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Straining the Safety Net 

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f it takes a village to raise a child, you'd think a community the size of the Inland Northwest would be doing a great job serving the needs of all our kids. But are we? Hundreds of people work to weave the critical connections of our social safety net for children. We'll profile a few of those people and organizations in these pages. And yet there are children in the Spokane area who go hungry, live in unsafe environments and lack the resources needed to move toward a better life. Where are the holes in the web of social services that allow these children to slip through the cracks?


As director of Catholic Charities, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the most vulnerable people in the community, Rob McCann sees first-hand the social ills and power structures that hurt the vulnerable. The umbrella of Catholic Charities covers social services from refugee and immigration services to St. Margaret's Shelter for women and children to the House of Charity, where chronically homeless men can get a meal and shelter for the night. With programs that serve people across the spectrum, McCann and his team at Catholic Charities wanted to learn about the root causes that led people to seek services from the agency. Five years ago, they did some research to find out how they could make the biggest difference in the most lives, and they came up with one surprising common denominator.


"Without a doubt, the No. 1 need in the community is childcare -- safe, affordable childcare for families who are the working poor, families on the margins of socioeconomic life," he says. "We're consistently reading about kids who were left alone or with people they shouldn't be left with, and [the kids] end up hurt. Or killed."


Besides the all-important job of protecting children, safe and affordable childcare helps to keep families from teetering over the socioeconomic edge, McCann says.


"A child needs to be cared for in a warm, safe, nurturing environment," he says. "Lack of childcare is the biggest obstacle to safe families. When you trace a family's story of homelessness, somewhere there's a tale of losing a job, and it's often because a child was sick too much, or the family lost childcare because of behavior problems because that's what a kid sees because Dad's abusive. It all comes back to childcare.


"In my experience, childcare is the key factor in stabilizing a family," he says. "It helps mom and dad to be able go to work and not miss work and to be focused on work while they're there. It helps the kid to be in a positive, healthy place instead of someplace where they should not be left, and it helps prepare them for their education."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile finding good childcare is an issue for parents at all economic levels, it's especially difficult for low-income parents who cannot afford the fees at private childcare facilities. Government programs like Working Connections Childcare in Washington provide a subsidy for childcare to families whose income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, including former welfare recipients who are re-entering the workforce. But the government payments do not cover the cost of providing the care, McCann says.


"[Low-income parents] are the ones who need this child care, but we see fewer and fewer centers that'll take state-subsidized kids and less and less scholarship money available. They're the ones with the most special needs and yet they're the ones the least served."


After identifying the problem, Catholic Charities built St. Anne's Children and Family Center near Sacred Heart Medical Center. Opened two years ago in October, St. Anne's has space for 220 children, making it one of the largest childcare centers in the West. Thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation, St. Anne's is a technologically advanced facility with webcams in every room so parents can check in on their children from work.


The center accepts children from families who pay privately and families who are part of the state subsidized Working Connections Child Care program. Equal access to services is a social justice issue, says McCann, and at St. Anne's it's not unusual to see the child of a medical professional from Sacred Heart sitting in the sandbox next to the child of a single mother who's living at St. Margaret's Shelter.


"The only thing neater than watching those kids meet is watching those parents meet," he says with a smile. "It's a merger of good cultures."


He tells the story of a child who traveled from the shelter to a home high on the South Hill for a birthday party; later, the South Hill family visited their new friends at the shelter. "When you get those kids and parents to meet each other, they demystify each other," he says. "You find out we're all human beings."


St. Anne's is nearly full already and the demand continues. McCann says, "There's enough demand for low-income childcare in the community that we could build 10 more facilities like St. Anne's and we'd still have a waiting list. The problem is there are not enough spots for state-pay kids because the [reimbursement] rates are so low. For every state-pay kid we take, we lose $250 a month. We have a waiting list of low-income families here that's maybe 50 deep. We can't solve it all, but we can take a little piece at a time."





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& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen a child reaches school age, worries about childcare and safe environments do not end. Keeping kids busy and physically active after school can help prevent both obesity and the temptations of the street, but in recent years, local school districts have had to cut their budgets for after-school sports programs. Several organizations in the area offer sports and recreational programs, but many families cannot afford the fees and the cost of equipment needed to participate.


"There's a population out there that still can't afford [those programs]," says Mike Bresson of Skyhawks, a local group that organizes sports camps for children. "So we see a large population of kids going home and sitting in front of the TV, or getting in trouble, or maybe not being in a safe place."


In response, Bresson recently organized Active 4 Youth, a nonprofit group that raises funds to facilitate after-school sports programs open to all children regardless of ability to pay.


"Our mission is to bring those opportunities back to those kids," says Bresson. "For me, the two hot topics are the obesity issue for kids and the safety aspect, keeping kids off the streets and away from the juvenile crime that we see and that's on the rise. From my own experience with Skyhawks, I have seen how great after-school programs are for kids."





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& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ocal community centers also see directly the problems facing children and their families.


"What we see is that, inadvertently, children are the victims of poverty," says Anna Henry, who serves as vice president of the board at Spokane Valley Community Center, a private nonprofit started several years ago by a group of Valley churches. "They don't have a say in the decisions that their parents make. If Mom and Dad have substance-abuse problems or make bad financial decisions, [the children are] just along for the ride. So our mission is to do what we can to get people out of the immediate crisis situation they find themselves in."


One way the center does that is through its annual school supply drive. Center volunteers collect new school supplies, including pens, notebooks and backpacks, and then make them available to children from low-income families free of charge. For many children, it's the only way they can get the school supplies they'll need.


"It costs about $75 per child to buy school supplies," says Henry. "For people who live below the poverty level, that's a lot of money they don't have."


Last year, the program distributed new school supplies to more than 1,650 children. By giving the kids the supplies they need, the center aims to encourage school attendance, Henry says. "The longer you can keep a kid in school -- the more education they get -- the better chance they'll have for a better paying job later."


In addition to the center's own programs, including education for low-income parents, the building also houses the Spokane Valley offices for WIC, the Second Harvest Food Bank and SNAP. Rather than traveling all over the area, a client can find all of these services under one roof -- something that's especially important for someone without an automobile, especially while juggling jobs and childcare.


"At last count, 78 percent of the families we serve were working families, where one or both parents were employed but just not earning a living wage," Henry points out. "It's common for these parents to go without food so their kids can eat. This is happening here. In Spokane. It's difficult to help a child in poverty without helping the adults in their lives, too."





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& lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ach of these people comes face to face with suffering and tragedy every day, and yet somehow they're able to keep their heads up and face another day.


"So many children are going hungry right here in Spokane," says McCann. "We're a developed country, and we have children starving right here. It makes you want to cry. We see what happens to people when they grow up with mental illnesses that aren't treated, or they grow up being abused. By the time we see people in the day room at the House of Charity, we often can't help them.


"We're spending all our money on fortifying our borders and on a war," he continues. "Instead, we need to intervene and make these families' lives more stable."


To feel successful in social services and not burn out, a person must focus on the process rather than an elusive, far-off goal, it seems. "There's a lot of suffering out there, a lot of painful stories, but you focus on the good that's being done," says McCann. "You focus on the miracles, the good stories. You hold onto the good stories and keep it close to you. It fires your jets."





Catholic Charities: Call 358-4250 or visit www.catholiccharitiesspokane.org. Active 4 Youth: Visit www.active4youth.org. Spokane Valley Community Center: 10814 E. Broadway Ave., Spokane Valley. Call 927-1153 or visit www.spokanevalleycommunitycenter.org.

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