Meeting the Challenge

By Amy Blakely

Courtesy Photos

Close-up of infant grasping a woman's hand.

When her niece was murdered, Brooke Gustafson broke. She walked away from her 12-year career as a surgical technologist and began using recreational drugs to dull her pain.

After spiraling for six months, she sought treatment for her addiction and mental health. Safe Families for Children (SFFC) stepped in to care for Gustafson’s young sons while she got her life back in order.

The Knoxville chapter of SFFC, directed by Janet Cockrum (Knoxville ’81, ’83), helps parents in crisis who need short-term care for their children. The agency’s goal is to keep families together rather than sending children into foster care. Ninety percent of the children hosted are younger than 6; 50 percent are younger than 4.

Over the past 12 years, Knoxville’s SFFC has provided 16,000 nights of care and helped more than 2,000 East Tennessee children.

In 2021, Gov. Bill Lee honored Knoxville’s SFFC with his Award of Excellence, saying, “Your care for children and their families through the utilization of resources and volunteers in your region changes lives.”

SFFC has many success stories, and Gustafson is on her way to being one of them.

Clean for more than two years, Gustafson still receives outpatient treatment. SFFC host families periodically keep her boys, now 5 and 8, for a few hours or days so she can focus on self-care.

“SFFC provided a safe place for my sons and me to go when we just needed that little extra support,” she says.

‘No one was providing this’

Janet and Mark Cockrum
Janet and Mark Cockrum

Cockrum, 66, was born and raised in southern California, “five minutes from Disneyland.”

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Seattle Pacific University, she moved to Knoxville in 1979 and enrolled in graduate school at UT Knoxville with enough money to attend one quarter. Working as a teaching and research assistant, she completed her master’s degree and doctorate in child and family studies by age 25.

Cockrum started attending Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church soon after arriving in Knoxville. There, 41 years ago, she met her husband, Mark Cockrum (Knoxville ’76).

Throughout their careers—Janet worked at Berean Christian School and taught part-time at UT Knoxville while Mark was a strategic planner at Tennessee Valley Authority—the couple engaged in church missions. In 2011, while “planting churches” in Spain, Janet Cockrum received a call about starting a local chapter of SFFC, a Chicago-based agency that was opening offices nationwide.

When she returned home, Cockrum consulted with social-service leaders.

“They told me no one was providing this sort of service,” she says. “That, to me, was the affirmation that this was needed.”

Cockrum said the need continues to be great.

SFFC staff, volunteers and client families from last year's Christmas card.
SFFC staff, volunteers and client families from last year’s Christmas card.

The Economic Cost of Child Abuse and Neglect in Tennessee, published in June 2023 by UT Knoxville’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, reports there’s a 1 in 8 chance that a child born in Tennessee will fall victim to abuse or neglect before reaching adulthood.

The lifetime cost of child abuse is over $285,000 per case; child abuse costs the state between $3.33 billion and $4.97 billion per year. This includes the cost of child and premature adult mortality, decreased wages and workforce productivity, increased medical costs, increased demands for special education, residential care costs associated with substance dependency and juvenile delinquency, and the cost of criminality.

Safety net for moms, kids

SFFC works closely with the Tennessee Department of Child Services (DCS) and gets many referrals from the state agency. Other clients come from drug treatment centers, the health department, schools and SFFC’s network of nearly 60 churches.

Carren Broadnax, resource linkage coordinator at DCS, said SFFC fills a gap in the system, helping families when abuse and neglect aren’t part of the equation.

“SFFC’s efforts to provide host homes have often deferred countless children from custody,” she says.

Brooke Gustafson with her two sons.
Brooke Gustafson with her two sons.

Most of SFFC’s clients are single moms. Many are from generational poverty. Many grew up in foster care. Many have drug issues. Some have escaped abusive relationships. Some are homeless. Some have just gotten out of jail. Few have transportation.

Gustafson discovered SFFC through Great Starts, a residential drug treatment program operated by the McNabb Center for women who are pregnant or have custody of their children.

SFFC volunteers spend Wednesday evenings at Great Starts. They bring a meal for the residents, share a devotional, and provide informational programming and mentoring.

“It’s like we’re their mom, encouraging and supporting them,” Cockrum says. “We just want them to experience healthy relationships.”

Rooted in faith

The lifeblood of SFFC is its 70-plus host families, who are unpaid volunteers. Host families are fingerprinted, background-checked and vetted similarly to foster families. They must re-certify every two years.

SFFC maintains an office in Bearden and has 2.5 staff members—Cockrum, Family Coach Supervisor Cara Foster (Knoxville ’95, ’98) and part-time Family Coach Danielle Ignace. Its annual budget is about $300,000.

SFFC volunteers and staff holding babies at Wednesday night event.
SFFC volunteers and staff holding babies at Wednesday night event. Pictured are staffer Danielle Ignace, Cara Foster and volunteers Cheryl Lewis and Sophia Lumsdaine.

The agency’s primary fundraiser is a luncheon that draws about 200 attendees. An annual pickleball tournament raises money for clients’ dental care. The agency also depends on material donations, such as car seats and diapers; clothing for babies, children and moms; and gas cards and gift cards.

A faith-based agency, SFFC relies heavily on its partner churches for volunteers, financial support and other assistance.

Cockrum’s home church, Cedar Springs, has been involved from the start.

Kathryn Ann Holt (Knoxville ’10), the church’s director of home missions, says about 13 Cedar Springs families host children. Many more help in other ways.

“SSFC has consistently provided much-needed support and care to vulnerable families in our community,” she says. “And we’ve gotten to see so many of our Knoxville neighbors thrive after receiving love, care and kindness from the agency’s amazing staff and volunteers.”

Need Help? Want to help?

SFFC Knoxville: 5401 Kingston Pike, Suite 275, Knoxville 865-257-1883
SFFC Chattanooga: 930 McCallie Ave., Chattanooga 423-622-7360 or 423-321-9969
SFFC Nashville: 230 Great Circle Road, Suite 229, Nashville 615-487-1784
SFFC Memphis: 1255 Lynnfield Road, Suite 236, Memphis 901-818-9996

How To Get Involved

  • Become a host family
  • Contribute money or contact a local chapter about donating needed items (Diapers, gas cards, gift cards, baby and childrens’ clothing, etc.)
  • Connect with SFFC via Facebook or at their website.