BY HEIDI STUKKIE
PHOTOGRAPHY TERRY JOHNSTON
More than 9,000 cases of child abuse or neglect are reported in Kent County each year. What’s even more disturbing is that the confirmed cases of child abuse have increased nearly 100 percent since 2000.
In the worst situations, police or protective service workers will remove the child from the home, taking him or her away from a life that is familiar. These children are often frightened and confused, and frequently hungry and dirty as well.
Many of these abused and neglected children in Kent County are taken to the KidsFirst emergency shelter where they are immediately greeted with a warm smile and then given unconditional love, comfort, and a safe place to stay.
The KidsFirst shelter consists of two residential homes located on the 25-acre D.A. Blodgett–St. John’s property on Knapp Street. Within each home are multiple bedrooms containing a bed, dresser, and desk. The main living area features a great room with couches, chairs, and an entertainment center and the nearby oversized kitchen and dining room offers a place for kids to eat and help prepare meals. There’s also a game room downstairs with a pool table, foosball table, video games, an art and education area, and more.
The shelter, which opened in 1998, provides temporary housing to abused and neglected children in Kent County until a more permanent foster home can be found.
Last year, 488 children were admitted to KidsFirst. Of these children, 302 were under the age of 11, 82 were between 12 and 14, and the rest were 15-17 years old.
Children arrive at the shelter one of three ways:
– The Michigan Department of Human Services’ Protective Services department gets involved after getting information about possible abuse and neglect from the child’s school, neighbors, friends, or family members. They usually try to work with the parents or caregivers first to keep the child in the home, but if that can’t happen, the child is then removed and brought to KidsFirst.
– If police or other public safety workers respond to an incident and find a child in an unsafe or dangerous situation, they will remove the child from that environment immediately.
– In some cases, a foster family cannot handle a child so they are brought to back to KidsFirst until another suitable home can be found. Or a child will run away from where they are staying and the court decides the caretaker cannot take care of them.
Of the 488 children admitted to KidsFirst last year, 290 suffered from physical neglect, meaning that the home was not a safe environment, they didn’t get enough food, or other needs were not being met. Actual physical abuse occurred in the homes of 80 kids and 21 were sexually abused.
Another 60 children returned from a broken foster care placement and 35 of the 488 kids were runaways.
On an average day, there are 16-18 children living at KidsFirst. Last Friday, 10 kids were admitted within hours, making it somewhat stressful for the staff on duty.
Both of the KidsFirst houses are staffed around the clock with 24 people who rotate shifts. One of those people is known as Aunt Bee. She’s like a mother to the children and handles many of the domestic tasks. The staff tries to keep her in a comfort role and out of any disciplinary action.
There are also several direct care counselors, two master’s degree level social workers, a school advocate, and the house managers.
The children and teenagers entering KidsFirst are all ages and come from a variety of backgrounds and environments. Many have behavioral or developmental issues. Some are aggressive or assaultive and others are withdrawn or nonverbal. A few of the kids are physically or emotionally disabled.
“It’s chaotic here sometimes,” admits House Manager Larry Smith.
When children arrive at KidsFirst, they are greeted warmly with a big smile and offered food and a bath right away. Clothing and shoes in all sizes are on hand for the children to wear after they get clean. Everyone gets a tour of the shelter when they arrive and introduced to the other kids staying there. Younger kids are often given a teddy bear for comfort and the older kids are shown the game room to entertain them. The staff does whatever possible to meet the child’s needs.
While one person is busy making the child feel welcome, another staff member meets with the person who brought them in to gather as much information as possible. This is information is later shared with a foster care agency to help find an appropriate home.
Shortly after arrival, a health inspection takes place. The staff looks for bruises, cuts, health issues, and makes sure they have any medication the child is on. A medical professional is called in if necessary.
After that, a routine begins. Kids often go back to their current school the next day or they get enrolled in a new one, if that’s not possible. Meals happen at a certain time and a predictable schedule of homework and play time occurs.
KidsFirst Program Manager Kelly Koeze says that the unknown is traumatic for some of these kids so having a schedule and structure is helpful in adding stability to their lives.
“We shower them with unconditional love and structure,” she says.
The staff also exposes the children to new experiences, too. Sometimes, they’ll go ice-skating, on bike rides or for a walk in the park. They have cookouts around the campfire pit behind the houses, or stay inside and create art. Tickets are often donated to sporting events, plays and other cultural events, and the children go together as a group. Teaching the kids how to behave in a community is important, especially since many don’t know appropriate boundaries.
Koeze says the goal is always to “open their eyes” and show them what is possible.
“We try to use this time with the kids to show them there is life outside of what they have experienced and that every relationship isn’t scary, neglectful or abusive,” she says.
At the same time, Smith says they teach the kids “every choice has consequences.” When a child misbehaves, certain privileges may be taken away.
Ultimately, the staff at KidsFirst tries to get the children into a foster home as soon as possible after they arrive. If they know a child will be admitted to the shelter ahead of time, they will start the process before they even get there.
KidsFirst works with foster care agencies such as D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s, Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities of West Michigan, Lutheran Child and Family Services, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, and the Family Outreach Center.
Each week, they rotate who gets contacted first. If that agency cannot help, the staff will contact the next agency on the list.
Typically, teenagers take the longest to place, as there are more homes willing to accept younger children.
The majority of the children (65 percent) brought to KidsFirst only stay there for 1-3 days. Almost 12 percent stay 4-20 days and another 21 percent of the children stay more than 20 days. This last group is comprised of teenagers and kids with behavior issues who need a more specialized foster home.
No matter how long a child stays at KidsFirst, many call later to thank the staff for caring about them. Often times, the kids will continue to be involved with the case workers for a long time after they leave and sometimes the staff will rally together to help a young adult furnish his or her first apartment.
No child deserves to be abused or neglected, but if they are and removed from their home, the staff at KidsFirst will be ready to receive the child with open arms and offer unconditional love, comfort and support.
D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s is a 125-year-old accredited agency that works in partnership with the community providing comprehensive services to children and families, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, foster care, adoption, and family support, as well as, residential treatment and emergency shelter care at St. John’s Home.
To learn more, visit their website: http://www.dablodgettstjohns.org/
LIKE them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DA-Blodgett-St-Johns