Safe Families Canada: support for families in crisis
by Jenny Schweyer
Jen Francis was working in Costa Rica when she first learned about Safe Families, a faith-based organization that provides temporary homes for children whose families are in crisis. Francis had been intrigued by the concept, and once she returned to her home in Ontario, she couldn’t stop thinking about how beneficial an organization like Safe Families could be for Canadian families that are struggling.
Safe Families was first launched in Chicago in 2003. Parents who find themselves in a crisis situation, or who are simply overwhelmed by the natural demands of parenting, can temporarily place their child or children with a Safe Families host family. According to Francis, stays typically range from a couple of days to a week, although longer placements can be arranged, if needed. The idea is that parents can use this time apart from their children to get respite and seek help. Parents retain legal custody of their children, and Safe Families encourages and helps to facilitate ongoing relationships between host families and the parents. Host families sometimes go on to become parenting mentors to the parents whose children they cared for.
Francis, who currently works as the director for the Canadian branch of Safe Families, hadn’t really seen herself working full time for a non-profit, much less pioneering one almost from scratch. However, after several months of contemplation and prayer, she believed that this was exactly what God was asking her to do. Safe Families officially began operating in Canada in 2014.
Safe Families is headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, but currently operates seven chapters in Canada. Launching in Canada wasn’t an uncomplicated process, as there are many laws and regulations regarding the placement, welfare and guardianship of children, and regulations can differ from province to province. It took a few years to navigate the legalities of temporary placement, and to recruit and train the first host families. Today, there are about 50 families throughout Western Canada who are able to host children in their homes.
Most of Safe Families’ current chapters are located in Ontario, with a small number in the westernmost part of Canada. However, there are two more chapters that are actively under development in BC: one on Vancouver Island (overseen out of Parksville, BC) and one in the southern interior (overseen out of Kelowna). Naturally, there are numerous legal hurdles to navigate when it comes to placing children in temporary care, and although provincial governments have thus far been supportive and encouraging of the work that Safe Families is doing, getting things in place takes a considerable amount of time, as does subsequent recruiting and training of host families. Francis hopes to see the Kelowna and Parksville chapters operational sometime in 2020.
Francis realizes that the idea of taking in someone else’s child for a short-term stay in their homes can be intimidating. For those who would consider the idea, Safe Families offers comprehensive training, ongoing support and insurance to cover host families while they have a child in their care.
Even if hosting a child in one’s home isn’t possible, Francis says that there are still numerous ways to get involved with the mission of Safe Families Canada. Volunteers are needed to serve on steering committees in locations where Safe Families will be planting a chapter and to help spread the mission of Safe Families in their local churches and Bible study groups. Chapters which are operational need ongoing volunteer help to carry out all kinds of tasks, from keeping offices running to helping provide transportation for children.
There are also a number of opportunities for volunteers to be hands-on with children and their families even if they aren’t in a position to offer temporary shelter for a child in need. The Family Friend program matches up a volunteer with a family in need of friendship and emotional support. The volunteer simply acts as a listening ear when parents need encouragement, and may help direct parents to resources from within their own communities and even to advocate for parents needing other types of resources and support from their communities.
Safe Families also needs volunteers to act as a Family Coach. The Family Coach is similar in many ways to a Family Friend, with the additional responsibility of helping to assess and monitor the ongoing safety of children who are placed with a host family. Safe Families is also continually recruiting Resource Friends. These are typically skilled professionals, such as automobile mechanics, dentists, hair stylists, child care providers, etc., who are willing to fill a tangible need, such as fixing a parent’s car or giving a child a haircut free of charge to a needy family. A Resource Friend may also simply be someone who is willing to donate a tangible item, such as a crib, or funds to purchase a tangible item, for a family that needs it.
Francis gets passionate when she talks about how great the need is in Canada for families to be able to access support from someone who is simply able to listen without judgment and offer advice to people who are struggling in their roles as parents. For churches that are seeking to live out The Great Commission within their own communities in a way that is meaningful and tangible, getting involved in Safe Families is a great way to reach out to people in their communities who are struggling.
To find out how you, your church or your small group can get involved with the mission of Safe Families Canada, visit www.safefamiliescanada.com and click on the ‘Get Involved’ tab.