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Charity and churches help with the heavy lifting

17 March 2023

The charity Safe Families is working with churches to support those who are struggling. Julie McKee finds out what is being done


MANY churches want to meet the needs of people in their community in a meaningful and practical way, but don’t always know how to reach them. Safe Families is an organisation that collaborates with churches to plug this gap.

Originally set up in the United States in 2003, its UK arm opened in 2012, and works mainly with local authorities, who refer families and children to them in need of support. Safe Families then contacts churches in a relevant location to establish a partnership and to train and support members who can help meet the needs of a particular case.

It currently supports more than 5000 volunteers from more than 1500 churches and community groups across the UK. As a result, the charity says, it has seen a decrease of the flow of children into care of between nine and 16 per cent.

The director of Church Partnerships, Martin Dickson, says that, in its early days, the charity’s focus was working with children who were “close to entering the care system, and it was almost something of a last throw of the dice. . .

“The idea was, if we could support those families with something, those children might be diverted from care. And we saw that happening regularly. Local authorities then started to work with us in terms of early help: how can we help families before the crisis is really turning into chaos?”

The charity’s vision has evolved since then, so that its main purpose now is not simply about reducing the flow of children into care but “to empower churches to support families primarily”, Mr Dickson says. “Ninety-five per cent of the volunteers we work with are Christians from churches.”

This is based on the organisation’s experience of working with families over the years. “There were vast numbers of different kind of situations. But there was one thing that was always prevalent, and accentuated all the other problems,” he says.

“So, let’s say, poverty, for example, mental-health issues, drug or alcohol abuse. . . When that was also happening in a case where somebody was lonely and isolated, suddenly that became a much bigger problem, because there was no support mechanism around them.”

While churches and volunteers are able, perhaps, to help with some finances, or to provide some hosting of children, what the charity has discovered is that “it was the breaking of this cycle of isolation that was having the impact,” Mr Dickson says.

Many churches, he says, are already ideally placed to help families by offering friendship, hospitality, and belonging, so that “people feel seen, heard, and understood.”


IN TERMS of how Safe Families forms partnerships with churches, Mr Dickson explains that, after a formal contractual relationship has been set up with a local authority, the charity contacts churches “to understand what it is [they] want to do in their own communities. Wherever there is a correlation between what churches already want to do and what we’re endeavouring to do, there’s an opportunity to move forward. We’ll offer a mechanism to respond, which is, effectively, volunteering.”

The three main ways of volunteering include being a family friend, which involves befriending and coming alongside parents and children; a host family, which provides accommodation for children for a night or two for short periods; or a resource friend who can provide useful items or skills such as cooking or gardening. Others can become a prayer partner by signing up to the prayer request email. Through volunteers’ doing this, “we’ve seen some incredible breakthroughs,” Mr Dickson says.

Volunteers working with families initially go through a seven-step “safer recruiting” programme, which includes written referrals, DBS checks, and home assessment. Others, who want to provide only goods and services (for instance, a professional trade that they can offer) do not need to go through the process, but are accompanied when visiting a home. The charity provides training and also support throughout any engagement.


THE Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Roby, in Liverpool, the Revd Kate Wharton, has volunteered for Safe Families for several years, mostly hosting and befriending.

The Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Roby, in Liverpool, the Revd Kate Wharton, a Safe Families volunteer

“I might have a one- or two-year-old to stay overnight once a month, and that might run for so many months” until the family is in a better position, she explains. “It’s never like a super-long-term commitment. It’s generally until things are better.

“Once, I took a five- and six-year-old to school a couple of days a week, just because mum was a bit overwhelmed. She had little ones and teenagers, and trying to get everybody in the place they were meant to be, at the time they were meant to be there, was just quite hard. So, I would literally just turn up at the house and walk the little ones to school.”

Owing to the nature of her job, Ms Wharton has found that ad hoc volunteering suits her, although, she points out, the range of volunteering opportunities is varied: “There’s room for every possible type of person in the volunteering role. . .

