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Volunteers offer short-term foster care for families in crisis

Nothing matters more to Stephanie Murphy than her girls.

So when the single Holland mother of three had a medical crisis in 2011, she felt backed into a corner. Her oldest, Alexis Borgman, then 13, could stay with her father, who had visitation rights. But she feared that her other two daughters -- Aaliyah and Keanna Brown, then ages 8 and 7 respectively -- would wind up in the foster care system.

“I had no other choices,” Murphy recalled.

That's where Cara and Hal Bailey and a program called Safe Families for Children entered the picture.

With Murphy's consent, the Ottawa County couple brought  Aaliyah and Keanna into their home while Murphy underwent life-saving surgery for a torn carotid artery.

About a month later, out of the hospital, Murphy had her three children back.

Multiply this scenario dozens of times and you get an idea what Safe Families for Children is all about.

“If it wasn't for Safe Families, I don't know what I would have done. I think the state would have taken my children,” said Murphy, 34.

Two years of helping families

Launched in Michigan in March 2011 by Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, it has some 50 volunteer host families like the Baileys across West Michigan and the Traverse City area with plans to add  25 more and expand to Lansing and Flint. The concept is simple: Extend a helping hand to families in crisis, without involving state bureaucracy, with the goal of keeping children and parents together.

“This is kind of what families do naturally if they have an adequate safety net,” said Tim Nolan, who coordinates the program for the nonprofit counseling and adoption organization.

“They can rely on friends and family and church, maybe somebody from work. They ask for help.”

The program – the only one of its type in Michigan -- is structured to protect children while tailored to keep parents in charge as they work their way through everything from medical emergencies to mental health crises to homelessness.

Nolan believes that timely support can safely keep some children out of the strained Michigan Department of Human Services foster care network, which has about 14,000 children at a given time removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

In March, a federal judge credited the state with progress toward meeting a court mandate issued five years ago to overhaul its troubled foster care system. A report from a court-appointed monitor found the state had reduced the number of children waiting to be adopted, expanded services for adoptive parents and improved responsiveness to reports of abuse and neglect.

“When risk factors compile and they go unaddressed, it leads to abuse and neglect,” Nolan said. “What we do is enhance the protective factors of having a support network and being connected to the community.”

Parents who turn to Safe Families retain custody throughout the process. They have authority to pick the host family they feel most comfortable with. And they are free to terminate the arrangement when they want.

“This is not a coercive relationship,” Nolan said.

The results thus far are encouraging.

According to Nolan, of 96 “host arrangements” in 2012 involving approximately 70 children, 100 percent of children were reunited with their parents.

Families in need referred by state, others

Safe Families was founded in 2002 by the LYDIA Home Association, a Chicago-based Christian social service agency. Bethany Christian joined as a partner several years ago and helped to broaden its scope. It is established in more than 50 locations in more than 25 states, as well as Toronto and the United Kingdom. It has hosted more than 10,000 children since its founding.

Referrals in Michigan come from Child Protective Services, mental health workers, hospitals, social workers, teachers, homeless shelters, even relatives of families in crisis.

The linchpin of the program is its network of volunteer hosts, who undergo background screening similar to that mandated by the foster care network. Names are checked against the National Sex Offender Public Registry and Michigan's Child Protective Services registry for child abuse. They are fingerprinted and the results cross-checked for local, state and federal records.

They are not paid for their commitment or reimbursed for expenses. Indeed, in most cases, host families foot the $50 per-person fingerprinting charge.

“It's blown me away how many people want to volunteer and do it for free,” Nolan said.

Cara Bailey described her time hosting Stephanie Murphy's two girls as “extremely rewarding. I think it's incredible. It makes such good sense to try and keep families out of the foster care system, instead of having kids languish in a system that is overwhelmed.”

In Murphy's case, her medical issues were complicated by prior abuse of prescription pain pills. After her operation, she went into detox.

Murphy said she has been clean since then. She has nothing but pride for Alexis,  Aaliyah and Keanna.

“I was blessed. I have three beautiful girls that love school and they are pulling all A's,” she said.

Family reunited after jail term

Kent County single mother Norma Das, 29, feels equally fortunate to have her four children back together.

In August 2012, she feared two of her four children would be turned over to the foster care system as she faced a 30-day jail sentence for receiving stolen property. Her two older children, Esther Wheeler, 11, and Alyssa Wheeler, 10, were with her mother. But she thought it asking too much that she also take in her two younger children, Amaya Stevens, 1, and Cayden Stevens, 3.

“I really didn't have any other option,” she recalled.

Then she learned through her church about Safe Families. Shortly before her jail term she met with a Newaygo County mother of three, Melinda Barnhart, approved by the program as a host along with her husband, Bob.

In the first meeting, she and Barnhart chatted for hours about everything from religious faith to child-rearing and discipline. That eased her anxiety about leaving her young children with another family.

“I felt pretty comfortable with them,” Das said.

A week after she was discharged from jail, Das got her two younger children back. The Barnharts presented her with a photo album with dozens of pictures of her children, at parks, at the beach, during their time away.

Das said the interval helped her get her life together. With her family intact, she now looks to obtain her cosmetology license and to support her family with work as a hair stylist.

“It worked out great for me. I liked that I was in control,” she said.

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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