Bruce Larson has the look of a grandpa as he leads 10-year-old J.J. around the family farm, bumping across fields on a four-wheeler or rebuilding antique furniture in Bruce's shop.
Only the boy following him like a puppy isn't his grandson. J.J. is staying with the Larsons while his mother is in a domestic abuse shelter.
"This little guy ... just soaks up the attention," said Larson's wife, Kristen.
The Larsons are part of a new network of volunteers who look after children temporarily when their parents are sidelined by domestic disputes, medical problems, financial trouble or other crises. The voluntary program, called Safe Families, is run by Bethany Christian Services of Plymouth, but is part of the Chicago-based Lydia Home Association, which has sheltered more than 4,000 children since 2002.
The Larsons are among 27 hosts in the local Safe Families chapter, which celebrates its one-year anniversary next month. Volunteer parents complete online training and agree to background checks and home safety inspections. Stays in Safe Family homes range from a few days to up to a year.
Safe Families operates outside Minnesota's formal child-protection system. But a spokeswoman for Hennepin County said officials know of it and hope it will prevent families from reaching the crisis points at which child-welfare authorities must remove children from their homes.
The Larsons' first child through Safe Families was a 7-year-old girl whose mother was trying to complete a six-week nursing assistant course while working nights.
J.J.'s mother, whose last name isn't being used because of her status as an abuse victim, placed her three children with the program until she could find a job and housing. Two daughters were placed with another family.
Other children have been placed in Safe Families when their parents were jailed or hospitalized with cancer or other diseases.
"In years past, you would have Grandma or Grandpa, or you would have neighbors to help in times of need,'' said Maridel Sandberg, a program director for Safe Families. "Now isolation is a huge issue."
Filling a need
Safe Families' philosophy aligns with the child protection strategy in Hennepin County, where authorities have tried to maximize the use of family preservation programs and other alternatives that keep children out of foster care and train their parents to take better care of them.
"We can see a lot of value in the service they are providing, especially in the kinds of circumstances described," said LuAnn Schmaus, a county spokeswoman. "In those cases, the parent is taking responsible action to provide safety and care for the child."
Schmaus said the county has contracts with three licensed respite centers, where parents can leave school-age children for short periods, and two crisis nurseries for infants.
However, crisis beds seem in short supply, Sandberg said. Last week, for example, a hospital social worker called because she couldn't find other openings for a child whose mother was admitted to in-patient psychiatric care, she said.
"You're my only option," Sandberg was told.
Unlike foster care, Safe Families has few barriers between caregivers and birth parents. J.J. and his mother talked by phone every night at first, though this often made J.J. cry because he missed her. Bruce Larson writes about J.J.'s daily activities in an online journal that is available to J.J.'s mother.
Kristen Larson, 52, said her grown children were nervous at first, worrying that the Safe Families children would expose the Larson grandchildren to bad language or habits. While it hasn't always been smooth, Kristen Larson said her grandchildren have bonded many times with the kids staying in her home.
Last Sunday, Bruce Larson took one of his young grandsons and J.J. for ice cream.
"No girls," he chuckled. "Just the guys."
The timing was perfect to volunteer. Bruce Larson, 51, lost most of his memory seven years ago due to a tumor but has regained his physical strength. He said he was motivated to help children, especially those who have experienced some form of trauma.
"It tears my heart out when you see those kids," he said, "the ones taking the brunt of it, the ones caught in a bad situation."
The Larsons had planned to take a break from volunteering, or as Kristen put it, "grandparenting almost 24 hours a day," when Kristen returned to her school job in the fall. But they plan to keep J.J. as long as needed and enroll him in their local school to start the fall.
Bruce Larson doesn't expect to form long-term relationships with the children who come and go, but he hopes they will look back with some happiness about the time they spent on the Larson farm.
"We're just trying to lighten that load a little bit," he said. "What I want is, when they get older, that they're going to remember that time with us."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744