Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2006

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Angel House Combines Shelter and Assessment Center Under One Roof

When children are taken from their homes and into protective custody, their suffering often continues. Though out of harm's way, they are suddenly surrounded by unfamiliar faces in strange places. Angel House, a new model temporary emergency shelter and assessment center in Mason, Michigan, aims to make the protective custody process less upsetting for these children.

"Angel House is so critical because children are so overwhelmed," says Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wrigglesworth. "They're out of their comfort zone. They may have witnessed abuse or been abused by parents or strangers. Then they see police officers with guns. They're scared."

Angel House--a division of Child and Family Services (CFS) Capital Area, a nonprofit community organization under the Michigan Department of Human Services--was specifically designed to provide child abuse victims with immediate protection and to expedite the investigation and prosecution of child abusers.

These dual functions under one roof make Angel House the first facility of its kind in the nation. The shelter provides a child-friendly safe haven; the assessment center provides evaluation, advocacy, counseling, and prevention services to meet the best interests of children and their families.

"Our community identified these two needs as the most important--the two areas where we were lacking services to children--so we combined them," says Angel House Director Jerre Cory.

According to Cory and other child protection professionals, the effectiveness of Angel House lies in its team approach and child-centered, noninvasive assessment process. The multidisciplinary team includes specialists from Angel House, Children's Protective Services, law enforcement, and the prosecuting attorney's office. When law enforcement or CFS receives a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, the multidisciplinary team is activated. The immediate, coordinated response makes it possible to quickly remove children from danger at any hour, interview and assess the child once, issue arrest warrants without delay, and build a stronger case for prosecution.

Before Angel House, children were interviewed wherever space was available, such as in a police station or empty jail cell. Children not immediately placed in foster care slept in a police car or on a cot in the CFS office. Today, children taken into protective custody--even in the middle of the night--are welcomed into a friendly environment, offered milk and cookies, given pajamas, and tucked into real beds with clean sheets.

"It's good to know there's a special place for these children to go that's child-friendly and beautiful," says Leann Holland, Sexual Assault Nurse with Sparrow Health System in Lansing. "They just lost everything--not like they had a whole lot to begin with. Kids don't understand when they're so little that they're in an unsafe situation and that it's not their fault. To see other kids happy and adjusting helps them realize they're not alone."

When a child is interviewed at Angel House, team members view the session from behind a one-way mirror and videotape it for evidence gathering. "Usually [the prosecuting attorney] wants the child to testify," Holland says. "With the video equipment and some of the advanced [forensic examination] techniques we're using, we're hoping it keeps some of the children out of the courtroom, because it's just so hard for them to face that offender...especially if it's their parent."

Angel House is expected to help 1,000 children--more than half age 5 or younger--each year from Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham Counties, an area of nearly 456,000 people. The emergency shelter operates around the clock, housing 16 children at a time, and staffed by qualified employees and trained volunteers. Children can stay in the shelter up to two weeks so workers have sufficient time to place them in the most appropriate environment.

The two-story, 10,000-square-foot building is designed to be cozy. The shelter area has a living room with a fireplace, kitchen, dining room, and patio. The assessment center includes the medical exam room, team conference room, crisis counseling intake area, and two forensic interview rooms. One interview room is designed for children, the other for teens. The second floor has four bedrooms for girls, four for boys, and a nursery. Bedrooms with multiple beds allow sibling groups to stay together. The lower level includes a recreation room and closets full of new clothes in multiple sizes, stuffed animals, and quilts. The backyard accommodates the Angel Train, a 32-foot wooden train activity center built and donated by local businesses.

More than 1,500 individuals and organizations helped plan the Angel House project over five years. Donations included two acres for the facility and 95% of the labor to construct the building. In all, as of December 2005, $1.8 million of the project's $2.1 million price tag was raised through grants, donations, and volunteer labor. Angel House's annual budget will be approximately $700,000, most of it covered by state and county contracts, although donations are still being sought.

"We have a place to give children comfort, love, and attention," Cory said during opening day ceremonies in December 2005. "We cannot change their lives. We can help them, we can refocus them, we can help them find their strength, and we can offer them comfort. And that's where the words Angel House come from for me--the idea of surrounding, comforting, and holding children safely."

Angel House was the inspiration of many individuals and organizations, including the Ingham County Family Court, the state Department of Human Services, Community Mental Health, St. Vincent Home/Catholic Social Services, Child and Family Services Capital Area, Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney, and the sheriff and police departments.

For more information, visit Child and Family Services Capital Area's website.

--Submitted by Karen Giles-Smith, MS, RD, Mason, Michigan

Developing Racial and Ethnic Identity Among Youth in Care

In July 2004, Casey Family Programs convened 30 people of varying races, ethnicities, and roles in the child welfare system to identify the knowledge, skills, and supports social workers need to address racial and ethnic identity formation for all youth in care. Issues of disproportionality and disparate outcomes for youth of color, the number of multiracial youth in care, and the proportion of cross-cultural placements added to the discussion's urgency.

"Race matters," says Chiemi Davis, a Child Welfare Administrator for Casey Family Programs. "We can't be afraid to talk about it. We must bring it to the surface."

Child welfare professionals can be powerful resources and role models for youth in care as youth develop a healthy sense of racial and ethnic identity. When young people grow up in foster care--and especially when they grow up apart from their birthfamilies--they often lose their connections to their racial and ethnic heritage. They need to learn and practice the skills for developing multicultural competence, gaining pride in their own heritage, and facing racism and discrimination in society--something that applies for all youth, not just youth of color.

Participants in the Casey Family Programs meeting realized that to assist youth, workers must first arrive at some awareness of their own racial and ethnic identities. This realization formed the genesis of Casey Family Programs' Knowing Who You Are project, which embodies a three-part curriculum--a video, e-learning, and in-person learning.

The components of the Knowing Who You Are program comprise an open and empathetic experience. The video starts by raising awareness about the formation of racial and ethnic identity among youth in care. The online and in-person components fill in the framework of knowledge and skills child welfare professionals need to help youth achieve a healthy sense of identity.

In a documentary format, the video includes interviews and discussions with youth in care, alumni, birthparents, child welfare professionals, and resource families. Participants share their perspectives on the issue and the need to continually integrate identity development into child welfare practice. The accompanying study guide provides questions to facilitate group discussion.

The self-paced e-learning course lays the groundwork for helping child welfare professionals work with youth in this area. It includes opportunities to explore their own identities, assumptions, and biases while examining the realities of race and ethnicity within institutional systems in our society. The course develops a vocabulary for discussing race and ethnicity as a tool for developing identity and addressing racism and discrimination. It also illustrates ways of integrating knowledge and skills into day-to-day practice.

Staff, youth in care, alumni, birthparents, and resource families participate in the two-day, in-person Knowing Who You Are learning event. During the interactive training, participants hone the skills they've learned as they identify ways to integrate them into their daily child welfare practice.

Knowing Who You Are gives participants the tools they need to begin courageous conversations and model skills to help youth in care on their journey.

"Young people, social workers, foster families, everybody--we can't be afraid [to address this issue], because that's what is going to make a difference," says Pamela Maxwell, one of the original parent participants in Knowing Who You Are. "We have to take it one step at a time, but I know there is strength in everybody."

To order a free copy of the Knowing Who You Are video, or to access the e-learning at no charge, visit Casey Family Programs' website, and click on "Knowing Who You Are." In-person training events are offered on a limited basis; e-mail contactus@casey.org.


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