For the past year, MetroFamily has been running a series of articles about foster care. In addition to printing spotlights on foster care topics, we have local foster parent bloggers posting personal experiences on our website and we’ve put together a directory of services available to area foster families. We’re dedicating the last two months of our series to preventing foster care altogether. This month, learn about a local organization called Safe Families that works to prevent neglect or abuse to keep children out of the foster system.
Like many moms in the Oklahoma City metro, Sarah Blood has an invaluable network of family and friends who have been instrumental in her and husband, Brian’s, parenting journey. When Blood quit her successful career as a mechanical engineer, she started all over again as she learned how to survive arguably the hardest job on the planet: mom.
Three kids later, Blood has much joy in her daily life, but she still experiences the typical trials and tribulations of parenthood. When she considers what she would do without her village of family and friends to support, encourage and guide her, she can’t fathom the loneliness and desperation.
“It breaks my heart that families are in a situation with no support,” she said.
That tug on her heartstrings is what led the Blood family to become volunteers with Safe Families, an organization supporting families in crisis. Safe Families utilizes volunteer families like the Bloods to house and care for vulnerable children while struggling parents get back on their feet, which may mean finding a safe place to live, going to rehab, getting help for a mental illness, undergoing a medical procedure or securing a job. The organization is preventative in nature, meaning it supports families in distress before neglect or abuse occurs in the home, thus keeping children out of the foster care system.
“What hits the paper isn’t that a family didn’t get services but that someone died,” said Dr. Deb Shropshire, pediatrician and deputy director of child welfare community partnerships for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. “If you go three steps backward, you see that a mom lost a job and didn’t have support.”
When Sarah’s husband needed an emergency appendectomy, she reached out to her family and friends to care for her children so she could be at his side. As the Bloods explained to their three young girls about why volunteering with Safe Families is an important mission for them, not every family is so lucky. The parents Safe Families supports have no neighbors, relatives or friends who could safely care for their children while they focus on getting the help they need.
“They are doing this on their own,” said Blood. “I completely understand that something has to give. Sometimes you need help. Everybody does.”
Blood has a passion for children and babies, but for her, it’s the parents she’s most invested in serving.
“I hope I provide the parents with encouragement and peace of mind,” said Blood. “I want them to be comfortable with my family so they know their child will be okay and they can work on what they need to work on.”
For Safe Families executive director Jon Hocker, who also has served as a foster parent, that focus on serving families is what makes this organization different.
“We come alongside these families and create a support system for them,” Hocker said. “We’re keeping families whole.”
Preventing foster care
Founded in Chicago in 2003, Safe Families now has locations in more than 80 cities around the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Kenya. The Oklahoma County branch opened in 2014, brought to fruition by the collaborative group Count Me in 4 Kids (CMI4K). Consisting of foster care agency workers, judges, senators, state representatives, OKDHS workers, attorneys and others providing services for children and families, the group saw the need for a solution to keep families together whenever possible.
“I sometimes see children in foster care who truly do not need to be here,” said Jennifer Abney, executive director of Angels Foster Family Network, a board member for CMI4K and a board member and volunteer for Safe Families. “If there was a solution and support before children came into custody and DHS didn’t have to work a case that likely stretches out for a year, then so much less trauma occurs with the children and the parents get the support they need to correct a problem on their own.”
As Safe Families founder Dave Anderson points out, state governments have to wait until harm occurs, but Safe Families can intervene before situations escalate to requiring DHS’s involvement.
“The families that come to us for help are in a different place than the ones DHS works with to remove kids from homes,” Hocker said. “They might be on a path to abuse and neglect based on their circumstances, issues or crisis they are in. But they want to work to keep their kids.”
Unlike the foster care system, participation on both sides is completely voluntary. Biological parents maintain custody of their children and can reunite with them at any time.
“You don’t have the animosity that you might in the foster care system,” Hocker said. “No one is getting paid, there is no expectation for adoption. The reason we are doing this is to help and support families.”
More than 90 percent of the families helped by Safe Families nationally are reunited with their children, compered to closer to 50 percent of kids in state custody. The majority of the remaining 10 percent move to a relative’s home; less than three percent move into DHS custody. Shropshire said that in Chicago, Safe Families claims a reduction in the kids in state custody by half. While she is hopeful Safe Families will have that kind of an overwhelming impact in Oklahoma City, what she really hopes is that this type of preventative services keeps those kids out of state custody whose parents simply lack resources.
“I want to have the right kids in care,” said Shropshire, “those whose families persisted in making bad choices, not those whose families wanted to be better but they didn’t have any other options.”
