BY JANET SEITZ
Shortages of care and agencies to protect children from abuse and neglect have made for plenty of recent headlines.
“As we seem to keep hearing about struggles in our DCFS system every week,” said Beth Yockey, a volunteer with Safe Families for Children, a nonprofit national network of local chapters, “I think Safe Families presents a great opportunity for concerned citizens to support families in crisis.”
“The parents we serve are socially isolated,” explained Ryan Mobley, the downstate Illinois director for the organization. “They have little to no healthy, supportive relationships in their lives. Social isolation is a common thread through most cases of abuse and neglect. So, by coming alongside these parents before things get too overwhelming and break down, we’re able to help prevent child abuse and neglect, deflect kids from having to enter the foster care system unnecessarily, and provide a great opportunity for families to strengthen and stabilize. The most common crisis that parents come to us with revolves around homelessness, medical issues, job loss, addiction recovery, or simply being overwhelmed as an isolated single parent.”
“We surround these parents with caring, compassionate community by providing volunteer host homes for children and mentoring relationships for parents,” Mobley continued. The faith-based organization works with local churches to recruit, train and develop volunteer teams for “circles of support.” The Springfield chapter launched in 2015 and has helped some 130 kids to date.
Mobley, whose background is mainly in local church ministry, said the organization partners with area churches including Calvary Church, Hope Church, Springfield First United Methodist, and First United Methodist in Lincoln.
“I believe that the local church can mobilize and unleash their families to really love others in their community who are lonely and desperate, and in doing so through Safe Families, we can reduce child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of foster care,” he said. “Those are measurable things that improve our whole society that can be linked back to the church loving their neighbor, like the Bible teaches.”
Safe Families also works with organizations that provide referrals, such as Contact Ministries, Kumler Outreach Ministries, Sojourn Shelter and Services, Springfield School District 186, HSHS St. John’s Hospital and DCFS. “We work collaboratively and also refer the parents we’re serving to other community agencies as they work on their goals during the time that their child is hosted,” said Mobley. “We’re always working to bring on new churches and new volunteers to meet the needs of families in crisis.”
“Additionally, we’re a nonprofit that has to raise funds to do our work. Having individuals, churches, businesses and other community organizations become financial partners with us is always challenging work.”
The organization recently held a fundraiser for members of the business community called 30 Minutes to Keep Kids Safe. It also conducts monthly orientations online (http://sfdownstateil.eventbrite.com/) and holds orientations and trainings in partnership with churches.
As with any nonprofit, businesses and community members can get involved by donating, Yockey pointed out. “Safe Families has very minimal overhead, but they still have overhead. This is a great way for businesses to support family in a very real way in our community.”
The volunteer families are key, and Mobley and Yockey both said their families have participated as such. “In my role as missions pastor at Hope,” Yockey said, “I am currently recruiting and seeking to ramp up a team at our church so that we can be a Safe Families church — providing the entire circle of support. As a family, we have served as Family Friends and as a host family.”
A Family Friend partners with a parent in crisis to provide support and community, she explained. That can be helping with babysitting, helping find resources, having the family over for dinner, coffee or just generally befriending the parent. A host family provides a safe home environment while the parent is dealing with an issue.
Mobley added, “What I love most is when I talk with a volunteer family who has maintained a connection and built a relationship with a parent and children they served through Safe Families. When I hear stories of how they just had the kids over again, went to dinner with the family, attended church together or spent a holiday together outside of a formal Safe Families hosting, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction because community has developed, and an isolated family isn’t isolated anymore.”
“My prayer is that we see more and more families in our community rise out of crisis because of the care they receive from the community around them,” said Yockey. “Whole, healthy families produce the kind of citizens that we want to fill our city with. Helping these families in crisis remain intact is going to create those healthy families. This is the preventative measure to a whole lot of issues — drug addiction, more child abuse, mental illness. If we can keep families intact, we have a better chance of avoiding a whole lot of pain for these kids.”
Janet Seitz is a local communications professional, writer, and artist. To share your story, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.