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New Safe Families for Children program provides support for families in crisis

Kaitlyn Riley

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La Crosse Community Foundation Executive Director Jamie Schloegel announces a grant to support Safe Families.

To help support local families in crisis, the La Crosse Community Foundation announced a $58,000 grant to establish Safe Families for Children.

Safe Families for Children is meant to serve families struggling to keep children from entering the La Crosse County foster care system. It will offer temporary, out-of-home care for the children and mentoring, support, friendship, and resources for parents. Considered a voluntary intervention program, Safe Families for Children aims to reunify families faster and prevent the need for foster care, which can have long-term, traumatic consequences for children.

“Historically, extended family members and friends help care for children and parents who were dealing with serious issues like substance use disorders, domestic abuse, and other family crises, but families today are far more isolated than in past generations,” Jamie Schloegel, executive director of the La Crosse Community Foundation, said. “This program promotes systems of natural support for families. It brings together people and resources to strengthen our community.

Safe Families recruits parents to temporarily provide a safe, nurturing home for children who are separated from their parents. Its mission is to protect children from potential neglect or abuse arising from a crisis.

“Safe families establishes a community safety net to prevent kids from falling into the child welfare system,” Safe Families Wisconsin Director Nicole Zorn said. “Having community members serve as hosts for children and mentors for their parents creates an extended family-like support system.”

Nicole Zorn, Safe Families Wisconsin director

Safe families has locations throughout the United States, including several in eastern Wisconsin. This will be the organization’s first operation in Western Wisconsin. It is also the first time Zorn has seen a community reach out proactively to Safe Families.

Momentum for bringing Safe Families to La Crosse County came from conversations between La Crosse County Human Services Director Jason Witt and Pastor Dave Konkol of Onalaska. The two collaborated with other community-based organizations that came together as Community United for Families to bring Safe Families to La Crosse and to increase the safety net and continuum of care available to the community.

Foster care has been a challenge in the county for the past several years as the need for homes outpaced supply. La Crosse County now faces a 40-home gap between the number of children who need foster care and the number of homes available.

The hope is that adding Safe Families will help preserve existing and limited county foster homes and other resources for the children who need the most intensive interventions and more long-term solutions.

“Once harm has happened to a child, that trauma can sometimes be increase by removing the child from their parent and putting them with a stranger,” Zorn said. “Safe Families really functions as an upstream prevention to that. We don’t need to wait for a child to be harmed to get in and react. We can get involved when a parent is asking for help. It is a wonderful opportunity to reduce the escalation that often leads to the need for an out-of-home foster care placement.”

Safe Families will work closely with the Family & Children’s Center’s Host Homes program and will be housed in the center’s facility on Main Street. Host Homes provides a safe place for homeless teens to stay. It also relies on community volunteers who open their homes for kids in need.

“We see obvious opportunities to collaborate and increase the reach for both programs,” Tita Yutuc, president and CEO of Family & Children’s Center, said. “Our top priority for both programs is identifying and connecting with community members to host the youth who need these homes.”

Tita Yutic, president and CEO of Family & Children’s Center

Yutuc said Safer Families for Children will work primarily with younger children while the Family & Children’s Center will work more with older children in the collaboration.

With current funding and organization, Safe Families is set to last three years and help nearly 200 families in La Crosse.

To serve as a safe family host, volunteers complete an application and screening process. Once approved, they are trained in program-related topics. Families interested in hosting can find more details online or through contacting Zorn at 262-725-5199 or [email protected].

Kaitlyn Riley’s passion for communications started on her family’s dairy farm in Gays Mills, Wis. Wanting to share agriculture’s story, she studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college, she held officer positions with the Association of Women in Agriculture and Badger Dairy Club while volunteering as a news reporter for the college radio station. She also founded the university’s first agricultural radio talk show, AgChat. In her professional career, Kaitlyn has worked in radio, print and television news doing everything from covering local events to interviewing presidential candidates, and putting back on her barn boots to chat with farmers in the field. Today, Kaitlyn can be seen covering local stories that matter to you in the La Crosse area.