Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Agency Briefs

This section of Children's Voice typically highlights new and innovative programs being implemented by child welfare agencies or other organizations that benefit children and youth. Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last fall, however, much of the news about child welfare in the Gulf Coast region has become less about program innovations and more about how agencies are simply maintaining or rebuilding roofs over their heads.

Shortly after Katrina swept across Louisiana and Mississippi, CWLA began working to establish contact with member agencies and others affected by the storm. Part of this effort has included facilitating discussions and opportunities for members to share information and resources with one another. Following are a few of our members' tales of loss and rebuilding, as well as one former Florida agency CEO's advice for child welfare agencies in the event of a hurricane.

To learn more about CWLA's efforts in the wake of the hurricanes, see Eye on CWLA.


Mother Nature's Hand in Turning Around Youth Behavior

Just as Hurricane Katrina's winds scattered tree limbs, personal belongings, and other debris, it also dispersed families, friends, and coworkers across cities and states.

At least one group of nine youth, ages 11-17, however, was able to stick together. The girls, all living in a group home run by Raintree Children's Services in New Orleans, did not have immediate family to care for them, but during one of the country's worst natural disasters, they realized they had each other.

"One of the surprises to come out of this experience is watching them develop relationships with each other and take care of each other in a strange town," says Raintree Clinical Therapist Shannon Lovell. "These are kids that have histories of serious acting out behavior, but we have not experienced that through this crisis, and I find that remarkable."

As soon as she got the word that Katrina was headed straight for New Orleans, Executive Director Laura Jensen booked rooms at a La Quinta Inn in Houston for herself, the girls in the group home, and a few other staff. She also called all of the foster parents working with Raintree and urged them to leave the area.

Jensen is no stranger to arranging an evacuation for Raintree's children and staff due to an impending storm, but the speed with which Katrina bore down on New Orleans was like none she had experienced before.

"This hurricane came so much faster than what we normally experience. It's really hard for people outside of the area to understand why there were people here," she says. "By Saturday, I couldn't find anymore reservations in Houston, and if you didn't have a vehicle to get out, you just couldn't get out. Some of the foster parents thought they'd just wait it out, but we had to contact them and say, 'You have to get out of here.'"

After spending about a week and a half in their Houston hotel, the Raintree group moved into a house and office space in Natchitoches, Louisiana, a five-hour drive from New Orleans. The staff of Cane River Children's Services in Natchitoches found the space for Raintree to rent. Cane River also obtained donated furniture and school supplies for the girls, who enrolled in local schools.

In November, Lovell and a few other Raintree staff were still living in Natchitoches, away from their own families, to care for the girls in the group home.

"I've had to get real creative with individual counseling and therapy...because I don't have a lot of my tools with me. I don't even have an office," Lovell said in October. "Pretty much, we are like a little grassroots operation."

The girls were depressed, Lovell says, and all of them, staff included, were dealing with post-traumatic stress. "When you've...gone through such loss already and been in the foster care system and had multiple failed placements, an experience like this triggers old wounds and memories."

Raintree Children's Services is located in Orleans Parish. Its facilities sustained wind damage but were spared the flooding that deluged the rest of the city. Two months after Hurricane Katrina, Jensen was back in the New Orleans office trying to get things in order with only 25% of her staff, while the girls in the group home remained in Natchitoches.

"Some people have lost their homes and are not returning," Jensen says. "Some people have not decided yet what they are going to do--they're looking for housing and can't find it. And some people have said they're going to return, but they haven't returned yet. One of the biggest costs is going to be recruiting, training, and hiring new staff."

As of last fall, Raintree had not yet resumed its afterschool program, aimed at kids at risk for drug and alcohol abuse, because most schools were still closed. The city was reopening in small sections, and most things the girls in Jensen's group home were accustomed to, such as the zoo and the city trolley car, were not operating.

"I think it's time for them to start dealing with coming back, and they want to come back, but we'll have to prepare them for a different place to be," Jensen says.

From Social Worker to Engineer: Rebuilding After Katrina

Keith Liederman's background is in social work, not engineering, but he's learned a lot about building construction, and reconstruction, as Executive Director of Kingsley House. Over the last decade, Kingsley House has spent more than $8 million renovating its 110-year-old, 75,000 square foot campus located on nearly four acres in New Orleans's lower Garden District.

When Hurricane Katrina blew into town, Kingsley House staff went through their usual storm drill to secure the seven buildings on the campus. Then they held their breath. When it was over, the buildings were still standing and untouched by flooding. But the staff couldn't completely let out a sigh of relief.

Four of the seven buildings sustained severe internal damage. Wind and rain from Katrina blew in third-floor dormer windows, and water seeped down to the second and first levels of the buildings. Floors buckled, and mold had spread. Everything had to be gutted.

"People who were seeing it for the first time, myself included...were just crying," Liederman says. "We've worked so hard and have such a great facility to offer to the community, that to see it in this shape is really hard to fathom."

