April 9, 2012 in City

Program gives kids a home in times of need

Volunteers fill in gaps in child welfare system
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Before dinner, Taylor and Sarah Mortlock pray with Navarro, age 4, and Taiyo, age 3. The brothers have been temporarily placed with the Mortlocks through a program called Safe Families for Children, which helps parents struggling with issues such as poverty and violence.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Taiyo, 3, and Navarro, 4, are, for the most part, normal little boys, inquisitive, gregarious and energetic, if not a bit rowdy at times.

But their mother was forced to flee an abusive situation. With little outside support and no job, the family became homeless.

So she voluntarily placed them with a host family through Safe Families for Children, a faith-based program that began in Chicago in 2003 but was recently instituted in Eastern Washington by Olive Crest, a nonprofit. They were the first children to enter the program locally.

“(The mother) said it was one of the toughest decisions she ever made,” said host Taylor Mortlock, a member of the Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane. “It was very difficult for her, and she loves them very, very much. You can tell she’s having a tough time with it, but she just knows it’s best for them.”

Olive Crest partners with a network of churches – about five locally so far – to find and train host families. A case coach at the church acts as a liaison between the parent or parents, the host family and Olive Crest. Unlike foster care, the parents aren’t paid.

“I just felt like God was telling me to volunteer there,” Sarah Mortlock said.

The goal of the program is to fill gaps in the state child welfare system, which typically can only intervene in cases of blatant abuse or neglect. The program, which started March 25, focuses on early intervention and aims to prevent abuse and neglect from happening in the first place.

Suzie Toews, Safe Families director, said that’s accomplished through providing the parents with a safety net. All involved rally around the family in crisis.

“The common denominator with families experiencing abuse or neglect is isolation,” she said. “So this is a community-based program that is based upon building relationships.”

Factors that lead parents to use the program include homelessness, abuse, addiction, poverty, illness, unemployment and stress.

“Sometimes what the parent needs is just someone to walk along with them,” Toews said. “We just pour support, support, support into them. We really put all-out focus on what we call the healing power of family. Our families truly are our team.”

The program is voluntary, and the end goal is to reunite the family once the parents get their lives back on track. Ninety-four percent of children in the program end up back with their parents rather than in foster care.

“Whenever possible, kids belong with their families,” Toews said. “Kids always want to be with their parents.”

The average age of children in the program nationwide is just under 5 years old. The average length of stay is 45 days. Toews said the program is effective because it uses best practices from the state child welfare system, but removes the red tape.

“The child welfare system is huge,” she said. “You can’t move it quickly. We can be really responsive to individual families’ needs.”

As for the Mortlocks, they’re working on establishing a stable, disciplined routine for Taiyo and Navarro. They eat dinner at the table together every night, then it’s bath time, story time and bed time. The kids help out with the chores. They practice reading and writing, play with the family dog and play board games with their friends. The children’s art can be seen throughout the house.

If everything goes according to plan, the stability they are enjoying will continue once they’re reunited with their mom, who is expecting to keep them with the Mortlocks for about a month while she regains some stability herself.

On Friday, Taiyo, Navarro and the Mortlocks, who are expecting a baby of their own soon, sat around the table for a pizza dinner after a few rounds of arm wrestling and thumb wars. Taylor Mortlock thanked God for bringing the little boys into their lives and prayed for their protection and well-being.

The prayer was followed by a chorus of “Amen.”


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