Safe Families For Children In Need

Lawrie, 10, and Isabel, 5 lived on the streets of Chicago after their parents - a college professor and an accountant - lost their jobs and their home and struggled with health problems. They were taken in by volunteer foster parents through the Safe Families For Children Program. CBS

UPDATE, May 29: Since this story aired, more than 500 families have signed up to take in other kids through the Safe Families program.

If someone asked you how the recession has affected you, you'd probably have an answer or two. Perhaps you or someone you know has lost a job, or your 401(k) has taken a hit.

But what about your children? When CBS News asked parents about that, more than one out of three told us the recession had affected their children's lives in some way. Sixty percent said they've had to tell their kids there's no money for something they're used to getting.

For some children, the impact goes far deeper, and may be to them what the Great Depression was to an earlier generation, reports CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

These are the young voices of the recession.

"We didn't have anywhere to live. And we wouldn't take a shower or anything like that," said Lawrie, 10. "We would just be wandering around."

Lawrie, and her 5-year-old sister, Isabel, spent nearly four months living on the streets of Chicago, riding on trains after their parents - a college professor and an accountant - lost their jobs and their home and struggled with health problems.

"This is when we - mom, Isabel and I - were sitting in the metro Union Station," Lawrie says, showing a picture she drew. "And then a policewoman came by and saw Isabel's swollen feet, that were covered with spots and bleeding, which she got from walking around too much. And her shoes were too tight."

With parents no longer able to take care of them, they could have wound up in the child welfare system. But in Chicago and seven other cities, there's another safety net, an alternative to foster care, for some. It's called Safe Families, a network of volunteers who will take in children from overwhelmed parents, temporarily - anywhere from a few days to more than a year.

"There's a whole group of families that if you help them before things get really bad, you can really make a difference in their life," said Dr. David Anderson, who came up with the idea five years ago. Anderson says Safe Families for Children has helped more than a 1,000 children in Chicago during that time.

"A couple of moms said, 'You know, can you just take 'em from me, until I can get back on my feet?'" Anderson recalled.

In the last year, requests have doubled. Nine months ago, Cassie and Toby Eng opened their home to Lawrie and Isabel.

"You get attached so fast, and you want the best for them. At the same time, you hope and pray that their original family can be reconciled or that their original family can come back together," Cassie Eng said.

Some child advocates criticize the program and say more should be done to keep families intact.

But Shanell Bryant believed it was the best option.

"That's the one thing I strive to be - is a good mom," she said, wiping away tears.

Bryant, 28, was about to put 5-year-old Jessica and 2-year-old Ethan up for adoption after she was diagnosed with cancer, lost her job and then her apartment.

"I felt as though I didn't even deserve to live, because I was unable to take care of my kids," she said.

That's when she was referred to the Safe Families program. But the thought of giving up her children was agonizing.

"I cried all last night, honestly I did," Bryant said.

CBS News was there when her children were welcomed into the Applegate home.

"Everybody says, 'This is so good of you to do,' and in a way, I feel selfish because I get so much more out of it," said Safe Families mother Sheila Applegate.

The families of children Trevan, Malik, and Hector all made that same difficult choice.

"All of a sudden my mom was crying. And she said that she had found a family for me," Trevan said. "It was really hard trying to say goodbye to my mom."

It is a little bit confusing to live with a new family and not with their own moms, the children said, but they understand it can be for the best.

"I do. Because they help me out a lot. And it's helping my mom too. It's not just helping me, it's helping her too," Malik said.

Volunteer families stepping in during tough times is reminiscent of the Great Depression, when parents in dire straits sent their children to live with relatives or other people in the community. Charlene Davis was four years old when she became one of those "economic" orphans.

"It's a wonderful thing to have somebody who takes you into their home, hug you, tell them that they love you," she said.

The Applegates did that for Jessica and Ethan, leaving their mom free to look for work And Safe Families helped with her job search as well. After two weeks - success.

"I got the job. I got the job!" Bryant said. "So that's a good thing."

It's a part-time job counseling women at a shelter. But it's enough work to enable her to get her kids back.

"They saved my life," Bryant said. "They were angels sent to me out of nowhere."

Find Out More

Organizations where you can offer help if you're able, or receive help if you need it:

  • Safe Families for Children
  • Children's Health Fund
  • Child Welfare League of America
  • National Network for Young People in Foster Care
    • CBSNews

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