Thankfully, one of the crown jewels of their renovation--a computer learning center with state-of-the-art equipment funded by the Magic Johnson Foundation and Hewlett Packard--was spared damage. Their gymnasium, housed in a 175-year-old former cotton mill, also survived unscathed.

Before Katrina, Kingsley House served 7,500 people in greater New Orleans, birth to 100, through a variety of programs, including early and preschool Head Start, an afterschool program for kids 5-12, a teen center, summer camps, community-based programs for families, and an adult day care center.

In October, much of New Orleans was still a ghost town, and Kingsley House was pulling in just $60,000 a month in revenue, compared with about $500,000 before Katrina. Liederman was again playing engineer, this time to perform damage control on his campus, as well as working with groups throughout New Orleans to restore the city's infrastructure. Construction workers were working around the clock to restore Kingsley House back to health. Some of the staff was working out of a satellite office near Baton Rouge. Liederman had to lay off others--66% of his staff--because he could no longer pay them.

As for the children and families once served by Kingsley House, all were evacuated from the area. "A lot of our families lost everything," Liederman says. "They lost their homes; now they've lost their schools, and even if they wanted to come back, there's no place to rent."

During the storm and its aftermath, Kingsley staff didn't lose touch with those they served, however. "Our community-based program workers actually were called on their cell phones and text messaged by the families they were working with who were trying to reach out to them and make sure they were okay," Liederman recalls, laughing at the irony. "The participants were calling the therapists to see that they were okay. It was amazing."

By the end of October, Kingsley House had received requests to enroll more than 120 children in its child care programs, as well as for adult enrollment in its adult day care program, which it hoped to have up and running on a small scale by last December. In the meantime, Kingsley House remained open as a drop-in facility for people needing information or emergency assistance.

Liederman considers Kingsley House lucky. "We're incredibly blessed. Other agencies that I've talked to aren't going to open for 12-18 months. They have buildings that are totally destroyed. We're one of the exceptions."

By mid- to late-November, Kingsley House planned to partner with the Salvation Army to have a disaster recovery center set up in tents on the Kingsley House campus to provide daily meals, case management and referral services, counseling, vouchers for furniture and clothing, and access to a mobile medical unit. Other agencies, as well as local foundations, were partnering in the effort, including Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America, Family Services of Greater New Orleans, Children's Bureau, the Louisiana Public Health Initiative, and New Orleans Knowledge Works.

"For the legacy of this organization, I'm just so happy we are still able to be here," Liederman says. "We fully intend to do everything we can do to make sure we are still here for another hundred years, because not only are we needed, we've got a responsibility here."

Lessons Learned from Hurricane Andrew

The aftermath of Katrina has presented a double-edged sword for some child welfare agencies in the most devastated regions--lots of work to be done, but little revenue to work with. Despite this predicament, Father Bob Tywoniak hopes most affected agencies will be able to hang on to their staff. "They will come out there with hammer and saw, and they will physically rebuild your building when they see that you're going to employ them," he says.

Tywoniak is the former CEO of the child welfare division of Catholic Charities in Dade County, Florida. During his tenure there, he saw the division through Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The buildings that housed Catholic Charities' emergency shelter and residential program for children were destroyed, but all children and staff survived the ordeal unscathed due to careful planning for such an emergency, and rehearsal of that plan.

"It's the training and the drilling and the rote memory of what to do that helps save your life," says Tywoniak, who today serves as Director and Pastor of the St. George Parish Social Ministry in Fort Lauderdale. He adds that agencies need to not only plan for what they are going to do before and during a hurricane, but what will happen afterward. "Those of us who are veterans have always worked by this adage: 'It's not the hurricane that kills, it's the aftermath.'"

In preparation for Andrew, Tywoniak had his staff assembled into a prestorm team, a storm team, and a post-storm team. The prestorm team determined their evacuation location and mobilized their files, medical supplies, and equipment. The storm team, including Tywoniak, evacuated to a nursing home run by Catholic Charities, where they weathered the storm with 14 children. Tywoniak recalls paying careful attention to the needs of his staff during and after the storm so they could best attend to the needs of the children.

The post-storm team helped pick up the pieces after the storm, and there were many pieces to pick through. Even though their buildings were destroyed, Tywoniak says he and his staff found an overturned picnic table on the grounds of the destroyed campus, set it upright, brushed it off, and proceeded to get back to work.

"We met under the stars coming back from where we were all dispersed to...and sat down with our executive staff, and I said, 'Okay, this is the first day, where do we go from here. Let's start planning, and know this--you all have a job as long as you want it.'"

Those staff who stayed on had to report to work every day, even if their office was still a slab of concrete and all they could do was push a broom, Tywoniak explains. In addition to helping with the cleanup efforts, Tywoniak loaned some of his staff to other agencies that needed help.

"We emerged from this a better, leaner agency than we were before [Hurricane Andrew]," Tywoniak recalls. "I couldn't have done that if I had not kept them employed. Through the down time, they were there."


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