In Baltimore’s streets, an aspiring astronaut found his earthly calling


Al Laws, co-founder of the foster care organization WIN, says, “I think it’s the wrong approach in the social work arena to not speak about spirituality.” (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)
December 28, 2012

Al Laws wanted to be an astronaut, and with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he was well on his way. Then, during a late-night drive along Biddle Street in his home town of Baltimore, he caught a glimpse of neighborhood children hanging out in the street on a school night.

“I thought to myself, ‘Someone has to do something about this,’ and then I heard a clear voice say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I knew then that I had been called by God,” Laws said.

Twenty years later, Laws is the co-founder and chief executive of WIN Family Services, a faith-based organization with locations in Prince George’s County and Baltimore that works to place children with foster families and provides mental health assistance for children and adults.

Since its founding in 1992, WIN, or “What I Need,” has worked with hundreds of families, mostly in minority and underserved communities. Laws and co-founder Ross Ford, who are both African American, were especially eager to work with minority families.

“Nearly 80 percent of social services are geared toward minorities, and it’s important that social workers who work with these families reflect that diversity so that they have an understanding for the cultures that they serve,” Laws said.

WIN is engaged in a two-year study with historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore, which is studying a therapy model the agency uses known as “family strengthening.” As part of the study, researchers were interested in looking at how spirituality affects therapeutic technique, but the state declined that line of study in order to “keep separation between church and state,” said the study’s head researcher, Sandra Chipungu.

WIN currently works with 70 foster parents and provides services to about 80 youths.

The agency’s faith-based mission has played a key role in recruiting foster parents, many of whom are African American.

“I saw the ad for WIN in the Pennysaver, and when I read that they were faith-based, I knew that I wanted to work with them,” said Cynthia Rawls, who lives in Fort Washington and has been a foster parent through WIN for four years.

At WIN, family meetings between foster parents and children often begin with a prayer, foster parents are provided with Bible Scripture for encouragement during stressful weeks, and there is a weekly Bible study for families that want to attend.

The faith-based approach can be very helpful, said D. Guthrie, who didn’t want to be fully identified to protect her foster daughter’s privacy.

Guthrie has been raising her foster daughter for eight years, after the mother lost parental rights to the girl, who was then 9.

For Guthrie, who has no biological children, the challenges of parenting can sometimes be overwhelming.

“WIN emphasizes faith, in their training and teaching, by talking about Scripture,” she said. “At a recent parent meeting, we were talking about behavior issues with our kids, and we discussed the Philippians 4:13 Scripture: ‘I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.’ We often talk about Scriptures to encourage us.”

During a particularly chaotic week, a worker from WIN visited Guthrie’s home and anointed her daughter’s room, Guthrie said. The anointing was done to cast out negative energy and promote healing, she said.

Despite the role of faith in WIN’s practices and teaching, Laws makes it clear that religion is never forced upon anyone.

“I’m not a minister, but I do have Christian beliefs and see what I’m doing as a part of ministry. We don’t force people to believe anything, and we respect everyone,” he said.

“I understand that people are concerned about proselytizing, but I think it’s the wrong approach in the social work arena to not speak about spirituality,” Laws said.

The idea of faith-based organizations increasing their role in social services was advanced by an executive order issued by President George W. Bush. Bush’s policies strengthened the ability of faith-based organizations to perform social services with federal funds.

“The introduction of this term was interesting to many people in the field of social work because the government has always provided contracts through religious organizations. Under this new terminology, it became an interesting way to de-professionalize these social services,” said Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated school.

For Garland, there isn’t a clear-cut answer about whether faith should play a role in social work. Many students at Baylor come to the School of Social Work because they are motivated by their faith, Garland said. But for faith-based programs to work, clients must not feel coerced into behaving a certain way or professing certain beliefs to receive services, she said.

If used appropriately, faith can be a vital tool in recruiting minority foster parents, said Patrick Crawford, president of the D.C. area chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers.

In the 1980s and ’90s, many African Americans believed there was a stigma attached to being involved with social service agencies, Crawford said. The screening process for foster parents, which included criminal background checks and documentation of financial history, contributed to this stigma. As an alternative, many minority families pooled resources to provide “kinship care,” Crawford said.

“Kinship care happens when the close relatives of a family member take in someone’s children and raise them,’’ he said.

In the new millennium, African Americans who had completed higher levels of education and had greater financial means began participating in the foster care system, Crawford said.

“These were people who had the resources and were just looking to give back,” he said. “Faith plays an important role for people who see providing foster care as a moral obligation.”

Faith is just one of the tools WIN uses in working with families. The family-strengthening therapy under study by Morgan State was influenced by Salvador Minuchin, a family therapist from Argentina who is well known in the field of social work. The approach is goal-oriented and directs family members to focus on one another’s strengths in an effort to enhance communication.

“Family strengthening is about not placing the emphasis on fault-finding when talking about family conflicts. . . . When someone only points out your faults, you tend to shut down,” Laws said.

Practitioners of family strengthening are trained to shy away from acting as a mediator during family disagreements. The objective is to observe the family dynamic and, when conflict arises, to redirect the focus of the group by pointing out good behaviors by each family member. This forces the family to learn to work together to solve problems, Laws said.

Laws thinks that WIN’s mission is especially critical during a time when minority-run social service organizations are finding it harder to keep their doors open.

This year, two foster care agencies closed and referred their clients to WIN, adding 40 potential foster families to WIN’s roster.

To the staff at WIN, including Ann Robertson, the director of training, it was almost as if Laws had prophesied it.

“He came in one day and told the entire staff that God had given him a vision that we would have 14 new clients before the end of the year that would help us to continue our work. A few months later, one agency closed and sent us 16 new clients, then another closed and sent 24,” Robertson said.

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