Safe Families provides a nurturing, temporary home for children while providing parents with needed resources to get them back on their feet.
Nellye was in a state of despair.
She was doing the best she could to care for her two young daughters, but was buckling under the weight of anxiety and PTSD from an abusive childhood. She was also exhausted and stressed by her long hours on the night-shift trying to make ends meet.
Nellye desperately wanted to give her 4-year-old and 6-year-old girls a different life — one that was happy and secure. Having to run away at 16, and now with no family or close friends, she didn’t have a community to turn to for help or support.
Nellye is one of the millions of low-income parents who lack the resources — be it reliable childcare, a caring friend, or an emergency fund — to weather the storm when a crisis hits.
She was feeling completely hopeless when her therapist suggested she consider the help of Safe Families for Children. Safe Families is an organization that provides a nurturing, temporary home for children, while keeping parents fully involved in the process and helping them to get back on their feet.
At Nellye’s request, a fully vetted host family took her two daughters into their nurturing home while other Safe Families volunteers coached Nellye on how to prepare for a better job and find housing that was more suitable to her family’s needs.
Nellye and her kids remained in close contact, while the Safe Families volunteer team formed a loving community around them – cheering them on and providing a strong support system.
“They’re there for you for anything you need,” Nellye says. “And it’s not just a program. They kind of become your family too.”
The problems with foster care
Without a supportive community, families can quickly end up in unstable situations where child welfare services are called. And once flagged in the system, families run the risk of being torn apart. Consider this:
- Nearly one in three children in America have had a report filed on their parents with a child welfare agency. Overwhelmingly, these reports are for issues related to poverty and concerns about neglect, not physical abuse.
- An estimated 270,000 kids enter foster care each year, exceeding the number exiting.
- Only about half of children who enter foster care reunite with their families.
Once in the system, children are often moved from home to home, creating disruptions that have adverse educational, social, and behavioral effects that cost the U.S. billions of dollars in lost productivity and potential. An estimated quarter of those who age out of the foster care system never complete high school or obtain a GED. There’s only about a three percent chance of a former foster child earning a college degree at any point in their life despite 70 percent showing a desire to attend college.
The best solution is to prevent a family from ever getting into a situation that would warrant the questioning of a parent’s care.
A solution based on empathy, compassion, and community
That’s what Safe Families founder Dr. David Anderson had envisioned from the start. As a psychologist in the child welfare system, he had seen what was possible by giving a family a little time, space, and support.
He knew that potential abuse and neglect could be prevented — and foster care could be avoided — if families were connected to a compassionate community that would care for each other.
He had personally come across cases where he and his wife Karen had seen a family in need and acted as hosts to children in these exact circumstances. He was convinced that an alternative to foster care could work in many cases and keep kids out of a government system filled with judges and social workers unsuccessfully playing the role of parent.
His idea: Create an organization where fully vetted hosts voluntarily take short-term care of children as parents handle difficulties such as unemployment, homelessness, hospital stays, incarceration, and/or mental health issues.
Children leave a temporarily unstable home environment at the parent’s request, averting potential trauma and neglect. A host family takes in the child while the parent stabilizes, with the joint goal of ultimately reuniting the family. The continuous, day through overnight care comes without any financial cost to parents who ask for assistance.
In an attempt to help the families of his city, Dr. Anderson ￼wrote to the mayor of Chicago, describing his concept and swayed the Mayor to back his project. Despite challenges — such as critics saying that nobody would look after someone else’s child without getting paid — Safe Families successfully launched in 2003. With limited financial resources but a wealth of volunteer support, Dr. Anderson ignited a statewide movement that changed the child welfare paradigm.
“It just began to grow like wildfire,” he says. “When I started Safe Families in Illinois, there were 52,000 children in foster care. Today it’s down to 17,000 children.”
“The safety and protection of children in our society has to be all of our business. It can't just be child welfare's business.”Dr. David Anderson, founder of Safe Families for Children
Surrounding families with a nurturing support system
Dr. Anderson’s concept began to spread across the country. Tens of thousands of children, once at risk of getting trapped in the foster care system, were able to remain with their parents.
Safe Families now has 25,000 volunteers — mobilized by nearly 4,600 partner churches across the U.S. — keeping children safe while providing parents with resources such as counseling, mentoring, and job assistance.
Its innovative model encourages families to seek help early, improving their chances of stability and helping them avoid destructive cycles often catalyzed by poverty.
Children stay with host families for however long a parent requests, with the average stay being about six weeks. Throughout, parents retain their legal rights, can see their children regularly, and can have their child returned when they feel ready. The relationships built during the hosting typically continue after children return home, with host families becoming like an extended family.
By the numbers
Children reunited with a parent or relative
Children placed in safe, temporary homes
Chapters across 40 states
Getting the support needed to scale
Dr. Anderson’s vision for how Safe Families could transform child welfare across the country was expansive, but he had limited capital, personnel, and other resources to achieve those visions.
In 2019, Safe Families joined Stand Together Foundation, which provides business coaching, financial investment, social capital, and communication strategies to the nation’s most innovative nonprofits.
Dr. Anderson embraced his partnership with Stand Together Foundation and the Catalyst Community, welcoming the opportunity to become part of a broader group that believes in people’s inherent dignity and works on community-based solutions to break the cycle of poverty.
“Being a social entrepreneur can be a pretty lonely thing, and not a lot of people understand you,” he says. “So, to me, it’s always great to find a home, to be with other people who do understand you.”
Reaching communities in need
With a multi-million-dollar investment over the next three years, Stand Together Foundation is helping Safe Families ultimately reach more people by bolstering its leadership team, developing new volunteer strategies, connecting it with strategic partners, and helping to open chapters in more cities across the U.S.
The initial plan is to expand to areas with large foster care populations: Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and multiple cities in Florida.
Florida, which has the third-largest foster care system in the country, will be the first location outside of Illinois where Safe Families will have a statewide presence. Stand Together Foundation’s investment will support more than 2,000 new children by engaging nearly 4,000 new volunteers.
“Florida was seeing more kids get harmed, more kids coming into care,” says Dr. Anderson. “This is a growing population of vulnerability.”
Stand Together Foundation is also working with Safe Families to expand its use of technology to better connect families, volunteers, schools, and community resources with each other. Stand Together Foundation even placed a member of its own team on the Safe Families leadership board to drive the implementation of new technology, with the goal of reaching millions of people across the U.S. — and ensuring that every family has the support system to stay together and reach their full potential.
Safe Families’ approach is working. With your support, we can bring this revolutionary concept to new communities nationwide, building a compassion-fueled movement to keep children safe and families intact.
Safe Families for Childrenhttps://safe-families.org/
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