When Dennis McGaughy first heard the news in a meeting a week ago Friday, he was shocked. The agency he heads, Lutheran Community Services Northwest in Spokane, will lose nearly $1 million a year.
That can’t be right, he thought. He was prepared to hear about budget cuts. But $82,571 a month? That couldn’t possibly be right.
As the days passed, it became clear. Not only would the county slash his agency’s budget overnight from $4 million to $3 million, but the cuts needed to be made within 30 days. Thirty days until 15 therapists and eight support staff walk out the door.
The agency’s waiting room will remain jammed full of women and children, yet many of the therapists they see will be gone.
Last week McGaughy lay awake in the night, worrying about all of those employees who trust his management to ensure they’ll have a paycheck to cover their mortgage and buy groceries.
He pedaled his anxiety over the Palouse Highway in the morning and thought of all the children the agency serves. They’re boys and girls like 8-year-old Shasta Groene who arrive in pain after being sexually abused. Some of those kids have not only been victimized, but are starting to sexually pursue other children as well.
He contemplated Joseph E. Duncan III, the man accused of stalking and killing the Groene family to kidnap Shasta and her 9-year-old brother Dylan. The man who chilled the spines of parents all over the Inland Northwest. The man who once was a boy desperately in need of treatment of his own.
He considered all the ways his agency, bound by tight privacy laws, quietly impacts the community. For every child like Shasta who makes the headlines through violent sex crimes, McGaughy estimates his agency sees another 100 children who we never hear about. They’re the victims of a stealthy form of sex abuse that hides in families and neighborhoods and rarely makes the news.
They come to Lutheran for help, and when they leave, McGaughy thinks of them as its silent alumni. Unlike college alums, who wear their school’s colors and proudly proclaim its value, these alums rarely turn to their neighbors and say, “I was abused as a child, and Lutheran Community Services changed my life.”
McGaughy picked up the phone. “I just don’t know that the community realizes what’s at stake,” he told me.
Last week I walked through the light, airy building on Sprague and Browne, the 100-year-old Alger-Bristol Hotel that last year was renovated into offices for the agency. I watched the children drawing in coloring books in the waiting room, their mothers beside them, the staff with their faces drawn and their eyes wide with anxiety.
While the place still emanated healing and hope, I also sensed a pall there, the kind that hangs over an office just as the layoffs are about to begin.
Last week McGaughy planned to tell 23 people they would lose their jobs. Most of them are therapists with master’s degrees who live on salaries of $26,000 to $34,000 a year because they consider their work a calling.
As I peered into the offices these therapists will leave, the converted rooms of the old single-occupancy hotel, I began to think Spokane needs a security warning system of its own. We call this city “a great place to raise a family.” But for the 1,200 children each year who come to Lutheran Community Services, life has slipped into a painful darkness.
If Spokane had a hometown warning system, we’d be edging from the orange level and into the red.
Last week we learned that $7.5 million will vanish from Spokane’s mental health system, for not just Lutheran Community Services, but for alternative schools and agencies across the county.
McGaughy said that in his 32 years in the nonprofit sector, he’s never seen anything like this. He’s used to budget cuts and layoffs. But not this – 29 percent of his workforce gone in a single week.
It’s still puzzling, the convoluted funding of these programs to serve low-income children. But it’s becoming clearer that the federal government is working hard to cut Medicaid funds, money that funnels through the state and county and into programs that help Spokane’s sexually traumatized children begin to heal.
It doesn’t take a leap of logic to notice that when a country’s spending billions fighting terror on the streets of Baghdad, it’s likely to run out of money to fight terror at home.
Imagine the fear you’d feel as a child if your stepfather or uncle were preying on you in the night. Imagine the humiliation and shame you’d endure, the confusion and pain, the betrayal and the horror. Imagine this bomb dropping into your life, its emotional shrapnel piercing your brain for years to come.
No, don’t imagine it. It’s too painful for you to contemplate very long.
But just tell me again why we’re spending billions fighting terror abroad, while for so many of our children, such deep terror lies right here at home.
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