Preventing child neglect through social networks

Foster care in Alaska is the state’s last resort for helping kids who have been abused or neglected—and the number of kids in the system is at a record high. Nearly 3,000 kids are in out of home care. One foster care worker says part of the solution is in prevention – helping families before maltreatment ever starts. A new program in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley is doing just that.

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Last fall, Ana Maria Balcazar learned she needed to have a mass removed from her ovary. After the surgery she wouldn’t be able to lift anything for six weeks. Including her two-year-old daughter.

“I talk to the doctor and say, ‘Can we wait maybe six more months or one more year?’ And she say, ‘No. Absolutely not. We have to do it now because it’s very dangerous.'”

But Balcazar didn’t have anyone to take care of her two young daughters. Her family is in Peru, and her friends couldn’t help.

“The few friends I have are in my same situation. They are single mothers with two, three kids and they don’t have nobody to help them. Working, go back to take care of the kids then pick up the kids, running, go to sleep.”

Balcazar was desperate – she asked people at her daughter’s school, fellow church members she hardly knew. She even considered calling the Office of Children’s Services. Then her pastor told her there was a new program in town that might be able to help – Safe Families for Children.

“The way that it works is very much centered on old school hospitality and people taking care of their neighbors,” explains Charity Carmody, who coordinates the Anchorage branch of the international organization.

Here’s how it works: families volunteer to take in children for a short period of time while the parents work through a crisis, like homelessness or hospitalizations. The program started in Chicago in 2003 and has since spread around the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Kenya. According to the national program’s website, so far more than 20,000 children have been in the program in the United States. Ninety percent of them have returned to their parents.

Carmody says the faith-based program helps families before a crisis leads to child abuse or neglect.

“Most child maltreatment happens as a result of social isolation. Parents simply don’t have anybody to call in a time of crisis. So we’re trying to create an outlet that they know is safe. We’re just trying to give them the ability to make the call themselves before something happens and maybe they put their child in a harmful situation.”

Ben Hemmila and his wife heard about the program through their church and decided to apply to be a host family. It took months to get background checks, home visits, and final approval. Hemmila says the program seemed logical.

“If we had friends across the street or neighbors or somebody from church who needed help, we would watch their kids for them. So why wouldn’t we just help somebody in our community?” he asks. “Because they are part of our community and they are in need so obviously we would want to help out.”

The couple took in Ana Balcazar’s two children for part of the six weeks. They don’t have kids of their own yet, and they say it was just as valuable a learning experience for them as it was a way to give back.

Hemmila says he thought he was so on top of things one morning – he had the toddler in the car and was off to work on time. Then he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a squishy dirty diaper instead of his thermos of coffee.

“Pride comes before the fall, right?” he says, smiling. “It’s just that respect for what parents go through each and every day. And you don’t think of that until you have kids of your own or you’re able to be around that.”

The Hemmilas say taking in the girls wasn’t a burden. A network of people from Safe Families and their church donated diapers, toys, and dinners and helped pick up the kids from school.

And all of the host families made sure the girls talked to their mom every day. Balcazar says she needed that.

“They know my heart was broken because I don’t have them. And they tried to heal at the same time my heart. Like you know, make me call them and see them by FaceTime.”

After six long weeks apart, Balcazar is reveling in having her kids back. She shows off her older daughter’s school binder full of completed homework and translates one of her younger daughter’s favorite books from Spanish to English.

“And she love it because I have to say, ‘”Frooogy!” say mama. “Whaat?” say Froggy. “Come and brush your teeth!”’” She shouts and laughs as she reads, just as she would for the girls.

Balcazar says her kids came home spouting instructions from their host families on behavior and parenting techniques – and she loved it. She was instructed on proper teeth brushing and the necessity of reading books together for 30 minutes at bedtime. Before, she told them stories from her imagination but now they read together.

The program was a lifeline and a lesson for Balcazar and she says she’s ready to give back as soon as she can.

Safe Families for Children currently offers help for families in Anchorage and in the Mat-Su Valley, though they hope to expand the program statewide.

Fostering our Future is a five-part series. Listen to the rest here:
Part One – Number of foster kids at record high, case workers overloaded
Part Two – Changing what it means to be a foster parent
Part Three – Reuniting families with community support
Part Five – Protecting a village

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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