TRAVERSE CITY — Imagine a medical crisis, job loss or other overwhelming life challenge.
For parents without a safety net, these difficulties can snap such a family's fragile structure. Where many people turn to grandparents or other relatives, neighbors or their church for help, an isolated family in poverty has little recourse. Problems can escalate into abuse or neglect for minor children, leading to foster care and family separation.
A new program in Traverse City, Safe Families for Children, is designed to fill the gap. Offered through Bethany Christian Services in Traverse City, the program was launched with help from recent grants by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.
"We want to develop a network of host families, people from the community who go through screening and a home visit, to temporarily take in the kids," said Craig Bultsma, local branch director of Bethany Christian Services. "In the past, the Department of Human Services has handled these cases."
Already implemented in 20 states, Canada and England, Safe Families creates a relationship between a volunteer mentor family, professionally screened and trained, and a family in crisis. Children are placed with the volunteer family on a short-term basis, with an average stay being 45 days.
"It reduces the risk factors for abuse and neglect and promotes protective factors that prevent abuse and neglect," said Tim Nolan, Michigan director of Safe Families for Children. "Foster care is important, but this is different from foster care."
The two families often develop deeper, long-term bonds. This means that the referrals for a short-term crisis can also help stabilize a family over the long term, helping them avoid the child welfare system.
"If a family needs us again, they just call the host family because that connection is already there," said Nolan.
Safe Families can also save money versus the cost of foster care. Statistics for 2011 show that Michigan taxpayers spent around $20,000 per child in foster care, or about $55 per day. The Bethany Christian Services program runs about $9 per child per day.
The connections that get created are priceless, say members of the Holtvluwer family of Traverse City. Marshall Holtvluwer, his wife, Tammy, and their children moved to the area in September; he is the lead pastor at Faith Reformed Church.
Their former church in Chicago had many families who participated in Safe Families for Children. The couple's daughters, Emma, 12, and Sydney, 11, were intrigued and felt called to help, prompting their parents to learn more and eventually sign up.
"It's really opened our hearts," said Tammy Hotlvluwer. "To walk alongside these families who are in crisis, it opens the door to help."
The family shared their home with a 2-year-old girl whose mom had lupus. The child stayed with them three times. The other placement featured two young boys whose mom, without help, would have had to drop out of college.
"It was joyful seeing the looks on their faces," said Emily Holtvluwer, 12, of caring for the children. "It was also hard letting them go."
Taking in young children still in diapers and from challenging circumstances at first seemed daunting. The family found that the actual placements, once the kids arrived, worked out much easier than they'd expected. The children fit into their lives as the family embraced loving and caring for them.
"There's a lot of laughter and giggles," said Tammy Holtvluwer, who was more comfortable with the family's decision to move to Traverse City after learning they could continue to participate in Safe Families.
As Safe Families recruits local volunteer families in Traverse City, Marshall Holtvluwer plans to share about the program with his church as well as others in the area.
"There's so many excuses you can come up with, but if these mothers don't have you, who will they have?" he said. "As a pastor, I can't ask people to open themselves up if we don't open ourselves up."
For more information on Safe Families for Children, contact Bethany Christian Services at 995-0870 or see www.bethany.org/traversecity.