Taking Pressure Off the Foster-Care System

Helping families, combating social isolation, building strong communities: It's all in a day's work for Jennifer Francis, executive director of Safe Families Canada. Andrea Mrozek, program director of Cardus Family, talks with her about the charity she founded in Canada, and the needs and challenges they face.

The number of foster parents in Canada is dwindling. Morag Demers, senior analyst with the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, recently told the media, "There really is a crisis." CTV reports that for Ontario "there were 4,800 average homes available for foster care in 2014-15, down from about 6,000 in 2010-11." Teenagers are routinely housed in hotels, and today in some provinces there is thought of putting infants in group homes.

Enter Safe Families Canada. When children are not in danger of abuse, but the parent is nevertheless isolated or new in the city or country, Safe Families Canada takes pressure off the strained and stretched foster-care system by placing children in approved family homes during a crisis. They simultaneously provide friendship and companionship for the parent throughout the crisis and after it is over.

Safe Families Canada is currently operating in Toronto. Started in 2012 by Jennifer Francis, the faith-based charitable organization is staffed by about thirty-five volunteers. Mrozek talked to Francis about Safe Families on June 12, 2016.

Cardus Family: How did you get involved with Safe Families?

Jennifer Francis: I was interning with another organization called Casa Viva in Costa Rica doing something similar. They were essentially starting a foster-care system there, working with the government and recruiting Christian families as volunteers. I learned about the Safe Families program from them.

When I returned, I got in touch with the US office and was very keen to start something in Canada. So I started a pilot program in Toronto. Insurance was the biggest piece because most companies don't underwrite this sort of thing. We ended up with a company that insures foster care for Children's Aid Societies. We were finally fully launched in September 2014.

CF: What does the average family you help look like?

JF: In general, they are single mothers. Dealing with a crisis on your own can be next to impossible. And most, though not all, are low income. All the other factors are more varied—people of different religions and ethnicities, people from different parts of the world.

Sometimes we're dealing with a mom who needs very little but gets into a difficult situation—we help and she is off and back on her feet and doesn't need anything more. Other times the mother has many more circumstances working against her, and this intervention is just one of many things she needs.

The issues and circumstances vary. Sometimes there is addiction, personal issues, domestic abuse, or a health crisis. Or maybe Mom is having a baby and has no one to look after her two-year-old while she is in hospital.

CF: Any dads you've helped?

JF: A couple of dads have called but never placed a child with us.

CF: Could you talk a bit about social isolation and what families face today?

JF: Social isolation is the primary challenge we face. The common factor among our clients is that no one has anyone to lean on in times of crisis. If the mother is going into hospital and she can't find care, the hospital calls the Children's Aid Society or foster care.

One of the main reasons for social isolation is migration—a family moves here and they have no social support system yet. Another reason is family breakdown or family conflict. There is a cycle of family breakdown. If someone is born to a drug addict and spends time in foster care and the dad is not around, this is a person who has never seen anything good in family. In the past the social fabric was much stronger; neighbours would help out neighbours.

A lot of people are really alone, and they don't have people they can trust in their lives. So one volunteer role we have is "family friend." This friend commits for a year, whether it be talking once a week or helping get groceries.

We also encourage the host family to build a relationship with the parent. So once the child returns to his or her home, they can, say, invite the child for a birthday party and keep up the relationship.

CF: Time is such a huge factor—the lack thereof. How do your volunteer families find the time?

JF: Many people do not have time but want to serve in their community. Families have schedules, and they can't all go work in a soup kitchen downtown or what have you. But with Safe Families, the child joins their home. Most families find this is a way they can serve together as a family that fits with their life. It's different from doing other service.

CF: How do families in need find you? How do you find them?

JF: At this point, mostly through referrals. We have networked with social-service agencies in Toronto. We've also visited hospitals and schools, but homeless centres, refugee centres, and addiction and rehab programs have jumped on Safe Families more quickly.

More recently, we have been getting referrals from Native Child and Family Services and the Catholic Children's Aid Society. One woman who placed with us also had a file open with Native Child and Family Services, so her social worker became involved. They loved our program, so now they are using us and spreading the word.

I've met with the senior managers at Catholic Children's Aid Society, and they've officially approved of Safe Families as a referral partner. Their intake team was to be given information so that in case a client wasn't right for them, they could refer the client to us.

And every now and then we get someone who just calls.

We have had a couple of cases with clients who already had a social worker from the Toronto Children's Aid Society, and most of the time they have not let Safe Families care for the kids. The frontline social worker was fine, but a manager behind the scenes said no.

CF: Do you think that for some the faith factor is a red flag?

JF: Few would outright say that. Sadly, in one case we were working with a guidance counsellor who was referring children to us. However, the social worker associated with the elementary school wouldn't place with our program because we are a Christian organization. She was very open about that, even though we had already done all the paperwork and had a family lined up. It just depends on the individual you deal with.

We are open about who we are, that all our volunteer families are Christian families. We also always make it clear we will help anyone from any background and that religion is never forced on anyone.

CF: How do you vet or train your volunteer families?

JF: There are three elements. One is the vulnerable sector police check, the second is references, and the third is a home study. Host families fill out a ten-page application. If any red flags come up, then we look into those things. If we get a standard home study and there are no red flags, then we inspect the home.

Volunteers do their training online. The training videos are developed by our US sister organization, with child psychologists and others who are experienced to help.

CF: What are the risks for families taking children in?

JF: Our families so far have not had concerns. Up to this point, when we have taken in children we have gotten a good history. A lot of children we help have not been abused or traumatized; they just have a parent who has nobody to support them. A lot of times it's the first time a child has been away from Mom. So we have not had to deal with the risks that might come with a child who has been sexually or physically abused. If that happened we would take the history and deal with it on a case-by-case basis.

CF: What are you working on now to grow your organization so you can reach more families?

JF: We need to educate. It's important for people to understand why this is vital and how the child welfare system operates. Right now we also need to scale it in a way that would be effective. We could spend a lot of time getting more referrals for families in need but not be able to keep up with demand. If we focus on getting host families but there aren't enough placements, then our volunteers lose motivation and interest. We are building in structure and long-term funding. The programs do scale well. Momentum is building. I can feel it.

Topics: Family, Relationship