In the summer of 2012, Corisma Gillespie hit a crisis point. Pregnant with her second child, the 20-year-old from the west side of Chicago had lost her job at McDonald’s. Her car was impounded, and she was about to become homeless. Desperate to provide for her children, she asked herself: “How can I do this?”
A local program had an answer. She could hand her daughter over to a volunteer family through Willow Creek Community Church, almost an hour away in the suburbs. There would be no court hearings, judges, or lawyers involved when her child moved in with these strangers, and it would take almost no time to arrange. Her daughter could live in this “Safe Family” home for as long as Gillespie needed. All she had to do was sign a form.
At first, Gillespie didn’t trust the offer from stay-at-home mother of three Kimi Emery, and thought it could result in her losing custody.
“Of course I was against it – I am not about to send my child with no strangers,” Gillespie told an audience gathered in 2018 by the nonprofit Safe Families For Children. For 17 years, the Chicago-based organization has called for a return to the days of biblical hospitality, when caring for orphans and widows was a primary goal of the Christian church.
Despite her initial reluctance about the Safe Families arrangement, Gillespie, now 29, took a “leap of faith” and allowed her daughter to move in with Emery. The young mother said she was bothered at first, hearing her daughter call Emery “mommy.” But she came to appreciate her host’s efforts and intentions, she said.
After three weeks, she found a job and her first apartment, and her daughter came home to Chicago.
Addressing the crowd that day at Gillespie’s side, Emery, now 48, described how she benefited as well. “My favorite word to describe Safe Families’ impact on me is scalpel,” she said. “It painfully conformed me to be more like Jesus. And that’s been the biggest scalpel I’ve ever had. It’s a good one.”
Since its 2003 inception, the group now operating in 40 states, Canada and the United Kingdom has placed 35,000 children in the family homes of others, some more than once. The model has been praised as an innovative, welcome respite. The group states that 93% of birth families reunite with their children after leaving a host home.
Yet despite glowing portrayals in the national and evangelical media, the home hosting model has encountered growing resistance. In the past, Safe Families has been greeted with “cease and desist” letters from regulators in states including Colorado and Virginia, before laws were passed permitting their hosting program. Its founder has even quipped he was threatened with arrest by officials in Wisconsin.
This week in New York, the group’s nearly four-year advocacy effort to host children has reached a key decision point amid a flurry of strong opposition from prominent judges, attorneys and child welfare experts: Should state officials create a new legal pathway for parents to place their children with strangers, outside the government-run child welfare system with its due process protections for parents and children, and court oversight?
The answer is no, say critics including the president of the American Bar Association, ranking New York family court judges, county child welfare commissioners, and advocates for children and parents, who have written at least 17 letters addressed to Sheila Poole, commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. One of the letters describes the host home model as “a hydra-headed quasi-foster care monster, with all of the hallmarks of foster care but none of the legal protections the law demands.”
According to its website, Safe Families’ hosting model is “a positive alternative to the State child welfare system,” noting, “the voluntary and non-coercive nature of Safe Families is a hallmark of the program.” But critics question that assertion – particularly in places where the nonprofit works closely with local child abuse and neglect investigators who have the power to remove children from parents without their consent. They fear referrals to Safe Families from county case workers may instill fear in parents and pressure them in subtle or not-so-subtle ways to feel they must hand over their children to the volunteers.
In a phone interview and emails, the organization’s founder and executive director David Anderson acknowledged that his group has met some resistance over the years, with the model viewed skeptically by those who misunderstand the importance of innovation for social impact.
But he has persisted, seeking “grace to those who are trying to do a new thing” and describing his work as a calling, similar to how major religions have the concept of hospitality in their core teachings. “The Lord gave me the idea of Safe Families for Children,” he once said.
“The idea is, how do you build this as a social movement versus just a program? It’s built on the idea of trying to make the safety and protection of our children all of our responsibility, not just the child welfare system.”
The Safe Families ‘Hosting’ Model
Gillespie and Emery said in interviews that the two families remain close, eight years after they first met; they just had lunch this month.
Gillespie, a black mother, acknowledged race is an issue in the host family model. “You’re most likely sending your children to a white family,” she said, “so you have to be comfortable with yourself and who you are to do that. I was in my situation a while before I could say, ‘I’m gonna do this.’”
Emery, a white mother, said her suburban family grew in the process too. The hosting had gotten “this whole mixed thing going,” she said, creating “such a cool bridge.”
To date, more than 50,000 “hostings” such as this have taken place through 120 local Safe Families chapters.
The group’s website describes its program as serving at-risk children, birth through age 18, who “are not believed to be victims of physical or sexual abuse.” Volunteer host homes are supported by congregations and paid local staff, who provide help for parents navigating hardships from unemployment and homelessness to abusive relationships or addictions. The organization conducts background checks and ongoing home visits, calls references, and trains hosts.
Children have moved in and out of these host homes for lengths of stay that are typically two days to seven weeks, and in rare instances run closer to a year. More than three-fourths of children placed in host homes are younger than 6 years old, according to Safe Families. In many states, referrals come from homeless shelters, hospitals, teachers and parents.
