A CHRISTIAN charity that provides respite care and support for families in crisis could prevent thousands of children from having to be placed in foster care or residential homes, a report has found.
The work of the new charity Safe Families for Children has been evaluated by the Dartington Social Research Unit, whose report said that the charity had “the potential to support several thousand of England’s neediest children; to greatly reduce the numbers of children in care; and to demonstrably forge a new relationship between public systems and civil society”.
Currently in the UK, more than 70,000 children are categorised as “looked after”, either in foster care or residential care.
Safe Families for Children has been running in the United States for a decade, but was founded in the UK only four years ago by the businessman and philanthropist Sir Peter Vardy.
In the past financial year, the charity helped 747 families; but it is projected to help 1765 families this year — a rise of 130 per cent, the charity’s chief executive, Keith Danby, said. It is working with local authorities in 21 areas, and has 2800 volunteers, most of whom are Christians.
Volunteers offer a few nights’ respite-care when parents are ill or cannot manage, and a family befriending service; the charity also provides resources for families in crisis.
Mr Danby said: “Our host families can step up very quickly, and can respond to those emergencies that happen at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, by looking after children who would have otherwise be taken into care, and siblings perhaps separated.
“We had a case where a mum was taken into hospital on a Friday afternoon. The police brought the children into the station, and brought in social services, who called us at 4.15 p.m. By 6 p.m., we had found a volunteer, obtained parental consent to allow the children to be hosted, and, when mum came out on Monday, the children were able to go back to her.
“We are providing local help: a community-based solution to a community problem. It is built on the model of people helping people, and doesn’t have the stigma for families of the local authority stepping in and taking the children away. Parents are wary of their children being taken off them by social services.
“But the majority of what we do is providing a ‘family friend’, and we offer wraparound family support, including resource support.
“One of our volunteers was helping a single mum with four children, and saw she was having to wash all the clothes by hand. We don’t ask our volunteers to offer money, but we put out an alert to supporters, and, within 25 minutes, we had raised £625 to buy the mum a washing machine. The majority of the donations that came in were of just £5.”
The evaluation report, which was funded by the Department for Education, recommended that the charity expand its base to cover other areas of the country, and run pilots to include working with older adolescents, and another to recruit volunteers from outside the Church.
LEANNE, a single mother of two boys from Lincoln, is bipolar, and one of her sons has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was struggling at home, and was offered a befriender by Safe Families. She says that the volunteer is very different from the paid professionals in her life.
“With professionals, there’s always a line that you can’t cross, but with volunteers — they may have a profession, but they are volunteering; so you can also be friends.”
She has also begun to attend church.
She said: “I was so close to putting my kids into care because I didn’t think I could parent them. I look at how far I’ve come, and I can do it, and I am doing it. And my kids are happy and they’re healthy and they’re loved.”
The charity is also helping Deborah, who feared that her children would be taken into care as result of her chronic fibromyalgia.
Deborah said: “Before Safe Families were involved, I used to refuse to go into hospital, even though my health was deteriorating, because my children are my priority.
“I was too worried in case social services took my children from me, because I’m a single parent and I have no family ties.”
Safe Families stepped in, through a social-services referral, when Deborah’s condition became so bad that she was rushed into hospital as an emergency.
With support from Safe Families, Deborah now feels able to go into hospital. “Knowing that Safe Families will be there, and I don’t have to worry that my kids will be taken from me, has taken a weight off my shoulders. I don’t feel so isolated anymore, and I simply can’t thank them enough,” she said.
Gifty, a Nottingham mother of two, was left unable to cope by the unexpected death of her husband. Safe Families for Children stepped in to provide mentoring support and resources, to prevent Gifty’s eight-year-old son, Gabe, from following his older sister, Sally, into foster care.
Gifty said: “When my husband died, I just couldn’t cope. We were all grieving, and we had no money. My little girl, Sally,needed space; so she’s staying with a foster family at the moment. If it wasn’t for Safe Families, my son, Gabe, would have gone into care, too. It was a vital lifeline for me. Safe Families came in and gave me all the support I needed to look after Gabe.”