Unleashing the Family: God’s Answer for Vulnerable Children

by Dr. David Anderson

The Need
During the final week of 2007, Chicago was shocked by the actions of a young mother who quietly exited a train with her three-year-old daughter leaving her two sons, ages six and four, behind. Fellow passengers frantically attempted to get the mother’s attention, but she walked away, abandoning her young boys.¹ Similar scenarios of parents being unable to care for their children occur with greater frequency than many of us are aware. State child welfare emergency hot lines throughout the nation reportedly receive over five million calls each year of suspected child abuse or neglect. Of those calls, about one million meet the State’s criteria for abuse, thus activating services.² What happens to the remaining four million families? Someone who knows them or knows of them was concerned enough to make a report to authorities, yet their situation remains unchanged. And what of the additional countless families that are in crisis but are not identified? Safe Families for Children is a program which allows God’s people to give meaningful, live-changing support to families in crisis.

Current Safety Net
The current public system in place to care for and protect children is called the child welfare system (These are agencies such the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Department of Human Services (DHS)). This system is given the mandate to remove abused or neglected children from their parents’ custody at which time the children become “wards of the State.” This system of care is controversial and at times, fraught with errors. Yet, there are no alternatives.

Developed by most States in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, this child welfare system is relatively new. The concept of the government protecting children from their parents is roughly only one generation old. Prior to this, the church and other faith-driven organizations were at the forefront of caring for vulnerable children. The Christian church was active in providing a safe haven for children who were abandoned and neglected by their parents. In fact, throughout history, the church and other religious organizations were the safety net for discarded and vulnerable children. Church history is filled with accounts of believers rescuing “exposed” infants in ancient Rome, taking in all sorts of orphans, caring for the sick and the elderly, and sheltering pilgrims.

Many orphanages, hospitals and asylums were first developed by Christians putting their faith into practice.³ However, with the development of state-run systems of care within the last fifty years, the church has relinquished its role. As the government has stepped up, the church stepped back to the point of becoming irrelevant to the real and significant needs of hurting families. Indeed, a handful of Christian families brave the foster care system. However, the church is no longer a visible presence in helping the very groups we are commanded to help the orphans and widows.

A Theology of Orphans and Widows
Throughout Scripture, there are numerous references to widows and children. Few would argue that children are the most vulnerable “people group” in our society requiring special attention and protection. In fact, James associates the care of orphans and widows with ones purity of faith. He writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). In Lamentations 2:19, Jeremiah cries, “Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at the head of every street.” Asaph the song writer pleads, “Defend the cause of the weak and the fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3).

David further describes God’s concern for orphans and widows by saying, “Father to the fatherless, defender of widows – this is our God, whose dwelling is holy. God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy” (Psalm 68: 5, 6 NLT). Isaiah adds, “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). God clearly states that they need protection, “Do not take advantage of the widow or orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless” (Exodus 22: 22-24).

Jesus valued children. His words are direct, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He also warned those who would mistreat them, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

The Early Church
When the early church was fully alive in engaging the culture and significantly impacting the “least of these,” the practice of offering care to strangers (hospitality) became a distinguishing characteristic.4 These Christians became known for their acts of kindness and service. Babies that were deformed or of the wrong sex were discarded on the waste heaps outside the city. The Christians would gather the unwanted babies and raise them as if they were their own. The Christian writer Tertullian (AD 200) wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents.”5

As in ancient times, children today continue to be hurt by societal ills that have filtered down to the family. Christians are concerned and disturbed by reports like the two boys abandoned on the train, but often do not know how to make a difference. That is where the ministry of Safe Families for Children comes in. Safe Families is a movement of hundreds of Christian families who have opened their homes to care for children whose parents are struggling. By demonstrating Biblical hospitality, Safe Families returns the church to the forefront of caring for “orphans and widows.”

Lonely But Not Alone
Kim came to the United States from China about two years before to begin her post-graduate studies at the University of Iowa. When her father became ill and was no longer able to send money for her educational costs, Kim made the painful decision to drop out of school. She moved to Chicago and began working as a cashier.

Admittedly shy and feeling very lonely, Kim became involved with the first boyfriend she ever had and became pregnant. Her boyfriend pressured her to end the pregnancy, and Kim broke up with him. Eight and a half months pregnant, she was experiencing much shame regarding her behavior and anxiety over how she could ever build a secure life for herself and her child. She had no one to turn to. She went to an adoption agency to give up her child, but the agency referred her to Safe Families because of her ambivalence.