The parents Safe Families serves can self-refer or they can be referred by community members or DHS. When Safe Families receives a referral, the board convenes to ensure the organization’s ability to help that family reset and recover. If it’s determined to be a proper fit, the board meets with the parents to gather more details, such as how long the child would need a home and how the organization can help the parent.
“Sometimes their needs are so simple that by gathering community resources we can fix a problem and no child needs to leave their family,” said Abney. “It is eyeopening and heartwarming to see lives change from such simple outreach.”
For families that do need childcare, the parents and Safe Families volunteers agree to goals the parents want to reach before bringing their children back into their home. But because the parents maintain custody and the arrangement is voluntary, they can make the decision to take the child home at any time. While it has not been an major issue for Safe Families, the organization does have a process by which it would notify DHS if there were ever an indication a child was in danger.
Volunteering to keep families together
Volunteers like the Bloods are known as host families and are thoroughly screened and trained before providing children a respite in their homes. In an effort to make children as comfortable as possible, Safe Families carefully considers which of its host families is best equipped to care for each child, seeking host families in the same geographic location and school when possible.
Host families receive no compensation and focus on the end goal of reuniting children with their parents. On average, children are with a host family for four to six weeks, though they can remain for up to a year. The children served are all ages, through 21, but the majority of the children served are under age 6.
In addition to caring for the child’s everyday needs, these host families also support the parents in getting the help they need and maintain open communication at all times. Host families assume power of attorney for education and medical situations for the children in their care, but they must involve biological parents when possible. According to Abney, that inclusivity can mean biological parents join in family meals, outings, school activities and tucking children in at night. By sharing life together, host families have an opportunity to be the parenting role models the biological parents have often never had.
“Because we are encouraging contact, we find that there’s more interaction,” said Hocker, in comparison to foster parents relating to biological parents. “We want them to feel supported, to know they still have their kids and that we’re trying to help them in their time of need.”
Family coaches are volunteers who serve as a liaison between the host family and biological family. Coaches help keep the lines of communication open between the two families, develop appropriate boundaries and find biological families the resources and support they need to meet their goals and provide a safe home for their children.
Safe Families volunteers are primarily recruited, trained and supported by partner churches. Locally, Crossings Community Church and Council Road Baptist Church have been instrumental in incorporating Safe Families into their ministries. Both already had ministries related to foster care and adoption in place, so the addition of Safe Families as a mission was a natural one.
“This is true Biblical hospitality,” said Clint Chamberlain, executive pastor of outside the walls ministry for Council Road Baptist Church. “We have the opportunity to get involved in these biological parents’ lives. The relationships we’re building is how we’re going to fix families.”
Chamberlain has been involved with Safe Families for two years and said at first he noticed a lot of distrust and leeriness on the part of biological parents, who often can’t believe someone is willing to help them with no expectations, money changing hands or eventual plan to remove their children from the home. He said the voluntary nature of Safe Families is what makes the relationships eventually flourish, and even lead biological parents to refer friends to Safe Families.
“We still have to gain trust, but there haven’t been lines drawn in the sand,” said Chamberlain, comparing the often tumultuous relationships between foster and biological parents. “There is a lot more flexibility to build relationships and minister to people.”
In addition to mobilizing volunteers, churches wrap a circle of friends around host families to support them. Often a Sunday School class or small group creates a network upon which host families rely to meet physical needs, like clothing, car seats or beds, provide meals, get kids to school or athletic practice, and source health care and counseling needs. Crossings offers a weekly support group for foster, adoptive and host families, equipping them with parenting tools, resources and encouragement. The church also works with biological parents to create a more stable home environment, even putting on various recovery groups and a providing a medical clinic. Staff at both churches stresses that restoring families by developing long-term supportive relationships is key to this ministry.
“When we make it a program, we’ve missed the mark,” Chamberlain said. “It’s about relationships. That’s why as much as the government and the state want to fix this, they can’t. But the church can.”
Volunteer training at participating churches includes topics like childhood trauma, grief, loss and generational poverty. Blood appreciates what she’s learned about how children coming into her home will likely feel and act and how to help them adjust accordingly. Volunteer Paige Henderson said she has most appreciated that Safe Families staff has been available to her 24/7 when she has a question or concern during a hosting. Blood already feels that reassurance.
“When we have a child placed with us, we will have all the help we need,” said Blood. “That has helped alleviate some anxiety for me.”
Hosting in action
Henderson is a mom of three with a passion for kids who don’t have families. She and her husband have considered adoption and foster care, but the timing has never been right. When she heard about Safe Families from a friend, she jumped at the chance to volunteer.
