The previous post to this Blog discussed a program called "Safe Families." Touted as an "alternative" to foster care, Safe Families has been the subject of lots of gushy news stories in the last few weeks – with only The New York Times finding room for any dissent. The most recent story aired on WBBM-TV, the CBS-owned station in Chicago. As with all the others, it began with a case study – a desperate parent who was "saved" by the program, and offers a glowing testimonial.
But this case actually reveals everything wrong with the program. It reveals the extent to which the program really is another form of foster care, and even falls short of the very few model foster care programs out there.
According to the story:
Araina was in her early twenties, with three very young sons. Separated from her husband, who she says didn't pay child support, she couldn't keep her low-paying job at a sandwich shop because she couldn't afford child care. Araina was so desperate she called the state Department of Children and Family Services. "I said, 'Hey, you know, is there a thing, anything, I can do? Can you take my children temporarily until I can get on my feet, get a job and get situated?'" she recalled. The case worker urged Araina not turn her children over to the state because it might be hard to get them back. But there was another solution called Safe Families.
But what did Safe Families do? With all the energy and brain power and resources behind the program, did it find a way for Araina to get child care, without her having to surrender her children?
Did it get her a good pro-bono lawyer so she could start collecting that child support she was owed, so she'd never need to surrender her children?
The one thing they offered was exactly what foster care offered – albeit without making it nearly as hard to get the children back.
And the resemblance to typical foster care goes deep:
Typical foster care programs often split up siblings; imposing a huge additional trauma on the children. Model foster care programs keep siblings together. Safe Families put Araina's three children in three different homes.
Typical foster care programs place children far from their own neighborhoods, so they lose not only their parents but everyone they know and love; often they have to change schools. Model foster care programs keep children in their own neighborhoods. Safe Families placed at least one of Araina's children 40 miles away.
And while Safe Families tells news organizations parents can visit their children whenever they want (though, as is noted in the previous post to this Blog, the program's Handbook suggests that's not always the case), for Araina that would have meant any time she could have gotten to all those different homes, including the one 40 miles away.
The case, in which Araina "voluntarily" gives her children to the Safe Families families, also illustrates the true meaning of the term "voluntary" in child welfare.
The only case one can make for Safe Families is it's not as hard to get the kids out, once they're in. That's not good enough – and certainly not enough to earn it its current status of Child Welfare Media Darling of 2009.