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Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 12:05 am

Helping families stay together

Safe Families takes care of children temporarily when parents need a break

Carolyn and Monte McMannigell of Taylorville, a host family.
PHOTO COURTESY MCMANNIGELL FAMILY

 

Monte McMannigell always wanted to help kids but he had never before taken the initiative to act. But following a presentation by Ryan Mobley, central Illinois regional director for Safe Families for Children, at Grace Baptist Church in Taylorville, he and his wife, Carolyn, became a host family.

Safe Families is an all-volunteer faith-based network that helps families in crisis get back on their feet by caring for their children on a temporary basis. “We positively intervene in a family’s life before they break down,” said Mobley, who recently launched the program in Springfield and oversees the placements. There are now seven church partners.

There are about a dozen host families in the Springfield area and the program has provided a temporary home for six or seven children. The average stay is four to six weeks but can last anywhere from a few days up a year.

“We recognize there are a number of different issues that can cause problems,” said Mobley. When families are in crisis, often children in these circumstances suffer abuse and neglect and end up in state custody. In those cases the parents lose their custodial rights. “We want to keep that from happening,” he said.

After things get better at home, children go back to their families. “Our reunification rate is just over 90 percent,” said Mobley. Some children do end up in state-supervised foster care, while others are placed with other family members. By comparison, just half of children who enter the foster care system are reunited with their parents. Parents are encouraged to have frequent contact with their children while they work to resolve their issues. They maintain full custody of their children.

Families in crisis often face social isolation and don’t have a support system in place. This program finds host families through churches. The church serves as an extended family that wraps its arms around the family in crisis, to offer help when needed. “It’s a group of people who care about them,” said Mobley.  

For churches, it’s one way to fulfill their calling. “It helps churches restore their call to hospitality,” said Mobley. “It’s a tangible expression of their belief in Jesus.”

“I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life,” said Monte, who grew up in a single-parent household. His parents divorced when he was young. “It was hard growing up,” he said. “I knew how it felt not to have a father figure.”

He and his wife cared for a seven-month-old for six weeks. “I was apprehensive about it,” said Carolyn, who has three children. “We bonded right away.” The couple plan to do this again.

Monte said their whole church came together and provided prayers and financial support. “People are genuinely caring,” he said. “They want to help.” Safe Families knew the boy was being placed in a safe home.

The program partners with churches and gets the church community involved. “It’s the way it once was,” said Carolyn.

She said it was hard to give him back. “It takes part of you,” she said. “Your heart hurts.” She knows, however, that the boy is safe with his mama and that his mama loves him. “It’s a blessing.”

The McMannigells remain involved in the family’s life. “We support her as much as we can and want to be part of her life,” said Monte. “We care a lot for them and want what’s best for them.”

Dr. David Anderson, executive director of Lydia Home Association, developed the Safe Families for Children program in 2002. It is modeled on the simple concept of neighbors helping neighbors. It is now in 27 states and four countries and has helped more than 21,000 children.

The program receives professional support through its partnership with child welfare agencies. The Lydia Home Association in Chicago serves the Springfield area.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services supports the program. Mobley said about 750 calls out of the more than 3,000 DCFS receives annually warrant further investigation. The remainder are families that Safe Families has the potential to help. DCFS often refers families to Safe Families.

Parents can contact Safe Families directly or be referred through a referral agency. The program works with children ages birth through 18 and matches the child with a host family near the placing parents when possible. The host family goes through an extensive screening process and training.

“It can be very challenging,” said Mobley, who said there are many ways to help. “Family friends” are volunteer mentors who work alongside families to support them and provide parents with a loving, supportive person to turn to for advice, guidance and assistance. “Case coaches” stay in frequent contact with the parents and volunteer families and monitor the care the child receives.

The family in crisis must have goals it is working towards and is held accountable as it works towards its goals. “We want them to know they can do it,” said Mobley.

The children are pretty resilient. “We keep hope in front of the kids that they’ll get back together with Mom,” said Mobley. Often friendships form between the placing family and the host family. “No one can live life alone. Everyone needs people to help them.”

Roberta Codemo of Springfield is a freelance health journalist and frequent contributor to Capital City Parent. She shares her home with her two-year-old cat.

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