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Many say they’re willing to help prevent abuse, neglect

Wed., April 16, 2008

Ask residents of Spokane or Kootenai county if they’d volunteer to help prevent child abuse and neglect, and chances are good they’ll say yes.

When the Our Kids: Our Business survey did just that last month, 64 percent of those polled in Spokane County and 59 percent in Kootenai County said they’d be willing to volunteer for such a cause.

“I’m salivating,” said Kristine Ruggles, volunteer services director for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, where more than 200 volunteers logged 16,400 hours last year.

Like many social services agencies, she said, the crisis center relies on volunteers for a range of jobs, including watching children, staffing the reception desk and planning fundraisers.

With the level of support suggested by the poll results, organizations that protect children should have no problems finding volunteers, right?

Not exactly. The number who actually would volunteer to prevent child abuse and neglect – or for any other cause – might be lower than the survey suggests, said Del Ali, who operates the Research 2000 firm that oversaw the poll for The Spokesman-Review, and KXLY, KSPS and KHQ television stations.

People who told pollsters they would not volunteer – 13 percent in Spokane County and 16 percent in Kootenai County – were being truthful, Ali said.

“They’re not being callous, they’re being honest,” he said. “They may be thinking, ‘I don’t have time; I have my own family to run; I’m involved, I’m doing enough as it is.’ “

About one person in four in each survey said they weren’t sure if they’d volunteer. Some of them would probably have liked to say no but were afraid that would have seemed politically incorrect, Ali said. Others – possibly wondering if the next question would be “When are you free next Wednesday?” – might have been unwilling to commit, he added.

But while the high number of people who said they’d volunteer doesn’t translate to a sure thing for agencies, it is impressive and backs up other findings in the survey that suggest residents of Spokane and Kootenai counties are concerned about child abuse and neglect and believe something needs to be done to prevent it, he said.

Social services agencies are aware of a drop between the number of people who say they’ll volunteer and the number who follow through, regardless of the cause.

“From my experience, people are very well-intentioned, and sometimes they haven’t been exposed to the realities” of child abuse and neglect, said Sally Pritchard, of the United Way’s Volunteer Center. “Sometimes they can’t handle it. Sometimes they say, ‘This is not where my talents lie.’ “

Working with abused or neglected children requires a commitment, because many agencies mandate background checks and training.

The Salvation Army has dedicated volunteers who show up every day for a range of child welfare programs. Kim Petrusek, the organization’s social services director, said it can always use more. Some monitor parents’ supervised visits; some work at Sally’s House, a temporary foster care program for children removed from their homes by law enforcement or Child Protective Services.

Sally’s House volunteers have all been through a background check, filled out an information packet and completed two types of training, she said.

“It’s a pretty extensive process,” Petrusek said. It’s not done to put up roadblocks for would-be volunteers; it’s designed to protect the children who are placed in the organization’s care.

Almost any program that works directly with children requires such a process, said Susan Cairy, Spokane County Juvenile Court’s volunteer program coordinator.

“People should appreciate that – they should be glad (the agencies) are being cautious,” she said.

Cairy, who has been involved with Court Appointed Special Advocates for 18 years, said demand for volunteers is growing because funding for programs – and paid employees – is getting more competitive. Meanwhile, she said, the number of people available to volunteer seems to be shrinking.

Some people feel put on the spot when asked to volunteer and “feel guilty when they don’t say yes,” she said. But there are different levels of commitment, from several hours a week in a formal program to an hour a month teaching Sunday school or attending an annual benefit dinner.

People interested in helping can go to a United Way Web site,, enter their areas of interest, expertise and availability, and find something that fits, she said.

“You never know where you’ll be or when you’re going to do or say just the right thing that’s going to help a child,” she said.


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