Imagine being taken from your home in the middle of the night. You are a young child and your parents have been abusive and neglectful to you and your siblings. Someone told on them. Someone who wanted to make sure you were safe. Now the police are going to make sure that they do not harm you anymore.
But there is a shortage of foster homes and the authorities must make a decision on where to take you. You long to be with your brothers and sisters but you are told that is not an option.
With no one able to open their home and their arms to you, the police who remove you from your home take you to the only option left – juvenile detention.
Afraid and confused, thoughts race through your mind. “I didn’t do anything wrong or break the law,” you say to yourself. “Why am I here? When can I see my brothers and sisters? What will happen to me? To my parents?”
This is exactly a scenario that occurred before Kinderhaven opened its doors in 1996. Sandpoint’s only private emergency shelter and group foster home, Kinderhaven has been home to more than 1,400 kids from Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai, Shoshone and Benewah counties.
“We actually are licensed to take kids from anywhere in the state,” said Kinderhaven’s executive director Phyllis Horvath.
According to Bonner County Magistrate Judge Debra Heise, before the opening of Kinderhaven placement options for abused and neglected children were limited to willing foster families and juvenile detention.
“A child has to be charged with a criminal offense to be detained, so sometimes the state would charge the child with a criminal offense that it might not otherwise have charged – just to provide the child with a safe place to stay,” said Heise.
She said Kinderhaven has been a huge asset to the community in that it provides immediate protection for all children and more long-term protection for children who are difficult to place.
“The level of care at Kinderhaven matches, in my view, the level of care available at the best foster homes,” said Heise, who in her position is required to make determinations of placement. “Kinderhaven also has raised community awareness of the plight of abused and neglected children, who are often unseen and unheard.”
Regarding the distress a child feels by not only the neglect and abuse, but also being taken from his or her home, Horvath agrees that Kinderhaven fills a void in the system that before tore siblings apart from one another.
“It is such a traumatic time in their lives,” said Horvath, of siblings who together face abuse at the hands of their caregivers. “But at least (with Kinderhaven) they don’t need to be split up. Those brothers and sisters need each other.”
When children were sent to juvenile detention or to another county, Horvath said it made family counseling and a plan toward reunification much more difficult.
Judy Labrie is the 1st Judicial District program supervisor and case manager for Court-Appointed Special Advocates and in her role has frequent interaction with Kinderhaven.
“When children living at Kinderhaven are in the legal custody of the state of Idaho, they each have a court appointed advocate, as do all children in foster care in our region,” explains Labrie. “The court appointed special advocate is appointed at the time the children are removed from their home and one of the advocate’s responsibilities is to look in on the children to see how things are going and to see if the children need anything more for their well-being while they are in foster care. So advocates visit kids at Kinderhaven frequently.”
She adds that both the community and the children who benefit from it are very fortunate to have Kinderhaven as a resource.
“That emergency shelter piece is so important because these children are coming from traumatic situations often in the middle of the night into a safe, calm, nurturing environment right away,” said Labrie. “It’s very important to these children to keep sibling groups together and Kinderhaven is one place in Bonner and Boundary counties that can do that. There are very few foster homes licensed for sibling groups of 4, 5 or 6. The added trauma of being separated is something we would all want to avoid for these kids.”
While Heise doesn’t know the exact statistics on the availability of foster homes, she does say that her sense is that teenagers and multiple siblings are difficult to place. And that, she says, makes Kinderhaven even more valuable than ever.
“Kinderhaven enables siblings to stay together,” said Judge Heise. “Foster families are often unwilling or reluctant to take more than one child, so where sheltered children include two, three, or as many as six siblings, the siblings can remain together until there’s a judicial determination that parental rights should be terminated or the children should return to their parents.”
Labrie agrees and said that in the end the goal is to take care of those who are most vulnerable.
“The ultimate support that a community can give children who have been abused, neglected and disrupted is to provide safe haven and sanctuary for them,” said Labrie. “This is what our community does by supporting and sustaining Kinderhaven. It simply comes down to that.”