The organization says it does not have a way to track how the children in the program fare on outcomes such as educational progress or emotional well-being. But in an email response to questions about that, executive director and founder Anderson stated that most of the children placed are younger than 6 years old and not yet in school.
“Length of stays are quite short,” he added, “so our impact on child well-being is not known at the moment.”
New York Rejects ‘Host Homes’
Safe Families’ attempts to branch out into New York City began about five years ago, after Laura Galt opened her Brooklyn apartment to kids living in a nearby family shelter. One mother dropped her children off before an overnight hospital visit, while another sibling set, separated by foster care, got to spend Sundays together at the Galts’ home.
Galt said she is motivated “to empower families to stay together,” by her own children, two of whom she adopted from Ethiopia. “My adopted kids grieve the loss of their parents every day,” she said.
Galt began as a volunteer for Safe Families and became the local chapter’s founding director in 2017. She has recruited 138 volunteers from churches throughout New York City, including Resurrection Clinton Hill, where her husband is senior pastor. So far, those volunteers have done charitable work for struggling families, while the organization awaits authorization from the state to start placing children in homes.
In January, the Office of Children and Family Services released 15 pages of proposed regulations that, if approved, would allow nonprofits to begin operating the “host family” model.
Galt said the regulations need adjustments – mainly limiting the hosting period to six months, and preventing child welfare workers from “using hosting as an ultimatum or coercion to avoid foster care placements.”
But the rule changes have prompted far deeper debate. At least 140 written responses were received by the time the public comment period ended Monday, reflecting both sides of a heated debate.
Children and Family Services declined a request to release all the public comments, but in an email Tuesday night a spokesperson for the agency described it as a model “designed to empower parents in selecting who will help care for their child, without the involvement of social services.” Monica Mahaffey said the agency’s regulations were drafted “to enact a Host Family Home model in New York State as a primary prevention program to keep families together.” Family Services has scheduled a meeting Thursday with supporters and those raising concerns.
Critics argue vulnerable parents deserve legal counsel before agreeing to an out-of-home placement, ensuring the arrangement is “knowing, intelligent, and voluntary,” according to a Feb. 21 letter signed by the New York Family Court Advisory and Rules Committee’s general counsel.
The committee’s judges and attorneys opposing the proposed rules also said state and federal laws require protections for all children in out-of-home care. Those protections include the right to stay in their schools, remain connected with siblings, visit their parents, live with relatives over strangers, and practice their religion. Parents should also be guaranteed services to help them overcome whatever circumstances led them to have difficulty caregiving, some commenters on the state proposal pointed out.
Many of those objecting to the model have spent their careers fighting for those protections, and see Safe Families as a return to a “darker time, when children were taken from their homes with no right to be heard,” as the pro bono firm Lawyers for Children warned in its letter to the state. Gerard Wallace, a well-known advocate for relative caregivers in New York, called the proposed regulations a “new orphan train scheme.”
Hope Lyzette Newton, a parent advocate with the Center for Family Representation in New York City, says desperate parents are at an inherent disadvantage signing agreements with host home organizations like Safe Families. She expressed concern about Christian evangelical volunteer hosts, in a place as diverse as New York, calling child welfare hotlines on parents with different values, lifestyles, and religious and cultural backgrounds.
“It’s put in this wonderful box – like a gift box, we’re coming to help you,” Newton said. “But behind that gift box, there’s things that a parent in crisis would not know or think about.”
One Pastor’s Experience
Pastor Justin Peterson, who launched the Colossae Church of Hillsboro, Oregon, in 2015, is a Safe Families host parent and recruits other family hosts from his congregation. Peterson said the arrangements have no strings attached, and, while he avoids proselytizing to struggling parents, hosting is a perfect complement to his religious mission.
“One of the things that we’re called to do is live the way of Jesus where we’re at,” said Peterson, who is a white father with two adopted black children. “He extended hospitality to those who are far from him and don’t think, look, or act like him.”
In a blog post published on the Safe Families website in March, Peterson describes Estrella, a “sweet, quiet,” 16-year-old Taco Bell employee who had been couch surfing and struggling to stay in school because her parents lived in Mexico. Estrella moved in with a group of college graduates who belonged to Peterson’s church. They encouraged her to quit her job and finish school, which they helped pay for.
One of the roommates eventually invited her to a camp called Young Life, where “the Good News of Jesus began to make sense to her and she decided to become a follower of Christ,” Peterson wrote. “A few months later, she was baptized in front of our entire congregation — the first baptism celebration of this new church.”
Safe Families’ Seeks Deeper Relationships
Interviews with 12 current and former Safe Families chapter leaders, host families and organizational partners in seven states, and a review of the group’s manuals from recent years, suggest that local chapters’ protocols vary widely.
Host parents seemed to agree that the model works best for parents who end up hospitalized, or whose children are alone in the country, either due to military enlistment or immigration. But for any family, the website describes, the program offers “an opportunity for positive personal and familial transformations.”
However, behavioral problems for a child can still sometimes upend the arrangement.
