In 2009, after having two children the old-fashioned way, Toby and Murphy Meisenheimer, of Naperville, Illinois, were considering adoption when someone at their church mentioned Safe Families for Children, an organization that supports families in crisis by providing temporary shelter to children.
“Initially when we got that call from Safe Families, I was extremely hesitant, because to me, it just kind of sounded like being trapped in church nursery,” said Murphy. She thought the temporary nature of the placements would mean she would have “no ownership in a child’s life.” A Safe Families representative listened to her concerns and advised her to follow the organization’s tweets to see how the Lord would lead.
The Meisenheimers received their first placement in 2010 and have hosted 15 children since then. “There’s an element to it that’s kind of addictive in that so often you see the needs of the poor on the TV screen or in your community and you kind of feel powerless, but you know you have some ability to help. …Safe Families gives our family an outlet to do that, which is to very quickly respond to an urgent need and bring some of the most helpless individuals in our society into our home and partner with that person’s parents to slightly alter their trajectory,” Murphy said.
Safe Families for Children is a national alliance comprised of three partners, said Dr. Robin Chamberlain, who holds multiple positions in the organization, including director of operations. Those partners are Bethany Christian Services, Lydia Home Association, which started the Safe Families movement, and Olive Crest, a Christian child welfare agency on the West Coast. The vision of the alliance is to “call the church as a whole back to biblical hospitality,” Chamberlain said, and “to make it as easy as possible for people to volunteer.” Biblical hospitality, in her view is “not cake and cookies after church, but actually opening up our homes and our hearts.”
Host families become like “extended spiritual families,” providing relief to those who may be isolated, which is important because “a high predictor of the incidence of child abuse and neglect is social isolation,” Chamberlain said. Although communities have always had informal networks for supporting families in crisis, she said Safe Families “provides a structure, and a network, and support” for them.
The organization’s website says it operates with three objectives in mind: to provide a safe alternative to child welfare custody, child abuse prevention, and family support and stabilization. There is a screening and approval process for host homes that includes finger printing and background checks, but it is not lengthy or invasive, Chamberlain said.
The Meisenheimers have provided respite to families in a variety of crisis, including incarceration, homelessness, joblessness, and drug addiction. All of these placements were made voluntarily, Toby said, but for at least one, a county child welfare agency had urged the mother to make the placement rather than lose custody of her offspring.
Toby sees his role primarily as facilitating his wife’s ministry. “I honestly believe she was crafted to work with kids, train them up, nurture them. …Once I could see that our own biological and adopted kids are joining us in this ministry together, it became a family cause,” he said.
The Meisenheimers have two biological children and two adopted children. They say their kids “love” hosting other children, but they do grieve when those children leave. Murphy thinks this experience teaches important lessons. “In life, we love and we lose,” she said. “It’s okay for them to risk a little bit of their security for someone else’s gain.”
It’s not only the children who pay a price though. Toby and Murphy expected to be inconvenienced and were prepared to deal with “unique behaviors” that they didn’t necessarily see in their “home-grown kids” and with “the messiness of interacting with moms and dads who are really in an extremely challenging spot,” Murphy said. What they weren’t prepared for was the emotional and relational expense of their ministry.
Toby likened the impact on their friendships to when someone gets married and suddenly their single friends aren’t quite as good friends, or when a couple has a child and it creates a rift with married friends who aren’t yet parents. “You do pay a price in awkwardness … or lack of empathy, because it is a different experience than what the typical family in America is striving for,” he said.
But they’ve also had loved ones, like Toby’s parents, who live nearby, “lean into” the ministry. “They step up and they realize that Safe Families isn’t for them, but they play a incredible supporting role in bringing groceries by and taking the older two kids for an afternoon on the town…. This isn’t really a lone ranger sort of role,” he said.
The Meisenheimers have also grappled with the fear of litigation and other potential consequences of entering into the messiness of strangers’ lives, but they choose to live by faith rather than by fear, Murphy said. “By and large, all 15-plus families that we have dealt with have shown nothing but gratitude towards us,” she said. “They’re choice other than this most likely is their child gets placed into state custody. Most of them are very well aware of what that means and they would do anything rather than allow that to happen.”
“I do trust Safe Families to have done their due diligence within the contract and in the ongoing case work. They have some duty to defend their families and not leave us high and dry if suddenly there was a litigious birth parent or something,” said Toby.
Because Safe Families works closely with churches, the organization recommends including it with other ministries covered by church insurance policies, Chamberlain said. Additionally, she said volunteers are covered by the organizations’ affiliated Christian child welfare agencies’ insurance policies and by the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997.
The Meisenheimers have had two placements end early because the children needed more intervention than they felt equipped to handle. “That’s where your case coach is invaluable,” said Toby. “As they’re coming to you and you’re building your relationship with them, you’re not an island in this trying to figure out how to relate to somebody who grew up in the inner city and has almost from a different world. You’re seeing them regularly, you’re asking them for advice, they’re praying for you and they’re your counselors throughout the process.”
The family also takes time to recover between placements. How long that is depends on the “complexity of the case,” Murphy said, and on their own needs. After one of their children was adopted, they took a six-month break. “That might have been longest time without a placement. …We tend to get them back in pretty quickly,” she said. “One of the best parts of Safe Families in terms of a volunteer perspective is that it is flexible. So you can choose what ages you take and how long you will take them.”
“We’re glad we have taken the risk. Our lives have been enriched. We watch our kids grow through the experience to do ministry together with them. It’s worth trying and trying more than once,” said Toby. “If you’ve known somebody who tried something like this and had a bad experience, or you do on your first try, you’ve got to give it a go again, because that’s just the enemy getting in the way of pure and undefiled religion. …This is not a results driven ministry. We are just hopefully improving some brain synapses and showing love early and trusting that a two-degree bend in their direction will yield fruit down the road.”
Safe Families for Children was established by the Lydia Home Association in 2002 after its founder, David Anderson, had an encounter with a mother in crisis, Chamberlain said. The association did not offer temporary placement services for children at the time, so he and his wife (who were licensed foster parents) took her children in to give her a break. “That was kind of birthing the vision,” Chamberlain said. Since then, the alliance has placed more than 5200 children in host homes nationwide.
“The hospitality of the Bible is dangerous, demanding, and must be deliberate,” Anderson wrote in a 2010 article. He acknowledged that there are risks involved in welcoming strangers into our homes, but said, “The blessings run deep when we practice Biblical hospitality and demonstrate to the world that the Christian family, in obedience to Christ, can be a powerful source of change.” More than 5000 children know exactly what he means.