By JoAnn Zajicek, Director, Center for Women and Children
Not yet two years old, the girl consistently wakes up with night terrors. She’s been in three foster homes since birth.
An 11-year-old boy stomps down the corridors with clenched fists, barely looking up. When he does, his young eyes are defiant and angry, clearly indicating a distrust of adults. Much of his early life was spent living under a dilapidated bridge and begging money for his mother.
A petite three-year-old, desperately craving attention and security from a father figure, continually runs up to male staff, clutching their trousers in hopes of being swooped into their arms.
These are just a few examples of the children we see at the Union Gospel Mission’s Center for Women and Children. They come from hurting homes. They’re too young to understand, but not too young to be hurt and impacted by the choices of others.
In the six years we’ve been open, we have seen a rise in the number of women and especially children served. On average, about 36 women and 34 children live in our residential LIFE Recovery Program at any given time. When we opened our doors in 2012, the ratio of women to children was about 6 to 1. Today, the ratio is virtually 1 to 1. That is, there are almost as many children as adults.
This has created a dynamic that we didn’t have to address previously.
Women come through the doors wanting life change. Many are seeking reconciliation with their children who have been placed into child protective services and foster care because of the mom's addictions. These mothers are filled with shame and regret, wishing things were different. They’re desperately seeking a new way for themselves and their children.
Put on your own oxygen mask
If you have ever flown in an airplane, you have heard the flight attendant advise guardians to put their own oxygen mask on first, before placing one on their child. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is to ensure that the adult will not pass out and be unable to assist their children later.
It is the same for the moms in our program. If a mom has been separated from her children for an extended amount of time, we have found that she is more successful when the first four-month phase of our program is devoted to her own recovery process, addressing her own hurts and wounds before reunification with her children. By taking care of their own issues, they can be healthier to meet the needs of their children.
Many mothers try to hurry the process. Time and time again, I have witnessed mothers struggle once the children are with them, even putting their own recovery at risk. Their children are dealing with their own hurts and abandonment issues and may demonstrate a variety of dysfunctional coping behaviors which moms have difficulty addressing.
Parenting is much more challenging than many women ever anticipated. They frequently ask, “How do I parent when I wasn’t parented well myself?” It isn’t uncommon for women to share that they did drugs with their own moms (and even grandmothers) since they were young.
Breaking the cycle
The Union Gospel Mission is here to help break that cycle of abuse, pain, and neglect, and to provide women with the support they need. We offer a safe and healing environment where children can begin to feel secure and experience the consistency and love they desperately need.
We have found the process more effective when we partner together with Mom and CPS, meeting regularly to discuss the reunification process and helping Mom to get the tools she needs to successfully unite with her children.
Here at the Center, we offer a variety of parenting and life skills classes, along with a parent support group. We utilize Trust-Based Relationship Intervention (TBRI), a development program for children coming from hard places. It offers caregivers specific tools to provide effective support and treatment for at-risk children.
Using TBRI, moms learn not to focus just on the perplexing behavior, but on the needs of the whole child. We have begun to train our staff, volunteers, and residents in this intervention, and have found that it is effective with both adult and child residents.
Offering a healthy home
As a mom receives healing, she creates a healthier environment for her children. However, we recognize that this is not always enough. Our Children’s Department is growing and we need to provide more services to meet the children's needs. We are moving in that direction, partnering with community resources to provide additional support, like trauma therapy and counseling.
Volunteers play a significant role at CWC, providing professional services, case management, and friendly arms for children. As the needs of the children’s department grow, the need for volunteers increases too. We are continually seeking healthy, enthusiastic individuals who want to make a difference in a child’s life.
Recently, after completing our program, a mother and daughter moved into their own apartment. Mom is working and doing very well. This little family still comes regularly to eat in our dining hall and to visit with the residents and staff. The little girl, who spent 2.5 years living here, gets excited when they turn the corner near our facility. She cries out, “Home, Mommy, home.”
If you’re interested in providing consistent “friendly arms” for a child at the Center for Women and Children in Coeur d’Alene, please come to our next volunteer orientation! They are generally held the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month. Call 208.665.4673 to confirm dates and register.