The Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery is the only nursery of its kind in the Spokane area. It is a truly special place where children aged 0-7 are welcomed to be themselves in a safe, fun, and relaxed environment.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kristena O’Hara, program director at Vanessa Behan. Kristena has her master’s in social work, and is a licensed independent clinical social worker in the state of Washington. About 3 years ago, she moved to Spokane from Boston where she worked as a therapist. She assumed she would continue her therapy practice here in Spokane, until she came across the Vanessa Behan Crises Nursery. At that point, she recognized it as an innovative and preventative method of addressing child abuse and neglect. She said, “I had to be a part of it. So I reached out and ended up getting a job.” Since then, she has had a huge impact on the nursery, specifically with the Resource Assessment Center, a 2018-2019 grant recipient program that Women Helping Women Fund helps fund.
The Resource Assessment Center (RAC) started in January of 2018 with a special license obtained by the nursery. This special license allowed the nursery to serve a specific population of children in the Spokane area. Before RAC, the nursery did emergency care for children. However, if a child in the care of the nursery was to be removed from their parents permanently, the state legally had to remove the child from the nursery. Kristena talked about how difficult the process was because it was “such a traumatic time in a kid’s life to have to go through yet another transition with strangers.”
The new license now allows the nursery to keep children in their custody for up to 72 hours until a foster parent is present to take over care of the child. They negotiated with the state to keep children legally in their care during this process. As Kristena pointed out, “We know brain science and we know that putting kids through multiple transitions during traumatic experiences is just not good for them.”
Since January of 2018 when the nursery started accepting this specific population, Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) is able to call the nursery when a child in our community did not have foster placement and was being removed from their legal guardian. At that point, the child is able to spend 72 hours at Vanessa Behan.
Kristena explained that the foster care system needs time to look for foster care for these children, and this program allows the children to stay in the nursery’s care until that happens. Sometimes, the children end up being returned to their parents. According to Kristena, “There are instances where kids are removed because of a medical situation with their parents, not always abuse or neglect. As soon as those situations are resolved, they can go back into their parent’s care. Why make kids go through multiple transitions when they might be returned to their parents care anyways?”
However, it’s not always the case that they will get returned to their parents. In many cases, abuse and neglect is the reason these children end up at Vanessa Behan in the first place. “After we started taking these kids we quickly found that this was the segment of kids that we were missing as we think about what kind of work the nursery could really do”, Kristena said.
They started to see families in extremely chaotic situations with levels of abuse and neglect that they hadn’t dealt with previously. It required them to partner with local medical organizations like Providence and Partners with Families and Children, to assess certain injuries these children had when they came to the nursery.
Kristena explained, “That is where we really utilized funds from Women Helping Women Fund, because we have to do better case management for these kids because now, we are their primary caregiver. We need to make sure their health care is in place and that they’ve seen a doctor.” The level of physical abuse was not something they could handle alone.
Some kids that come to the nursery during these 72 hours are in school and need transportation to and from. This is another aspect of funds from Women Helping Women Fund that supports the RAC program. “It is important to keep these kids in their normal routine because it keeps their brains functioning and growing properly.”
I got to tour the nursery and meet a few of the adorable kids during lunch time. Kristena explained that although there are no “typical” days at the nursery, the “atypical” days are what they love. The kids at the nursery are cared for by “house parents”. These house parents take care of feeding the kids, nap time, bath time, bed time, and everything in between. The days are filled with outside playtime, developmental activities, and relaxation.
There is not another child care center in Spokane where families can come be placed to spend an unknown amount of time (up to 72 hours). That makes Vanessa Behan very unique. I asked Kristena what she thought kids would say is the best part of staying at the nursery, and she replied, “I think that the kids would say they find this place to be a care-free environment where they can forget their troubles and build some resilience, feel positive emotions and just relax.”
The nursery is also unique because they care deeply about providing emotional support to children fighting tough emotions. “We will be with them every step of the way so that these emotions are expressed, dealt with, and not bottled up.”
The nursery has major goals for the next couple of years, and I for one am so excited to see the growth that the nursery makes. They are moving to a new building, currently under construction, that will be ready in 2020.
This new space will allow Vanessa Behan the room to TRIPLE their impact with the amount of kids they serve, increasing from 20 to 60. They hope to potentially expand services for kids, take older kids to account for siblings staying together, and provide advanced care for medically needy kids. Kristena says, “Our mission is to keep kids safe and build resilience. We can only do that if we start giving families more resources and support so that we can reduce their stress in the first place.”
The new center also hopes include more concrete resources for parents, housing assessments, domestic violence screenings, and developmental screenings. House parents will require further training to be able to perform these tasks. There will be onsite therapists and other resources to reduce the barriers of transportation for many families.
The Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery is truly doing amazing work for the Spokane community. They are using their resources wisely to tackle some of the toughest issues. I certainly applaud them for the work that they do.
If you want to get involved, here are a few ways to do so:
-Attend their annual luncheon on June 4th at the Davenport Hotel. Details can be found here: https://www.vanessabehan.org/upcoming-events/vanessas-promise-benefit-luncheon/
-Become a volunteer and go hang out with kids in the nursery, or go hold and rock babies (Who doesn’t want to do that?!) Sign up to be a volunteer here: https://www.vanessabehan.org/volunteer/
-Donate items. See their current donation list here: https://www.vanessabehan.org/give/supply-donations/