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.