January 16, 2011

R.I. Children’s Shelters Get Short Reprieve from Budget Ax

By Lynn Arditi, Journal Staff Writer  |  The Providence Journal  —  

He arrived at the Washington Park Children’s Shelter shortly before midnight, coughing and wheezy, his buttocks raw from diaper rash. Nearly 14 months old, he hadn’t yet learned to walk and moved on his hands and feet like a spider.

For his first meal at the children’s shelter, he ate graham crackers soaked in milk. He also visited a pediatrician who prescribed a nebulizer for his asthma.

After a few weeks, he no longer cried when he was put in his crib at night. His eating also improved. Then, on his 37th day, he crossed a major developmental milestone: he took his first step.

But this boy, like his temporary home, faces an uncertain future.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Children, Youth and Families’ new interim director, Kevin Aucoin, will visit the Washington Park Shelter. The visit is part of a process to evaluate whether the state agency will move forward with plans to close its three emergency shelters for children up to age 12 who are removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse.

The three shelters — including Children’s Shelter of Blackstone Valley in Pawtucket and Boys Town New England in Portsmouth — house about 20 children, though more than 200 cycled in and out of the beds during fiscal 2010.

DCYF officials have said that closing the shelter would save about $1 million.

The shelters were slated to shut down last Saturday. But in keeping with Governor Chafee’s pre-inaugural directive to “slow down the process, Aucoin, of the DCYF, last Thursday notified shelter operators that he would extend their contracts to Feb. 28.

Nationally, children’s shelters have come under increasing criticism from some juvenile justice groups who say that group living arrangements with caregivers working in shifts cannot provide for the emotional needs of children, particularly those under age 6.

Yet, shelter operators and other opponents of the plan to close the shelters maintain that emergency shelters provide a vital service to prevent children from being shuffled nightly from one home to another, as was common a decade ago. Back then, some caseworkers resorted to sleeping at motels with children who had been removed from their homes in the middle of the night because they could find no foster family to care for the child.

The Washington Park Shelter was founded in 1979 by Frances Murphy and Maxine Leventhal, who met while working together down the street at a shelter for battered women. Many of the women at the shelter, Murphy said, had children living with them and “no one was tending to what these kids were going through.”

The two women approached the DCYF with a proposal to open the state’s first children’s shelter.

Washington Park employs 15 part- and full-time staff, including a full-time licensed clinical social worker. (All staff members except the clinician work eight-hour shifts.) The shelter has a 12-passenger van to transport children to doctor’s appointments and, if necessary, to out-of-town schools.

Domestic violence, mental illness and sexual abuse are among the reasons that children were removed from their homes and placed at the shelter last year, according to Murphy. Occasionally, an exhausted foster parent will place a child in a shelter for a few nights for “respite care,” she said. In other cases, a foster family may feel unable to care for the child, so the state places the child in a shelter until an alternative placement is found.

“It’s rare that a child goes home from here,” Murphy said. “We’re basically filling in and being the surrogate parents to these kids.”

Though some children stay only a few nights, Murphy said, the average length of stay at the shelter is 30 to 45 days.

The length of the stay worries Carole B. Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, which has sued California for overusing shelters for children age 6 and under.

No matter how well run a shelter is, Schauffer said, studies show that residential care facilities with multiple caregivers working in shifts cannot provide for the emotional needs of children, especially those under age of 6. Those children, she said, need one or two people whom they can attach to who will care for them regularly. That’s not possible, she said, when their caregivers change every eight hours.

“They [caregivers] can be good people. They can be doing the best job they possibly can,” Shauffer said. “But they’re dealing with a model that doesn’t work because that’s not how babies were born to be raised.”

Inside a two-story house on Broad Street one afternoon last week, two sisters, ages 4 and 5, played in a living room with Mr. Potato Head toys while the 14-month-old boy who had just learned to walk rocked in a bouncy chair. A staffer who has worked at the shelter for eight years sits on the floor with him.

The staff social worker evaluates each child who comes into the shelter. Clothes are bought. Meals are prepared. Bedtimes are written in big letters on the front of their folder to make sure each staff member keeps a child’s routine consistent.

“It takes about two weeks to turn a child around and make them understand that we don’t watch TV all day,” Murphy said, “that we go outside and get fresh air, that we take a nap.”

The idea, she said, is to get the children stabilized and in a routine so they can more easily adapt to living in a foster home. The DCYF pays its foster care providers $15 a day, Murphy said, so those foster parents usually have jobs outside their homes and the children are placed in daycare. “Where’s the bonding taking place there?” she said.

(Private agencies which contract with the state to provide foster parents for children who need more intensive care can charge about $100 a day.)

Washington Park’s contract with the DCYF is for $500,000 to $524,000 a year, or about $185 per day per child. That includes the cost of staff, heat, electricity, food, and providing each child with five days of seasonally appropriate clothing, she said. The shelter also receives grants and donations to fund its operating budget.

The average occupancy rate at the Washington Park shelter in 2010 was 87 percent, up from 85 percent in 2009, according to data provided Murphy.

The previous night, Murphy said, she got a call from the state’s Child Protective Services unit asking if she could take another baby. She suggested the caller contact the Children’s Shelter of Blackstone Valley.

“I didn’t have any beds.”