Last year, our family started a new adventure by caring for children in need. We became involved in a ministry called Safe Families for Children in late 2018 and continued throughout 2019. In our just-over-a-year time as a Safe Families host family, we took in eight children in total and cared for them for almost four months cumulatively.
What is Safe Families for Children? I’ve had to answer that question a lot this past year! First of all, it is a ministry, meaning it is supported by local churches and it is completely voluntary (unpaid). It is a program administrated through Olive Crest, which is an organization that also does foster care and adoptions. Safe Families for Children, however, is not foster care. It is a program to provide housing and care to children temporarily during times of crisis for families who have no other source of support.
Legally speaking, the organization links families in need with families who are able to help, and acts as a middle-man to set up a temporary caregiver authorization. The parents of the children who are being “hosted” retain full custody and are able to take their children back at any time. The host families are essentially long-term babysitters, and hostings typically last anywhere from a couple of days to a few months.
The most common reasons for parents to have their children hosted in Safe Families for Children are homelessness, health-related issues, and substance abuse. Families usually are referred to this organization through schools, hospitals, police officers, or CPS.
Our family chose to volunteer with Safe Families for Children because we were interested in becoming foster parents, but not sure we were quite ready to commit to such a big endeavor. We also knew we could not meet the qualifications for a foster care license because our children do not have separate bedrooms, and opposite gender kids are required to in foster homes. Up until the summer of 2019, our kids didn’t even have their own bedroom, as we’d chosen to co-sleep (and share our room) with both of them. Co-sleeping, even with your own children, is also not allowed for foster parents, so we knew we weren’t a good fit at that time.
Anyhow, we were happy to be a part of Safe Families and we gained so much from the experience. The children we took in were all between the ages of ten months and five years old, and four of them were babies. Twice we took in a pair of brothers, and we only ever hosted one girl. The parents of the kids we hosted were homeless, recovering from addiction, and/or struggling with mental illness. Not only did we get to help these eight children stay out of foster care by allowing their parents the time they needed to get back on their feet, but we also grew in many ways.
Caring for children who are not your own, especially when you already have young kids at home, is challenging! It was overwhelming at times, exhausting, and just plain hard. We dealt with disciplinary issues, sleep issues, and feeding issues. Many of the kids came to us with very little of their own clothing or belongings, and we spent a lot of money providing things that were needed for them. Our church also helped a ton, and so many people donated clothes and gift cards, brought us dinners, encouraged us, and prayed for us.
What I found most amazing was how even though it was hard, we could do it. We did do it. We kept all of the kids safe, fed, clothed, and cared-for, and we didn’t completely lose our minds in the process. I attribute this to God’s grace more than anything else. He gave us the strength to manage the chaos and he held everything together.
We also received an incredible gift as a result of our service—an increase in our capabilities as a family. Through all of the stretching, we came out on the other side stronger. In terms of how capable I feel to meet all of my responsibilities in life and manage everything well, I have found an increased capacity. I can handle so much more now than I could at the end of 2018!
Every time we sent one of our Safe Families children back to their parents, we had an amazing sense of relief. Going back to just two kids felt almost like going on vacation! Then, after a couple of weeks of rest, we were always ready to go back into the fray and start another hosting.
At this time, however, we have decided not to continue with the program.
Here is the story behind that decision…
Our last hosting started in November. That hosting was with two brothers, a 12-month-old and a 22-month-old. For privacy, I will use fake names for them, Tyler and Caiden.
Tyler was 22 months old at the beginning of our hosting, and I believe he is autistic. He is developmentally delayed, and doesn’t walk or talk beyond saying a few words on occasion. He also did not eat solid food at all for us, until the last week we had him, but he did still drink formula. Tyler wanted to be held, but only by me, nearly 24/7 and would cry any time he was put down.
