It’s no secret that the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in almost every state is overrun. Horror stories of children facing neglect, molestation, physical abuse or even death abound while social workers either ignore warning signs or simply can’t spend enough time visiting their enormous number of wards. As a result, thousands and thousands of children grow up prone to a life of depression, anxiety, poor opportunities and, even worse, a tendency to enter the crime world to finally find a family that supposedly cares about them.
Anderson, the son of a bricklayer from the Chicago suburbs, focused on child psychology as soon as he entered school. After graduating and working at places like Mount Sinai Hospital, Lutheran General and then-orphanage Lydia Home, he partnered with the Chicago Public School system to manage programs for at-risk kids and start individualized schools. But he was also looking for other ways to help struggling parents desperate to keep their families intact.
At first, he started a residential facility where single mothers and fathers could live temporarily until they could support their families independently. The problem he came across, though, was that people often became too comfortable and lost the incentive to leave. If these facilities created dependent families, he knew the program would be a failure. But what was an alternative?
In 2003, a struggling mother approached Anderson for help. She told him that the state was going to take away her kids unless she changed some things in her life; she just couldn’t do it and look after her children at the same time. While she begged Anderson to help her, he tried to explain that his agency only took in children who had been abused or neglected, not those who were in danger. She then grabbed his arm and said “You don’t understand: I cannot leave here with my kids. I’m in a bit of trouble. I need you to take them from me. Can you just watch them until I get back on my feet?”
And he did. The mother transformed her life and took her kids back when she stabilized her home. From that experience, Anderson’s entire perspective changed. Why wait until a child has been harmed before you step in to help? If he could organize families to voluntarily take in at-risk children for a short period of time while parents get on their feet, he could save the children from abusive situations before they even happen. This encounter inspired Safe Families for Children.
When Anderson launched Safe Families and enrolled families to join as host families for needy children, he contacted then Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to share his vision and hear the state’s perspective on the endeavor. Intrigued by the program, the mayor referred him to the head of DCFS who told Anderson that this program was the best he’d ever heard and could make a huge difference in society. But it could never work because “poor children just aren’t valued in our society.” Horrified, Anderson resolved to make Safe Families successful, transform society and create a safety net of communities to take care of each other, rather than having a broken system intimidate and coerce change.
So what is Safe Families for Children? It is a private charity run by volunteers focused on reuniting children with their families.The charity screens host families, trains them to take care of needy children until their parents can take them back and offers support to both host families and struggling parents during the process. It’s a novel concept completely different from foster care. Parents maintain full custody of their children, decide when they send their children to host families and when they take them back. They can enter their children into the program for whatever reason and without fear of repercussion. Volunteers foot the bill. There’s no exchange of money or benefits. The entire process is to benefit the children and families.
This is completely different from the approach of state run foster care. According to Anderson, there’s really no incentive plan in place for the child’s full benefit in the state’s mindset. State laws require children experience abuse before they’re taken away. The state also has incentives to remove children from their family homes because they receive extra funding. With the monetary carrot dangling in front of them, they’re incentivized to take children from their parents, not return them to their home. Parents looking to turn around their lives can’t go to the state for help without risking their children being taken away. And these are exactly the type of people who utilize Safe Families: people who have unexpectedly lost jobs, fallen in financial crises, become homeless, experienced drug and alcohol abuse and want to get clean, who suffer from physical and mental illnesses, and domestic violence. And the return rate for children in foster care is abysmal.
Our modern lives often mean families splinter across the nation; thus, when parents are unable to care for their children, they often don’t have nearby family members to turn to. Neighborhoods are not necessarily communities anymore as people live in isolation side by side. Safe Families brings back the old model of community helping community. In the past, when parents fell under economic hardships, lost their jobs, were in abusive relationships or faced other dire circumstances, their community would step in to take care of the family’s children until the parents could. Safe Families brings this idea back. Anderson calls it supplementary care. Instead of substituting parents, Safe Families sees themselves as supplementing them. They ask, “How can we help mothers and fathers?” Not, “How can we replace them?” As Anderson said:
“If we and our communities value children enough, we should have a safe place for a child no matter what the reason. If you’re going to drug treatment, fine. If you’re homeless, fine. If you’re depressed and overwhelmed, fine. We’ll take them in.”
To help Safe Families, you don’t necessarily have to take children into your house. Some volunteers act as mentors to parents or children, provide transportation or goods, babysit or cook meals while others donate home items and clothes. Still others act as Family Coaches, providing resources to host families and checking in with the children to make sure they’re being cared for—a sort of case worker. Some volunteer as mentors to teens about to graduate from foster care. In addition, faith organizations and communities partner up to expand the reach of SFFC. And while the children stay with these families, a partner organization, Bethany Christian Services, work with parents and family members get through whatever hard time they’re having so that the children can soon return home. “That’s what communities are for,” Anderson says. “That’s what neighbors are for: raising kids. We’re not taking the place of parents. That’s not our job.”
Thanks to the unique vision, since 2002, over 21,000 children have entered the program. Though Safe Families initially started in Chicago, it’s reached across the nation and into the world. There are branches in Canada, the UK and Africa. Around 90 percent of the children that enter Safe Families are returned to their homes, in comparison to the dismal 2.35 percent for DCFS. According to an article in Forbes, Anderson’s campaigning even changed laws in Oregon and Wisconsin so that SFFC could run in the states. This vision, sparked by one man bringing in a couple of children into his home briefly, is changing the world.
Safe Families for Children proves that communities transform the lives of the most vulnerable, not the hard-welding hand of the government. If you want to become help change the lives of struggling parents and children in your community, check out SafeFamilies.org. If Anderson and the thousands of others who are involved in the program are right, chances are you won’t regret it.