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Dan and Libby round up your donations for Safe Place. (KIRO Radio)

Local volunteers offer abused children a "Safe Place"

There have been several tough stories about kids hitting the news cycle recently. Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley were convicted of manslaughter in the death of their 13-year-old adopted daughter, Hana. A 7-year-old boy was abandoned at Seattle's Nickelsville homeless camp by his mother. And just a few days later, a 4-year-old boy was allegedly injected with heroin by his own father.

Listener Kim Neill heard Ron and Don talking about these stories, and knew she had to reach out.

"I pulled over on the side of the road with my kids in the car the other day to send that email. That is who we see. That little boy? That's who we take in here."

Kim volunteers at Safe Place, a short-term shelter in Everett for children removed from their homes in emergency situations like drug raids, parents getting arrested, or abuse.

While these kids wait to get placed in foster care, their first stop is Safe Place for medical care, new clothes, and a comfortable environment to stay for up to 72 hours.

"I think the most heartbreaking story for me was a couple of homeless kids that came here," explains Executive Director Todd McNeal.

"A little girl with untreated STDs, they had broken bones, they had frostbite, infested with scabies and lice...I've just never been so broken for some kids. And they were so appreciative."

McNeal and his wife are foster parents who launched a version of the program out of their home over ten years ago.

"The little girl, I couldn't get her to even sleep without a coat on. She was telling me how cold she got, because they came in in the winter time.

"I just went home that night and just hugged each one of my kids and kissed them on the forehead. It's heartbreaking what these kids go through. They deserve better."

In Snohomish County, 400 kids will be removed from their families in emergency situations this year. It happens suddenly, with little warning, often in the middle of the night. And McNeal says that DSHS workers are normally put in the difficult position of caring for frightened children while they search for foster placement.

"They used to have to tell the kids, ‘We don't know where you're going,' and they would have to make these calls in front of the kids. So the kids would be hearing, ‘Can you take Johnny and Susie? Can you take just Johnny?'"

"They are driving around in the car with a social worker, or they are sitting in the office. Because there's no homes to take them," Kim confirms.

That's where Safe Place steps in. They are the front lines of foster care, a facility where kids find a safe, loving environment to wait for placement.

"Now the social workers, what they can tell the kids is ‘You are going to go stay with my friends, and you are going to love it. They have a playground and video games, and if you get the stay for the weekend, they're going to take you to the Children's Museum and Woodland Park Zoo, you are going to have so much fun,'" McNeal explains.

"So it takes that unknown, that uncertainty away from the kids."

Neill says kids usually arrive at the shelter with nothing more than a plastic garbage bag to hold their belongings.

"We had a toddler come in with a diaper and a men's size T-Shirt. We had another toddler come in with a bag of clothes, and it was all adult male clothes for this toddler. Most of the time they come with nothing."

But administrator Debra Albrecht says every kid who enters Safe Place gets new underwear, clothing, a tooth brush and shoes. And they always leave with a brand-new backpack or bag to hold it all.

"We tell the kids ‘Hey, why don't you go to the toy closet and pick out a toy?' And their eyes get so big," Albrecht laughs.

"We give them new backpacks, too. Some of the children just wear their backpacks all weekend."

McNeal says in counties without a Safe Place program, foster families are put in the difficult position of taking in children with undiagnosed sexual assault, disease, or mental health issues.

"When you get a call, you don't know who's coming into your home. We've had kids infested with lice, scabies, bedbugs, broken bones or sexual assaults we didn't know about. And then your whole family is exposed to this."

But the first stop for kids entering Safe Place is to get checked out by a Swedish Medical Center doctor, while social workers get a better picture of what that child needs to go to the right foster home.

"When that child goes to their foster home, they're going to have a snapshot of what their personality is, they're going to be treated for those communicable diseases, the social worker's going to have a better idea of the intensity of the abuse and what the kids went through," says McNeal.

"It helps them get the kids into the right placement the first time, instead of just finding an empty bed somewhere."

The Everett location of Safe Place is the only shelter like this in Washington State. When they have room, Safe Place also takes in children from Whatcom, King and Pierce Counties.

But Neill says right now, they turn away more kids than they serve.

"We get calls every day for kids. And because of our shortage of volunteers, we have to say no to those kids."

Safe Place is currently running solely on donations and volunteer hours, and McNeal wants to keep it that way as much as possible.

"If we're needing to take funding, that has to come from somewhere, and we believe the social workers are under- resourced right now. We believe the funds need to be at those DSHS offices with those social workers. And we believe caring for the kids is the community's responsibility."

To kids like the homeless brother and sister McNeal mentioned, little things mean a lot.

"We took them shopping next door to Fred Meyer. I think it was cigarette burns on the bottoms of their feet, so they had a hard time walking."

Neill says Safe Place volunteers bought the kids clothing, shoes, and some Hot Wheels and Barbie toys.

"They thanked us all the way through the parking lot and back to the office, they kept thanking us."

Safe Place can use more volunteers, donations, and funding. Please find out more info on how you can help at www.HandInHandKids.Org.

Libby Denkmann, Ron & Don Show Producer
Libby Denkmann is producer of KIRO Radio's The Ron & Don Show (weekdays 3-7). Libby is always on the run - literally.
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