Caiden was a much easier baby. He was born premature so he was also small for his age and not yet walking. He also had severe eczema and cradle cap that had not been treated. Both boys came to us extremely dirty, and did not seem used to being bathed. They did not sleep well at night, so we had to do sleep training. That is not something I typically agree with, but since I didn’t have my usual baby-sleep-encouragement tools—breastfeeding and co-sleeping—it was necessary for us to let them cry it out so that we could all get enough sleep to function.
Because of the boys’ special needs and how close in age they are, it was our most challenging hosting. We ended up asking for Safe Families to find another host family to host Tyler after our first week with him. But after only a few days with his new host family, he ended up in the hospital with signs of abuse. My heart was shattered, knowing that I’d handed him over to an abuser. All I could do at that point was continue caring for Caiden, and bring him to visit his parents in the hospital a couple of times.
After those distressing events, I developed a stronger and closer relationship with the boys’ parents. When he was released from the hospital, they wanted my family to keep both boys for a little while, and we agreed. But for some reason, Safe Families decided to end our hosting of Caiden at that point and even insisted on transferring him back to his parents themselves.
Within a week, we heard from the boys’ parents and they were once again in a bad situation with nowhere to go. We decided to take Tyler and Caiden in again, this time without involving Safe Families for Children. We all signed a temporary caregiver authorization form, which gave us some legal security and the ability to secure medical care for the boys if needed. Then we kept them for another two weeks before their parents were ready to take them back again.
During that time, we considered the possibility of adopting the boys, knowing that their parents were facing so many challenges. But when we gently asked questions about their thoughts on adoption, it was clear that although they appreciated our help very much, they weren’t willing to consider giving up the kids.
With that possibility closed, we decided to move forward with our own plans to have our third baby. Emotionally, we had moved on, especially after we gave the boys back to their parents. Sadly, it was less than a week after that before once again, they called us asking for more help.
We knew that the situation wasn’t sustainable, and we weren’t willing to care for the boys for the months that they were asking for, knowing that we would never be able to adopt them. At that point, we could also see that they weren’t taking the steps they needed to take or making any progress for securing long-term stability. The only option left for them was to allow Child Protective Services to step in and release the boys to foster care. That is the situation as it is now.
The reason I share this sad story is in part to explain why we no longer plan to be a part of Safe Families for Children, and in part to explain why we want even more now to become licensed foster parents in the future. While I believe in this ministry and their mission wholeheartedly, and I hope they will continue to help families in need, I also disagree with how the situation with this family was handled. I have deep concerns with how host families are screened, and how the parents they serve are treated.
But those issues aside, I can also see that there is a huge need for good, loving foster parents. There are so many terrible stories out there about abuses in the foster care system, and I want to be a part of the solution. Knowing that those boys who I cared for and came to love are now in foster care, I can only hope and pray that they are with a good family. I have no illusions about how foster children are often treated, and the possibilities of what they could be going through right now are distressing. Truly, all I can do to have peace is to trust God and his plan. He loves those boys, and I know he will use everything for the good.
For the time being, we are not planning on becoming foster parents just yet. We’ve decided that during my pregnancy (hopefully soon!) and postpartum we want to focus on our family of four-soon-to-be-five, especially knowing that there is a possibility I will not have the energy or feel well enough to care for extra children during my first trimester, and especially after the baby is born. It is also very important to us to co-sleep with our next baby, as we did with Cody and Abigail. Knowing that co-sleeping is not allowed for foster families, we will need to wait until we’re ready for baby #3 to sleep on his/her own before becoming foster parents.
We are also planning on adopting our fourth child through the foster care system. Knowing that, we will likely wait until our third child is about three or four years old, so that we can preserve our birth order and child spacing. During those few years, we may become emergency or respite foster parents, since we won’t be ready to adopt yet but we do want to help kids in need in some way.
So anyway! Those were my family’s experiences with Safe Families for Children, and it has been a huge blessing for us to be able to help others and be the hands and feet of Jesus in our world. I am definitely looking forward to seeing how God wants to use us to love and care for some of the most vulnerable people in our world—children in need—in the future.