As Mary Ann Murphy retires at the end of this month after 23 years as the founding director of Partners with Families and Children: Spokane, she leaves a legacy as a champion of children.
Under her leadership, the program earned a national reputation as an integrated service-delivery model combining health, child welfare, chemical dependency and mental health treatment.
“We do difficult work well and will stick with the children we serve through thick and thin,” Murphy says. “However, the core challenges we face are the twin evils of poverty and racism.
“Children are not receiving what they need in terms of food, clothing and supervision,” she adds. “Between 2001 and 2007, 85 percent of the cases we saw were the result of child neglect.”
An accredited children’s advocacy center, Partners focuses on youngsters who have suffered physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to drugs and violence.
In addition to services for at-risk children, it assists families with multiple needs, including individual and group counseling for parents.
During a 1980s conversation with Murphy and others, Spokane physician Alan Hendrickson jotted notes on a paper napkin. Those ideas became the inspiration for Partners with Families and Children.
The group was discussing how to serve and protect children who were physically and/or sexually abused. From those roots, a community effort grew to create a regional center for child abuse; organize doctors; coordinate the investigations of law enforcement agencies and Child Protective Services, the courts and other social and health treatment services; secure funding; and identify an advisory board.
Eventually it became an independent nonprofit organization with the sponsorship of Deaconess and Sacred Heart medical centers.
Prevention is a cornerstone program of Partners. That includes “Darkness to Light,” a curriculum designed to increase public awareness of child sexual abuse issues and educate adults to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to abuse.
“I have focused on prevention for most of the last six years. I believe we need to intervene before abuse occurs,” Murphy says.
“In my lifetime, we thought we had to be the voices for children, but I now believe that parent leaders are the wave of the future,” she says. “The answers must come from the people most affected by public policies. They must have a role in helping set the agendas and action plans.”
Her commitment to educating the public about child abuse and neglect was reaffirmed by helping to found the “Our Kids: Our Business” public awareness program in 2007, in partnership with fellow social service advocate and friend Marilee Roloff, president and CEO of the regional chapter of Volunteers of America.
Each April, the community “blooms” in solidarity as thousands of colorful pinwheels – the “Our Kids” call-to-action symbol – adorn public spaces, businesses and private lawns.
“Working the campaign has given a second wind to my career,” says Murphy. “When I started in 1988 at our child abuse treatment center, we could not imagine prevention.”
She knows that many children need treatment, yet most are too scared to come forward to reveal their family secrets.
In cooperation with local media, social service agencies, businesses and others, the “Our Kids” campaign engages the community in strengthening social connections for families; offering places to turn for basic needs in times of crisis; increasing knowledge about child development and parenting skills; and expressing to children that they are loved and belong.
Living in Texas in the early 1950s, Murphy observed her mother’s quest for social justice as a progressive Catholic.
“She was my mentor,” she says.
The family moved to Spokane when Murphy’s stepfather was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. She graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and the University of Washington, where she majored in political science.
After college, Murphy married and was a preschool teacher in Seattle, the Watts section of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
She was disturbed by and afraid of the child abuse and neglect she saw. So in 1973, after divorcing and returning to Spokane with her 10-month-old daughter, she pursued a master’s degree in developmental psychology at Eastern Washington University.
Murphy worked for 10 years with EWU’s department of applied psychology faculty, designing and administering two grants which were national models for financing early intervention services for high-risk infants and families.
When she left the university, she was a consultant for a year, but yearned for mission-driven service. In 1983, she became the executive director of Youth Help Association, now YFA Connections, where she helped develop social service programs in six service areas for youth, families and substance abuse treatment.
As she prepares to retire and evaluates challenges ahead for Partners with Families and Children, Murphy believes that, as federal and state funding collapses, the community needs to help find solutions to prevent child abuse and neglect.
Last fall, Spokane voters rejected the Children’s Investment Fund initiative, which would have generated $5 million each year to support youth programs through a property tax levy.
But Murphy is encouraged that Partners’ work was validated with a three-year $135,000 Asset Building Grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to support financial counseling for families of at-risk children.
“Partners and other nonprofits have had to make hard choices during this economic downturn,” Murphy says.
“To keep everyone employed and retain our level of skills, we had to reduce salaries and increase employee insurance contributions. We all shared the pain, but we held on to everyone.”
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