Fund for the Needy
Childhaven's weekend foster parents help defuse crises
Seattle Times staff reporter
To anyone who has raised a toddler, breathe deeply and recall the tantrums. Such iron will from someone weighing just 2 dozen pounds; such loud wails from tender vocal cords.
All that writhing and screaming in endless crescendos, indisputably stressful.
But what if you had other worries, too: no home, no job, no loved one close by to lend a quick hand?
Childhaven, a local agency devoted to abused and neglected children, offers help to distraught parents. It provides telephone counseling as well as emergency child care in local foster homes, both free of charge.
"It's about preserving families," says Linda Porter, who directs the Crisis Nursery at Childhaven, a Seattle Times Fund For The Needy agency. "Sometimes parents just need to know someone's there."
For parents in King County, someone is routinely Lindsay and Tony Blackner.
It's been years since the Blackners have had to change diapers, push a stroller or endure sleepless nights for their own child. Their son, Reily, is almost 11.
But every month, they act as a foster family, taking in children, Lindsay Blackner explains, because she doesn't want to live in a comfortable "bubble."
"We were brought up to understand you can make a difference as a volunteer," she says, recalling the lessons learned from her parents. "I learned you have a responsibility to share."
Child abuse and neglect took center stage in the collective consciousness in the 1970s, and the goal then was to educate parents and find ways to treat children. A core part of Childhaven is its therapeutic child-care program.
But a lesser-known service is the agency's Crisis Nursery, founded on a belief that risky situations should be immediately defused.
Crisis nurseries offer parents temporary respite. At Childhaven, the respite is up to 72 hours of emergency overnight child care. A parent's decision to place a child in the nursery is typically voluntary and confidential. Unless they ask or there are signs of abuse or neglect, the agency doesn't forward names to Child Protective Services.
Maggie Edgar, who until recently worked with a national respite network and resource center, says there are at least 70 crisis nurseries in the United States, including eight in Washington.
She says no one can argue there aren't times when parents feel out of control.
"I can remember a time being so angry at my oldest. She was about 6, and she had glued some papers onto a wall with that kind of permanent glue. I was all ready to shake her and suddenly I let go and said, 'Oh my God. I have to take a break,' " Edgar says. "Some people, unfortunately, don't have the skills or the resources to be able to step back."
Childhaven's Crisis Nursery, which serves children up to age 7 and sometimes their older siblings, is the only such program in King County.
The nursery operates on $170,000 a year, most of it from private donations. Little marketing is done for two reasons: limited resources and the lack of foster families.
At this time, Childhaven can count on only four families for overnight emergency care. The agency can place children during the day at a day-care center in North Seattle.
Those who seek the service are mostly single moms seeking relief from tantrums, sleep deprivation, general burnout or postpartum depression.
But there have been other reasons to find an emergency caregiver. One mom wanted a break so she could thoroughly clean an apartment before she and her baby moved in. Another mom in a new job was assigned a graveyard shift at the last minute. A third wanted to enter an in-patient chemical dependency treatment program. In some situations, such as the latter, the agency can place a child for up to 30 days.
The effectiveness of the crisis nursery, program director Porter says, is measured in what clients say about the service. In some of the anonymous comment forms on file at Childhaven, the word "lifesaver" is used more than once.
"You guys have been a lifesaver for me. I am less stressed out on a daily basis just knowing your [sic] here," one woman wrote.
"We're like an extended family," Porter says. Sometimes, that means giving advice. And sometimes, it's someone able to give mom a break.
Lindsay Blackner keeps a ready supply of pacifiers, Baby Wipes and Cheerios at her Kirkland home. She stores a high chair in the attic, a stroller in the basement, a crib underneath her bed. (It takes her 15 minutes to put it together.)
Her strong organizational skills allow her to shift seamlessly between her regular life and her Childhaven life, says husband Tony, a Boeing engineering manager.
On a shopping trip, for example, Lindsay Blackner bought infant clothes, figuring they might come in handy. Same with a package of toothbrushes.
She was working full time as a human-resources director when she learned about Childhaven and made a donation. But when she decided to work part time, she also wanted to do volunteer work, something "more than just licking envelopes and stuffing stuffers," she says.
Being a weekend foster parent sounded appealing.
"Anything is doable for 72 hours," she says.
Yes, the Blackners hesitated and worried about the responsibility. But they went through the state's 18 hours of training. They learned they could choose their preferred weekend. And they believed the children would impart a valuable lesson about haves and have-nots to their son.
Recently, the couple sat in their living room, in a renovated cottage with hardwood floors, exposed beams and a reindeer and holly still adorning a fireplace.
They recalled their four years as a foster family.
There is nothing like holding a warm, nuzzling baby, she says.
"I get to go to the zoo again!" he says. "I get to play!"
They explain they don't want attention for what they do. That's one reason they declined to be photographed for this story. Only a few friends know.
And to maintain the confidentiality of clients, they say little whenever they're at one of Reily's basketball or soccer games with a baby in tow.
But they've invited a reporter into their home and agreed on a watercolor portrait because the cost to them is little, they say, if it can prompt donations to Childhaven.
And maybe, they add, others might decide to open up their homes, too.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company