“This is the way I believe it should be done,” said Henderson of the church leading this mission to keep families together. “I wanted to be a part of loving a child and a family.”
After completing the necessary background check, home inspection and training, Henderson got the chance to do just that. Her family’s first hosting experience was for a little boy and lasted about four months. His mother grew up in the foster care system and has always had to do everything on her own.
“A lot of these people are alone,” Henderson said. “That’s why they get in such a bind. They’re isolated and don’t have a great support system. We all need someone to just lift us up and cheer us on.”
Still, Henderson said the decision for the mom to entrust her child to Safe Families was a very difficult one. Her reluctance stemmed from a lifetime of broken relationships and disappointments.
“She was bounced around to many homes,” Henderson said. “She doesn’t like anyone telling her what she should do. It was very hard for her to do this and I’m so proud of her.”
Henderson focused on building trust by consistently sending photos of the boy to his mom, putting herself in the mom’s shoes to understand her way of thinking and becoming the family the mom never had. The boy and his brother call the Hendersons “aunt and uncle,” and Paige tries to babysit at least once a week. The Hendersons will consider hosting again but Paige said her relationship with this mom is her priority right now.
“When I do something, I do it whole heartedly,” she said. “She’s not ready on her own yet. She needs me too much right now.”
Henderson’s long-term commitment to the family she is supporting is exactly what Safe Families wants from its volunteers. In fact, Safe Families encourages host families to only serve an average of four families total so they can maintain those support systems as long as necessary.
“If you’re really investing in a family as a host family, that relationship continues beyond hosting,” Hocker said. “Eventually, your relational capacity gets maxed. That’s why we need to keep recruiting host families.”
Safe Families has a goal of recruiting 100 new host families by the end of 2016. Because the organization is committed to matching children to host families who will look and feel like their own families, it’s imperative to recruit more diverse families from all parts of the city. Those involved have big hopes for how these volunteers will impact foster care in Oklahoma.
“I would love for us to grow to such a level that the [foster care] waiting list goes away,” Chamberlain said, “for families to be made whole and be ministered to so that reconciliation and healing can happen.”
To move in that direction, Safe Families also continues to grow its partnerships with key community agencies like OKDHS, Stand in the Gap, Positive Tomorrows, NorthCare and local churches, as both referral and volunteer sources. OKDHS has been involved with Safe Families since the beginning, and the organization is asking DHS employees to identify families they already work with who could benefit from what Safe Families offers.
“DHS knows this is a huge need and a solution for them,” said Hocker. “In terms of prevention, Safe Families is one of the only solutions there is.”
Not so dissimilar from the goals of foster care, DHS has been instrumental in reviewing Safe Families’ processes for safety checks, background checks and training. Streamlining a referral process is one of the next steps. Currently, there isn’t a well-developed system by which caseworkers, or community members, can report a family who isn’t at the threat level it takes to get child welfare involved but decisively needs help, according to Shropshire. For now, DHS is encouraging its caseworkers in both the family services and child welfare divisions to consider Safe Families as an option when they are developing a safety plan for a family, when a family is about to lose housing, a parent will be in the hospital for an extended period of time or a parent is going to jail for something not related to child welfare.
“If we don’t help a family get a safe place for their child to be, they could have to resort to an unsafe situation, and then child welfare has to get involved,” said Shropshire.
For Hocker, the motivation to keep families together whenever possible starts in his own home every morning. He and wife, Amber, have three sons whom they fostered and adopted. They were firsthand witnesses to the animosity of biological parents toward DHS, and sometimes to foster parents as an extension. That tumultuous dynamic from the get-go kept them from developing and maintaining the type of inclusive, supportive relationship they would have liked to with their boys’ biological family. As overjoyed as they are to have their boys as part of their forever family, they grieve for the parents who couldn’t keep them.
“If Safe Families had been around when our kids were first removed, we feel like this could have been a great solution,” said Hocker. “If that had been the case, maybe they could still be with their biological mom and dad.”
If you are interested in becoming a Safe Families host family, visit www.safefamiliesok.org to complete the host family application and background check consent forms.
Every potential host family will also need to submit three letters of reference. Once the application and letters have been screened and background check approved, a home assessment will be scheduled and host families will complete a half-day training session. For more information, call (405) 418-3825.
There are other ways to help local kids besides getting involved with Safe Families. While we hope you’ll consider becoming a foster parent yourself, we’ve outlined an assortment of other ways you can help area foster children on our website.
If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, we’ve outlined 10 simple steps to take here.
We’ve also rounded up a list of about a dozen area non-profits seeking volunteers to help with foster-related efforts. Find the list here to select the volunteer opportunity that’s right for you.