Charlie, a teenager who spent the majority of her life in foster and adoptive care, found herself with only one option last year when the woman she was staying with told her she would soon be kicked out: live on the streets during the day and sleep in an Atlanta women’s shelter at night.
“After about six months of living with [the woman],” Charlie told TheBlaze, “she just decided, ‘You’re not a part of my family … on your 18th birthday you’re out.’”
The teen’s road hasn’t been an easy one to navigate. Adopted when she was just a baby, Charlie says she ended up in an abusive family, where she was neglected until the age of 11.
From there, she was moved from home to home. And just when she thought she had found a good place to live, Charlie was told she’d soon be homeless.
But then, just one day after her 18th birthday, something changed. A woman named Pam Parish took Charlie in. Now, only three months later, the teen has a steady home environment and is planning to go to college to study psychology after she graduates high school later this year.
Parish, the communications pastor at Victory World Church in Norcross, Ga., is no stranger to helping young people in need. In fact, she’s on a mission to rescue girls who face seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Her quest to change lives started with a simple yearning to build her family through adoption. But that journey has now led to a large-scale project aimed at helping young women escape neglect, abuse, and even the throes of human trafficking, while also finding “forever homes” they can call their own.
“The preventative and restoration side of the sex trafficking issue”
By personally taking in and adopting six young women, Parish has taken an active role in tackling those issues by creating a safe environment that shields her children from exploitation. But now she’s hoping to expand beyond her own home to show other families how to do the same thing.
The faith leader and her husband Steve have launched Connections Homes, a non-profit organization intended to help young women find permanent families, while avoiding homelessness and the sex trafficking trade.
Taking on a task too intricate and personal to be conducted by many larger-scale government programs, Connections Homes is truly an example of individual Americans stepping out in faith and doing good simply for the sake of helping others in need.
“What we’re going to do is focus on girls 18 to 25 who are aging out of foster care or who have been sex trafficked,” she said. “We’re trying to fill that gap and get the message out that you can do what we’ve done … even after the age of 15.”
Parish said many states report that 50 to 80 percent of women who have been sex trafficked have been in foster care at some point, so the link between the two issues is playing a major role in her work.
“We’re really on the preventative and restoration side of the sex trafficking issue,” she added. “[We] prevent them from being in at risk situations where a trafficker could pick them up.”
Some might question why Pam and Steve Parish have chosen to focus on individuals who are, by legal standards, considered adults. And to that question, Pam has some pointed answers.
Through her experience, she came to realize that women ages 18 to 24 who have aged out of the foster care system lack the social resources that most young people have. They generally have no families, no reliable connections and, in many instances, are at increased risk of ending up in extreme poverty or of being trafficked.
While the government provides programs that might address some of these needs, the personal connection to other human beings who will take these girls in and treat them as their own cannot be replicated, especially by large-scale government programs.
The Parish family’s plan is very personal and requires a level of dialogue and assessment that is hard to find.
“No one should ever have to be alone”
Connections Homes became a nonprofit in October and Parish and her husband are currently working to secure a facility — a home where families interested in fostering or adopting these adult women will be trained and where approximately 10 at-risk women at a time will reside during a 30 to 120-day evaluation process.
Considering the issues some of these women face, which could range from psychological and mental anguish to education gaps, Parish wants to properly prepare the families who wish to help them.
“Our win is that a kid can go on, have a college education, have a career and still have somewhere to go home,” she explained.
And Parish has personally seen the impact that adoption and a stable home and family support system can offer both young and adult women.
Heather, 17, adopted by the Parishes when she was 11, said that growing up seeing her parents’ help so many others has allowed her to acquire a love for compassionately serving. While she has learned good morals and ethics, her life’s trajectory has also been profoundly transformed.
Without the Parishes, Heather said she’s not sure where she’d be. Like many others her age, if she were never adopted, she’d be at risk for many of the social issues Parish described to TheBlaze.
“I would probably still be in the group home either searching and moving from foster home to foster home,” Heather explained. “I’d be close to aging out of the foster home and having no clue what to do.”
Parish is hoping to help those facing such a scenario.
This summer, she plans to begin training families. And by this time next year, she’s hoping that Connections Homes will be open for business.
How it all began
Parish’s journey into foster care and adoption began after she delivered her first child, Kristan, in 1995. After medical problems prevented her from having additional kids, she and her husband made a decision: to pursue adoption through foster care.
After the family moved to Atlanta in 2006, Parish told TheBlaze she and Steve took jobs working for a local church. Eventually, the two decided to adopt their second daughter, Heather.
It was that experience that led her to begin training and teaching other parents interested in foster care and adoption. And that’s when something profound happened.
She found out that another local teen — a 15-year-old — was in an adoptive placement that would soon be ending.
“They said we’re done … the state can take her back,” Parish said of the adopted family who was caring for the girl at the time.
Rather than allowing the girl to go back into the foster system, Parish and her husband decided that they would adopt her.
It was around that time that Parish said she also began learning about sex trafficking — a horrific industry in which children and adults are very literally bought and sold.
“My heart began to change for these kids that were being trafficked and [I learned about] the risk factors that were leading up to that,” she said, noting that the issue hit close to home. “These girls who I called daughters were very at risk for that becoming their trajectory.”
A “second chance”
In 2011, Parish again adopted, taking in a fourth child. Since that time, she and her husband have adopted or fostered three additional daughters — all over the age of 18. Some had faced homelessness, others had aged out of the foster care system. Regardless, they found a home in the Parish family — which has now grown to seven children.
The experience has been rewarding for everyone involved.
The couple’s biological daughter, Kristan, 18, told TheBlaze that her family’s uncommon structure has provided “a growing experience” for her — one in which she has learned to embrace and cope with others’ imperfections. Kristan also expressed how proud she is of her family.
“These girls are coming out of foster care, living on the street. We are giving them a second chance,” she said of her parents’ role in helping young women. “I think it’s a Jesus thing. I think it’s forgiveness.”
Kristan added, “It’s changed my perspective on people.”
What started as a personal effort to build her family has blossomed into an initiative that will very literally change lives.
“Somewhere along the way in getting to know our kids … we’ve discovered a foundational belief that no one should ever have to be alone,” Parish explained. “Everyone deserves a family forever.”
Four of Parish’s daughters still live at home, though all seven, including her biological child, Kristan, are most certainly forever a part of her family.