Christmas has a way of stirring the desire for harmony at home with family.
Every family’s foibles make it difficult to reach that idyllic state. But in some situations, the challenges loom much larger. That’s where groups such as Hope for Prisoners and Safe Families come in.
Hope for Prisoners is a Las Vegas-based initiative helping men and women successfully reintegrate back into their families, work and community after incarceration. As founder and CEO Jon Ponder observes, “The majority of people really do want to change. But they have no idea how to do it.”
“No one has paid particularly close attention to men and women coming home — that they are coming home to wives, and husbands, and especially to children,” Ponder told an audience at an anti-poverty forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation last month in Washington, D.C. “As everybody in this room can attest, if the family life is not right, then everything else in the world has a tendency to fall apart.”
Over 18 months, Hope for Prisoners provides a mentoring team to help an ex-offender navigate the re-entry to a job, family and the community. Ponder started Hope for Prisoners as a result of his own experiences in and out of the system beginning at age 12, including time in federal prison. There, as he describes it, a transformative encounter with God gave him a sense of responsibility to share hope with others.
Since 2009, Hope for Prisoners has worked with more than 1,600 men and women.
If Hope for Prisoners is helping family dynamics in order to improve the future of former offenders, Safe Families seeks to secure households and prevent circumstances that increase a child’s chances of ending up behind bars in the first place.
Safe Families aims to keep kids out of the foster care system by providing a haven for those whose families are in crisis. Children in foster care — especially those who age out of the system without a permanent family — have a greater likelihood of arrest by early adulthood.
Concerns such as these prompted Chicago-based child psychologist Dave Anderson to launch Safe Families. In a prior role, he had interviewed abused children to testify on their behalf in the prosecution of their abusers, often their parents.
One day he met a 5-year-old whose face was so swollen from blows that he hardly recognized her from pictures. He interviewed her mother and determined she was not the problem.
But she had no one to care for her child while she was at work and couldn’t jeopardize her job. She turned to an ex-boyfriend, even though she knew he was a risk, and he ended up abusing her child.
“Why do we wait for children to be harmed?” Anderson wondered. State welfare agencies typically get involved after harm has already happened.
Anderson noted that neglect was often the initial problem, a result of social isolation that left a single parent in a desperate situation.
Greater community support could reduce the need for foster care and protect children. Anderson envisioned a model built on voluntary efforts rather than state funding.
Initial reaction was not optimistic. “DCFS can’t even pay people to do a good job; you’re going to find hundreds and thousands to do it for free?” scoffed a child welfare official.
Fourteen years later, the skeptic has been proved wrong. In Chicago, 1,100 host families are participating in Safe Families, taking in 1,000 children every year. Today there are 108 Safe Families chapters around the United States.
All told, they’ve made 27,000 placements, and only 3 percent have gone to foster care. Now the model has spread beyond the United States.
As family and community have eroded, government has intervened — something it is not capable of doing in every case and is not designed to do fully in any case.
Like Jon Ponder at Hope for Prisoners, Safe Families volunteers are typically motivated by their faith. As a social worker observed of them, “Not only do you love kids, but you redeem parents.”
Restoring family is critical for the good of all. Models such as these are committed to doing the hard work it will take — well beyond the Christmastime nostalgia for family.
This piece originally appeared in Tribune News Service