Durga and Manju Ghalley speak limited English after moving to Spokane from Bhutan two years ago.
But it was easy to explain why the couple picked up a dozen free diapers at Mission Community Outreach Center last week for their daughter, Suprena, who’ll turn 2 this summer: “To protect her,” Durga Ghalley said.
The cost of diapers runs high quickly, and it’s a basic need many low-income parents struggle to meet. And a lack of diapers is a health problem that extends beyond diaper rash.
“There’s just a great number of people in Spokane that struggle with this basic necessity for kids,” said Mark Kinney, executive director at the outreach center in northeast Spokane. “Unfortunately, the kids are the ones who suffer if the parents are unable to provide, because they may sit in a wet or soiled diaper for hours because they don’t have any alternative.”
The outreach center been has distributing free diapers since it opened in 1996. It distributed more than 35,000 last year, Kinney said, a dozen at a time every 30 days. A dozen is about enough to keep a baby healthy for two days, Kinney said, while a family resolves a financial crisis.
“The need has been going up year after year,” Kinney said.
Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery gave away more than 217,300 diapers in 2013 – also usually about a dozen at a time every 30 days, said Dina Patrick, program director. Diapers in larger sizes, which fit babies for longer, “are forever on our wish list,” she said.
The nursery provides short-term care for newborns to 6-year-olds whose families are facing financial or other emergencies.
“We’ve had people come in with babies wrapped in a dish towel, because they don’t have diapers,” Patrick said.
Children left in wet or soiled diapers as their parents try to stretch their supply can get painful rashes, urinary tract infections or yeast infections. But they’re also at greater risk for long-term health and development problems, according to a study published last July in the journal Pediatrics.
The Yale University-led study of almost 900 women in Connecticut found a strong link between diaper shortages and mothers’ rates of stress and depression.
And research has found that when parents have high levels of stress or depression, “their children are at greater risk for social and emotional and behavioral problems,” said Joanne Goldblum, a co-author of the study, said in an interview. “It has a far-reaching effect in terms of child development.”
An adequate supply of diapers for one baby costs about $18 a week, or $936 a year, the study said. But assistance for buying diapers is “notably absent” from antipoverty efforts. People who receive benefits through Women, Infants, and Children or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can’t use those benefits to buy diapers.
Meanwhile, most day cares require kids to come with a supply of diapers, the study noted. No diapers means no day care means no work or job training.
“There are only so many clinical interventions you can provide, when in fact what people need are things,” said Goldblum, who is executive director of the National Diaper Bank Network, based in New Haven, Connecticut.
Along with stretching their supply by putting off diaper changes, the study found mothers who reported diaper need sought help from social service agencies or other organizations and borrowed diapers or money from family or friends.
Cassie Wnorowski brought her 1-year-old son, Daniel, with her last week to pick up diapers and clothing at Mission Community Outreach Center. Her boyfriend is finishing school, she said, while she waits on a background check for a potential job at Wal-Mart.
She said she’s rifled through her jewelry box looking for items to pawn and sold her baby’s outgrown clothing to raise cash to keep him in diapers.
While she’s careful never to leave Daniel in a wet diaper, she said, “it’s stressful.”
Susan Schultz manages the Spokane Regional Health District’s Nurse Family Partnership, whose public health nurses visit low-income, first-time mothers in their homes until their babies turn 2.
The mothers’ average family income is $7,500 a year, Schultz said. Cash assistance available through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal temporary aid program, usually totals less than $300 a month, which doesn’t cover housing, much less hygiene supplies, she said.
“Yes, diapers are a huge issue with these families,” Schultz said.
Diaper rashes and infections result when parents, trying to stretch their supply, wait too long to change their babies. Ultimately, the long-term effects may be more significant, Schultz said.
“Probably the bigger concern I would have is these kids are being raised in an environment where their basic needs aren’t being met,” she said. Wet babies cry for help, but their parents can’t provide it, and the babies’ needs go unmet. “And so that impacts their brain development,” Schultz said. “It impacts their ability to attach to their caregiver.”
Compounded with a lack of formula and other family stresses, she said, “all of these things can impact these kids and really create an environment where they just don’t grow well.”
The Mission Community Outreach Center recently finished a diaper drive, and cases lined the wall in a back room. They were sorted by size near the center’s entrance, ready for distribution by volunteers.
Other diaper drives run throughout the year, spearheaded by various organizations.
Inland NW Baby, the Spokane area’s only diaper bank, distributes diapers it collects from donors – and buys in bulk at lower prices using donated cash – to about 30 partner agencies, which give them to clients.
“There is never enough,” said Jesse Sheldon, president of the diaper bank’s board of directors. “If we had a million diapers today, we could get rid of them, and we could still use more.”