Series| Catalysts

How to keep kids out of the foster care system

Foster care is broken. This community movement of volunteers could reduce the number of kids in the system by 70%.
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Children enter the foster care system for many different reasons. Sometimes, they’re removed from a situation where they’re in danger, but many times – they’re removed because their parents are in dire circumstances such as unemployment or a health crisis. Because these parents lack a support system, their children’s basic needs go unmet.

What if there was a resource parents could access for support before the foster care system became necessary? Such a resource could prevent children from ever having to go through the trauma of being separated from their biological parents.

Enter Safe Families for Children, an organization that comes alongside families in crisis with a community of people who care. Safe Families works with parents who have the desire to create happy and healthy environments for their children, if only given help in their time of need.

The Foster Care System at a Glance

The traditional approach to child welfare is for parents to be reported to state-based Child Protective Services when they are deemed incapable of caring for their child. Once a child is removed from a home, only a court can determine when that child can return to their parents.

Judges use assessments from social workers to make that decision, and a court-appointed special advocate may also provide information regarding the case in the best interest of the child. Parents are represented by an attorney in court hearings, and children can be as well.

Today, there are more than 400,000 children in this system, and on average they spend more than a year with a foster family. Over 56,000 of these children are placed into group homes or institutional settings.

Although the ultimate goal is for all children to be reunited with their biological families, this can be a difficult and lengthy process. In 2016, just 49% of foster children were reunited with their parents.

Young adults who age out of the foster care system are often subject to higher rates of unemployment, poor educational outcomes, and homelessness.

All of these factors fueled the creation of Safe Families for Children, a nonprofit started by Dave Anderson with the goal of giving parents the resources they need to get back on their feet. It’s an alternative system that’s centered around empathy and support.

How Safe Families for Children Works

Unlike the traditional foster care system, Safe Families is entirely voluntary for biological parents. Parents who know they cannot care for their child can contact Safe Families for help, as opposed to being turned into the authorities once it’s too late. This often results in the child being matched with a host family who can take care of them for as little as a day to several months.

Many of the parents who come to Safe Families are struggling with mental illness, loss of employment, homelessness, or addiction. They’re not bad parents; they simply need help, and oftentimes don’t have anyone to reach out to. Nellye Rojas was one of these parents.

“I’m bipolar and have severe depression problems and PTSD with other medical issues,” says Nellye. “At the moment when I partnered with Safe Families, I was pregnant and I lost my baby due to a really bad car accident. So work was getting to me, losing my kid was getting to me, and somebody from work called (the Department of Children and Family Services) and said that I was neglecting my kids.”

Seventy percent of children in the foster care system are there due to neglect, which Safe Families believes is a symptom of poverty. Neglect rates have risen by 25% over the past 13 years, a clear indicator that more and more families are in need of support.

Fortunately, Nellye’s therapist referred her to Safe Families. Rather than having her children forcefully taken away, Nellye proactively sought help from the organization, which then placed her children in a safe and loving home so she could focus on taking care of herself.

Her children’s host, Danielle Patelis, had been looking for a way in which she could make a positive impact in other’s lives, before finding Safe Families. In addition to offering host families, the organization provides mentors and “family friends” to those in need of assistance. All a parent has to do is fill out a form on the Safe Families website.

“We believe that a parent is capable, if given enough support, to be the parent that their children need them to be,” Dave Anderson explains. Anderson is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience in adolescent psychology.

Since he started Safe Families in 2003, the organization has arranged nearly 50,000 hostings for children throughout the U.S. Ninety-five percent of the children who have been placed with hosts have eventually been reunited with their families. Safe Families’ volunteers often remain involved in their lives even after reunification for additional support.

This has been the work of over 25,000 volunteers across the U.S., and the organization is now expanding its efforts to Canada and the United Kingdom. Anderson’s hope is that Safe Families can drastically reduce the number of kids entering the foster care system, ensuring that the allocation of the system’s resources go to those who truly need it.

His goal is to expand the Safe Families community to a million host families in the next three years, so more and more parents can receive the support they need to improve their lives and their children’s.

Volunteers with open hearts and open homes are taking the initiative to transform their communities through the power of compassion. By supporting parents and harnessing the power of community, this preventative approach could eventually reduce the need for the foster care system.

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