My husband and I have had three toddlers living in our home since October. They moved in on a Thursday afternoon, and we began the routine that’s become familiar to us over two years as foster parents. Spend the first afternoon playing, comforting, and really just doing anything at all to distract. Feed them something easy for dinner that you’re certain they’ll like – this is a night for pizza, not broccoli. And then brace yourself for bedtime. That first night it took 2½ hours to get them to sleep. The first night is always the hardest.
But these kids aren’t in foster care. Their mom has never lost custody, and child protective services has never been involved. No, these are kids we’ve been hosting through Safe Families, a private, church-based charity that helps families in crisis. Mom came to this organization voluntarily and asked for help. The kids talk to her almost every day and have visits any time she and I set them up. And while we’ve been taking care of her kids, Mom’s been working on getting a job, figuring out more stable housing, and getting her kids into daycare so she can maintain her job once they return home to her. In all of that, this organization is supporting her.
There is a whole network of volunteers. There’s someone acting as a coach for Mom, and someone else who helps with things like shopping for work clothes and getting to appointments. There’s a person who’s coordinated meals delivered to our home several times a week, and there is a whole list of people who are available to help us out with babysitting. When we’ve realized we needed more clothes for the kids, and as we’ve run out of diapers, people have brought them to our home. So many people have come around this family to support them as they pursue stability.
It’s been interesting to compare our experience with these children to our experiences with kids in foster care over the past two years. There are certainly practical differences. While the county gives us a stipend for foster children, there’s no money exchanged with Safe Families kids. The flip side is there’s very little bureaucracy. With Safe Family kids, I’m much freer to make judgment calls about routine matters, but there are two other differences that seem more significant to me.
First, in our years in the foster system, we became very familiar with traumatized children and the ways trauma affects their behavior. Safe Families kids are different. Because they often don’t have trauma, they’re easier and better behaved. They’ve very quickly attached to and come to trust us. While the first night was tough because they’re too young to understand what was going on, that anxiety didn’t last long. They ask about seeing Mom, but easily accept my response that we can’t see her today, but will soon. There are no crazy tantrums or violent outbursts. They’re happy, normal toddlers. This is the difference I’m seeing between kids who are gently handed off by their mom and kids who are taken away by social workers from a traumatic situation.
Second, it’s very different to be part of a network that cares for these children. It’s one thing to use the county stipend to purchase diapers. It’s something else entirely to send a text to the support network and find diapers deposited at my door the next afternoon. It’s a warmer sort of help, community rather than systems.
Soon, these children will go back to their mother, but because these kids weren’t ever taken away, but were temporarily entrusted to us voluntarily, Mom sees us as allies. She knows we’ve come to love her kids. Like her children, she’s come to trust us. After they go home, I hope we’ll be able to maintain a relationship with the children and continue to act as friends and supports for this family. This hosting may end, but relationships continue.
Foster care has its place, but Safe Families offers a hopeful alternative for families who are in crisis but are not to the point of losing their children. Many realize that losing their kids is a real possibility if they don’t get help. I admire these parents who ask for help and entrust their children to others so they can get back on their feet and parent again. The sort of community that Safe Families offers to these parents is a beautiful model for other organizations who are seeking to help and love the vulnerable within our communities.
POVs are point of view articles from NC Family Staff and contributors.