Lewiston-Auburn Sun Journal
06/07/2015 – AUTHOR: LINDSAY TICE
Michelle and her three children were, essentially, homeless. They had a place to stay short-term, but it didn’t feel safe. She needed her children out of that situation — and fast. Years ago, Michelle’s choices would have been: keep her kids in a dangerous place, find a spot in a shelter or deliver them into state foster care, hoping it would be temporary.
But last fall, she found a new option: Safe Families for Children.
“They helped us a great deal,” said Michelle, who asked that only her first name be used. “They’re loving. They’re caring. They’re not out to take your kids.”
Her daughters and son, now 14, 11 and 10, stayed for a couple of months with a local volunteer host family, vetted by Safe Families.
The children got a safe, loving place to live for a while and the chance to stay in their regular schools. Michelle got to visit and talk with them over the phone whenever she wanted. The host family got to help.
It’s the kind of connection Safe Families has made more than 700 times since it started operating in Maine five years ago.
“Sort of like an aunt or uncle, for people who don’t have aunts and uncles,” said Robin Chamberlain, executive director of the Safe Families’ Maine chapter.
The program is private, free, driven by volunteers and spearheaded by a Christian nonprofit based in Illinois.
Some Maine lawmakers aren’t so sure about it yet.
“Essentially, you’ve got a kind of hybrid foster home scenario, one that has a different standard than a regular foster home,” said state Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, during a Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill to tweak Maine’s temporary power of attorney law to make it more applicable to parents who use Safe Families.
But the Maine Department of Health and Human Services — which runs the state’s foster care system — likes the program. And many families do, too.
“If Safe Families didn’t exist, the state would have stepped in and taken my children, and I don’t know if I would have ever gotten them back,” Michelle said. “They kept our family together.”
Safe Families was started in 2002 by the LYDIA Home Association, a Christian-based social services agency that handles foster care for Chicago.
Chamberlain had served as LYDIA’s foster care director and was there at Safe Families’ beginning.
“Our (agency) director, through various situations, really felt a calling to call the church community at large to reach out and volunteer to take children in from parents who are having some kind of a crisis,” she said.
The program was free and voluntary, a way for parents to ensure their children were cared for while they took time away to get clean, find a job, secure a place to live, handle medical problems or deal with other issues. The goal: Keep children from entering the foster care system by offering help before situations became dire or children were abused.
“Parents are saying, ‘I need help through this crisis’ and they’re reaching out,” Chamberlain said. “You know they have to be desperate — any parents — to reach out to strangers.”
In some ways, Safe Families was designed to be like traditional, state-run foster care, providing a temporary, vetted home to children whose parents couldn’t care for them at the moment.
In other important ways, Safe Families was designed to be very different. The state would not run the program and parents would not have to explain themselves to a judge. Homes would not receive money for taking in children. Parents would retain full custody, could see or talk to their children whenever they wanted and could return for them at any time. Parents would remain in control.
“It’s co-parenting,” Chamberlain said. “So if something’s wrong with Johnny, if he’s got a bellyache or we can’t help him get to sleep as host parents or there’s an issue, the parents are called first. Just like my sister would call me if my son was having an issue at her house.”
In 2003, Safe Families coordinated its first hosting arrangement. By 2009, it had secured temporary homes — lasting from one day to one year — for 1,000 children.
Its volunteers have hosted more than 17,000 children in 28 states.
Most commonly, children are under age 5, but host families do care for children through their teens. Some families also take in parents along with their children, particularly when the parent is young and has an infant or toddler.
In addition to host families, the organization provides “family friends,” volunteers who offer parents help, advice and donated goods while the child continues to live at home.
Chamberlain started a Safe Families chapter in Down East, Maine, in 2010, after moving there to help care for her father.
“Many families are isolated and they need an aunt- or uncle-like person,” she said. “They need extended family — positive extended family — and they don’t have that. When stress is high and social isolation is high, that’s a high predictor of child abuse. A lot of parents would reach out for help if they didn’t fear — unfortunately, you know, DHHS is associated with taking custody and removing kids.”
