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Cory sits proudly in a school auditorium watching his 6-year-old son recite “Chums,” a sweet little poem about a boy and his dog, by Arthur Guiterman. The dark-haired, wide-eyed little boy flashes a grin, showing off his missing two front teeth. His stuffed dog, Barky, sits by his side. Cory’s son looks into the crowd to see his family clapping and cheering—a family that includes his grandparents, who have been raising him while his dad gets back on his feet.
“If it wasn’t for my parents, I couldn’t be with my son,” says Cory. “I have been sober now for two and a half years, but only found a job six months ago. I haven’t been able to take care of my son. My parents are doing a great job, and they are making it possible for me to be involved in his life.”
When a crisis strikes, the support of family can make all the difference in the lives of parents—and their children. “Yet many families don't have a support system, don't have family,” says Laura Richardson of Koinonia Family Services, a foster and adoption agency with four locations in Northern California, including Sacramento. “Without a support system, things are more likely to go downhill quickly.”
That downhill slide Richardson describes usually lands children in foster care, making it difficult to reunite families and costing the state $20,000 per child for every year they remain in the system. With over 4,300 children in an already-stretched Sacramento County dependency system, a reduction in the number of kids in the system would make a significant difference.
Enter the Safe Families for Children (SFFC) program, launching this month through Koinonia’s Sacramento office.
Safe Families for Children (SFFC) Training
Thursday, May 5 at 6:30 p.m.
A Safe New Solution
Established in Chicago in 2003, SFFC has served over 3,000 children and their families, in 16 states. This successful, quickly-growing program calls on local churches to oversee “safe families” which provide temporary care to children in need, referred through the program. At the same time, the program provides services to the parents, so that they can become safe families for their own children.
“Parents don’t have to feel like they are floundering out there all by themselves,” Richardson exclaims. With SFFC the community comes together to expand the safety net for families experiencing a temporary crisis. The fundamental goal is to reunite and strengthen families, which SFFC has successfully done for 94% of the families they have served.
The program benefits taxpayers, too. The cost to provide care for a child in the SFFC program is just $2,500 per year, and since SFFC is not state-funded, all of the costs for training and retaining licensed staff are covered from donations to Koinonia Family Services.
According to Leslie Beltran, of Sacramento County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), “SFFC offers a distinctive approach from the government system, defraying the need for government intervention. The hope is to decrease the number of children entering the dependency system.”
SFFC’s safe families belong to a church that has created a Safe Families ministry. Each family provides a home for a child in need, without compensation, from several days to a year. Says Beltran, “I really appreciate that these host families are trained and screened by a licensed recognized foster family agency, Koinonia.”
During the child’s placement, parents retain all their parental rights and are encouraged to be part of the decision-making for the child. Parents in the program also remain committed to addressing their circumstances, while receiving ongoing support from the church. For some this could mean help finding employment or housing; for others, it could mean drug rehabilitation.
As an elementary school teacher and foster-adopt parent, Nichole Harshbarger has worked closely with CPS and families in crisis. She believes the SFFC model offers the greatest benefit to families. “The biggest thing I have learned through the process is a child’s family may not have the resources available and they may not make the best choices, but they are people, just like me. They want the best for their kids.” It’s an opportunity, says Harshbarger, “for families to get back on track.”
To help them stay on track, the church maintains ties with the families even after reunification, providing resources when needed. “The church recognizes people want to be self-reliant and good parents. We are creating lasting relationships, because it is the relational aspect that really changes lives,” explains Richardson.
Currently, 10 local churches, within 10 Northern California counties, are expressing interest in SFFC—and that number continues to grow. Government agencies, educational institutions, and foster related services, like CASA, are expressing their support and excitement, too. For Richardson, the enthusiasm behind SFFC is quite simple: “People just think it makes sense. It’s the way we are supposed to be as a community.”