David Anderson
Ashoka Fellow since 2008   |   United States

David Anderson

Safe Families for Children
David Anderson is reducing the rate of child abuse and neglect, and keeping families intact, by providing safe and loving homes for children while their parents deal with temporary crises.
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This description of David Anderson's work was prepared when David Anderson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


David Anderson is reducing the rate of child abuse and neglect, and keeping families intact, by providing safe and loving homes for children while their parents deal with temporary crises.

The New Idea

David created Safe Families for Children to provide a safety net for parents in crisis. A voluntary, non-coercive alternative to the child welfare system, Safe Families temporarily places children with loving families, freeing their parents to address issues such as unemployment, drug or alcohol rehabilitation, family violence, illness, or incarceration.

To prevent abuse or neglect that often results when a parent struggles without support, Safe Families enables parents to address issues proactively, without fear of losing custody of their children. Unlike crisis programs or shelters, stays are not limited to an arbitrary period of 24 hours to two weeks; host families care for children for as long as it takes a parent to get back on his or her feet.

Safe Families brings children into wholesome families and their communities on a short-term basis, while helping their birth families gain solid footing so they can provide a strong family environment for their children over the long-term. Host families serve as mentors and role models, and benefit from the profound experience of helping others, which inspires them to volunteer and contribute in other areas of their community. These family-to-family connections form a true community safety net. While the government may give out money or services, Safe Families puts a child or a family into a community that operates positively and productively.

The Problem

Historically, the extended family or community stepped in to help take care of children for short periods of time during a crisis. However, urban families are increasingly socially isolated, without extended family or community support. Children in a family traumatized by crushing circumstances and emotions are especially at-risk for neglect or abuse with long-lasting consequences, including physical and psychological trauma.

The child welfare system, created to protect children and keep families intact, is too overburdened to meet the needs of all at-risk children. Each year, physicians, counselors, teachers, and other professionals make more than 3 million calls to state child welfare hotlines to report suspected abuse. Because of staggering demand, most agencies intervene only after children have suffered blatant abuse or neglect, leaving 1.8 million children and families at the breaking point to fend for themselves. Although the system reaches only a fraction of families in need, it comes at an exorbitant cost.

Even when families qualify for state intervention, the current model is based on coercion and intimidation to gain compliance. The system investigates to justify a decision to place a child into a group home or foster care. Then the state must rehabilitate the parent until it can prove the danger no longer exists. Sometimes parents are referred for counseling or other services; more often, they are left to continue struggling, with the added fear that their children will never be returned. Such fears are well founded, as a decreasing number of children (as low as 15 percent in some states) are ever reunified with their families.The system faces numerous other challenges as well. Dr. Gary Melton, director of Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life and former vice chair of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, recognizes a basic problem being the growing number of children in the system compared with the falling number of people willing to be foster families. Dr. Melton has called for alternatives that include a broader, shared sense of responsibility for children.

The Strategy

David recognized the need to intervene before abuse or neglect occurs, and created a safety net where one doesn’t exist in today’s society. He has established a network of families willing to care for a child temporarily, while the parent emerges from a crisis. Unlike child welfare, Safe Families is voluntary. Host families are screened, trained, and serve without compensation. Birth parents place children voluntarily and can change their mind at any time. While most system interventions force families into categories to fit funding streams (e.g. mental health, domestic violence), Safe Families will care for any child for any reason the parent presents. David named this network “Safe Families” not because the birth families are unsafe, but because when a mother has to place her child with strangers, her number one concern is for her child’s safety.

Safe Families honors the fact that when parents proactively seek help, they are more likely to participate and succeed in their own recovery. Safe Families helps parents in a respectful way, by asking “How can we help?” rather than saying, “Here is what you have to do.” Without fear that their children will be removed permanently, parents are more likely to ask for help. As a result, 85 percent of the children who are placed with Safe Families are eventually reunited with their families.

Indeed, one of the fundamental reasons the current system doesn’t work is because of its coercive nature. Parents are often defensive when their children are removed against their will. In addition, the system is primarily investigatory in nature, with an emphasis on legally proving whether abuse occurred or not. There is an entirely different feel when a family opens its home, rather than a family doing something under duress. Safe Families provides some measure of stability in kids’ lives, beyond just providing reliable care. And because Safe Families intervenes before a child is abused or neglected, it prevents the trauma and behavioral problems that might otherwise occur.

Often, in addition to housing and caring for the child, the host families establish a mentoring role with birth parents that continues after children are returned—for example, helping them to find safer housing or new employment. If that parent faces another crisis, rather than going back to Safe Families, they will often go directly to the host family for support. Because the resource is free, a community safety net for all children becomes a real possibility.