The program quickly grew in Maine, adding volunteers from Bangor in 2010 and from the Lewiston-Auburn and Portland areas around 2013. Volunteers are now starting in Ellsworth.
Safe Families leaders say they put all potential host families through an approval process similar to what licensed foster parents go through, including an interview, fingerprinting, child abuse background checks, training and a home visit. They must also provide three references.
Chamberlain said Safe Families has never had a host family abuse or mistreat a child. She said the group has never been sued.
Although other volunteers might help out — giving hosted children a ride to school, for example — host families are largely on their own to meet children’s needs. They aren’t paid.
Parents tend to like that, finding host families more trustworthy when they aren’t getting a check to care for their children. It also makes parents more willing to build a relationship with their hosts, seeing them as friends, not people providing a service.
“The parent is much more likely to take any recommendations, or even ask,” Chamberlain said. “We have parents that ask our host parents, ‘Well, I’m having this concern about Johnny and I’m wondering what you think,’ which doesn’t happen in a program; it happens in a relationship.”
Because Safe Families is Christian-based, churches generally bring it into a community.
“This is a way for us to be that big but practical help. More than just a token check to cover a bill or a bag of food or whatever. It can be life-changing,” said Tim Howard, pastor of East Auburn Baptist Church, one of two Safe Families-associated churches listed on the organization’s website for Lewiston-Auburn.
He estimated 20 to 25 of his church’s families are now Safe Families volunteers. He and his wife are among them.
“It challenges you to the core sometimes,” Howard said. “(There are) typical parenting issues, plus how to parent a child you don’t know that well.”
With two children of his own, he establishes boundaries and a structure. But because hosted children don’t tend to stay that long — the average Safe Families hosting arrangement lasts 44 days — he often treats them as guests.
“If we had a friend that we had come in, how would they want to be treated?” he said. “Understanding that they’re not our kids, they’re coming from a different home. We’re kind of strangers to them, and there’s probably a whole lot of stress and anxiety that they have coming in.”
Michelle’s three children were definitely anxious when she told them they’d be staying with strangers for a while.
“It was hard,” she said. “I explained the whole situation to them, that it wasn’t safe for them where we were, that this was the best option and the best possible answer it could be. They were scared at first.”
But the host family — a husband and wife, both teachers, whose own children were grown — put the children at ease.
“They made them feel like they were part of their family,” Michelle said.
They put her at ease, too.
“She made me feel like a human being,” Michelle said. “The hostess mother told me I could call them anytime, in fact I could call them at all hours of the night. She gave me her address, her phone number. We went out to dinner with them. She made me feel like I was part of their family, not just that they were taking my kids in.”
‘A constant need’
In Maine, 40 percent of Safe Families participants are referred by DHHS.
The department is a fan.
“Safe Families provides a safe alternative to child welfare custody and is embedded in the foundation that communities are critical to the success of these families,” said Jim Martin, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, in a prepared statement.
He added that Safe Families “complements work occurring within DHHS to expand the use of prevention services.”
If they don’t learn about Safe Families from DHHS, parents hear about it through friends, through church or through other service agencies. Although little known in the wider community, Safe Families is quickly gaining popularity among Maine’s parents in need.
The first year Safe Families was in Bangor, volunteers hosted five children. The second year, they hosted 80.
Each year since, they’ve hosted 150 to 160.
The demand has become so great that Michael Warman, a Safe Families hub manager for greater Bangor, had to cut his service area in half, from 60 miles around Bangor to 30. Even at 30 miles, he received 350 referrals last year for parents needing host families or other help. He’s trying to recruit 40 more host families, more than double the 30 homes he has now.
“We’re always in constant need,” he said.
Safe Families does not take children who need a home because of abuse. If a child is in danger — because her mother hits her, for example, or her father is molesting her — group members are required by state law to report it to DHHS.
Nationally and in Maine, homelessness is the most common reason parents call Safe Families for help. In Maine, domestic violence is also a top reason.
