Mothers in Crisis Turn to Temporary ‘Parents’

INDIANAPOLIS—After resolving to leave her longtime but violent partner in March, Janai Parahams, 25 and jobless, wanted to make a fresh start. But she felt trapped: she was tending four small children with no family support or child care. She could scarcely leave her house, let alone find a job and a new place to live.

“I needed stability so I wouldn’t go back into an abusive relationship,” she said of those first days of confusion and fear.

A social worker told Ms. Parahams about a nonprofit group, Safe Families for Children, that places the children of parents in crisis with volunteer families, on a temporary basis — from a day to a year or more. Ms. Parahams could approve the caretakers, see her children whenever she wanted and get them back with no courts involved.

This unusual offer of extended respite to overwhelmed parents is part of a broader national trend in child welfare to keep many cases out of the courts and foster care systems. State agencies traditionally had a stark choice between breaking up families in turmoil or leaving children in potentially risky homes. Now many are doing more preventive work to forestall abuse and neglect.

Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio are among the states redesigning official programs to identify families at risk and offer counseling or parenting classes. Other states are making intensive efforts to help families in more serious trouble stay together, placing a social worker in the home for weeks at a time to assess and advise parents, refer them to needed therapies and secure help with day care, housing and even emergency cash.

The group that Ms. Parahams turned to, Safe Families for Children, takes a different approach, finding mentoring families to take children temporarily, without the formalities and potential legal battles of foster care.

“It’s consistent with the whole movement in child-welfare agencies to find a broader range of responses for families in need,” said Mark Courtney, a family expert at the University of Washington.

Safe Families, which was founded in Chicago about five years ago, says that requests for help have accelerated this year along with the rise in unemployment and foreclosures.

Not all child welfare experts agree that removing children, even temporarily, is a good idea if there is no imminent risk.

Started by David Anderson, a child psychologist who heads a Christian service agency, Safe Families draws mainly on churches to find families who will take in children, with no compensation or expectation of adoption.

The approach has recently spread to Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Davenport, Iowa; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; and Rockford, Ill.; with the blessing of state welfare officials.

“Where parents recognize issues they need to address and ask for support before abuse or neglect takes place, it’s a great thing,” said Erwin McEwen, Illinois director of child and family services.

In the Chicago area, Safe Families has placed more than 1,200 children, helping out single mothers who are suddenly homeless, fleeing domestic violence or, in one case, seeking a home for a baby born in prison while the mother served out her term.

Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, criticized the removal of children from homes with no evidence of abuse. “Volunteers could bring the respite to the mom’s home by baby-sitting or mentoring there, instead of taking the children away,” he said.

Mr. Anderson said some Safe Families programs were planning to experiment with in-home mentoring, but stressed that all the parents involved had decided themselves that they needed a break from child-rearing to get back on their feet.

Removing children from parents should be avoided when possible, experts in child welfare agree. Placing them with relatives is next best, but when there are no acceptable alternatives, encouraging contact between parent and child during the separation, and friendship between the two families, can minimize the trauma, said Peter J. Pecora, director of research with Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit group in Seattle that develops child welfare programs.

Safe Families must deal with many of the safety and legal concerns of foster care. It makes background checks of potential hosts, visits homes to make sure things are going well and carries insurance in case of accidents. Mr. McEwen said he had not heard of any safety problems or other complaints in Illinois.

Legal arrangements vary: in Illinois, parents must sign over formal guardianship, while Indiana requires only a temporary placement agreement, with power of attorney granted for emergency medical decisions.

In Chicago, Safe Families expects to place 1,000 children this year, for average stays of 45 days. Administrative costs total $350,000 a year, with $100,000 coming from the state and the rest from churches and foundations. If those children ended up in foster care instead, Mr. Anderson noted, the cost to the public would be millions.

In Indianapolis, where several dozen children have been placed in the last year, and elsewhere, the group screens the children and does not take those with major behavioral problems, who need trained therapists.

Ideally, and as often happens, Mr. Anderson said, the hosts “become like extended family,” helping mothers and staying in touch with the children.

Such ties appear likely in the case of Brenda Bailey, 51, of Indianapolis, who has lung disease and lost her lease in October. She moved into a women’s shelter but could not provide for her sons, then ages 10, 16 and 17.

“I decided the kids would be better off without me,” she said, recalling the night she took handfuls of Valium. But when she woke up the next morning, she said, she swore she would reunite the family.

Her middle son moved in with an older half-sister, while the oldest and youngest sons were taken in by Safe Families. Then Ms. Bailey’s lung collapsed, requiring months of recovery. Her youngest son, Elijah, now 11, stayed with one family for four months, and in February moved into the suburban home of his gym teacher, J. T. Crook, and his wife, Samantha. Ms. Bailey, largely recovered and planning to rent an apartment, has become friends with the Crooks, and agreed that Elijah would stay with them until school ends, then spend weekends with them in the summer.

Ms. Parahams, the woman seeking a fresh start, used her month away from her four children to finish a job-preparation course. On April 20, she started work with the Census Bureau, and three days later, her children moved into her new home.

The families that looked after her children, she said, “helped me at a time of great need.”

“They showed real love, which is all you need,” Ms. Parahams said.

Source: The New York Times
Date: May 6, 2009