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No time to be distant

When single moms faced a pandemic crisis that might send their children to state care, Christian families stepped up to help—but two states have blocked the nonprofits that enable such work

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Genesis

No time to be distant
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Imagine you’re a parent who suddenly needs hospitalization for COVID-19, but you have no one to care for your child.

Last month a hospital in Maine admitted a mother, fairly new to the United States, who became seriously ill with COVID-19. She had nowhere to send her two teenage children, who also had contracted the virus and were alone at their apartment. (WORLD agreed to withhold their personal details for privacy reasons.) The hospital had called the local Child Protective Services (CPS) about the children, which is what hospitals must do in such cases.

Forty-five minutes away live Dan and Lisa Wells. He is lead pastor at North Harbor Community Church, and she is the family ministries pastor. They also volunteer with Safe Families for Children, a church-based group that keeps children from entering the foster care system.

That help either comes as day-to-day support—buying groceries or running errands—or by hosts taking in children temporarily, usually for a few days. “This is an opportunity for the church to be that extra circle of support, that aunt or uncle that the family might not have,” said Lisa Wells. The results of such work can be dramatic. One city in the United Kingdom, Nottingham, saw a 12 percent drop in children entering state care in the course of a year of working with Safe Families.

When the hospital in Maine called CPS about the sick mom and her two kids, CPS contacted Safe Families. Safe Families called Lisa Wells, whose family had hosted five times before.

At first Lisa thought it might be a bad idea to take in the teens with COVID-19. Aside from the concerns about exposing her family to the virus, her family’s church was in the middle of a personnel crisis that was taking a big emotional toll.

“Something—I’m going to say it was the Holy Spirit—caused me to hold my tongue before I said why it wasn’t a good idea, and check in with my family,” she said. Her kids were enthusiastic, especially for other kids to come over after so many weeks of social distancing. Dan said he had “hit the wall that day” with the emotional drain of their work crisis, but when he heard his kids’ enthusiasm, he agreed to the idea as well.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States needed more foster parents. The pandemic, plus a possible post-pandemic surge in abuse or neglect cases, makes nonprofits that help prevent children from entering the foster system even more essential. In this outbreak, when hospitalized parents faced putting their children in state care, Christian volunteers have opened their homes to families. But some states’ regulations make such help almost impossible to give.

Lisa Wells said her family was ready to take a risk but didn’t want to be “foolhardy.” They strategized together with Safe Families and a local official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The family’s 12-year-old daughter Claire agreed to give up her room on the top floor so the teens could isolate there, where they would have their own bathroom. Claire would bunk downstairs with her younger sister Josie.

CPS and the teens’ mom finalized arrangements late that night, and they had to figure out how to get the sick children to the Wellses’ house. A police officer was with the children at their apartment, but he told Safe Families he couldn’t transport the children because of jurisdictional issues. CPS told Safe Families the agency couldn’t transport the children because they were in the police officer’s custody. So Lisa Wells put a mask on and drove 45 minutes to pick them up.

Once the teens were ensconced in their new space, they were still fighting fevers from COVID-19. The Wellses made sure they had Tylenol, at their mom’s request, and a thermometer. After a day, their fevers were gone along with the worst of their symptoms. The Wellses would leave their meals outside their door. Whenever the teens came out of their room, they wore masks. The Wells family had agreed with the teens to message over Facebook and made sure they had Wi-Fi for school.

Dan and Lisa with their daughters (from left) Sophia, Josie, and Claire

Dan and Lisa with their daughters (from left) Sophia, Josie, and Claire Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Genesis

In the meantime, the Safe Families support team delivered groceries to the family, and friends brought them pizza, masks, and vitamin C supplements. Lisa and Dan had both felt physically run-down and kept thinking they were getting sick, but they never did.

“It is not one isolated family helping another isolated family,” said Lisa. “It is the entire church wrapping around families in need and creating a sense of community and support for both the hosted and the hosters.”

Ten days into their stay, when the teens could come out of isolation, they all had a big celebratory breakfast together with pancakes, eggs, bacon, and fruit salad. Then the kids all went outside and played soccer and basketball together, and that night they had a big bonfire. Lisa said the teens were “outstanding people and fun to be with.” While around the fire, Lisa texted a picture to the teens’ mom, still hospitalized, who sent her first text back to Lisa, asking for prayer for her health. Sitting there around the fire, Lisa asked if they could all pray for the mom right then.

“I made it clear, ‘It’s OK if you don’t want to,’” she said. “They all did. Every single one of them offered a word to lift her up in prayer.”

The teens’ mom was in serious condition when she went into the hospital, but she turned a corner and after three weeks went home. When CPS confirmed that she seemed well enough to take the children, Lisa and her daughters drove the teens to their mom’s apartment. The Wellses brought her Gerbera daisies. The mom and teens each wrote a thank-you card. They talked about spending time together later in the summer. The Wellses are now what Safe Families calls a “family friend,” so if the family needs groceries or other support, they can reach out to Safe Families and the Wellses can help.

NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY—both centers of the national coronaviurs outbreak—do not allow Safe Families to help when kids need emergency hosting.

“There’s no category for us in New York state law,” said Laura Galt, who heads Safe Families in New York City, where currently volunteers can serve as “family friends” but can’t do overnight hosting. New York only allows hosting via licensed foster care agencies, with everything going through the same process as a foster case. That defeats the purpose of Safe Families as an in-between prevention model.

Since the pandemic lockdown in mid-March, Safe Families of New York City has had 11 requests for hosting, even though the organization has no referral mechanism and its website says that it does not offer hosting in the state. Most of the requests came from mothers about to give birth who needed someone to watch their children. I asked Galt whether she had found out what happened to the New York moms who had asked for help: “I don’t want to know,” she said.

Usually Safe Families NYC refers moms in those situations to a crisis nursery, but the nursery wasn’t taking new children because of the pandemic. One mom already connected to Safe Families needed an elective surgery, but she has five children and was delaying the surgery until someone could host her children.

There’s good news: The New York Foundling is one of the city’s largest foster care providers. CEO Bill Baccaglini said the group still has available foster homes even in the pandemic, and none of the organization’s foster parents requested children’s removal because of COVID-19. He also noted that New York’s admissions for foster care have been trending down, which he attributes to a focus on preventive services, like New York Foundling and Safe Families.

“We haven’t seen this few kids in foster care in New York City since the early ’70s,” said Baccaglini. But he added: “We’re very nervous about, at the other end of this, what happens to abuse and neglect reports. … What does the system look like a few months after the pandemic?”

Dan and Lisa Wells outside their home in Richmond, Maine.

Dan and Lisa Wells outside their home in Richmond, Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Genesis

New York’s Office of Children and Family Services is considering a regulatory change to allow Safe Families to host, but Safe Families said the current draft is too vague. Safe Families has submitted its comments on the proposed changes and hopes another draft could iron out some problems. Safe Families also would prefer a legislative change, since regulations could change at any time.

In New Jersey, Safe Families has been trying to get hosting status for about 10 years. Regulations prevent Safe Families from accessing background checks unless it is a licensed adoptive or foster agency. “We’ve found New Jersey to be one of the more difficult regulatory states just in general,” said Robin Chamberlain, the head of Maine Safe Families who also works for the group on a national level.

Meanwhile, Safe Families chapters across the country have fielded a range of needs. A volunteer family helped a mom fleeing domestic violence who needed a temporary home for her child. Another host family in Wisconsin took in a woman who was released from prison with her baby due to coronavirus concerns. A single mom volunteering with Safe Families in Chicago took in the 2-year-old daughter of a homeless woman hospitalized with COVID-19.

In New Hampshire, one mom who was working at a low-paying nursing home job lost her housing. She asked the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth, and Family to take her 4-year-old into the foster system so the child wouldn’t be sleeping in the car. The state social worker contacted Cindy Thomas, who heads up the state Safe Families.

“We haven’t seen this few kids in foster care in New York City since the early ’70s. … What does the system look like a few months after the pandemic?”

Thomas called up one of the group’s hosts, the Melick family, and the mother, Adrienne Melick, said it was a “no-brainer”: They would take in both the mom and the child. She and her husband have four teenage daughters, who got to work right away cleaning out the closet of one of their bedrooms, stripping the sheets, and putting a Spider-Man bedspread out for the little boy.

“The coordinator asked, what time works for you … and [my daughters] were like, ‘Why not tonight?’” Melick said. “We were honestly really excited to do this. It didn’t feel like a hosting, it felt like expanding our family.”

The mom working in a nursing home did increase the potential viral “exposure” to the family, Melick acknowledged, but she and her husband were already continuing their work outside the home so they weren’t anxious about it.

“We put our faith in God that this is what we should be doing,” she said.

They were all immediately comfortable together, Melick said, partly due to the “innocence of a 4-year-old,” who would wander into the Melicks’ bedroom in the morning and greet them before they had woken up. The mom, who is young, felt like “another daughter,” said Melick, and they talked about potential paths out of the low-paying nursing home job, like going back to school.

After two weeks, the mom had found out she had made it off the waiting list for a more permanent spot in a local home for single mothers. Before she left, she and the Melicks planned a Saturday the next month for a barbecue together.

Lisa Wells, who with her family helped the hospitalized mother in Maine, says her family has benefited as well.

“I’m not being glib: There is always a blessing in it,” she said. “This is all about Jesus, showing His love, in super-mundane, practical ways. It’s making a sandwich for someone who is staying at your house. It’s making sure the bathroom is clean before they come. It’s giving up your bedroom. It’s praying for somebody. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the big-picture pandemic stuff. But it was great that we were required to be focused on these little acts of love.”

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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Neil Evans

Aren't we thankful that Christ's Church is a family and not a buracracy. What a privilege and blessing beyond description to be servants to and with each other.