In other cases, parents are battling addiction and need their children somewhere safe while they go through rehab. Or they must serve short jail sentences. Or they’re facing medical problems.
“I had two dads last year that had to have (surgeries) — one a hip surgery, the other one a knee replacement — and were in a rehab in Brewer for 30 days each. We helped out with the three teenagers that belonged to those two families,” Warman said. “I’ve got a mom that’s going to have surgery here in August and has no extended supports and has two kids. We’re building that toward August.”
Sometimes, particularly in cases of addiction, parents don’t have such “extended supports” because family members long ago gave up trying to help them. Other times, family members don’t live close enough to help, don’t have the room to take in a few more kids or are dealing with their own crises.
“It’s kind of very surprising how many families I have found in the last five years — they just don’t have anybody they can turn to,” Warman said.
A few days ago, he got another example. A single mother of three had to leave her sister’s house because they were fighting. If Safe Families didn’t help, Warman said, she and her children were about to become homeless.
“Plus, here’s the reality: She doesn’t know how to work with the system yet because she’s been avoiding getting any of that kind of help,” Warman said. “Now she’s in dire need. She was raised where you don’t ask for help.”
With Safe Families’ support, a Kennebec County legislator would like to make it easier for parents to get that help from Safe Families. She’s proposed a bill that would tweak Maine law regarding temporary power of attorney over minors — the written authorization parents must give someone else to serve as guardian.
Without a power of attorney, temporary guardians — like host families — would have no right to approve medical care or make other important decisions for the children they’re caring for if the parents can’t be reached.
Amended a number of times, the latest version of LD 1065 by state Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, would make it clear that parents who hand their children over to a temporary guardian are not abandoning them. It clarifies that such children are not being placed in foster care and should not be considered wards of the state. And it says that any nonprofit organization that helps parents find a temporary guardian must perform background checks on that guardian.
Although Safe Families has been operating well in Maine under the current power-of-attorney law — all parents sign a power of attorney to use a host family — Chamberlain believes the changes would help parents who want to use her organization.
“It really helps solidify that this is a parental right, that folks aren’t going to be viewed as being neglectful or abusive or abandoning their children, which is a stigma. That’s one reason why folks don’t want to be involved with DHHS if it doesn’t really reach the level of protection,” she said.
Safe Families is not named in the latest version of the bill, but Chamberlain said she knows of no other group in Maine doing similar work.
The bill was discussed by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Members were evenly split, 5-5, about moving it forward.
Those who liked the bill lauded Safe Families’ work. Those who opposed the bill said it made unnecessary changes to state law for a private group.
“So we don’t want kids to go to foster care,” said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, “but so we’re trying to create this other kind of organization sanctioned by the Legislature, because, in fact, that’s what this statute does, when we don’t have all the constant checks and balances.”
Committee members were also concerned that the bill would conflict with LD 1342, a bill that would make it illegal in Maine for parents to “rehome” their children by transferring long-term custody outside the family without a court order. The committee voted for that bill last month.
Although Chamberlain is a proponent of making “rehoming” a child illegal, she believes that’s wholly separate from Safe Families. She estimated 99 percent of Maine children return home within a year.
The bill has been tabled but may be taken up by the Judiciary Committee again in the next few days.
In Lewiston, Michelle found a home and reunited with her three children last November. However, that housing didn’t work out and she moved in with her mother outside the area.
Michelle’s youngest two children moved with her, but her 14-year-old daughter wanted to finish the school year in Lewiston. She moved back in with the host family.
She now spends weekdays with her host parents and weekends with her mother. She’ll return full time to her mother as soon as school ends for the summer.
Michelle benefits, too. The host family offers parenting help and advice, once even attending a parent-teacher conference to help the school and Michelle understand each other’s point of view.
It’s all worked out better than Michelle imagined when she first reached out to Safe Families last fall.
“The host family is now part of our family,” she said. “They’re like an adoptive set of grandparents to my children. If I need anything, even if it’s just to talk to someone, I can call them anytime and just talk to them.”