Posted on : Thursday April 15, 2010

By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent

CHICAGO—When a crisis strikes, many of us rely on relatives and friends for support. But for some families, there is no safety net.

Often, a straightforward problem such as postpartum depression or unemployment can be debilitating. Children in these situations often suffer neglect or abuse; some eventually are removed from their home and placed in state custody.

But now, thanks to an exciting program sponsored by Baptist Family & Children’s Services, parents experiencing a temporary crisis can arrange for their children to stay with a Christian family while they address the issues that led to their situation.

The program, Safe Families, is fast becoming a national model for communities that wan to expand their safety net for at-risk children.

It all began in Chicago in 2002, in the wake of a particularly deadly summer for children.

Week after week there had been news of another child in Chicago who had died at the hands of a parent. The city responded with an awareness campaign that included billboards featuring a photograph of the police commissioner and the words “No Child Should Die for Crying,” along with a child protection hotline number.

David Anderson, executive director of LYDIA (a Christian social service agency in Chicago), reacted to the crisis by writing Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In his letter, Anderson asked, “Isn’t it shame that a family can’t get help until after they have abused or neglected their child? At that point, the children have been removed from the home and parents often have little hope of their children being returned.”

Anderson then made a radical proposition in his letter: What if compassionate Christians opened their homes to children from families in crisis before the children were taken into state custody?

The mayor and one of his trusted deputies responded enthusiastically and helped find seed money to implement this bold undertaking.

By February 2003, Safe Families for Children-Chicago began with a handful of volunteers. This movement has now grown to close to 400 volunteer families in the Chicago area alone with a placement rate of over 30 a month. Along the way, hundreds of people have been touched and changed — not only those served by the ministry, but those serving as volunteers as well.

The movement already has expanded into 16 other cities across America, from Atlanta to California. And with a partnership with Baptist Family & Children’s Services, families in Maryland and Delaware have a renewed hope.

The goal of the Safe Families program is to reunite children with their biological parent in a home that is more stable and healthy, in part, because of the contribution of the Safe Families intervention.

Safe Families is not just about the custody and care of the children. A mentoring relationship is established between the two parents that continues after the children are returned home. The Safe Family is a type of extended family member that can be a resource if problems reoccur.

How does Safe Families work?

Baptist Family caseworkers hear about families in crisis from a variety of referral sources, including schools, hospitals, social workers, churches and other Christian agencies. The staff works quickly to contact an available volunteer family and shares the situation with them.

Safe Families volunteers include singles, married couples with children of any age and empty nesters, all of whom simply decided to make room in their hearts and their homes for children in need.

Volunteers agree to the placement at their own discretion and put a time limit on their involvement. The average length of stay is about six weeks, but can range from two days to a year.

Biological parents maintain full custody of their child, and are encouraged to participate in decisions regarding their child’s care while they address whatever issues led to the crisis. For some, this could mean drug rehabilitation; for others, it might involve leaving an abusive relationship or finding steady employment.

Baptist Family staff members will keep in touch with the parents, working closely with the referring organization to determine when and if the family can be reunited.

Currently, 85 percent of all families in the program come back together, often in the most stable environment they have ever known. In other cases, the children are eventually placed with relatives or in foster care.

Why Safe Families?

Because all the resources are volunteer-driven, there are no physical buildings or finances that can limit its growth. There is the opportunity to build a volunteer-driven safety net for any child, any reason.

In addition to a measurable impact, such as a decrease in child welfare custody cases, there is a significant societal cost savings when child abuse is prevented and families are restored.

And because state child welfare agencies only intervene when a significant trigger incident (physical child abuse) occurs, there are thousands of children in quite vulnerable situations.

With Safe Families, any child for any reason will have a safe place to live.

If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please contact Melissa Mazeski at Baptist Family at (410) 872-1050 or [email protected].