BY NANCY CAMBRIA
The bad luck just kept coming.
In April, the single mom was laid off from her cleaning job. Then the unemployment benefits didn’t come through. In September, the power was cut. When a late summer heat wave simmered in her south St. Louis row house and she had no electricity to run a fan, she knew her son, 2, was in jeopardy. He was asthmatic and might not be able to breathe.
Jaclyn Hasan, a social worker who came to her apartment regularly as a Parents as Teachers educator, gently warned the mom that if she didn’t resolve the issues soon, Hasan would be mandated by law to report her to the state’s children’s division for her son’s safety.
The two grappled for a solution. But there was nobody safe or stable enough in her family to turn to for help.
“I didn’t want to give him up to the state,” she said. “It was like I raised myself in foster care. I did not want my child to go through what I did. You got to stop the bad cycle.”
So late last month, the mother, who did not feel comfortable being identified for this story, participated in a new faith-based program through Bethany Christian Services called Safe Families for Children.
The program enables parents in crisis to temporarily give their children to willing host families, allowing them time to turn things around.
It’s not foster care. There is no Children’s Division involvement and no family court making decisions about custody. In Safe Families, parents can have their children back whenever they ask, regardless of whether they make progress. And some believe it’s a new model for keeping families together and out of the nation’s child protection systems.
Last week, the mom stood on the sidewalk on her weedy city street and watched a caseworker at Bethany pack her little boy and his favorite stuffed animal into a child seat in the back of her white sedan and drive off.
He was tired and crying, and a bit confused.
After a weekend visit, her son was heading back to stay with Wendy and Jim Schick and their five children in a place she’d never been: the Schicks’ big house with plantation-style columns on a cul-de-sac in the far suburbs.
With the help of various agencies, she had already gotten her electricity back. By the end of the month, she said, she would be starting trade school through a federal jobs program geared to those in poverty. With that training, she would again qualify for a child care subsidy to return her son to day care. Then, God willing, her boy could come back home for good.
“My biggest concern at first was whether he’ll remember me,” she said. The mom said she knows God is walking with her. She has a tattoo on her arm of two life-sized hands praying with Scripture inked into her skin beneath: “The Lord is thy shepherd….”
AN EASY ADDITION
At the Schicks’ home, the family has been praying for the mother each evening around their oak kitchen table.
“We pray for her at dinner. We pray for her at bedtime. We pray that she can get settled in and get on her feet and regain her confidence so he can go back to her,” said Wendy Schick, as the little boy scribbled nearby with crayons.
The Schicks, who are not paid for their services, have incorporated their young guest into every aspect of their lives: carpool runs, play dates, Sunday school and a litany of weekend soccer games. He has been an easy addition, she said: well-mannered and used to routines.
Wendy Schick – who was adopted as a newborn – said she and her husband wanted to find a concrete way to support moms who keep their children rather than opt for abortion.
Caring for children through Safe Families carries lessons about family, kindness and faith she hopes her own children will never forget.
“I just really like that our whole family is involved with this,” she said.
Nationwide, an untold number of parents informally let their children stay with relatives and friends – sometimes for months or even years as they work through a crisis.
Safe Families for Children is intended for moms or dads who cannot rely on people they know to provide a refuge for their children. Without these supports, the children are at risk for abuse or neglect and entry into state foster care.
Safe Families for Kids Coordinator Kristina Duce, of Bethany Christian Services, said the program is not meant to judge the parents. And sometimes children are returned before parents have made all of the changes the program would like, she said.
“We can’t control the outcomes,” she said. “We’re just here to walk with them through this time in their lives.”
“Because they have voluntarily enrolled these children in the program, they are more likely to make those changes they need to make,” Duce said.
Host families undergo an application process that includes home visits, criminal background checks and calls to references.
The average stay in the program is about six weeks, but children can stay with host families for as little as a day or as long as a year. Many of the parents who utilize the services are facing issues such as short-term incarceration, unemployment, homelessness and substance abuse, Duce said.
The program is a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect and by law cannot return a child to an environment that is dangerous, but Duce said that is not a common issue with the program.
The program is faith-based, with the bulk of its recruiting of host families done through churches. It was founded in the Chicago area about eight years ago and has been spreading nationally. Referrals to the program often come from the region’s crisis nurseries, which provide a similar service for families, but on a short-term basis in a facility.
“With the economy the way it is and the high needs of families in poverty, they’re needing even longer stays at our nursery,” said Katie Corrigan, program director for St. Louis Crisis Nursery. “So having this resource available for our families is really wonderful.”
Since starting the program in July, 11 children have been admitted locally. Four children, all under 4, have been reunited with families so far.