Caring for Kids

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Thousands of children become victims of abuse and neglect each year. Those children need someone to look out for them, and some very dedicated agencies are doing just that – caring for kids at risk for abuse and neglect in St. Charles County.

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The Community and Children’s Resource Board of St. Charles County (CCRB) currently distributes County sales-tax funds and lends its support to 29 local agencies through 44 programs that provide respite services, crisis intervention, and counseling, along with other community programs – all of which are geared toward children and families. The CCRB also assesses the need for programs and monitors outcomes to make sure the programs they fund are having an impact in the community.

The Saint Louis Crisis Nursery (SLCN) is just one of the agencies the CCRB supports, but it’s one that’s having a substantial impact on child abuse and neglect. What started as a desire to provide a safe place for kids, and one nursery in a wing of the Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing in 1986, has grown to nine Community Outreach Centers and five Crisis Nurseries that offer resources for at-risk families and 24-hour crisis care for children. Since opening their doors, the Crisis Nursery has provided care for over 109,000 children.

How is SLCN able to help so many? The key is a unique model of prevention and proactive support for at-risk families. The hope is that families who don’t have resources or support can get the help they need before abuse and neglect enter the picture. According to Bruce Sowatsky, CCRB’s Executive Director, the Crisis Nursery’s approach is working. “They do that very effectively. With 99 percent of the families they work with, they’re able to avoid an abuse hotline call, and the families remain intact. They are a model provider locally, and potentially even nationally, for preventing child abuse.”

Becoming that model provider has involved the efforts of many. SSM Health in St Charles has been a long-time advocate and supporter of the Crisis Nursery. From the first nursery in St. Charles, SSM Health has not only generously provided space, they’ve also provided ongoing maintenance and security for that space, as well as medical attention, prescriptions, and healthy food and snacks for the Nursery kids.

When more funding was needed to care for at-risk kids, CCRB’s Bruce Sowatsky went out with DiAnne Mueller, SLCN’s Chief Executive Officer, knocking on doors to garner support for a St Charles County tax initiative that passed in 2004. And when the need for a nursery in Wentzville was identified, SSM Health was there to donate land on their Wentzville campus. Sowatsky advocated for a local builder to build the nursery at cost, and that valuable resource expanded the Nursery’s ability to serve western St. Charles County, as well as nearby communities.

The Crisis Nursery has also been blessed with dedicated staff, loyal volunteers, and generous donors, all of whom understand and remain committed to SLCN’s mission year-after-year. Some of SLCN’s volunteers serve on five diverse boards that assist in setting the vision and goals for the future. These varied resources and supporters allow Mueller to implement the direct-service programs that are making a difference and keeping kids safe.

Through the years, Mueller has implemented highly effective programs that include a 24-hour helpline, strength-based counseling, case management, home visitation and basic necessities like food, diapers, clothing, and formula. Assistance to prevent homelessness or utility disconnection through SLCN’s Family Empowerment Program are also offered. It is a multifaceted approach designed to meet people where they are at.

“Every situation is a little bit different,” says Mueller, who has served with the non-profit for 24 years. “Some families can cope and manage stress better than others, so first we listen. We let them define what the crisis is for them. Then we figure out how we can be helpful. Part of our job is to know every resource there is, and there are a lot of them, especially in St Charles County. We make sure we are the experts in knowing who is available to help.”

If that help involves the need for respite services, the Crisis Nursery provides short-term care for children birth to age 12. The children are cared for in a therapeutic setting by trained staff and volunteers while their parents get whatever help they need from the Nursery’s network of resources. Intake counselors listen to what that parent’s situation is. They work with the parent to come up with a plan for what the parent is going to do while the kids are cared for. Then the Nursery offers support and encouragement for them as they work to accomplish the goals. They also give referrals where appropriate.

Once the initial crisis has passed and parents pick their kids up, social workers follow up with the family within 48 hours as part of the Family Empowerment Program. A social worker visits the home, goes over what brought them to the Crisis Nursery, asks what progress was made, and discusses the parent’s hopes and dreams for the future. They also determine how SLCN can help the family going forward, all of which helps to stabilize the situation and strengthen the family.

But the Family Empowerment Program isn’t just for families who have gone through the Nursery. A unique part of SLCN’s preventative model is going out into the community looking for at-risk families who might need services. Mueller explains, “We go out and we knock on doors. We go to the highest crime, highest poverty, and highest child abuse rate neighborhoods. We bring diapers, food and formula with us, because often that’s what they need.” Mueller also says families will often ask how they knew to come by their house that day. They’ll share that they’ve been using the same diaper for two days, didn’t have any formula to feed their child, or have been feeding their baby watered-down milk or water.

For Mueller and the rest of the SLCN team, those encounters are heartbreaking. They see firsthand just how hard life is for some people and how poverty affects children and their families. They see the stress that comes from not being able to feed your child and pay the rent, and how many people have no family support to lift them up and get them through tough times. But those encounters reinforce the need for a proactive, community-outreach model.

Saving babies’ lives, keeping kids safe, and building stronger families is the mission of the SLCN. Every child whose family has access to SLCN’s services has the chance to grow up to lead a productive, happy life. For Mueller and the Crisis Nursery, that’s the goal. It’s all about hope and a dream that no parent or child should ever walk alone. “Our approach is unique, but it is the right thing to do. The prevention piece works, and we are literally saving lives every day. If we just helped one child, saved one child, that would be enough. But we’ve saved thousands. As a community, we can be proud of that.”

If you would like to help the Crisis Nursery care for kids, please go to www.crisisnurserykids.org

For more information on the programs CCRB funds, go to www.stcharlescountykids.org

Statistics & Photos are courtesy of St Louis Crisis Nursery

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