“If a child isn’t fitting in with a host family home and efforts to improve the situation are not successful, the host family has a right to ask that the child be moved to another home,” Safe Families says on its website.
Rachel Wolverton, program support specialist for the Portland-area Safe Families chapter Peterson works with, said that some children do go home earlier than planned or to another host home, due to a bad fit or other challenges.
“They try to be very discerning,” she said of her staff deciding whether to assign parents a host home. “Sometimes it’s messier than we realized, and quite often more than our volunteers realized. It is a growth and learning opportunity for all involved.”
The Portland chapter just finished the first year of a three-year pilot with the state’s Department of Human Services, which included training case workers statewide to refer at-risk parents to Safe Families, as a preventive alternative to placing kids in foster care.
“If they are right on the edge of losing their kids, if the parent is willing to let us support them, it might prevent that,” Wolverton said. But she added, “it’s 100% voluntary on all sides. We just want to provide the support they need to get back on their feet again and provide a safe home for their kids.”
Safe Families describes one of its primary goals as reuniting children with their biological families or legal guardians, most of whom are single mothers. Anderson said the first hosting is, ideally, the start of a durable relationship.
“We’re using the first one to build relationships that continue far afterwards,” Anderson said. “If there’s another way to do it, great, I haven’t come up with it.”
Safe Families’ website calls its host homes often “the most stable environment” children in the program have ever known. But the key to this work, Anderson said, is addressing the parent and child’s social isolation, through enduring relationships with host family volunteers.
“We’re trying to avoid looking like a ‘program,’ smelling like a ‘program,’ tasting like a ‘program,’ ” Anderson said. “We want people to feel like we are introducing you to another family to help you.”
Safe Families’ website is filled with written and videotaped testimonials about hostings that fostered longer-term relationships.
In one video, a mom cradling her toddler comfortably in a lounge chair stated she was homeless for her entire pregnancy. Her doctor threatened foster care for her newborn if she didn’t find an alternative. That’s when Safe Families stepped in.
Another mother describes having to enter treatment for heroin addiction. Her two children stayed with a married couple on their sprawling suburban property. A montage depicts both families’ children playing in lakes, shooting hoops and wrestling on the living room floor.
“You live in your comfort zone,” the host father said, “and to get beyond that you have to stretch yourself.”
The mother says that she’s gotten clean since then, and found a job for the first time in seven years.
“She’s a scrappy thing,” her children’s host home mom says in the video. “It’s really cool to see that strength coming out of her.”
The CPS Connection
Chicago-based attorney Diane Redleaf, a prominent voice for parents’ due process rights, advised Safe Families years ago after it first launched, but now views the organization and its hosting model more critically. She says she’s seen the model used by child welfare authorities in cases that involve lengthy family separations not initiated at the request of the parent.
One of Redleaf’s former clients – a young mother with a psychiatric condition who was once in foster care – was told at the hospital that she could not take her newborn home, she said. The local child protection agency agreed, rejecting relatives the mother proposed, and referring the mother to a Safe Families chapter.
If the mom didn’t sign a “safety plan”- the informal term for out-of-court agreements that child abuse and neglect investigators often reach with parents – she would be brought to court, where her foster care background could be used against her, Redleaf described. This terrified the mother, yet she was never advised she could call a lawyer for help. The case dragged on for months, Redleaf said, with the mother feeling pressured into agreeing to separation from her newborn without access to a neutral decision-maker.
“CPS could be investigating a family and say, ‘You don’t have to go to court, there’s an alternative path for you that’s less scary, go into this program,’” said Josh Gupta-Kagan, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, who co-signed a letter with Redleaf in opposition to the new rules proposed for New York. “You have the state creating a program without checks and balances, without parents having an attorney who can tell them if CPS really has the authority to take them to court if they say no.”
Beverly Walker – who, as a former aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was tasked with supporting Safe Families in its early days – contested those arguments, and said not all CPS contact with families is the same, and referrals are not all coercive.
Walker, later a state child welfare agency leader for Illinois and Georgia, described a woman who was living in a car with two little girls. She went to work every day, maintained appearances, but didn’t have enough money for an apartment. Case workers connected her to resources to help her find housing.
“That is not child welfare, that is helping vulnerable families,” Walker said. “That’s what Safe Families does. Due process for an adult who has children, who is not being investigated, means that they get to decide what happens to their kids.”
The faith-based, volunteer organization has a close relationship in some states with government child welfare agencies whose workers have the authority to remove children.
A study co-authored by Mark Testa, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, involving more than 500 Illinois parents who have been accused of maltreatment will be the most rigorous scientific review of Safe Families to date. As part of his research, Testa found “anecdotal evidence” that some Cook County child welfare workers were using the host program “as a way station” and “holding-pen” for kids while they completed their investigations. He had to exclude that county’s data in his final study.
Testa’s research, accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Society for Social Work, suggests the program overall succeeded in reducing foster care placements when compared to a control group. In an interview, Testa acknowledged concerns about CPS with host homes as valid, but said proper protocols could help.
He also urged caution when it came to CPS relying on host homes, saying: “You don’t want to misuse this.”
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]