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Safe Families for Children COO Resigns, Local Chapter Leaders Depart

Safe Families for Children, a national nonprofit that markets itself to churches and evangelical donors as a faith-based alternative to foster care, has helped more than 50,000 families in crisis by caring for their at-risk children.  Over the past five years, it has grown from less than a half-million dollars in revenue in 2016 to more than $7.7-million in 2020.

Now, the group may be experiencing a crisis of its own after at least five chapter directors out of more than 100 local chapters have left the network to start new, independent groups that work only with traditional male-female families. Ken Norwood, the group’s chief operating officer, has also resigned.

“The national organization is in the process of being taken over by the ‘woke crowd,’” one North Carolina supporter told MinistryWatch, “and in recent months, a lot of local chapters have split off from the national organization,” including a former affiliate in Charlotte.  MinistryWatch has learned that chapters in Indiana, Georgia, Missouri and elsewhere have been impacted by the leadership departure.

Neither Norwood nor Emily Kemmann, who formerly ran Safe Families’ Charlotte chapter and now leads the new Charlotte group, Alongside Families, would comment for this story.

Safe Families spokesperson Cheri M. Jimenez told MinistryWatch there’s been absolutely no “woke” uprising, and no change in policies at the nonprofit.

“We have not changed anything,” she told MinistryWatch, which profiled Safe Families in 2019. At the time, the group’s work was being promoted by North Carolina Family Policy Council, part of a network of state policy groups founded by James Dobson.

“We are still a bunch of Christian people doing what we feel God called us to do,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez is a Southern Baptist pastor’s wife who formerly worked for major evangelical pro-family and public policy organizations.

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She was surprised to see controversy arise after March 1, when Bethany Christian Services, the country’s largest Protestant adoption and foster care agency, announced it would begin allowing LGBTQ couples to foster and adopt children.

Soon, Jimenez heard from a few Safe Families leaders who wanted it to declare its opposition to working with gay families, even though it had never done so since its founding in 2003.  However, about half of local chapters receive government funding.  To receive government funding, they must affirm that they will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

“Our mission is to change the culture by working with conservative, evangelically-minded churches that can recruit Christian volunteers to care for children in crisis,” she says. “Our mission is not changing the culture by making a cultural stance on marriage. That’s not our role.”

Safe Families was founded by Dave Anderson, a Christian with a doctorate in psychology, who created the organization to answer a simple question: “Could the Church be the answer to helping families in crisis stabilize and thrive?” The organization receives $1.6 million a year from the state of Illinois to help at-risk children there, and partners with more than 4,600 churches around the U.S.

Emily Kemmann of Charlotte has successfully converted many former supporters of Safe Families to her new group, Alongside Families, but was unsuccessful in her demands that Safe Families turn over money previously raised in Charlotte to fund her new operation. She has also asked that Safe Families no longer reach out to its former supporters, and in an Aug. 15 update to church leaders and volunteers, she warned them away from Safe Families:

THANK YOU for your support, prayers, and uplifting of this ministry during our transition from Safe Families for Children to Alongside Families…To avoid confusion, I want to make you aware that the Safe Families for Children national office has just hired a Charlotte Chapter Director with previously raised Charlotte-designated funds with the aim of re-starting Safe Families in Charlotte. There are no churches currently partnered with SFFC in Charlotte…We believe the Lord is providing powerfully for gospel-centered family preservation in Charlotte and are excited to see what the Lord will do through Alongside Families. 

Jiminez says she has had some 100 conversations with Safe Families leaders and supporters about the “woke” claims. “Every conversation I have had with pastors and leaders has ended positive with great understanding on our position,” she said.

“It’s heartbreaking, because there’s no woke here,” she said. “Bethany’s decision highlighted the fact that we’re a non-religious organization, but we have not changed anything.”

But that statement appears to contradict the group’s website, which claims Safe Families for Children “is a faith-based movement motivated by compassion, generosity, and hospitality to keep children safe and families supported facing a crisis.” It works with localities and states across the country, helping often over-burdened and under-funded child welfare agencies. “We bring church and community together mobilizing an army of volunteers to advocate for vulnerable children and socially isolated families.”

Typically, volunteer families care for a child for 45 days, and 90 percent of children are returned to their birth families, who are hopefully better able to care for them. The group also operates in Canada, the U.K., and now Hong Kong.

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.