In the summer of 2012, Corisma Gillespie hit a crisis point. Pregnant with her second child, the 20-year-old from the west side of Chicago had lost her job at McDonald’s. Her car was impounded, and she was about to become homeless. Desperate to provide for her children, she asked herself: “How can I do this?”
A local program had an answer. She could hand her daughter over to a volunteer family through Willow Creek Community Church, almost an hour away in the suburbs. There would be no court hearings, judges, or lawyers involved when her child moved in with these strangers, and it would take almost no time to arrange. Her daughter could live in this “Safe Family” home for as long as Gillespie needed. All she had to do was sign a form.
At first, Gillespie didn’t trust the offer from stay-at-home mother of three Kimi Emery, and thought it could result in her losing custody.
“Of course I was against it – I am not about to send my child with no strangers,” Gillespie told an audience gathered in 2018 by the nonprofit Safe Families For Children. For 17 years, the Chicago-based organization has called for a return to the days of biblical hospitality, when caring for orphans and widows was a primary goal of the Christian church.
Despite her initial reluctance about the Safe Families arrangement, Gillespie, now 29, took a “leap of faith” and allowed her daughter to move in with Emery. The young mother said she was bothered at first, hearing her daughter call Emery “mommy.” But she came to appreciate her host’s efforts and intentions, she said.
After three weeks, she found a job and her first apartment, and her daughter came home to Chicago.
Addressing the crowd that day at Gillespie’s side, Emery, now 48, described how she benefited as well. “My favorite word to describe Safe Families’ impact on me is scalpel,” she said. “It painfully conformed me to be more like Jesus. And that’s been the biggest scalpel I’ve ever had. It’s a good one.”
Since its 2003 inception, the group now operating in 40 states, Canada and the United Kingdom has placed 35,000 children in the family homes of others, some more than once. The model has been praised as an innovative, welcome respite. The group states that 93% of birth families reunite with their children after leaving a host home.
Yet despite glowing portrayals in the national and evangelical media, the home hosting model has encountered growing resistance. In the past, Safe Families has been greeted with “cease and desist” letters from regulators in states including Colorado and Virginia, before laws were passed permitting their…
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