Safe Families Offers Help to Parents in Need

Clarissa Carmona’s new apartment is neatly decorated, with a snug living room still big enough for her and her four children to wrestle over the Playstation or relax and watch cartoons. A few boxes of books line a far wall, awaiting their final placement on shelves that still need to be moved into their Anaheim home.

The family is starting over – a new place, a new school district – and Carmona, 28, has a new hope for the future.

The single mother was struggling a few years ago, and had no one to turn to. One of her children was having an emotional crisis and it wasn’t safe for the four of them – Elizabeth, 12, Andrew, 10, Jacky, 8, and Noah, 5 – to live together.

She had to choose who would stay with her and who would go into foster care. Her social worker told her if she didn’t find a place for the kids, she would be back in a few hours to take them. She suggested Safe Families as an alternative.

Carmona grew up in the foster care system, so she knew what sending her kids there meant. She was skeptical of calling Safe Families, thinking there had to be strings attached, but taking that chance was better than her biggest fear coming true.

A host family in Safe Families was able to take her children for a few weeks while she got her life under control. Representatives from Olive Crest, the organization that supports the program, drove out to her home and gave her the name of the family, their phone number and address, and made sure she understood the program was voluntary.

“I explained the basic need, and they didn’t judge me or criticize,” Carmona said. “Most people go through these things, and their world just crumbles apart because they don’t have anywhere to send their kids.”

Parents retain custody of their children in Safe Families, and can bring them home whenever they want, said Karen Bergstrom, chief programs officer at Olive Crest, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that helps at-risk children and their families.

“They haven’t abused their children, but they’re standing at a pretty troubled place with their kids,” she said. “They’re at risk of having a crisis because they don’t have a safety net.”

Social isolation is a huge factor in child abuse, Bergstrom said, and many of these “gap families” who use the program are teetering on the edge of disaster. The program serves families with a variety of needs, including homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, illness and unemployment, she said.

Community Impact

It’s difficult to measure the impact of preventative programs, but they are hugely beneficial to the community, said Gary Taylor, director for the Orange County Social Service Agency’s Children and Family Services division.

With budget cuts, the county cannot provide care for all the families in need, said TerryLynn Fisher, spokeswoman for the agency. The agency’s first obligation is to serve families who meet the legal mandate of need, such as child abuse or neglect, and the families served by Safe Families have not yet reached that point, she said.

Support from community organizations allows social services to direct families in need to additional support, rather than letting them fall through the cracks, Taylor said.

Carmona bounced between foster homes when she was a child, and though she was safe, she felt the love there wasn’t genuine. It left her insecure and looking for a way to fill that void, she said.

“I thought that having kids would help me feel better, would make my life more complete because I would have people who love me unconditionally, which isn’t it at all, but at 16 that’s what I thought it was,” she said.

She went to jail for a week in 2008 when she accidentally left her son in the car. By the time she got out, there was already an eviction notice on her apartment, and her children were sent to the Orangewood Children’s Home, the county emergency shelter.

When her children were released, the family moved into a shelter, giving up all their possessions. Carmona was embarrassed, and began isolating herself to avoid discussing her family’s situation. Her children didn’t understand what had happened or where their toys and clothes were.

When she first used Safe Families, she said she was nervous about her children not wanting to come home. But her host family called her at bedtime, and she met her kids before school each morning. When they took the children to an Angels game, they invited Carmona to come along.

Though the program is run out of the faith community, Carmona said the family was always willing to modify their Sunday schedule to fit her religious preference.

“It was one of the most refreshing, life-altering things to make the choice to trust somebody,” she said. “They never made it seem like their place was better than my home.”

Jacky said she misses seeing her host family and talks to them on the phone often.

“They were nice, and they took care of me and I knew my mom needed that,” she said.

An Act of Faith

Lynda and Mark Thomas became a host family around Easter. They knew other families at Mariners Church in Irvine who participated, and the couple “had a little extra time and a little extra love to give,” said Lynda Thomas.

They’ve hosted two children so far, and they met both of the children’s mothers before the stays. It made the transition easier, Thomas said, because she was able to reassure the parents and ask about routines and some of the children’s favorite things.

They guided the children through such firsts as Easter egg hunts and wading pools, sending photos and creating little picture books for the moms at the end of the stay.

The mothers often feel overwhelmed and guilty, but Thomas said they did their best to emphasize that the hard times will pass, and that all the children need is their mothers’ love.

The whole process, from logistics to emotions, is messy, Mark Thomas said. But it’s a good way to teach their four kids how to act out their faith and for the family to think outside their own needs, he said.

The couple hopes they can be a glimmer of light in a chaotic childhood.

“If … they could look back and say those people did that, and they did it because they love Jesus, it would be perfect,” Lynda Thomas said.

Safe Families is a community-based child abuse prevention program that began in Chicago in 2002, and expanded to Olive Crest in Santa Ana in 2009.

The agency has an annual budget of $330,000, which covers five staff members, three interns, 300 volunteers, and 350 community partnerships in Orange County. Safe Families has served more than 300 local families and more than 6000 families nationwide.

The average stay in the program is about six weeks. Ninety percent of the children are reunited with their biological families.

To become a safe family, contact Renee Franks at 1-800-550-2445 ext. 1234 or to get connected with a Safe Families church, contact Karen Bergstrom at 1-800-550-2445 ext. 1174.

Olive Crest has a $40 million annual budget, 12.5 percent of which comes from private donations. The organization has a number of services in Southern California, Nevada and Washington for abused, neglected and at-risk youth and their families, including foster programs, adoption, transitional housing for former foster youth and Safe Families. For more information:

Source: The Orange County Register
Date: December 25, 2011