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An alternative to DCFS: program founder has provided homes--even his own--to children in need.

It was less than a year ago when David Anderson got the call from a 2-year-old's mother. Mentally ill, homeless and about to check herself into drug rehab, she had no place to put her son while she recovered. Not wanting him to become a ward of the state, she contacted LYDIA Home Association, an agency on the city's North Side that provides temporary housing for families going through trauma.

Anderson, the organization's executive director, agreed to meet the mother at the center. He told her about the "Safe Family" program, which he created in 2003. The program provides free short-term care for families, allowing them to avoid turning their children over to the state. But there was a problem. Of the 176 volunteers, none were available to take the boy.

The Andersons already had a full house: children ages 11 and 13, a nephew and his ill mother-in-law. Since he created the program, Anderson knew the demands of the volunteer families--providing food, clothes, toys, money and all other necessities without any public aid or services.

"My son, who overheard me talking on the phone, heard me say that [the boy] would have to go into foster care," Anderson said. His 13-year-old son reminded Anderson why he had created the program. The son told Anderson that the Lord brought the boy to them for a reason, and it was their responsibility to help him and his mother.

The Andersons decided to become the boy's Safe Family. "It was my kid's passion and influence that encouraged us," Anderson said. After two months of caring for the boy, the biological mother died of a drug overdose. The Andersons have since obtained guardianship of the boy and are in the process of permanently adopting him.

"Since there wasn't really a relative to take him, it was our responsibility. So although he has had a difficult two years, we have been able to provide some stability for him," Anderson said.

The long-term objective of the program is not for families to become long-term foster parents or to adopt the children, Anderson said. His personal experience is a rare case. Children typically are referred to the program through other agencies and schools. Once they arrive, coaches are assigned to assist the child and make periodic home visits. The average stay for a child is 50 days, but some have remained for up to six months.

Through the years, LYDIA has tried to stregthen families by providing child care for those who can't. The program was created to provide an alternative to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, by giving parents control of their children while they're absent and not allowing them to become wards of the state--a fear of many parents who are incarcerated.

Anderson sat down with The Chicago Reporter to talk about the initiative and how it has become a solution to children's needs.

How did you get involved with LYDIA?

I am a child psychologist, and I was working at a larger medical center called Lutheran General. I ran their adolescent psychiatry unit. I felt a calling to work with the underserved population. So I came here about 12 years ago and became the director.

About four and a half years ago, I developed the "Safe Family" program because we were being called all the time from a number of parents who were in difficult situations. And one of the common factors in all of them is that they had very few supports in their life. They would run into some difficult situations [including] drugs or homelessness or going to prison or something like that. They would have no family or corporate family to help them out.

At the time, the only thing that was available for these families was DCFS. So many of them had the idea that it wasn't a good thing to have your child go to the state, and they were looking for alternatives. We created Safe Families as an alternative to DCFS--where parents basically make all the decisions, rather than having courts or workers make all the decisions. [Parents] make decisions on where they want to place their children; they can change their mind at any time and take their children out at any time. They're totally in control of what happens to their children.

Tell me about a particular child and family who really benefited from the services of the program,

One mom called DCFS to take her two children. She was completely overwhelmed and struggled herself and really didn't want to hurt her children so she called DCFS. DCFS called us. The Safe Family took her children and really developed a great relationship with her and mentored her.

They developed this great relationship to the point where the mom, through therapy, was able to get her kids back. But they maintained the relationship and the Safe Family would have her and her kids over for Easter and Christmas and really became an extended family to her. And she's doing a great job parenting her two little kids now and still maintains weekly contact with her Safe Family.

Has there ever been any conflict between the biological parent and the Safe Family?

Maybe one or two, but that's nothing. The biological parents know that it changes something. Most families [take in these children] because of their faith, and it really kind of takes away a lot of that antagonism that might occur--like in foster care--because the biological parents know that these people aren't getting money for this. They're not getting paid; they're not doing this for any other reason. I'm a stranger to them, but yet they're willing to love my kid and help me out.

Are there any special services that cater to the needs of children with incarcerated parents?

If children who come in have particular issues, whether it's the parent's incarceration or whatever, they would have the opportunity to get counseling from us with a counseling center. Most of our clients' kids do not require that, but if they did, we would have that available to them.

Do many people know about LYDIA? What are you doing to make the connection with providers?

We're hoping that an article on "Safe Families" would help get the word out. Because we do as much going out and letting people know about it. And when people know that there is a volunteer network of families, they're in line. One hundred seventy-six is a lot of families. None of them get paid, and it's really unheard of.

How do families become a part of the program?

The families that volunteer to take in children to come live with them are families that certainly meet a number of criteria. They pass finger-printing and background checks, and we do everything we would to a family that would be approved for foster care. So we go in and do a home study and all those things that you would to approve a family for foster care. But we don't require them to actually get the license. Most of the families who do this, all of them do so voluntarily. So they certainly cannot look to taking in children as a means to get income. They would have to have their own income and be able to support the children in their care.

Does religion play a part in selecting these families? Are they required to be active in a church?

It just so happens that most people are [involved] because of their faith, because they practice those constant things--compassion, self sacrificing. Most of our families have some faith connections. But we most certainly don't mandate them. ... That's so contrary to what we're trying to do here.

Is your program considered to be a role model?

I don't know about that. That's kind of boastful. It's hard to get people to do things for free. We have 176 families that do this because they want to be helpful to people, because they want to serve people. And these are very unique and gifted people that want to serve in that way. So for us it's really a privilege to work with these families that are very giving, very sacrificial. We have one couple that took newborn twins into their home for six months. I don't know if you can imagine all of a sudden having newborn twins. They're crying every other hour. They [took them] without complaint just to help a teen mom get back on her feet, and they took her twins in right out of the hospital. People like that are like saints in some ways, that they're willing to be so self-sacrificial. Many of them have their own children and the Safe Family children fit into their family, and they really enjoy doing it.
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Title Annotation:Q&A: David Anderson
Author:Hester, Danielle
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Words:1468
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