Courier Staff Writer
The walls seem to be closing in on juvenile shelters across the state as bed after bed is taken away due to a lack of funding.
Tracey Boxx-Vass, executive director of American Home Finding Association, as well as Judy Davidson, director of the Agency Shelter, traveled to the Iowa House earlier this month to speak with state Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, about increasing state funding for shelter care.
They requested a 5 percent increase in statewide emergency juvenile shelter funding.
“There’s no fluff in that,” Boxx-Vass said. “It’s a survival request. This doesn’t in any way, shape or form make us whole.”
The governor’s fiscal year 2014 budget cut $458,000 from shelters, she said, reducing the number of shelter beds statewide by 14 to 17.
The Iowa Senate has restored shelter funding in its budget, though the Iowa House’s budget made cuts even more severe than were originally proposed in the governor’s budget.
“Child welfare has been sustaining cut after cut after cut,” Boxx-Vass said. “At this point, we can’t sustain any further cuts. An increase is needed just to keep in business.”
Since 2007, 95 beds have been cut statewide, according to the Coalition for Family & Children’s Services in Iowa, which has been leading the charge alongside the Iowa Department of Human Services to “right-size” the shelter bed system in the state.
Right now, the Agency Shelter has 15 beds, though it is only contracted for 10 and only gets paid for 10. The shelter also has three unallocated beds.
“We get paid for the 10 no matter what,” Davidson said. “But we have to get permission to use the three beds before we get paid.”
A 5 percent increase would not “by any means cover our costs,” Boxx-Vass said, but it would keep the shelter from going out of business.
The pair have discussed the issue with area legislators, including Gaskill, as well as state Reps. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, and Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant.
Gaskill said she empathizes with the shelters.
“They haven’t had an increase for quite awhile and I think it’s time that they have one, and I’m going to do all that I can to see if we can make that happen,” she said. “It’s pretty tough out there for nonprofits trying to provide services for people.”
She said when the Democratic-controlled Senate’s version comes to the Republican-controlled House, “more than likely the House will substitute their bill for the Senate bill.”
“So it’ll probably go to a conference committee or just sit there, and nobody will do anything because in that budget there is also Medicaid expansion money, so there’s a lot of controversy about that bill,” Gaskill said.
Children from across Iowa
The shelters now fall under the umbrella of CWES (Child Welfare Emergency Services), as opposed to being stand-alone as they were in the past.
Agency Shelter covers nine counties in southeast Iowa, though it does sometimes take in children from outside its service area.
Shelters across the state have had to close due to budget cuts, including Davenport’s shelter. Some children from that region are now trickling into the Agency Shelter. The problem is when children are transferred across the state, they don’t have access to their parents, which is sometimes critical.
“One kid said he was going to a shelter two hours away, but he needed to work on problems with his mom and couldn’t,” Boxx-Vass said.
The real goal is to keep children out of shelters, Davidson said, because they’re “the end of the line.”
Shelters receive referrals from DHS, juvenile court officers and law enforcement. Children come to shelters when they have no place else to go, when they can’t be held at a hospital, when there’s no family or when foster care has repeatedly failed.
“And we’ve seen a progression in the types of kids getting more and more challenging,” Boxx-Vass said.
The children they see today have mental health problems — sometimes with multiple diagnoses — are sometimes very violent and have very low IQs.
Two types of children come in: juvenile delinquents or those from child welfare services.
“These kids have unique stories but there’s a common thread,” she said. “There’s neglect, abuse. They’ve seen well beyond what they should have in their youth. For the average citizen, we all live in our own worlds pretty comfortably. People cannot imagine what these kids have been through — it’s amazing some have even lived.”
Part of the shelter’s struggle is taking in those children that have been discharged from higher-level institutions, such as PMIC (Psychiatric Medical Institution for Children).
“The amazing thing is that some kids that could not be maintained at high-levels do well here,” Boxx-Vass said.
That success is in part due to the shelter’s staff and their longevity.
“It’s a high-stress job, and they’re not paid as well as they should be,” she said. “But they show the kids love and nurturing that maybe they’ve never got their entire lives. Kids will come back and tell us this is the best place they’ve ever been. If we do anything here, I hope we make them feel loved.”
Children at the shelter complete a point system, where every task is accounted for and given points, which can allow them different opportunities, such as off-grounds visits. The shelter also makes sure to get the children involved in the community, volunteering at area organizations.
But the point system doesn’t work for every child. A recent child only had an IQ of 60 and was extremely violent, “so we have to modify it,” Boxx-Vass said.
Sometimes children will stay at the shelter for only a few days; others have stayed for nearly six months.
“One recently, his mom had died of a drug overdose, and he had been sexually abused by his father and brother,” Boxx-Vass said. “Those are pretty common stories we hear at the shelter.”
Davidson said with more than 20 years experience with DHS, she has seen how scared some of these children are, especially when they’re picked up to be transferred elsewhere.
“How scary to have no control over your life,” Boxx-Vass said.
Many come to the shelter with only the clothes on their back.
“Like the fire department, they never know how many fires they’re going to have in a day ... we never know how many kids we’ll get in a day,” Boxx-Vass said.
High-stress, low pay
The shelter’s 17 staff rotate between three shifts with two people generally working the overnight shift.
“Each year, insurance costs go up, we have to pay for property damage, get more sophisticated computer equipment and train staff,” Boxx-Vass said.
Allowable growth should be considered for shelters, she said.
“Our expenses keep going up,” she said. “And we have to keep quality, trained staff, who are committed and are highly educated. If we’re paying them a dollar or two above what they’d make in fast food ... wow.”
A bright future is possible
Many of the children are now “shining examples” that your “past doesn’t have to dictate where you're going,” Boxx-Vass said. A 13-year-old that watches a 20-year-old who used to be at the shelter graduate from high school and go to college can have hope for his or her own future.
“We’re with them around the clock,” Davidson said. “We know their needs.”
The community has rallied around the shelter, they said. They’ve seen an outpouring of gifts and donations from businesses, churches and individuals.
“First Presbyterian wanted a list from each kid [for Christmas],” Boxx-Vass said. “They didn’t want to give them generic gifts.”
Everyone at the shelter is thankful, she said, because money for things such as gifts and trips to the movies or restaurants just are not in the budget anymore.
“What would happen to these kids if we don’t have the shelter beds?” Davidson said. “We’re full now, and we’re still getting calls.”