It began in Chicago in 2002 — and last fall, a Homer woman with a heart for families decided to introduce it to her hometown.
It’s Safe Families for Children, or SFFC — a program active in more than 70 cities around the United States and several other countries. Safe Families connects isolated families in crisis with families in the faith community, who open their homes to children in need.
Since 2002, according to the SFFC website, 24,426 children in need of temporary safe housing have been matched with 4,606 host families. And that number is growing.
Alivia Erickson, a 2009 graduate of Homer High School, first learned of the program while working as a nurse in Anchorage last year.
The church she was attending was connected with a ministry that supports children and families within the state foster care program, Beacon Hill. In 2016, Beacon Hill launched Safe Families for Children Alaska, with locations in Anchorage and Wasilla.
So, when Erickson moved back to Homer last year, she decided to speak with her local church about bringing the program to Homer as well. The response was “Yes,” and she is now the ministry leader for SFFC Alaska at Church on the Rock Homer, which also is providing office space for the program at its Ocean Drive address.
Families do not need to attend COTR to volunteer in the program, but they must be willing to be under the oversight of it or another local sponsor church. (At least one other church is in the process of filling out an application to participate with SFFC.)
Working in conjunction with local resources, Erickson said she hopes that SFFC will provide relationships that offer hope and love to the lonely and isolated.
“It’s more like creating an extended family for these (isolated) families,” she said.
In November, Charity Carmody, president of the Beacon Hill Board of Directors, spoke at a public meeting in Homer on behalf of SFFC. Several attendees were either current or former foster parents, curious to know how the program worked – and how they could help.
Carmody, who works closely with the Office of Children’s Services, or OCS, and the state foster care system, said that in Alaska, the number of children placed in foster care has increased by more than 37 percent in the past five years.
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, OCS website, there are now about 3,000 children in foster care every month.
Often, children are only placed in foster care after they have been harmed. By intervening when a family is in distress, before abuse and neglect happens — Carmody said that SFFC could help alleviate some of the strain being placed on the foster care system.
If there is an open investigation with OCS, however, or allegations of abuse, Carmody said that SFFC does not take children for temporary placement until the state’s investigation is closed.
Before a host family is approved in the program there is lengthy application process that includes a full background check, including fingerprinting and a home safety visit. The process is nearly the same as the one the state requires for its foster families. But, Carmody reiterates, it is not foster care.
One of the significant differences is that parents maintain full custody of their children. The goal of a host family is not to keep a child, but to provide a safe place for them while their parents receive help. At no time do parents give up their legal guardianship to SFFC.
“These are parents who are doing something brave,” says Carmody, of those who make the voluntary call to have their children stay with a host family.
Host families and parents have open communication, and children go home when parents say they are ready to take them.
“The main priority of Safe Families is community,” said Carmody.
Jillian Lush, executive director of Sprout Family Services in Homer, says that when she learned of the program from Erickson, she was very excited.
”I just said, ‘Absolutely!’ there is a high demand for support in the community,” said Lush.
In working with other local programs such as The Center and OCS, Lush said she has voiced the need she sees for families to sort of adopt families who could benefit from support.
“All parents need support from others,” said Lush. “This program connects families that do not have concrete supports in times of need, with a family that they can depend on.”
Likewise, local guardian ad litem for the Homer area, Dylan Weiser, says he feels the program will aid in a necessary area.
If community members can step forward to help family members resolve issues — before they come to the attention of OCS — Weiser says that it will be of a benefit for everyone.
The national average for placements with SFFC is six weeks, but can be anywhere from two days to a year. Most of the children are under school age, but the program is open to all children under the age of 18.
In 15 years, with more than 24,000 placements, Carmody said there has been no report of abuse in SFFC. That number is credited, in part, to the fact that there is no financial incentive for taking in children. Host families do not receive any form of payment from SFFC.
Carmody noted that people sign up to host children out of compassion — the same reason many people sign up to foster parent.
“It’s very sacrificial,” she said.
In addition to host families, the program recruits volunteer family coaches – people who check in with host families at least once a week, as well as with the parents of the children being hosted. The family coach might help gather resources like a bed, or clothes, or help plan meals for either family depending on the need.
Carmody describes it as a return to the tradition of a village taking care of a child. That and creating an environment where it’s not shameful to ask for help.
“There are families in crisis in our own back yard,” she said. “We can all play a part in some way.”
Once there are at least five approved host families in the Homer area, Safe Families will begin accepting calls for placement of children. As of January, several families had initiated the application process, and Carmody hopes the program will be fully active early this year.
There will be another informational meeting Jan. 26, 6:30 p.m. at the Church on the Rock Homer office, 1130 Ocean Drive. National Safe Families Sunday is Feb. 12.
For more information on SFFC Alaska, visit beaconhillak.com/safe-families-children. To contact SFFC in Homer, call 907-399-4705 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toni Ross is a Homer writer.