Children’s Home and Aid has found a new home at 424 7th St. and is moving there this fall. The larger, safer space and more pleasing environment will help the organization to provide programs centered around the love and care of children and families who are struggling.
“This building works out perfectly for everyone and is amazing on so many levels,” says Renee J. Haley-Harden, regional program office manager of the Northern Region of Children’s Home and Aid, which serves a nine-county area. “We have all the space we need and room to grow. We’ve been looking for a new place for years and years and have had so many offers, but we wanted to stay in the middle of town and be on a bus route.”
The organization signed a 10-year lease on the totally renovated four-story building, which has a state-of-the-art security system and 25,000 square feet of space. In time, all services will be brought under one roof, including the MotherHouse Crisis Nursery that’s currently on 4th Street.
The agency is on the eve of observing its 135th anniversary in Illinois; the first Rockford office opened in 1939.
Children’s Home and Aid responds to calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, related to intervention and crisis prevention for the good of children. It focuses on helping people to reverse downward spirals of defeat related to domestic violence; drug and alcohol abuse; physical, sexual, and emotional maltreatment; and gross neglect. Children too often find themselves in situations where merely surviving is the daily goal, rather than growing and maturing. And their parents are too often overwhelmed, stressed out or feel hopeless.
In the past, removing children from dysfunctional homes seemed like the only answer. Today, the agency is focusing more time, money, thought and effort on getting families the help they need to stabilize. Understanding the source of problems, setting new goals and taking the first steps toward happier, healthier living is paramount, says Haley-Harden.
“We’re trying to keep families together in spite of what’s going on in their lives that’s pulling them apart. There’s a greater push than ever to keep families intact. Studies have shown the best place for kids is at home,” she says.
The agency’s involvement with a family usually begins after someone calls 1-800-25-ABUSE. A Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigator evaluates the situation and decides whether to remove a child from a home immediately.There’s also an evaluation of what kind of support the family needs to improve its scenario.
A wide network of local agencies works with Children’s Home and Aid, which is state-funded but also receives money from United Way, churches, various organizations, individual donors and grants.
Children’s Home and Aid cases address a wide array of problems. A case may involve a mom who chooses to leave a physically deformed baby at the hospital; a parent who spends more time nursing an addiction than caring for her children; a father who gets drunk and takes his anger out on the family; or children left to fend for themselves after a parent is jailed, to name only a few scenarios.
“There are no cookie-cutter cases,” says Haley-Harden. “We have to look at each situation case by case. Trauma is so interconnected and looks different from one person to the next.”
Helping average citizens to better understand the issues faced by people involved in Children’s Home and Aid cases is at the heart of the agency’s mission. People can get involved by reporting abuse, fostering children or volunteering to help in other ways.
Problems faced by children impact all of us and may be playing out right next door to us.
For example, “The drug epidemic in Rockford is bigger than anyone could imagine and it could be affecting someone sitting right next to you,” says Haley-Harden.
A high-functioning person who goes to work every day and seems fine could be living a totally different life when no one is looking. That is, until something breaks the silence.
“Someone you think is doing just fine gets a DUI or the police are called because of a domestic disturbance, and all of a sudden the real problem comes to light,” she says. “You find out they’ve been using drugs for 15 years.”
Alcohol and drug abuse has led many an adult to inflict physical and emotional pain on their children. But Haley-Harden is also concerned about a growing trend in today’s society of parents being totally absent.
“We’re seeing more and more neglect cases, where children are not being taken to school and other places they need to be, and are not getting their basic needs met because the parents can’t get out of bed and function or they’re incarcerated,” she says.
For all of the agency’s effort to help families, sometimes a child simply has to be removed from a dangerous situation.
In Winnebago County alone, there are more than 1,000 children in foster care; 400 of those cases are handled by Children’s Home and Aid. Other social service agencies provide foster care, too, but Children’s Home and Aid is the largest provider of foster homes in the Northern Illinois region, Haley-Harden explains.
Donna Kasper, director of child welfare for Children’s Home and Aid, oversees foster care, which is the agency’s largest program.
Kasper says the vast majority of children in need of help are placed first with relatives or friends, but those arrangements don’t always work out.
“We desperately need foster homes,” says Kasper. “We’ve run out of places for kids because everyone is struggling and they don’t have the desire to get into foster care and they have fears.”
A foster parent for 20 years, Kasper has cared for about 25 children and knows the rewards of helping children to turn their lives around. Children ages 4 to 14 stay in foster homes an average of two to four years.
Kasper’s life as a foster parent began when her own children brought home kids from the neighborhood whose parents had left them home alone for days. She saw their lives improve from her involvement and decided to continue helping children.
When working with kids, you have to have patience and understand how trauma affects them, says Kasper. Traumatized children don’t necessarily process and respond to life situations the way other children do. They have emotional triggers that cause depression and acting out.
“Trauma actually stunts physical and cognitive development by changing brain chemistry,” she says.
Going to a foster home can be traumatic in itself, for a child used to living in an entirely different world. With time and patience, however, a transformation begins as children are given the love and attention they need, as well as boundaries, structure, quiet time, and expectations.
“You can’t go into foster care wanting to meet your own needs; you have to go into it wanting to change the life of a child,” says Kasper. “Loving them is not enough. You have to help them become a functioning member of society by doing the same things you do for your own children. And you have to love being in the company of kids.”
To learn more about becoming a foster parent, call Heather France, program manager, at (815) 720-2002 or email her at [email protected]
One of the agency’s fastest-growing programs is also the newest and smallest.
MotherHouse Crisis Nursery opened less than two years ago to provide help to parents in crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round. Parents can drop off children, up to age seven, with little notice and at no cost to them, up to 30 times a year.
Whether it’s a domestic emergency, a much-needed break, or a place to turn when a babysitter doesn’t show up, so the parent can get to an appointment, school, or therapy, the goal is to give parents support in times of need so they can invest in themselves and become better parents, says Samantha Beverley, family support services supervisor, who runs the crisis nursery.
“We’re trying to give parents the help they need so they won’t get overwhelmed,” says Beverley. “We exist to prevent child abuse and neglect. We’re a safe place for kids to come while parents do what they need to do.”
Beverley’s goal is to build awareness of the free service among parents so that more children can benefit from the program. She’s also working to attract more volunteers and donors. Last year, 118 children were served; less than halfway into this fiscal year, more than 50 children have been served.
Parents can call up to two hours in advance to drop off a child for a minimum of two hours and a maximum of three days. A triage system is in place so the people with the greatest need get priority, even if it means sending someone home to make room for another child. The crisis nursery provides everything the child needs, including food, diapers, clothing and structured activities.
Space will more than double in the new location, increasing the number of bedrooms from two to five, in addition to a large playroom and an outdoor playground. Currently, up to five children can be cared for at any given time. Beverley hopes that number will more than double.
Parents who use the service are also encouraged to attend a weekly parent support group to get to know other parents, make friends, and figure out ways they can help one another. The agency follows up by visiting the parents and children at their homes, to assess each case and make recommendations for help.
As the program grows, more volunteers are needed.
“Even if you’re not good with children, you can help,” says Beverley. “We need people to serve food, shop, do dishes and clean. Children who come here are experiencing instability in their lives because of a stressful family situation, so anyone who can help is having a positive impact on the life of a child.”