Although Safe Families serves any child, many families are recruited from faith-based institutions, which have their own infrastructure and networks, and which espouse values such as helping one’s neighbors. Beyond preaching about the importance of helping those in need, faith communities can use Safe Families to honor the value of hospitality, which is prevalent throughout Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other traditions, but in many ways has been lost in today’s society. To reach beyond faith communities, Safe Families uses creative means. This year, the City of Chicago is launching a pro bono marketing campaign on its buses and trains, and two radio stations are conducting campaigns to raise awareness and recruit new host families.

Safe Families has placed more than 1,200 children into temporary homes. In 2008, there were more than 500 Safe Families in Illinois, with plans to triple that number within a year. Safe Families has received funding from the City of Chicago, the states of Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, and South Carolina, as well as several private foundations. Safe Families is also part of the Strong Communities’ Institute at Clemson University, which is providing funding and volunteers.

To spread nationally, David is exploring two models. The first is on a state-by-state basis, as several have begun working with David to incorporate Safe Families. States are drawn by the substantial cost savings—the program can launch for as little as $50,000—and the opportunity to serve children who would otherwise fall through the cracks. The head of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services recently stated the need to find a way to serve children who don’t meet state standards instead of leaving them vulnerable. The second expansion option is to collaborate with a national or international organization. The most prominent potential partner is World Vision, which is working with David to consider how Safe Families could become an integral part of its approach in the U.S.

B.J. Walker, Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources in Georgia, states, “The existing child welfare system sees lots of families whose only sin is that they are vulnerable—cases that don’t rise to the level of abuse or neglect. But those families have to get into the system just to get the services they need…Safe Families can divert families from being in government programs that are not designed to help them, and get them to a more substantive place.”

The Person

David was raised to value hard work, creativity, spirituality, and family. Throughout his childhood in suburban Chicago, David’s grandfather was a strong role model, having obtained three doctorates and seven Master’s degrees while following a number of innovative career paths in education and health care.

Although David’s father wasn’t an academic, he carried on the creativity, winning an award for innovation in bricklaying. David’s father taught him that you could overcome any problem if you worked hard and were persistent. His mother stayed at home with five children, four of whom went into service careers (nursing, social work, and psychology), and one who became a business entrepreneur. David worked his way through college, first with his dad as a bricklayer, then as a city bus driver. Regular riders would sit in front to tell him about their problems, and he enjoyed helping them by listening and offering new ideas.

David married shortly after college, and he and his wife went to work at a group home for ten boys. David was saddened and disturbed to learn about the trauma the children had suffered. Determined to help solve their problems, David pursued his doctorate in clinical psychology while working in the child abuse unit of Mount Sinai Hospital, evaluating what led to child abuse. David became even more committed to sparing other kids the terrible experiences of the children he studied. When David moved to the adolescent psychiatric unit of Lutheran General, he developed programs that enabled children to continue receiving intensive services (partial hospitalization) after they returned home. He also partnered with the pediatric unit to start a forensic evaluation program that collected information in a collaborative, not coercive, manner.

After two years in a suburban hospital, David joined Lydia Home in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago where he believed he could have a bigger impact. He was drawn to help children who needed care most but couldn’t afford it. David changed Lydia Home from an orphanage into a residential treatment facility, decreasing the average stay from fifteen years to just two, and providing a continuum of care. He developed a foster care center to find permanent homes for the children, and launched a Healthy Families child abuse prevention program. Although the board initially resisted, David’s persistence paid off. Within eight years, he’d grown Lydia Home’s budget from $300,000 to $8.5M.

David then researched which kids were at greatest risk for dropping out of school and imprisonment. To meet these students’ needs, he teamed up with Chicago Public Schools, first developing anger management and self-esteem initiatives, then launching Urban Academies, a series of small schools of no more than thirty students each. He hired teachers with advanced degrees in both education and mental health. To sustain the schools, students participate in work-study programs in professional settings with area companies, gaining meaningful work experience while earning salaries that pay their tuition.

Throughout David’s tenure, women often came to Lydia Home asking if they could leave their children there during a time of crisis, but he had no way to care for the children adequately. Initially, David launched a residential facility for single mothers (and one of only two in the country for single fathers), but residents felt too comfortable and safe to leave the facility after they got back on their feet. He realized a different solution was needed.

David started Safe Families by taking children into his home. This had a profound impact on him and his biological children, and he quickly inspired friends to do so as well. He saw that people were willing to help but needed a mechanism that brought the historical notion of hospitality, and neighbors helping neighbors, back into today’s society. After he’d formalized the Safe Families program and enrolled several families, he wrote to Mayor Richard Daley, who was intrigued by the idea and referred him to the head of DCFS, who proclaimed it was the best idea he had heard in his entire career. But he told David that it would never work because “poor children just aren’t valued in our society.” This made David more determined than ever and the success and growth of Safe Families has been the result of his determination to help families weather crises and emerge healthier and intact.

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