But back in 1982, the community was shocked by the story of Vanessa Behan.“She died a very slow agonizing death at the age of two,” says Bill Bialkowsky,a young businessman at the time. “Numerous cigarette burns, hair pulling, afractured skull and a fractured wrist.” The stepfather and the mother involvedrefused to testify against each other, he says, and they both went free.
Bialkowsky was dumbstruck. Back then, he had a 2-year-old daughter and a5-year-old son. He felt he had to do something.
Much of the focus over stopping these sorts of tragedies has been aboutreporting child abuse, so children can be removed from dangerous situations. Butthat’s far from an ideal solution. Just the very act of yanking children awayfrom their families and placing them into foster care can be damaging, no matterhow bad their situation and how great their foster parents are.
An Inlander investigation in 2011 founda foster care system battered by budget cuts, bureaucracy, overloadedcaseworkers and far too few foster parents. Recent years have shownimprovements — in Washington the numbers of complaints to the Office of the Familyand Children's Ombudsman have decreased, and in Idaho the legislature increasedits payments to foster parents this year, but even Child Protective Serviceswill tell you that placing children in foster care can be damaging.
“I don’t think the state does a very good job raising children,” saysNicole LaBelle, Deputy Regional Administrator of Spokane’s Department ofSocial and Health Services office. “We don’t want to place children in fostercare and disrupt everything that they’ve known.”
In Bialkowsky’s case, he decided to focus on the root causes. The risk forabuse skyrockets when parents are stressed and don’t have a way to deal withthat stress. So five years after Behan’s death, he opened Vanessa Behan CrisisNursery.
Stressed, low-income parents had a place to drop off their children when theywere overwhelmed. Because abuse is so closely linked to parents fightingstress on multiple fronts, one of the most effective ways to prevent abuse is toprovide relief for those parents.
“We are the only facility that I know of in our area that deals withprevention,” Bialkowsky says. “Once the abuse takes place, the child is scarredfor life.”
This July, thanks to an increase in summer staff, the nursery served a record458 kids.
“We have served over 75,000 children in the 26 years we’ve been in operation…I couldn’t tell you how many child abuse incidences — or perhaps deaths — we’veprevented,” Bialkowsky says. “But I know we’ve had a strong impact on many manythousands.”
At CPS, too, the focus continues to shift toward helping troubled parentsrather than placing children in foster care.
This January, Spokane will be one of only three cities in the state ofWashington to launch Family Assessment Response, a program that’s seen hugesuccesses in Minnesota and New York. It will start in two of the county’s mostimpoverished neighborhoods, West Central and Hillyard. Federal dollars thatnormally would have gone to foster care can now be used to aid troubledfamilies. Instead of threatening to remove their children, CPS would team upwith the family, get them what they need, and teach them to become betterparents.