Can a Time-Tested Program Succeed in a Shelter? 

By Kendra Hurley

By the spring of 2016, homeless families in Brownsville may get a new kind of help in caring for young children. The social service agency CAMBA plans to bring SafeCare, a highly structured parenting program, directly to the family shelter it operates in that part of Brooklyn. 

CAMBA has been using the model for a little under two years with about 170 families who are enrolled in foster care prevention services, many of whom are doubled up or living in shelters. If they succeed at bringing it to their Brownsville family shelter, the program will be able to reach families who are not necessarily enrolled in foster care prevention.

Doing that would test SafeCare in a large and very high-stress communal setting with more than 150 homeless families. It would also include recruiting homeless families to take the lead in encouraging a nurturing style of parenting. “The shelter directors and workers have mentioned there’s a culture of parenting that’s very negative and very reinforcing of actions that are negative…like parents encouraging other parents to hit their children,” says Jenelle Shanley, associate director of the National SafeCare Training and Research Center. “What we’re looking to do is to shift the culture around parenting in the shelter.”

CAMBA has long had a solid track record of working with mothers and young children through its 15-year-old home-visiting Healthy Families program. But that program has narrow eligibility requirements— mothers have to be pregnant or no more than three months postpartum to enroll. Moreover, the program spans several years, demanding a serious commitment from participating families.

For CAMBA’s foster care preventive services, Harvey wanted a shorter program that could effectively engage more families. She looked for one that stressed “tangible skills so that a parent could leave the program and walk in a room and say, ‘That’s not safe for my child.’” She also wanted one that didn’t require her caseworkers to be licensed as social workers—something that would keep operating costs low. SafeCare fit the bill. “SafeCare impresses upon parents that you are the baby’s first teacher, and we are promoting touch which we know facilitates bonding,” says Janee Harvey, who oversees CAMBA’s foster care preventive services.

The SafeCare model was developed at Georgia State University. In several studies, parents receiving SafeCare were involved in significantly fewer reports of child maltreatment than parents in a control group. The model also benefited the professionals—SafeCare home visitors experienced less turnover and burnout than caseworkers in a control group.

SafeCare home visitors work with parents and their children. They focus on three key areas: home safety, where parents childproof their homes; child health, where parents learn, say, when to call 911 or visit the emergency room; and parent-child bonding, where parents engage their babies and toddlers in loving ways.

A home visitor scores a mother in each of these categories, looking for “discrete and measurable” things, says Harvey. In home safety, that can include counting the number of hazards in a room, like pennies on the floor. For bonding, a mom gets extra points for talking to and touching her baby.

The home visitor meets with each family about once a week, building rapport and trust with parents by enthusiastically pointing out all the mother is doing well before introducing ways she can improve. In one recent session, a CAMBA home visitor lavished a young mom with praise and high-fives. “You’re very knowledgeable even though you play like, ‘I don’t care, let’s get this over with, I don’t listen,’” she gushed, to the mother’s quiet delight. “We’re done with your little practice and you did awesome!”

Completing the program takes about six months. Some parents graduate in less time, while a parent grappling with, say, the demise of an abusive relationship or the aftermath of childhood neglect might need more. “When you start to look at your kid’s trauma you have to look at your own trauma,” explains Harvey.

The majority of parents that CAMBA has worked with in its foster care prevention program are mothers, but Harvey has seen SafeCare be “a very seductive model for many fathers,” with dads often joining in.

If CAMBA and SafeCare’s developers succeed at bringing the model to CAMBA’s Brownsville shelter, it will be the first time it has been adapted for a communal setting. It will also mean that families at the shelter can for the first time enroll in the program without also being monitored by the Administration for Children’s Services through its foster care prevention program.

Researchers at Georgia State University are considering a pilot where SafeCare home visitors (and in this case, the shelter would be “home”) work with a few carefully chosen parents at the Brownsville shelter—both those who have demonstrated an aptitude for supportive parenting as well as what Shanley calls the “dominant parents” to whom other families naturally gravitate for guidance.

These parents will be trained to become SafeCare role models who work with other families in the shelter. By enlisting families as mentors for each other, Shanley hopes to create a culture of positive peer pressure within the shelter. “We want [families] to be the prominent voice for delivering the model,” she says. “I see that to be more likely to have an impact than just coming in with a service.”

Ultimately, Shanley hopes to see SafeCare “affect the larger schema in this shelter around the attitudes of parenting,” and even become a blueprint for how other family shelters can create environments supportive of safe, nurturing parenting.

For her part, Harvey hopes SafeCare will have long-term benefits for the children involved. Describing referrals she’s had for teenagers with problems arising from early childhood trauma, she says, “I’d think, whoa, it would have been great to work with families when the kids are younger.”