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As soon as Sue Mitchell heard about the Safe Families program four years ago, she knew she wanted to be part of it.
Listening to Moody Radio as she drove down North Avenue one afternoon, she heard how this new program was helping families in crisis by providing care for their kids. Through Safe Families, volunteers and families were opening their homes to offer temporary care to kids whose own families were dealing with issues surrounding homelessness, treatment for substance abuse, a medical emergency, or other difficult circumstances.
“It was brand-new, and I thought it was a phenomenal idea,” Sue recalls. “As soon as I heard about it, I went home and told my husband we had to do this!”
At the time, Sue and Brad, her husband, were parents of five boys ranging in age from six to ten—including six-year-old triplets.
Once the triplets were born and they had become a family of seven, the Mitchells initially thought they were finished having kids, but a few years later Sue began to wonder whether that was really the case.
“We like being parents. We love our kids, and we have a lot of fun at our house,” she said. But at the time, they weren’t ready to adopt, and foster care raised the fear of getting really attached to kids who would be with them for a year or two and would eventually go back to their own families.
For Sue and Brad, Safe Families was a great fit.
Over the past four years they have cared for eight children in their home through the Safe Families program, including a newborn whose mother delivered her baby boy while serving time in jail. He was with the Mitchell family for two months while his mom finished serving her sentence.
“That experience was so special because he was so tiny,” Sue said. “We picked him up from the hospital, and my middle son, who I think was probably ten at the time, just fell in love with him. It was Christmastime, and we would lay the baby under the tree, and he would look at the sparkling lights.
Will, my son, would lie next to him, and it was really, really, special. The boys liked having a baby in the house.”
“It was hard to see him go,” Sue added. “It’s been hard seeing the other kids go, too. But that’s something we talk about as a family—that they’re going home with their mom and they’re going to be okay, and we did what we were called to do, to help for a short time. We loved them, and now it’s time for them to go be with their parents, you know? And the boys get that. They really do.”
HOW SAFE FAMILIES WORKS
Although the program is somewhat similar to foster care, it’s different at the core in that parents are choosing to have their children temporarily placed in other people’s homes. With foster care, the state removes children from their parent’s home, and the parents temporarily lose custody of the children. With Safe Families, there is no loss of parental rights.
Typically, parents learn about Safe Families from a hospital, homeless shelter, rehab center, or other social-service provider. The parents will then call Safe Families and describe the need and for how long help will be needed.
Once the need is registered with Safe Families, a message is sent to Safe Families volunteers.
“Volunteers in the area will receive a message that might say, ‘A six-year-old girl in Wheaton needs care for 30 days while her mom does X, Y, or Z,” Sue said. “Then you are responsible for responding to say that you can take this child for the thirty days.”
Among the practical considerations involved in caring for someone else’s child are issues such as medical care during the temporary placement.
The children who have been in the Mitchell’s home had all been enrolled in the state’s All Kids healthcare program and each one had a card that the host family could take to an approved provider if a medical need arose.
Getting to school is another consideration, so to avoid interrupting the kids’ education, an effort is made to keep the kids in their own school district if possible.
Costs related to the care of child, Sue says, are the responsibility of the host family, although a support system of “Resource Friends” can help to provide for some of the practical needs.
Sue and Angela Raske, co-leaders of WBC’s Adoption, Foster Care, and Safe Families ministry, hope to eventually expand those support resources for Safe Family host homes by connecting them with others who can share infant equipment, coats, or even a gift card to help cover expenses such as diapers and formula.
Currently, a number of WBC families participate in Safe Families, including Sue and Bill Bedrossian, who have been involved in foster care and adoption since 1987. They became a Safe Families home last January and have hosted five children this year.
“It really is a very biblically based program,” Sue said. “The church is called to be the ‘first responders’ to those in need. Through Safe Families, Christian families can step in and assist other families who are in a crisis situation.”
While the care provided for children is the most obvious value of Safe Families, Sue points out that the ministry to their parents is equally significant.
“These are parents who have no family support to help them, and they are so grateful to know that their children are safe and well cared for until they can get back on their feet.”
While the Mitchells are in the heart of their child-rearing years, Sue Bedrossian believes that the Safe Families ministry can be a good fit for more mature families as well.
“I think that empty nesters are perfect for serving in this program,” she said. “They have years of parenting experience and probably have empty beds God can fill with little ones in need.
This is a unique opportunity to have a mission field come to your door.
“The children we have served just soak up the love we shower on them. Many of them—especially those who have come out of very chaotic circumstances—need the structure a stable family is able to provide,” Sue adds. “We have had moms tell us that they appreciate the change they see in their children’s behavior after their stay with us, and one mom found a church with members who will pick up her son on Sunday mornings because he told her how much he liked going to church with our family.”
Safe Families, which began in Chicago in 2002, has spread across the country and now includes a “hub” located here in DuPage County that is headquartered by ECFA (Evangelical Child and Family Agency).
Danielle Masi, who coordinates Safe Families at ECFA, points to the key role of those willing to step up to serve as host homes and those who volunteer in other ways that make the program effective.
“Safe Families is all about God working through people who are willing to open their homes to children with families in crisis,” Danielle said. “Our role as a Safe Families Hub is to connect these families with volunteers, with the ultimate hope that families in crisis will connect with local churches like Wheaton Bible Church as a network of social and spiritual support.”
“Right now,” she added, “we have outstanding host families, but with more families in crisis seeking our assistance, the need for volunteers is growing.”