Imagine yourself in a situation where you are unable to safely care for your young children. You have no family capable of caring for them while you recover from a financial or other crisis. Maybe you are facing homelessness, an unsafe domestic situation, incarceration, or drug abuse. You love your children, you hang on, trying to keep them safe. You are afraid that the state will come and take them – that they will go into the foster care system and you will never see them again.
Then someone sees your struggle, and they tell you about Safe Families for Children.
In life, when we are battle an unexpected crisis, most of us have relatives or friends to lean on. This isn’t true for everyone and some parents here in Alaska, are carrying the burden alone. Problems like serious illnesses, domestic abuse, incarceration or drug abuse make it challenging for parents to care for their children. There are families today in our community who, for one reason or another, are unable to deal with financial obligations and are facing homelessness.
When dealing with the magnitude of these crises, children are more likely to be neglected by their parents as they struggle with their circumstances without any safety net.
“80% of child maltreatment cases in Alaska are related to neglect, not abuse. [This neglect] caused by parents who did not have the necessary resources for their children,” says Charity Carmody, Board President of Beacon Hill. “Having no one to [help them] care for their children for various reasons leads to situations in which parents are leaving children at home too young to care for themselves, or they are leaving them with someone they may not know very well- which could lead to an even worse situation. This is where we come in and can help.”
Beacon Hill began in 2009 with ten families from Anchorage City Church. As an implementer for Safe Families for Children in Alaska, the non-profit allows parents who are dealing with a crisis a “time-out” before things become so dire that their children are neglected or forced into foster care. The program finds host families to assist parents requiring help- which provides children a stable and loving environment during a time of crisis. Whether it is for a few weeks or months at a time, parents are allowed a chance to make the changes and regain self-reliance. The interim living arrangement for a child in the care of a hosting family is short-lived. Placement is voluntary, and parents retain parental rights.
Alaska is the 37th state to operate Safe Families for Children. Since 2003, Safe Families for Children has hosted over 27,000 children nationwide and has reduced foster care in some states by over 50%. There are 3,200 children in foster care in Alaska and almost a hundred children who are legally available for adoption. When there are no potential adoptive parents, Safe Families has proven to be a better alternative than foster care. Why? Simply because the primary intent of this program is to keep families together and to keep children out of foster care.
Beacon Hill operates with no funding from the federal or state government. Entirely funded by faith-based organizations, Safe Families for Children can do things the state cannot. The Alaska Legislature has recognized this, and in 2016, legislators voted unanimously for a bill that exempts private nonprofit organizations like Beacon Hill from state licensing and other requirements.
With over 100 volunteers from partnering churches, Beacon Hill’s mission is to keep a familiar environment for the children who are benefiting from the program. The task of matching children and families isn’t taken lightly. Among other factors, Safe Families does its best to place children in homes close to the school they know so that they have as little disruption as possible.
“Relationships that have been cultivated through Beacon Hill are immense,” says Carmody. “We are just now seeing some returning families [who have used the program in the past] because of these relationships. A father who recently had emergency surgery called and asked for the host family [who watched his children before] take in his kids for a few days while he recovered. He knew his children would be safe and because there was that relationship between him and the family, he knew his children wouldn’t be placed in an unsafe situation.”
Alaska has twice the national rate of children in foster care with one out of 100 children being placed in foster care. Beacon Hill is succeeding in lowering this number. In 2016, twenty-three children benefited from the program, and so far in 2017, twenty-seven children were able to stay in a safe and loving home. That’s fifty children who, without this program, could have remained in an unsafe situation to be eventually removed and placed into the foster care system.
Individuals who are in interested in hosting children, undergo an extensive state background check and fingerprinting. A home study will be conducted to approve their home, and there is intensive training involved before children placement. Hosting families decide how many children they can accommodate and the time frame in which they can host.
There are many ways one can contribute if they are unable to be a hosting family. Interested individuals can offer assistance by donating food, transportation or just simply by asking their church to partner with Beacon Hill.
Last Fall, Beacon Hill launched The Heart Gallery of Alaska, a photographic and audio exhibit that pairs eligible foster children with adoptive families. The exhibit can be seen at Jitters in Eagle River, August 4, 2017, at 6:00 p.m.
Carmody states that parents who seek help from Beacon Hill aren’t bad people or terrible parents. “They just don’t have anyone to depend on or have anyone they trust to care for their children during times of crisis. The fact that they are asking for help before things escalate doesn’t make them bad parents; it makes them brave.”
If you are interested in volunteering for Beacon Hill or Safe Families for Children, call 907-222-0925 or visit their website: beaconhillak.com
For more information on the mobile gallery exhibit, Heart Gallery of Alaska visit their website: heartgalleryak.com
Jaime Kay is a freelance writer and ECHO staff member who is new to Eagle River after living in West Anchorage for fifteen years. To reach Jaime, email: [email protected]