A Safe Place for Boys and Girls

FEATURES | south ms children’s shelter A SAFE PLACE FOR BOYS AND GIRLS Shelter offers safety and hope for children in need W TEXT BY ROYCE ARMSTRONG 20 a cc e n t s o u t h m i s s i s s i p p i With tears streaming down her bruised and battered cheeks, Amanda (fictional name) tentatively stepped through the doorway of the Hattiesburg fire station with the bright yellow and black “Safe Place” sign outside. She looked around, her fear evident. Firefighters gathered around the girl, attempting
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  20 accent south mississippi FEATURES | south ms children’s shelter A SAFE PLACE FOR BOYS AND GIRLS Shelteroffers safety and hope for children in need  W  With tears streaming down her bruised and bat-tered cheeks, Amanda (fictional name) tentativelystepped through the doorway of the Hattiesburg firestation with the bright yellow and black “Safe Place”sign outside. She looked around, her fear evident.Firefighters gathered around the girl, attempting tocalm her.After determining that the child had apparently been beaten at home and was attempting to runaway, firefighters made a quick call to the SouthMississippi Childrens Center. The call is one of dozens that the South Mississippi Childrens Centerreceives each year.“We try to counsel them on the phone and we tryto provide counseling for the family,” said TammyMiller, the regional director for the MississippiChildrens Home. “We do not just bring the childinto the center without talking to the parents. Wecontact the parents right away and let them knowwho we are and what we do and ask for permissionfor the child to come and stay with us while we tryto unravel what is going on.”The South Mississippi Childrens Center is anemergency shelter division of the MississippiChildrens Home. The shelter in Hattiesburg is one of only two emergency shelters for runaway and home-less children in Mississippi. The other is inVicksburg. It is licensed by the state to provide shel-ter to 12 children at a time. Eight of the beds areused for children that the Department of HumanServices has removed from their home. Four of the beds are reserved for runaway or homeless children.“A lot of times the teenager is in crisis,” Millersaid. “They may have had an argument with some- body that they care about. Usually it is with a familymember in the household. When we get the call, wedon’t know everything that is going on. That is whenour work starts. We try to unravel what is going onin the family and then we work with the family toget the child back home. Our goal is to always helpthe child go back home. Then we provide follow-upcare.”The center serves two distinct populations of boysand girls between the ages of nine and 17. Onegroup is runaway and homeless youngsters. Theother is children that the Department of HumanServices has removed from the home.“DHS tries to work with the family to keep thechild at home,” Miller said. “But, if it is not safe forthe child to be at home, that is when they call us. Itcould be physical abuse, sexual abuse, or it could beneglect and a lack of supervision where the childrendo not have anyone to see about them. Those aretypical situations for kids to come into custody. Weare licensed to provide emergency shelter andassessment services.”Once taken into the shelter, the child is comfortedand calmed down. Food and clothing are providedalong with a safe place to sleep. Both a physical andpsychological assessment of the child’s needs aremade. Medical and dental care, as necessary, is pro-vided and the child is enrolled in school for the time TEXT BY ROYCE ARMSTRONG  that they remain in the shelter.“We get children that have not been in school for a year ormore,” Miller said. “That is typi-cal, too. We get kids that havelots of educational needs. Theschool system has been great. Wecould not do what we do withoutthe help of the school system. Wecould not do what we do withoutthe help of the whole community.Everyone works well togeth-er.”DHS children remain inthe shelter for up to 45 days before being placed in a fos-ter home or returned tomembers of their birth fami-ly. Runaway or homelesschildren are kept for up to21 days before being placedin a more permanent home,according to Miller.The Center averages 10children in residence at anyone time and annuallyserves about 140 children.“We see children withmore needs than ever before,” said Miller. “Whatwe are seeing is that thechild may come to us withone specific problem.Perhaps they were physical-ly abused. Once they come to us,we begin to unravel all that isgoing on and we discover otherthings that have happened tothem as well. Perhaps they werealso sexually abused. So theirneeds begin to be more complex.”Miller blames the drug culturefor the seriousness of the chil-drens’ needs.“We see a lot more childrenwhose parents abuse drugs andalcohol,” she said.Not only does the shelterattempt to help children duringtheir short stay, it also tries toprovide more follow-up assis-tance.“We are trying to help the kidsmore when they leave us,” shesaid. “We see the need for morecommunity-based services. Ouragency has started more pro-grams where we work with fami-lies to try and help keep the kidsin the community. The federalgovernment has stepped in andsaid that states must try and keepkids in the community, that wecan’t just keep putting them intogroup home facilities.”Yet, while there are a growingnumber of children with morecomplex needs, funding to sup-port the center has fallen uponhard times.“My goal is to increase our rev-enues so we can stay open,”Miller said. “Staying open is achallenge.”The shelter is funded by a com- bination of federal and stategrants and it is a United Wayagency. It also has an advisory board that makes private dona-tions and solicits donations fromthe community.“All of our funding sources areaffected by the economy,” Millersaid. “Our grant funding isdecreasing. Our costs contin-ue to go up as our revenueis decreasing.”One of the problems,according to Miller, is thatthe center is invisible to theaverage citizen that might beinclined to help support it.“Not everyone knowsabout us because we cannotreveal our location,” shesaid. “We cannot put a signout front that saysMississippi Childrens Center because we cannot let thegeneral public know wherewe are, or who is with us. If we did that, the childrenmight not be safe.”An important communityfundraiser is the annualwine tasting and silent auc-tion. This year’s event washeld Aug. 15, at the HattiesburgTrain Depot and was dubbed“California Versus the World.”In the meantime, there are 47Safe Place signs posted acrossSouthMississippi, offering hope forshelter and safety to abused, home-less and runaway children.“Unfortunately as long as thereare families that have needs andwho are not able to care for theirchildren, there will always be aneed for what we do,” Millersaid. accent south mississippi 21
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