SOUTHBURY — There is no good time for a family crisis. It’s never convenient for a parent to become unemployed or incarcerated, for a single parent to be hospitalized or enter substance abuse treatment, for an incidence of domestic violence to occur. In a perfect world, when times get tough, loved ones pitch in to help with the children. You call your mother, your sister, your best friend. But not everyone is fortunate to have that kind of support close at hand.
Founded in 2003, Safe Families for Children is a national nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with chapters in 40 states. Its mission is to provide caring, compassionate support to families in crisis.
Southbury resident Michelle Montague first learned about Safe Families for Children in 2009 when she heard its founder, Dave Anderson, being interviewed on the radio.
Three years ago, a chance encounter with a Safe Families volunteer in Maine led her to retire a bit early from her job as a middle school special education teacher in Region 16 and launch Connecticut’s first chapter, right here in Southbury.
After two years of gathering volunteers, assembling teams and raising funds, the local chapter officially opened in October and Michelle is ready to spread the word about what Safe Families for Children has to offer.
“We surround families going through crisis with extended family-like support,” she said. “We become the family, temporarily, for those who have no family, no friends or neighbors they can turn to.”
According to the organization’s website, the three objectives of Safe Families for Children are to keep children safe during a family crisis such as homelessness, hospitalization or domestic violence in an effort to prevent child abuse or neglect; to support and stabilize families in crisis by surrounding them with caring, compassionate community; and to reunite families and reduce the number of children entering the child welfare system by offering an alternative, when appropriate, to foster care.
“We focus on families who for whatever reason are isolated,” Michelle explained. “We help people who don’t have family nearby, who don’t have friends or neighbors they can trust.”
In the Safe Families for Children model, teams provide circles of support, with one local team concentrating on one local family at a time.
Teams include “Host Families” who are screened and approved to take in children for short periods of time; “Family Friends” who provide support such as mentoring and transportation to families in crisis; and “Resource Friends” who provide goods and services to help parents get back on their feet.
“Family Coaches” are trained to provide resources and casework-like services to families in crisis. They also ensure that children in host family homes are well cared for.
Michelle recalled how Dave Anderson’s radio message deeply resonated with her.
“He was talking about becoming a family to those who don’t have anyone to turn to,” she said. “I’ve been a single mother for a long time. My daughter was four months old when my husband left. I remembered sitting down on the floor in my living room, completely exhausted, physically and emotionally, thinking ‘I can’t do this.’
“I have a big Italian family,” she said. “My family was three hours away, but I still had somebody who was willing to help. Hearing Dave made me wonder, if someone is alone raising a four-month-old and they suddenly need help, what do they do?
“So many families today have nobody they can call,” she said. “Parents get maxed out. When parents get maxed out and there’s nobody to turn to, bad things can happen to children.”
Anyone who’s been a parent knows that children catch colds at the drop of a hat. That’s not a crisis in itself, but as Michelle pointed out, it can be the catalyst that sets one into motion.
A single mother whose child is sick often may need to take a lot of time off. Taking a lot of time off can lead to job loss. Job loss can lead to loss of housing and loss of housing can lead to homelessness.
When a two-parent family living paycheck-to-paycheck experiences a job layoff, they can just as easily find themselves without a place to live.
“If the parents have to go to a shelter, we would host the children over the short term, giving them the opportunity to work out their situation and get back on their feet,” said Michelle. “We become their family — their friends — and help them through a difficult situation.”
Host families and other volunteers with Safe Families for Children undergo what Michelle called a very strong vetting process.
“Everyone is fingerprinted,” she said. “Everyone has to pass an FBI check, a state background check and have no reports of abuse or neglect with DCF.
“You need three recommendations, a home study, you get training — it’s very similar to becoming a foster care provider,” she said.
“The difference is there’s no legal involvement. The parents retain custody.”
While some teams are faith-based, Michelle emphasized that anyone can apply to become a volunteer.
“A lot of teams come from different congregations, different denominations,” she said, “and that model seems to work well, but we’re not a religious organization. We’re a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Anyone can volunteer.”
In areas where it is active, Safe Families for Children has been shown to reduce DCF referrals, foster care placements, child abuse and child neglect.
“Nationally, we have a 93 percent success rate keeping families together and children safe,” Michelle said. “We are relational. There’s lots of help out there with diapers, formula, backpacks — and we do that, too. But we stay in relationship with the family.”
When a social worker or other professional calls Safe Families for Children with a family they believe would be a good fit, a staff member performs an intake assessment and comes up with a set of goals for the family to work on.
“The team knows what those goals are,” said Michelle. “The circle of support gently guides them so the children can go back to living with their parents.
“The team stays with them,” she said. “We provide a family coach to guide them. We continue to connect, to meet for coffee; the host family has them over for a visit. We make sure the situation is stabilized.
“We’re helping families who have nowhere else to go,” she emphasized. “We’ll be there for a month, two months, five months — however long it takes for them to get through the crisis, whether it be tough financial times, a loss of job, hospitalization or whatever — and become stable.”
While Connecticut’s one and only chapter of Safe Families for Children is based in Southbury, its volunteers come from many neighboring towns.
“We have volunteers from Ridgefield, Danbury, Bethel, Newtown, Southbury, Middlebury and Prospect,” Michelle advised. “Local volunteers help local families. You’re helping your neighbors.”
In spreading the word about Safe Families for Children, Michelle is hoping to alert professionals who might refer clients, to add teams by attracting more volunteers, and to let families in crisis know that they can call for help themselves.
Since each state raises its own funds, she is also seeking help with fundraising.
“We are volunteer-driven and professionally supported,” she said. “We do need to hire a part-time staff person to oversee the intake and the hostings of the children. They do the site visits, they do the home assessments, they oversee the children in hosting situations.”
The organization recently mounted a fundraiser at Mercato Italian Kitchen and Bar, where a percentage of sales one evening was donated to the cause.
“They donated $410 to us. They were wonderful to work with,” Michelle said, adding that other local businesses have been generous as well.
Monetary donations are welcome at safe-families.org by clicking on the “donate” button and choosing Connecticut in the drop-down menu.
“Between now and December 31, the Stand Together Foundation is matching all our donations,” said Michelle.
Those seeking additional information about Safe Families for Children may email Michelle at email@example.com or call her at 845-742-6304.