Systems Changer in Chicago

Dr. Dave Anderson of Lydia Homes met me for dinner this past weekend while I was traveling through Chicago.  I came away from our meal full not only on buffalo wings and a Cobb salad, but full of mind and heart as well.

In his prior work as an administrator at a highly-rated medical center, Dave was a well paid and well respected expert in child psychology and welfare.  But he couldn’t shake a desire to give his hours and energy to work that more directly tied to ministry to children in need.  So he plunged off a cliff in what some called “professional suicide” to serve at a small-budget ministry.

Six years ago, Dave pioneered the “Safe Families” model in Chicago.  Safe Families recruits families from churches to open their homes to children in danger of entering the state foster system.  Most child referrals come to Safe Families through the State, but they will take any child for any reason—sometimes for a few days, sometimes for months or longer.   To aid host families, an extensive network of additional volunteers helps with everything from babysitting to needed medical care.   This year, roughly 1,000 children in Illinois will be cared for in “Safe Families” homes.   Often, Safe Families works with the children’s biological parents as well, showing tangible love and helping them address deep issues.

What may be most impressive of all is Dave’s vision for Safe Families.  In his view, it’s not just a program, recruiting volunteers to do good deeds.  He believes Christians should be innovative systems-changers as well.  We should offer effective reforms and cutting-edge solutions to longstanding problems.  Safe Families is doing just that.

Safe Families shifts from a system that punishes parents for bad behavior (i.e. removing their children once neglect or abuse has already happened) to one that works with them to avoid harming their children in the first place.   As Dave explains it, a Safe Families approach addresses the need before it becomes essentially unsolvable.  (According to Dave, only 15 percent of the kids entering the Illinois foster system ever come under their parents’ care again.)  On a broader level, Safe Families shifts from an outlook that sees government as having primary responsibility for social problems to one in which the Church becomes central in responding to critical needs.

Safe Families is transformative in other ways as well.  As Dave describes it, churches and families that get involved begin to see that all of their assets— the unused bedroom, the car, TV time at night, and everything besides—can be used for Kingdom purposes.  “That’s a scary realization at first, seeing that God may want to use things I’ve always thought were mine alone,” explained Dave.  “But the deeper we go along that path, the more rewarding it becomes.”

A number of Christian Alliance for Orphans member organizations are now working to replicate Safe Families in seven other states as well.  Let’s pray they can help their local churches catch the vision that’s taken root in Chicago—not just another program, but an approach that transforms even state systems and the Church itself.