By Amy Simon
Parenting is a huge responsibility that can overwhelm us at times. Many of us have extended family and friends to help us during a crisis or when life just gets too crazy, but not everyone does. Trying to be an effective parent during life’s intense trials and difficulties can be next to impossible. Where can parents turn in these circumstances for help and encouragement? Safe Families for Children is a unique ministry that helps fill that role.
Safe Families is designed to keep children out of the foster care system, prevent abuse, and stabilize families. It was started in 2002 in Chicago and is now in 75 cities and 30 states, as well as in several international locations.
If a parent is in a position where she needs someone to come alongside and co-parent her children, then a screened, qualified, Christian host family can provide temporary, supplemental care for her children while she focuses on establishing a stable home. The placing parent retains full custody of her children while being mentored and encouraged by the host family. The children then return to the parent once she is ready to resume full care of them again.
There are many different scenarios where parents typically use Safe Families. If a single mother is homeless, her options are fairly limited because of the rules imposed by shelters. Boys over the age of 10 usually aren’t allowed in the women’s shelter, for example. Sometimes parents don’t quite qualify for a shelter. In other scenarios, grandparents caring for their grandchildren need a temporary respite. If a parent is incarcerated and there aren’t other family members who can care for the children, they would end up in foster care. Other situations arise if a parent needs to go to a substance abuse program and can’t bring children, or is hospitalized, or is running from domestic violence.
Host families undergo a background check, a home study, provide three references, and undergo training in order to qualify. It’s not necessary to have it all together, but Safe Families wants to assure placing parents that their children are going to a safe, loving environment. Host families can decide how many and what age children they are available to care for. Although children can be ages 0-18, the average age of a child placed into a host home is 4 1/2. Safe Families also looks for host families for pregnant teens and teens who have aged out of the foster care system.
The length of time a child remains in a host home varies depending on the situation, but the average length of stay is 40 days. Host families can also get involved as respite care for shorter periods of time. The child or children become part of the host family for a time, joining in with all the normal activities of the household. Sometimes the placing parent takes them back on the weekends, but it depends on the situation.
Daily phone calls are encouraged between host families and placing parents, and the host family becomes a valuable support system to the placing parent. Andrea Bilello, the Family Coach Supervisor for the Milwaukee area, said that “host families are not just meant to be somewhere where the kids can go, but also to be a spiritual support and a spiritual extended family of sorts to that placing parent and to be in relationship with them in whatever way the situation allows. Even after placement, parents are still in touch with a support system that now they have for life, in many cases.”
Andrea and her husband have also been a host family. “We have worked hard to co-parent with placing parents whenever possible. I have a relationship with one mom in particular that I have known for almost two years now and have hosted all of her children at one point or another. She and I are friends, and we consider one another family. We do things together including celebrating holidays. Most moms really do want to parent their kids and do the work needed to be in a better place than when their children left. Our immediate and extended family members have opened their hearts in many ways as well. The goal is to love kids and redeem parents, and this is what we are trying to do for the sake of each and every child. This is what each child really wants. In order to do this we must serve in a way that combats relational poverty and social isolation.”
Host families don’t serve alone. There are also “family friends” who help with meals, transportation, and free babysitting. “Resource friends” provide physical resources such as cribs, pack and plays, and car seats. Those items are then donated to the placing parent after the placement is over. There are also “family coaches,” individuals with experience in counseling, social work, or human resources who can act as liaisons between the host parents and placing parents. They also meet regularly with the host family to make sure everything is going smoothly and help the placing parents attain their goals and work through their issues so that the time without their children is as effective as possible.
Safe Families was designed to be a church-led, grassroots ministry. The Bible encourages us many times to show hospitality and to help the poor. This ministry is designed to do just that. Andrea said that “when [Dr. David Anderson] started Safe Families, he didn’t want it to just be another ministry, but really a grassroots movement of the church to reclaim their stance in society as being the change agents in our world.”
Local churches can be involved with Safe Families at various levels, from providing information and recruiting volunteers to overseeing the ministry.
The Whole Family
It can sometimes be difficult to find ways for families to serve God and others together. Safe Families is a ministry that the entire family can be involved in. “You’re serving together as a family. It’s a real example of Christ’s love on a daily basis. It can bring the church closer together; it can help you know your community better, love your neighbors, and this is all stuff we’re preaching about in church anyway,” Andrea said. Being a host family or helping out in one of the other capacities can open your own children’s eyes to the needs in the world. It shows them that they can serve God and others just as their parents can.
Melanie Peterson and her husband are a host family. They have five children of their own, ages 4 through 12. Before accepting a new placement, they always discuss the situation as a family and make sure everyone is OK with it before accepting a child. “In most cases it has been extremely beneficial to our children to be involved in the Safe Families program. We want our kids to learn to lovingly and willingly serve others in the name of Jesus. Being actively involved as well as watching my husband and I as examples of being the hands and feet of Jesus is one of the most beneficial lessons they can learn in their childhood,” Melanie said.
If you’re interested in more information or would like to get involved in Safe Families for Children in your area, visit their website (www.safe-families.org). There are many different ways to get involved, but all of them can help heal our society, one family at a time.
Amy Simon is a wife, homeschooling mother of three, and freelance writer living in Wisconsin.