A nonprofit organization with ties to local social services departments and Thomas Road Baptist Church recently began a pilot program allowing temporary foster-like care with decreased state requirements.

Patrick Henry Family Services began the “Safe Families for Children” pilot program July 1 after an enabling amendment tied into the General Assembly’s state budget went into effect. The organization, along with legislative and local partners, announced the pilot had begun Wednesday.

“Safe Families” is meant to provide parents an option other than sending children into the Department of Social Services system, said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County. The service is designed to help families through money, family, legal, personal or other struggles before they have to go to social services.

The pilot — based on a program out of Chicago — allows individuals to sign power of attorney of their children over temporarily to volunteers trained and vetted by Patrick Henry, a Christian nonprofit with a range of family services operating in the Lynchburg area. Byron said protections are in place for the children, and DSS maintains oversight of Patrick Henry.

“There are many families that were not able to be reached, many families that don’t want to present themselves to government for fear that their children will be taken from them,” Byron said Wednesday.

She worked with Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, to place the amendment in the budget and to begin the pilot with Patrick Henry. The pilot does not receive state money.

Bedford County Director of Social Services Andy Crawford said he is “very, very excited” for the program. The pilot is meant to include a mentoring relationship between host parents and biological parents that extends to after the child goes home.

Jonathan Falwell, senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church, said the TRBC relationship with Patrick Henry goes “way back,” and he also is excited about the program.

“As a pastor, I believe this with all my heart, nobody raises children better than their own families,” Falwell said at the news conference. “What this ministry, what this opportunity, this service is all about is making sure that we help make those families stronger, so that we can actually allow those families to be all that God intended them to be.”

Patrick Henry is vetting and training volunteer foster parents from three churches and has talked with about 20, according to Patrick Neff, director of family placement. The first family to offer temporary fostering was a TRBC member.

The vetting process requires letters of recommendation from a participating church, Neff said. While children of any religion would be admitted, only foster parents through local Christian denominations would be vetted and trained at this point, Neff said.

He said he has discussed the issue with other faith-based communities and would be interested in developing similar programs with them as the policy discussion continues.

Byron said the effort to pass the amendment took two years at the General Assembly. Push-back included concerns over licensing and judicial oversight. As the pilot program reports back to the state, Byron hopes to expand on it.

“Things have always been done a certain way, and trying to do things differently is always tough for government,” Byron said.

With the pilot ongoing, Christie Marra, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said in a phone call she hopes to see the same state data kept for this pilot as for public child placement agencies.

“I think any time you’ve got a private actor that is not subject to the same regulations and rules as a public actor is subject to, you have to pay close attention to what the outcomes are, and I don’t think it makes a difference who that actor is,” Marra said.

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