Writer  /  Kris Parker
Photographer  /  Forrest Mellott

Sometimes the struggles of everyday life are too much to handle, especially for those who find themselves without the safety net of friends and family. This is where Safe Families stands in the gap for them, providing hope and help as they get their feet back on the ground.

As a volunteer-driven nonprofit, Safe Families allows children to stay with loving volunteer host families while their parents take care of the situation that brought them to their breaking point. At the same time, other Safe Families volunteers are working to mentor the parents and help them find housing, employment, etc. This allows the parents to focus on their needs, while confident in the knowledge that their children’s needs are also being met.

“Our program objectives are to deflect families from the child welfare system, to prevent child abuse and support and stabilize families in crisis,” said Krista Shepard Seeds, Executive Director for Safe Families for Children in Central Indiana.

Founded in Chicago in 2002, Safe Families expanded to Indiana in 2008. Currently, they have 385 host families in Central Indiana alone with hundreds of other volunteers as well.

However, there is a disproportionate number in Johnson County. “It is behind other Central Indiana counties; only 11 [host families] are from Johnson County. We have written several grants recently in hopes of expanding our services in there,” said Seeds.

This skewed balance reduces Safe Families’ ability to adequately serve families in Johnson County; school-aged children remain in their original schools while living with host families, so ideally, placements are made within the same school district. If there are not homes available within a family’s school district, the opportunity to serve that family becomes a challenge.

Joel and Amy McCall, along with their three children, are one of those host families living in Johnson County. Beginning their journey in 2011, they have had the chance to host at least 10 children and develop a relationship with some of their parents.

“As parents ourselves, we can only imagine how difficult it must be to find yourself in a place where you don’t know where your kids are going to sleep or what they’re going to eat or to be afraid you are going to lose your job because you don’t have childcare for your children. It’s really a privilege to be a part of a ministry like Safe Families,” said Joel.

Host families come to the program in a variety of ways, but the McCalls were motivated to join Safe Families when their pastor at the time preached a series on getting outside of the church to serve and minister to people in need. “At the same time as the teaching series, I met a homeschooling family who was a host family. I saw how the children they took in just blended in with their families and how their own children loved the children who stayed with them. As a homeschooling mom, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of time on my hands to go out and really get involved in a ministry,” Amy explained. “Safe Families appealed to me because I thought ‘I can do this … I’m basically doing what I’m already doing but simply adding another kid into the mix.’”

For families taking advantage of the Safe Families program, the average stay for a child with a host family is six weeks but can range anywhere from two days up to a year. During the time apart, biological parents retain full custody of their children and can be reunified with them as soon as they feel they are ready.

“They build parenting partnerships with a focus on keeping families intact and helping parents improve parenting skills,” said Seeds. “As the placing family addresses their crisis and builds a network of support, they increase their ability to care for their child as well as their likelihood of long-term success as demonstrated by 97 percent of children reunified with their parents. This is significantly higher than rates achieved within the current child welfare system.”

Biological parents are encouraged to remain in contact with the Safe Family volunteers, even once they are reunited with their children. This gives the parents a resource as well as provides them with encouragement and advice, should they begin to feel overwhelmed. “You can be as involved as you are comfortable; it is Spirit-led, and it’s nice that it’s not State-run,” said Amy.

In addition to being a Christian ministry, Safe Families also saves taxpayers money; the program is free to placing parents and is supported entirely through donations and fundraising efforts. “This mission saves the State of Indiana millions of dollars and keeps children out of foster homes when they don’t need to be placed there,” Seeds explained. “Supporting families and bringing them through a crisis without removal of their children also prevent trauma and long-term effects of family deterioration.”

Safe Families, however, leaves a lasting effect on the host families as well as the placing families. “For our kids, it has taught them to not judge people; that’s one of the lessons I wanted for them to learn through this experience. Also, it has been a great opportunity to open up our hearts to complete strangers and feel for their suffering and difficult circumstances.”

“It is a real lesson that one of the best things we can do for people is just to care about them and love them,” Amy said. “Plus, everyone in our family gets to be part of this ministry. It’s neat to have that opportunity to do this together.”

Amy’s children echoed her thoughts as well. “It’s an amazing experience to share the love of Jesus with the kids and to show them how much He loves them by being with them and loving them,” said her daughter, Rachel. And son, Will, added, “The opportunity to show the kids love and attention that may be lacking at home is an awesome feeling. Every day with them is a blessing.”

The host families determine the profile of children for which they can care. In addition, placements are done based on a family’s availability and comfort level.

“Safe Families cares about your family as well. They give lots of flexibility in time and convenience. If a placement won’t work for your family, then they find another host family,” said Amy.

Although it is typically the first thing thought of when Safe Families is mentioned, being a host family is not the only opportunity for involvement; there are many other ways in which individuals can serve.

These include, but are not limited to, Administration, Case Management, Communications, Hospitality, Public Relations and Tech Support.

For more information on Safe Families in Indiana or for ways to get involved, check out insafefamilies.org.

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