greatest achievement in a decade was to become de-Christianised! Our social worker was a Quaker and really good at his job but was very clear that although we had been approved, the majority of the team were not pro-Christian at all. They never actually said we were an offence to them because of our faith, but at a time when referrals were plentiful and we had lots of experience and skills, we stopped getting placements. 

We met other Christians with similar experiences and this is part of why we developed Cornerstone – to support Christians who were experiencing marginalisation and prejudice. We have two families who went to the Ombudsman over these issues and were awarded monies as compensation for the duress they suffered. Others have transitioned to us because they felt discriminated against but did not complain.

There is a national shortage of foster carers and people of all faiths make a great contribution to the pool of carers that do exist (as of course do people of no faith). It seems that “difference” is celebrated everywhere, and rightly so – unless that difference is being Christian!

We went out with a group of Christians from all different denominations and prayed together. We all had a heart for fostering and adoption so we sent off to the Fostering Network and received information on how to start our own agency. We sat down in our dining room, opened a bank account with £10, wrote the policies and procedures and on 1 January 1999, Cornerstone was born. 

Our code of practice is part of our governing documents. It requires that all our staff and carers uphold our faith and value base as distinctly Christian. We only accept committed evangelical Christians who can sign our statement of faith and code of practice, which includes demonstrating respect for Christian marriage. This policy was drawn up long before the Sexual Orientation Regulations were enacted, but it has since been accepted by the Charity Commission to be lawful under equality law. For us it is not about who we do not take as that was never our intention. It has always been about who we do take and why. We are rated “Good” with Ofsted and although the gospel is an offence to many, the laws of our land still protect our position to be able to serve as a faith-based charity.

Cornerstone is open to all children, including those of other faith backgrounds and none. The law asks that carers receive children into their homes and treat them as a member of the family for the time they are there. If a child from a different practicing faith were placed for an emergency, respite or short-term stay then the faith of the carers and the child would be considered as part of matching and so long as the child was able to follow their own practiced faith and was not expected to join the carers in their acts of worship without the parent’s consent then this could be accommodated in the short term. Children whose family are non-practicing or of no faith likewise, in emergency, respite or short-term placements would be respected by either one of the carers staying home on a Sunday or the child being offered the opportunity to try something new, again with their parent’s consent. We have done these types of placements successfully and had a practicing Muslim child’s parents consent to him attending church with a family as they thought it would be a good experience for him. We have children whose parents are non-practicing in other faiths placed without any issues.

When it comes to permanence however, it becomes more complicated as the child lives as a member of the family and therefore everyone must be open to the child going to church as they are not able to stay home alone.’

The parents Cornerstone work with take on a huge challenge. Pam says:

‘Cornerstone’s model for permanence (whether through fostering or adoption) is that our families commit to parenting as if the child had been born to them. Most “looked-after” young people are not able to transition to adulthood and independence at 18, nor is it normal or desirable to do so. We encourage our families to be parents to their child and grandparents to their children, wherever possible and we have lots of wonderful success stories where this has been the case. We have gay, straight, bi-sexual, single and married children, some of whom are also now parents whose children live with them and some where they do not, who are still being actively supported by their Cornerstone “Forever Families” nearly twenty years on, without judgment and with lots of love and grace. Some have special needs, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, addiction and anti-social behaviour issues. The commitment of their families is awesome and challenging.’

Currently Cornerstone is only operating in the North, but Pam’s ambitions stretch nationwide:

‘As Christians there is a spirit of adoption on us all and I think that this is very close to the Father’s heart. We are looking to plant Cornerstone in various locations and we now have couples from Hull to Bolton, Newcastle to Wakefield and all points in between. We hope to see this develop through opening more regional offices to support families in clusters throughout the UK. We are looking to have a presence in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too and would love to hear from church leaders, social workers and prospective families. We’re very open to the Holy Spirit and where He will lead us, but the thing we need most is people who are passionate about this work and who want to see Cornerstone in their area.

In order for us to develop clusters of families with support in other areas, we need suitably qualified and experienced social workers who are passionate about supporting Christian families to achieve outstanding outcomes for children and young people. Initially we are wanting to connect to people who will act as Champions or Ambassadors to seek to gain a presence in their local area. Each area will, eventually, as we roll out, have a regional office base, training and a panel for the consideration of assessments for suitable families to be recommended to join Cornerstone. In the short-term the panel will be in Stockton on Tees so, there will be some travelling.

Social Workers will be recruited to the Cornerstone national team and be involved in championing the Cornerstone model in local churches and with local authorities to recruit and support carers and seek placements. The Head Office will remain in Sunderland until such time as we think God is saying something else.’

For anyone considering fostering and adoption, experienced carers Kevin and Hazael offered their advice:

‘The first thing I would always encourage is to pray,’ Hazael stresses. ‘It is a really big thing, but if you feel God is in it and you feel he wants you to do it, then please investigate it more. By all means, speak to Cornerstone. They are not going to grab you by the neck and drag you in – all they want is the right people doing the right thing and myself and Kevin are more than happy to speak to anyone who would like to know more.’

For more information on Cornerstone and Pam’s story you can visit www.cornerstoneuk.org Kevin and Hazael Hornsby are happy to speak to anyone about their experience on kevtherev@uwclub.net

Pam Birtle

Pam Birtle is Founder and CEO of Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service.

 (This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for March 2018


Comments

I’m looking to foster with a Christian agency . I’m so glad only one came up cornerstone . I would like to foster with cornerstone . Thank you Pinder Kaur

Hi, I don't have any comment, but please I want to be a foster parent and Iam a Christian. Is there any Christian agency I can join in wednesbury or in Midlands that would allow me to take the child to Church Thanks and God bless

Hi I am a Christian Mum (divorced) and am looking into my not too distant future and want to foster, possibly babies, once my three adult children have left home. What do I need to do when the time comes. Do I ask to be out on the Register for the future? Thanks

We're a Christian family also who would like to foster, and I'm so excited because I've got a call from them today.Praying for the miracle now.

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