How do we avoid placing children in foster care? An organization called Safe Families provides one solution, but progressive activists are trying to run it out of the state. They would prefer to just hand families in crisis more cash.

Launched in Illinois in 2003, Safe Families offers parents on the brink of an emergency — suffering from domestic abuse, in need of a medical procedure or a stint in drug rehab or about to be homeless — a chance to place their children in the arms of another family voluntarily for a few days or a few months.

A cadre of social workers supports Safe Families volunteers, who go through extensive background checks and training. The group operates in 40 states, the United Kingdom and Canada and has placed more than 35,000 children in the past two decades.

But Lawyers for Children, the Legal Aid Society and the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo claim that by allowing Safe Families to host children, the Office of Children and Family Services is creating a “shadow foster-care” system — and they’re suing the state.

It’s true that thousands of American children are being diverted into “shadow foster-care” by caseworkers who find kids in danger and put them with extended family members rather than officially remove them from their parents’ care and place them in licensed foster homes. But there is no evidence Safe Families is working with child-welfare agencies to do any such thing. The law bars Safe Families from working with any family under an open investigation.

So why is the organization being blamed? Activists claim to want “prevention” programs, but they think the only way to prevent these crises is giving more money to parents. Rise, another group supporting the lawsuit, says, “New York state should be investing directly in families.”

What exactly does it mean to “invest directly in families”? It means giving them cash. As Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, writes in “Torn Apart”: “If we cared about the welfare of children, we would dismantle the foster-industrial complex and send all the cash it sucks up directly to the family members who care for them.”

Unfortunately, money isn’t the problem in most of these child-welfare cases. There is serious dysfunction — often mental illness or substance abuse — that financial resources can’t solve.

While it’s become a kind of sacred mantra among progressive activists that the only reason we put kids into foster care is that their parents lack money, there’s little evidence that’s true.

A 2020 paper in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, which compared children who were investigated for neglect with children whose families were receiving food assistance, found a big difference between child maltreatment and poverty. Children investigated for neglect, for instance, were twice as likely to end up in prison by age 20. Assuming that the only problem these kids are suffering from is a lack of resources underestimates the damage dysfunctional parents are doing to them.

Safe Families, meanwhile, is made up of volunteers. They’re not looking for money at all. The group’s model is a faith-based one, with more than 4,500 churches of various denominations supporting Safe Families programs. As its website notes, “By extending hospitality to others in need, Safe Families for Children returns the Church to its historic role of caring for the orphan and the widow.” But its affiliation with these churches may be another reason progressives are trying to keep them out of this space.

Now, Safe Families was never going to be able to solve the majority of child-welfare cases because the model requires that people in trouble have the forethought to realize they’re in trouble. Safe Families took in a number of children during COVID, for example, whose single parents were first responders and didn’t have any other options for keeping their families safe. Most adults caught up in the child-welfare system have mental-health and/or substance-abuse problems that prevent such early decision-making.

But Safe Families has filled an important niche in helping vulnerable families across the country. It should be free to help New York families as well.