“You need all that other behind-the-scenes stuff: the people doing the house clearing, and even people who may just have some spare cash, and are generous. . . Sometimes [Safe Families] might just say: ‘This person really needs a new pushchair,’ and someone might well have one in the attic.”

Anneliese and Nathan Myers, from Darlington, County Durham, found out about Safe Families through an information morning at church about eight years ago, and have been volunteering ever since. They have four children, and find that their family set-up of home schooling has enabled them to be flexible.

“We initially did more hosting, usually emergency hosting, where maybe mum has to go into hospital to have another baby and doesn’t have a support network to look after all the children; so, sometimes, it’s very short notice,” Mrs Myers says.

Anneliese and Nathan Myers have been Safe Families volunteers for eight years

“We’ve also had a couple of teenagers stay who had some problems with their home situation. . . They just needed somewhere safe to be, before onward accommodation could be arranged through social services.”

Last summer, they helped with some befriending, “getting alongside some kids, maybe take them out once a fortnight, pick them up from school for a couple of hours, give them tea before taking them home. Then, over the holidays, we took a couple of them to the beach and things like that, where you get to know the children a bit more.”

In terms of the way in which this fits in with their own family dynamics, Mrs Myers says: “It can be difficult to meet everybody’s needs. We talk about it as a chance for [our children] to share God’s love with people around them as well. So, there’s definitely a faith element for us — that, actually, this is what Jesus calls us to do; to love people. And this is a really practical way we can do that, even if it’s just for two days, or it’s just once a fortnight for a couple of hours.”

In Ms Wharton’s experience, identifying the needs of parishioners and connecting those with the church community is one of the ways in which Safe Families works really well with congregations. “In my parish, there are 15,000 people. You can only have connections with them for a particular reason. So, we meet them because they ask for a baptism, or they have a funeral, or we put on an event.

“What Safe Families does is connects with [people who need help] from a different angle, and then plugs them into people from the church. . .

“As a church leader, this is like doing the hard work for us, because it’s showing us where the families are in our community that need support, and are open to having the support.”

Mr Dickson explains that Safe Families is most active in areas where it has local- authority contracts. He adds, however: “Any church, anywhere in the country, we’ll have a conversation with about how they can support families better.”

The charity is also writing a small-groups resource for churches which explores the theme of belonging. It is hoped that the pilot will be ready in about six months’ time.

And, although contractually the charity’s main work is with children and families, Mr Dickson says that it is increasingly working beyond that. “We’re encouraging churches wherever they are, and whatever the demographics of the folks they’re endeavouring to work with. . . We’re challenging them about loneliness and isolation, and what they can do to respond to that.”



‘And we’ve stayed friends’

KAYLEIGH HARRISON came into contact with Safe Families through a hospital referral, after her youngest daughter was born prematurely. At the time, her partner, with whom she had four children, was working, and she was finding it hard to manage, living in a different city from her family and friends.

“One of my two girls has cerebral palsy, and the other one at the time was a premature baby; so I was in and out of hospital with both of them. And the two [older] boys, I felt, weren’t getting so much attention from myself.”

Two volunteers came to meet the family, to see how they could help, Ms Harrison says. “It started off with the boys going out on a rock-climbing adventure with one of the volunteers. [It became] a once-a-month thing, then once a week, where they would do different things like cooking, bike-riding, loads of different activities.”

This was in 2015, but her involvement with Safe Families has been so positive that the family is still involved, eight years later, albeit on more of a friendship level.

One of the things that Ms Harrison has valued most is the emotional support. “They’ve helped my mental health quite a lot, in aspects of me feeling like a failure as a mother, when I’ve not been able to split myself four ways with the children.”

And, when her partner died recently, and unexpectedly, Safe Families put Ms Harrison in touch with a church where she lives, to help with the funeral, which she and her children have found very supportive, and since become part of.

“They’ve got youth clubs that the boys can attend that I didn’t know existed, which Safe Families put me forward for.” 

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