Keeping Them Safe

May 12, 2009 /

Janai Parahams, 25, of Indianapolis, wanted to regroup after leaving an abusive relationship. With no job, four children and no family support, she was on the edge.

Brenda Bailey, 51, also of Indianapolis, had to leave her apartment last October and move into a women's shelter. She had lung disease and three sons 17 and younger.

Most communities, including those in Central New York, do what they can for parents like these. There is subsidized health care, food, housing, job training, child care. Onondaga County protects at-risk children through parenting programs, counseling and therapy, foster care and adoption.

But Parahams and Bailey weren't bad parents just overwhelmed. What they needed wasn't a subsidy or foster care. Just breathing room.

That's where organizations like Safe Families for Children step in. In Indianapolis, Chicago, Chattanooga and a handful of other cities, Safe Families provides respite homes for stressed parents for a week, a month, sometimes longer. The "mentoring" families are volunteers though the agency checks the parents' backgrounds, visits their homes and stays close. Since there is no abuse or neglect involved and adoption is not an issue, the children see their birth parents regularly. The goal is to re- unite the birth family. And the costs are a fraction of what they would be in the child protective system.

Safe Families has found mentor homes for several dozen children in Indianapolis over the past year. The group expects to place nearly 1,000 children this year in Chicago, where Safe Families started five years ago. Average stays are 45 days. So far, there have been no complaints or safety issues.

Safe Families does not place children with serious behavioral problems who need therapeutic care. The parent-child bond is never broken by the trauma of forced removal from the home. Importantly, it's the parent who decides to place the child. Stressed parents act in the best interest of their families and begin a journey whose destination is reunification in a stable setting.

Janai Parahams spent a month in job training and found work with the Census Bureau. On April 23, her four children moved back with her into a new home.

Brenda Bailey suffered health reverses after placing one of her sons with a relative and two with Safe Families. Months later, she is still recovering but planning to rent an apartment where she can take her children on weekends in the summer.

In Onondaga County, the number of children in foster care has dropped from as many as 800 over the past decade to 320 today. The Department of Social Services is emphasizing "kin care" for stressed families, working harder to keep families together, and promoting adoption. "We've learned a lot over the years," one senior administrator says.

Bringing an organization like Safe Families for Children to Central New York could help more stressed parents and their children.


foster care light?

I am trying not to be cynical when hearing about initiatives like these, yet I wonder how this organization can guarantee the safety of the Safe Families.

The safety of foster care has been disputed at least since the 1970's and given the sheer volume of abuse cases in foster care and in adoptive families, I would like to learn how this initiative prevents first abuse to take place while a child is in care.

The shortness of the stay, doesn't prevent abuse from happening; there are several cases where abuse took place shortly after a child arrived in a family. Calling it safe, doesn't necessarily make it safe, just like calling something a forever family doesn't make it last.

I do appreciate attempts to prevent children from ending up in the foster care system, but is it a good idea to create a foster-care-light  system?

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