Church members open homes to children in need.

Families recruited as temporary guardians

Twenty-four families from Elmbrook Church in Brookfield are poised to open their homes to children in crisis.

The families have been certified through a Chicago-based nonprofit that recruits volunteers to take in children temporarily while their parents or guardians work through personal problems.

Distressed parents are already calling the newly formed Safe Families for Children Milwaukee seeking help, said director Traci Weldie of Watertown. But no child has been placed.

The program has been stalled by a Wisconsin law that makes it illegal for parents to leave their children with non-relatives for more than 30 days without seeking formal guardianship through the courts. Now, new legislation – approved by the Assembly and headed for a Senate vote – would change that.

“I feel there’s a sense of urgency here,” said Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) who sponsored Assembly Bill 30.

“Children and families are already waiting for help.”

Under the bill, parents would be allowed to transfer most of their parental rights to a non-relative for up to a year without going before a judge. (Judicial review would be required for placement of Native American children under an amendment sought by tribal authorities.)

Critics had raised concerns about the potential for abuse and the encroachment on judicial authority. But a number of amendments – requiring background checks, barring caregivers with abuse histories, and clarifying when courts and other agencies may intervene – appear to have resolved the bulk of those.

“It sounds like they’ve addressed most of my concerns,” said Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), who had objected to the Assembly bill’s lack of language regarding who can assume the parental right.

“You can’t just arbitrarily give a child away without some review of who’s getting them,” he said.

Under the bill, the temporary guardians would be exempt from the licensing required of foster homes and from the mandatory reporting of abuse to authorities. And the state Department of Children and Families would have authority to set standards for training and screening of families.

Weldie said Safe Families has no intention of encroaching on state child welfare agencies or the courts, which generally intervene in only the most serious cases.

“There are lots of families that need help but don’t qualify for foster care,” she said. “We want to catch those kids before there’s abuse.”

Safe Families, founded by David Anderson of the nonprofit Lydia Home Association in Chicago, is now operating in 27 cities across the country, supported often by churches as part of their faith ministry, he said. Last year, 575 families took in 1,532 children, most of them in Chicago, according to statistics provided by the organization.

In addition to welcoming the children, host families are asked to serve as mentors to the parents or guardians, with the ultimate goal of reuniting the family.

“We’re asking people to practice Biblical hospitality,” said Weldie, the mother of six, including two children adopted from Ethiopia and Ghana. “Hospitality isn’t having people over for coffee and doughnuts. It’s about welcoming the stranger into your home.”

Elmbrook Church has endorsed the ministry and dozens of people from at least three other suburban churches have expressed interest. In addition, organizers are working to recruit urban churches.

“Families are under enormous stress – from medical issues, alcoholism, job losses – and the price is paid often by the children,” said the Rev. Scott Arbeiter, lead pastor at Elmbrook.

“Churches can’t stand by and watch that. We want to involve ourselves in that. It’s not just that we have to,” he said. “We want to.”

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