Every once in a while, the Inland Northwest has been hit with a case of child abuse so grisly that it captivates and horrifies the entire community. In 2007 Spokane had the case of Summer Phelps, a red-headed 4-year-old girl who’d been electrocuted with a dog shock collar, beaten, and forced to stand in urine-soaked water washing clothes for hours. In 2010, Coeurd’Alene had the case of two 2-year-old twinswho police found covered in feces and bruises — the worst case of child abuse they’d ever seen.
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, a fractured skull and a fractured wrist.” The stepfather and the mother involved refused 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 a 5-year-old son. He felt he had to do something.
Much of the focus over stopping these sorts of tragedies has been about reporting child abuse, so children can be removed from dangerous situations. But that’s far from an ideal solution. Just the very act of yanking children away from their families and placing them into foster care can be damaging, no matter how bad their situation and how great their foster parents are.
An Inlander investigation in 2011 found a foster care system battered by budget cuts, bureaucracy, overloaded caseworkers and far too few foster parents. Recent years have shown improvements — in Washington the numbers of complaints to the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman have decreased, and in Idaho the legislature increased its payments to foster parents this year, but even Child Protective Services will tell you that placing children in foster care can be damaging.
“I don’t think the state does a very good job raising children,” says Nicole LaBelle, Deputy Regional Administrator of Spokane’s Department of Social and Health Services office. “We don’t want to place children in foster care and disrupt everything that they’ve known.”
In Bialkowsky’s case, he decided to focus on the root causes. The risk for abuse skyrockets when parents are stressed and don’t have a way to deal with that stress. So five years after Behan’s death, he opened Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
Stressed, low-income parents had a place to drop off their children when they were overwhelmed. Because abuse is so closely linked to parents fighting stress on multiple fronts, one of the most effective ways to prevent abuse is to provide relief for those parents.
“We are the only facility that I know of in our area that deals with prevention,” Bialkowsky says. “Once the abuse takes place, the child is scarred for life.”
This July, thanks to an increase in summer staff, the nursery served a record 458 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’ve prevented,” Bialkowsky says. “But I know we’ve had a strong impact on many many thousands.”
At CPS, too, the focus continues to shift toward helping troubled parents rather than placing children in foster care.
This January, Spokane will be one of only three cities in the state of Washington to launch Family Assessment Response, a program that’s seen huge successes in Minnesota and New York. It will start in two of the county’s most impoverished neighborhoods, West Central and Hillyard. Federal dollars that normally would have gone to foster care can now be used to aid troubled families. Instead of threatening to remove their children, CPS would team up with the family, get them what they need, and teach them to become better parents.