More than 700 children in the Oklahoma Foster Care System are separated from their siblings but the Circle of Care for Children and Youth foster agency and community of Shawnee hope to rectify this issue.

On Feb. 1, Circle of Care broke ground on land at the intersection of Hardesty Road and South Rock Creek Road, where they will build two foster homes designed to keep siblings together.

According to Circle of Care foster recruiter, Levi Duggan, money for the homes came from the Avedis Foundation, which donated $450,000.

"They are specifically designed for foster families to come in and keep siblings together who are usually broken up in the DHS system because an average foster family is not able to take three (to six) kids at a time," Duggan said. "We actually build these beautiful homes that are big enough to house up to six children."

Shawnee is the fifth town where Circle of Care has built foster homes and Duggan said people have been extremely helpful.

"The community of Shawnee is really excited and wanting to do more than just the sibling home but that's a good starting point," Duggan said. "I think if we can keep this conversation going, find two families to live in those two homes and then use that as a conversation point to continue to talk about foster care in Pottawatomie County then we can make a big impact..."

He said Shawnee is one of the most enthusiastic communities to get involved with this issue.

Duggan said Circle of Care is currently in the process of finding two families to become certified and eventually foster some children.

The foster care agency is a century old and for its entire existence has helped children in need.

"Circle of Care is a faith based private agency. We started 100 years ago with the United Methodists Women of Oklahoma as an orphanage and over the years we have always worked to care for children and families that are in crisis," Duggan said.

When Oklahoma first become a state Duggan said the United Methodists Women built an orphanage in Tahlequah which is now where Circle of Care does its Pearls Hope program.

However, about 20 years ago Circle of Care and other agencies shifted away from group care, group facilities and orphanages to individual family foster care.

"We found that maltreatment is much lower in an individual family home verses in a group setting and in addition to that we found that we get better behavioral outcomes in individual family homes where a child has loving parents even as foster parents...," Duggan said.

Circle of Care is the largest Oklahoma based foster agency and has fostered hundreds of children. Currently it has around 100 families and around 200 children but the number changes everyday.

"Among our foster families about 40 percent last year had an adoption in their family," Duggan said. "That's pretty consistent with the state numbers. The state itself is averaging about 60 percent of kids being reunified with their biological family which is a big improvement over 10 years..."

The foster recruiter explained it's the main goal of Circle of Care and overall foster care to keep children and parents united, but there are cases when it's best for a child to be placed with another family.

"It's a necessary secondary measure because unfortunately a lot of biological parents aren't able to complete their service plans or they're in a situation where they're just not safe for the children," Duggan said.

Circle of Care has programs such as Pearls Hope where they support homeless mothers who've lost their children or are on the verge of losing their children.

Duggan said the agency also helps children who age out of foster care through a program called Preparation for Adult Living. Preparation is for 18-24 years and it teaches them how to find housing, make a living and pay their bills.

"Our mission is to provide help, healing and hope to children and families in need in Oklahoma," Duggan said.

The father of five said he decided to join Circle of Care because he's been passionate about foster care and adoption for quite some time.

"I adopted my first daughter almost 10 years ago...and then almost two years ago we started the process of becoming foster parents and we fostered a 10-year-old boy who we ultimately adopted and so it's just kind of been a personal ministry for me and my wife," Duggan said. "It grew into a professional ministry when Circle of Care reached out to me and offered me a job to recruit foster parents."

It's Duggan's job to share his story with potential foster parents and hopefully inspire them to join the effort.

"We just try to encourage families to step up and participate in the process of foster care because of the crisis we have," Duggan said.

Duggan said there are currently around 8,000 children in state custody who need families but there are only 2,000 traditional foster homes.

"There are about 2 million adults who are professing Christians in Oklahoma and there are about 8,000 children in state custody," Duggan said. "If one quarter of one percent of those adult professing Christians volunteer to be foster families the foster crisis is over in Oklahoma...,"

Duggan explained the if the crisis can be ended then Circle of Care and other agencies can focus on prevention.

"That looks like mental health access for biological parents, help with addiction, help with their own trauma that experiences as children or adults so that they can stay a whole family and not be broken apart...," Duggan said.

The sibling homes are expected to be completed at the end of 2019.

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