COLUMBIA, Md.—Our society is plagued by stories of child abandonment. Recently, a 20 month old was abandoned in a bathroom in Delaware, and a 5 year old left at a Cathedral in New York. Similar scenarios of parents unable to care for their children occur throughout the country with greater frequency than most of us suspect.
State child welfare hotlines throughout the nation receive over five million calls each year reporting suspected child abuse and neglect. Of those calls, about one million meet the State’s criteria for abuse, thus activating services. What happens to the remaining four million families or the countless families that are in crisis but are not identified? Their situation remains unchanged.
The current child welfare system is given the mandate to remove abused or neglected children from their parents’ custody at which time the children become “wards of the State.” This system of care is controversial and the concept of government protecting children from their parents is relatively new starting in the 1940’s and 50’s. Prior to this, churches and other faith-driven organizations were at the forefront of caring for vulnerable children. In fact, throughout history, the church and other religious organizations were the safety net for discarded and vulnerable children.
Church history is filled with accounts of believers rescuing “exposed” infants in ancient Rome, taking in all sorts of orphans, caring for the sick and the elderly, and sheltering pilgrims. Many orphanages, hospitals and asylums were first developed by Christians putting their faith into practice. However, with the development of state-run child welfare within the last 50 years, the church has relinquished this role. As the government has stepped up, the church stepped back to the point of becoming irrelevant to the real and significant needs of hurting families.
Throughout scripture, there are numerous references to widows and children. James associates the care of orphans and widows with purity of faith. He writes “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27). Isaiah concurs: “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
With the changing economy, many more families are experiencing financial crisis, unemployment and homelessness. Others are dealing with family violence, parental drug and/or alcohol abuse, illness or incarceration. During such crises, many parents are not capable of providing a safe and caring environment and are at increased risk for abusing or neglecting their children.
Historically the extended family often stepped in to support parents by taking care of children for short periods of time, and neighbors came alongside families in crisis. However, many families are socially isolated and their extended family is not available. The children in a family traumatized by crisis become especially at risk for neglect or abuse as their parents struggle to cope with crushing circumstances and emotions.
Safe Families for Children is a network of host families who are passionate about helping and caring for at-risk children and their parents. Designed to extend and strengthen the community safety net for at-risk families, it is a positive alternative to the State child welfare system. The voluntary and non-coercive nature of Safe Families is a hallmark of the program. Parents in crisis are able to place their children (newborns through parenting teens) in safe homes, still maintaining custody of their children.
For example, a single mother named Donna suffered from depression and was feeling very overwhelmed. She would tuck her daughters (ages 4 and 2) into bed and leave the apartment to do drugs and attempt to escape her problems. She had no family to help and at one point, she called the State to hand over her children.
The State referred her to Safe Families. Things had gotten to the point that she almost didn’st care about anything, but she did want to get better so she agreed to have her children placed with Safe Families volunteers Mike and Katy Wright. Donna started meeting with a counselor to work through issues related to her own abuse experienced as a child. She began visiting her children at the Wright’s home and eventually began spending weekends with the family. During the four months that Donna’s children lived with the Wrights, Donna received Christ and became involved in a supportive church where she was baptized by the Wrights. She also became a devoted mother, spending hours helping her children with their schoolwork and reaching out to other overwhelmed mothers. Also Donna said, “The Wrights wouldn’t give up on me and wouldn’t let me give up on myself. They challenged me to think differently about life and my kids and God. They were exactly what I needed in order to change.”
We have even more stories of families in crisis that we couldn’st help because we don’st have enough safe families volunteers willing to open up their homes. For example, just last week we didn’st have a home for a 2-year-old boy. The boy’s mother, a 21-year-old who recently lost her job and was about to be evicted, could no longer care for her son and was contemplating foster care or putting her son up for adoption. She called us explaining that she just needed time to get her GED, get a job and get stable housing so she could once again provide for her son. Unfortunately we had to refer her to other services because we didn’t have the families to help.
Safe Families volunteers epitomize the biblical command for all Christians to live lives characterized by hospitality. Join this wave of biblical hospitality by using your home for Kingdom purposes.
To learn more about Safe Families for Children, contact Melissa Mazeski at (800) 621-8834 or email [email protected].