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Chicago Parents in Crisis: Extended Child Care Proves a Godsend

Some parents in crisis are getting assistance from Safe Families, a Chicago-area group that offers temporary child care so adults can refocus

In a desperate but loving attempt to get their lives on track, Samer and Yvette Assaf handed their children to strangers nine days ago.

The overwhelmed young couple — both 19 — plan to spend two months saving money from their retail jobs, moving into an apartment and buying a car. Then they will return for their children.

In the meantime Baylee, 2, and Julian, 2 months, will live with different families in Des Plaines who volunteer with Safe Families for Children, a rapidly growing nonprofit. The network places children with host families while their parents try to mend their broken lives.

“We both cried,” said Samer Assaf, 19, who lives with his in-laws in Westchester. “It was like we lost everything … but we know it’s not forever. In a good way, it motivated us to get out and get a job and concentrate.”

Safe Families may sound like foster care, but it’s not. The government is not involved. The parents never lose custody, and aren’t in trouble with the law.

They’re just stressed, facing homelessness, trying to flee an abusive spouse or in need of drug treatment. And they can’t simultaneously climb out of their hole and care for their young children.

“These moms made a choice before it got too far,” said Edie Aardsma, 49, of Flossmoor a former foster parent who finds volunteering for Safe Families more rewarding.

The state’s role in parenting has been to steer clear unless children are neglected or abused, at which point it can take them away. But advocates say stress and trauma can paralyze the most loving of parents.

In the same way that a sleep-deprived parent is encouraged to put down a colicky baby and walk away when the crying gets too much, Safe Families encourages people in crisis to hand their children off temporarily.

In the Chicago area, more than 500 volunteers have hosted an estimated 1,000 children in the last five years, for times ranging from a few hours to several months.

As the economy worsens, organizers for the Christian-based network have been hearing from a different type of family, those facing financial distress, foreclosure or bankruptcy. The group expects to place 600 children this year.

This month, the Chicago Transit Authority put advertisements for Safe Families on about 400 buses on the South and West Sides that say: “When life is out of control, give your child a safe place.”

A few weeks of help can be life-changing.

“I thought I was going to have to give away my son,” said Jenny Lass, 20, of Des Plaines, trying not to cry as she recounted her phone call to an adoption agency two weeks ago.

An agency worker, hearing sadness and confusion, referred her to Safe Families, which placed Zachary, 7 months, in the home of a Park Ridge family.

Lass, who with her boyfriend must find jobs and a new place to live, talks to the host family regularly and cares for Zachary for a few days at a time. Meanwhile, she is scraping together what money she can, selling her old clothes and even visiting a fertility treatment center to see if she can sell her eggs.

“I am so down on the ground. I am just trying to get back on my feet,” she said.

A Chicago child psychologist founded Safe Families five years ago after writing a letter to Mayor Richard Daley saying it was a shame children had to be abused before they could receive help. Dr. David Anderson suggested that volunteers provide respite to prevent such tragic situations. Daley supported the idea with seed money and the help of a deputy administrator.

Now, the Safe Families model is spreading to other cities, including Rockford, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and most recently, Los Angeles.

Recruiting families has not been difficult, especially after Anderson makes his pitch at area churches. Yet the organization is always looking for more volunteers to cover the broad geographic area so that children can remain close to their parents. Religious affiliation is not required.

“None of us feel like we have room in our time or at our table, but really, all of us can make room,” said Anderson, executive director of LYDIA Home Association, a social services agency in Chicago.

Those who have opened their homes say they feel they have much to share — and gain — in helping those less fortunate.

“I know this is my calling, to help other moms,” said Amanda Pinc, 37, of Park Ridge, who is taking care of Lass’ son, Zachary. “There have been times in the middle of the night where I have felt lonely. I can’t imagine feeling like that all the time,” Pinc said.

Safe Families operates mostly on private donations, including a $100,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services toward such costs as conducting background checks and screening volunteers, said Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for DCFS.

The state agency strongly supports the Safe Families model, saying for too long, child welfare has “operated with an on-off switch,” Marlowe said. “What families really need are services and supports tailored to their individual situation.”

Safe Families appeals to parents in crisis because they can contact their children at any time and bring them home when they are ready. Volunteers who want to adopt are discouraged from signing on as a Safe Family, since the organization’s mission is to return children to parents. Most of the children are 5 or younger, and live with a host family an average of 45 days.

“I am just so grateful,” said Shanelle Bryant, 28, of Chicago, who suffered postpartum depression and lost her apartment to foreclosure before Aardsma took care of her 2-year-old, Ethan. “They never downed me; they always gave me positive words.”

Bryant has Ethan back, plans to move into a new apartment this month and said she will return to college to finish a bachelor’s degree.

Joy and Barry Bowen of Winnetka still enjoy visits with a South Side father and his three boys, ages 16, 12 and 8. The boys lived with the Bowens from mid-October through early January so their father, Derrick Harris, could check into a drug treatment center.

The children’s mother died of cancer in June 2008. The eldest boy, Paul, has Down syndrome, and the middle child, Steven, has a mild form of spina bifida.

“I felt really lost,” said Harris, 43. “I started doing heroin. By October the gas had been turned off in our house.”

Then one day, he said, he had a moment of clarity. “I decided my kids didn’t deserve to go the way we were going.”

He contacted DCFS, which led him to Safe Families. The Bowens, who had raised a child with spina bifida, felt compelled to help.

“We were really stepping out in faith to take in three kids that we didn’t know,” said Barry Bowen, 53, who is Anderson’s brother-in-law. But dozens of families from their church, Willow Creek North Shore, offered help, such as a dental hygienist who checked the boys’ teeth.

“Every time we had a need it seemed like it was met,” Bowen said.

Paul has since moved into a Misericordia Heart of Mercy residence, where both families visit him.

Harris, who said he has remained drug-free since his boys returned home, said the Bowens’ impact on his life is immeasurable.

“To see there were some people out there who cared enough — not because they got money from the state, but really cared for someone — it renewed my faith in humanity too.”

Source: Chicago Tribune
Date: March 29, 2009