When Kim came to Safe Families for help, the staff explained that she could place her newborn with Safe Family volunteers while she earned the money needed to get an apartment and to get better established. Kim wept with relief. It was not long after this meeting that Kim delivered a beautiful baby boy, who went to stay with the Safe Families volunteers. Kim named the baby after the Safe Family father and she requested that they become his godparents. The family had a great opportunity to share their faith in word and deed, and their relationship with Kim continued long after the baby was returned to her care. They have become her extended family.

Where Safe Families for Children comes in
Kim and others like her would only be able to access the help of the State child welfare agency by being an abusive or neglectful parent. This is not a criticism of these State agencies; investigating and intervening in abusive situations is their mandate. But we must not assume that State welfare agencies can solve the problem of countless children unprotected in unsafe homes where there is crisis or serious stress. With the changing economy, many more families are experiencing financial crisis, unemployment, and homelessness. Others are dealing with family violence, parental drug and/or alcohol abuse, illness or incarceration. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, children living in families with incomes less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be abused and neglected than children living in families with incomes of $30,000 or more.6 Children with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol are four times more likely to be abused than those who do not. The number of poor children under age 18 was 12.8 million (17.4%), or one child in six. The number of poor children under age 5 was 4.2 million (20.7%), or one child in five.7

During such crises, many parents are not capable of providing a safe and caring environment and are at increased risk for abusing or neglecting their children. Historically the extended family often stepped in to support parents by taking care of children for short periods of time, and neighbors came alongside families in crisis. However, many urban families are socially isolated and their extended family is not available. The children in a family traumatized by crisis become especially at risk for neglect or abuse as their parents struggle to cope with crushing circumstances and emotions.

Safe Families for Children is a network of hundreds of churches and thousands of volunteers across the country who are passionate about helping and caring for at-risk children and their parents. Designed to extend and strengthen the community safety net for at-risk families, Safe Families is a positive alternative to the State child welfare system. The voluntary and non-coercive nature of Safe Families is a hallmark of the program. Free from punitive interactions and coerciveness, parents in crisis are able to place their children (newborns through parenting teens) in safe homes, still maintaining custody of their children. The objectives of Safe Families are to 1) deflect children from the State child welfare system, 2) prevent child abuse and neglect, and 3) provide a family in crisis with the necessary support while demonstrating the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. Many parents struggle in their roles because of limited informal social supports and unavailable extended family support. Many Safe Families have become the extended family that the struggling parent never had. Additionally, by temporarily freeing parents from the responsibility of caring for their child, SFFC provides parents with time to address personal issues without fear of losing custody of their child or children.

Is it possible to create a safety net in our communities so children have a place to go while their parents struggle with their own life challenges? Yes, it is possible. However, it only happens when we unleash our families and help them overcome the barriers to Biblical hospitality. Commissioning and supporting families to open their homes and minister to children and their parents has made a significant statement to the watching world longing to see authentic generosity.

Is the hospitality of the Bible more than just having people over to our homes for coffee and cake or participating on the hospitality committee of our church? Is hospitality only for a select few or should it be an expectation for all Christians? Hospitality is a powerful and effective discipline that can change our world.

Safe Families has hundreds of families opening their homes. It is the largest volunteer movement providing homes for children in the United States. While the program originated in Chicago, Illinois, other state governments are taking steps to support a Safe Families movement in their own State.

End Notes

  1. Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2007, p. 5.
  2. Fred Wulczyn, Brenda Jones Harden, Ying-Ying T. Yuan, Richard P. Barth, and John
    Landsverk. Beyond Common Sense – Child Welfare, Child Wellbeing, and the Evidence
    of Policy Reform, 2005.
  3. Joseph Stowell. The Trouble with Jesus. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003, p. 116.
  4. Christine D. Pohl. Making Room – Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.
    Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, p. 33.
  5. Joseph Stowell. The Trouble with Jesus. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003, p. 116.
  6. Children Defense Fund Fact Sheet. www.childrensdefense.org. 2007.
  7. Ibid.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from the New International Version.

Further Reading

  • Bakke, Ray. A Theology as Big as the City. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1997.
  • Lupton, Robert D. Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007.
  • McDonald, Patrick. Reaching Children in Need. Eastbourne, England. Kingsway Publications, 2000.
  • Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.