When Communities Work Together for Families

When her niece was murdered, Brooke Gustafson broke. She walked away from her 12-year career as a surgical technologist and began using recreational drugs to dull her pain. After spiraling for six months, she sought treatment for her addiction and mental health. Safe Families for Children (SFFC) stepped in to care for Gustafson’s young sons while she got her life back in order.

The Knoxville chapter of Safe Families, directed by Janet Cockrum, helps provide support and community for isolated parents facing crises in a vacuum. The mission of Safe Families is to keep families together rather than unnecessarily sending children into foster care system. The goal is parent reunification. Ninety percent of the children hosted are younger than six; 50 percent are younger than four. Over the past 12 years, Knoxville’s SFFC has provided 16,000 nights of care and helped more than 2,000 East Tennessee children. Safe Families has a 98% reunification rate as compared with less than 50% of those in foster care.

Providing community is at the heart of the Safe Families. Too many parents feel isolated and alone without having the relational support and a trusted community to stand in the gap when a crisis hits the home. Recently, the US Surgeon General declared loneliness as “the most prominent mental health challenge of our time. Isolation and loneliness can lead parents and families to feel intensely overwhelmed and break down the ability of families to deal with significant life stressors.

SFFC has many success stories, and Gustafson is on her way to being one of them. Clean for more than two years, Gustafson still receives wrap-around support and has a Host Family who periodically keeps her boys, now 5 and 8, for a few hours or days so she can focus on self-care.

“Safe Families for Children provided a safe place for my sons and me to go

when we just needed that little extra support.”

Brooke Gustafson

Due to the success of the program, Gov. Bill Lee recently honored Knoxville’s Safe Families with his Award of Excellence, saying, “Your care for children and their families through the utilization of resources and volunteers in your region changes lives.” The cost of abuse and neglect are taxing state budgets. The Knoxville’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, reports there’s a 1 in 8 chance that a child born in Tennessee will fall victim to abuse or neglect before reaching adulthood. The lifetime cost of child abuse is over $285,000 per case; child abuse costs the state between $3.33 billion and $4.97 billion per year. This includes the cost of child and premature adult mortality, decreased wages and workforce productivity, increased medical costs, increased demands for special education, residential care costs associated with substance dependency and juvenile delinquency, and the cost of criminality.

SFFC works closely with the Tennessee Department of Child Services (DCS) and gets many referrals from the state agency. Other clients come from drug treatment centers, the health department, schools and SFFC’s network of nearly 60 churches. Carren Broadnax, Resource Coordinator at DCS, said Safe Families for Children fills a gap in the system, helping families when abuse and neglect aren’t part of the equation. “SFFC’s efforts to provide host homes have often deferred countless children from custody. They have consistently provided much-needed support and care to vulnerable families in our community,” she says.

Gustafson discovered SFFC through Great Starts, a residential drug treatment program operated by the McNabb Center for women who are pregnant or have custody of their children. SFFC volunteers spend Wednesday evenings at Great Starts. They bring a meal for the residents, share a devotional, and provide informational programming and mentoring. “It’s like we’re their mom, encouraging and supporting them,” Cockrum says. “We just want them to experience healthy relationships.”

Parents are served through Circles of Support which allows the opportunity for many volunteers to engage families through hosting, mentoring, babysitting, and providing resources and services. The lifeblood of SFFC is the amazing volunteer force who step up to host children and support families without compensation. All volunteers are fingerprinted, background-checked and vetted similarly to foster families so that safety and assurance of mind can be provided to all parents who partner with Safe Families.

*Parts of this story taken from the article at https://our.tennessee.edu/2023/meeting-the-challenge/ written by Amy Blakely.