Crisis Nursery, CASA gives safe environment for children in need

By Sam Schrage, Staff writer

A flurry of activity fills the room as a group of children play. Two girls, no older than three, play with dolls in the right-hand corner of the room. A woman hums and holds an infant in a rocking chair on the opposite side of the room. The ABCs are cheerfully sung by a group of five- and six-year-olds seated in a circle in the center of the room.

Upon first glance, all of these kids appear to be enjoying everyday playtime. However, each of these children is suffering from a crisis at home that could negatively affect their emotional or physical well-being. Because of this, Crisis Nursery provides 24-hour care in a safe environment for children during a time of hardship.

As of Dec. 31, 324 children were placed in foster care in Champaign County, according to a statistical report by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).

Child abuse and neglect is a serious issue in Champaign-Urbana that threatens the emotional and physical well-being of children. Crisis Nursery and the Champaign County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are two local organizations that strive to prevent child abuse and neglect.

CASA provides legal representation for abused and neglected children in the Champaign County court system. The legal representatives work closely with the volunteer advocates to learn about each child’s situation in order to advocate for his or her best interest in court.

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    “We see where the kids are placed, we interact with their schools; we talk to them frequently so we have the ability to make a non-biased recommendation to the court and give a different set of eyes to the judge on what we think should happen,” Rush Record, executive director of CASA, said.

    CASA serves nearly 400 children every year, with ages ranging from newborns to 18-year-olds. The organization maintains a staff of about 100 volunteer advocates to manage every child’s case.

    Advocates are mandated to complete a 30-hour training session in which they learn about confidentiality, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health and the impact of trauma.

    Above all, advocates are familiar faces to children who are surrounded by new people, schools and experiences.

    “When children go into foster care, they come into a lot of upheavals because they’re away from everybody they know,” Robin Stapf, CASA advocate coordinator, said. “These children move foster homes, they have new caseworkers, they have new therapists. To see that advocate lets them know that there’s someone consistent still in their corner that cares about them. Our kids develop a real sense of trust with our advocates.”

    According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, child abuse and neglect includes physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, serious harm or any act resulting in death. The organization also lists the different types of child abuse and neglect to be physical, emotional, sexual or substance abuse, as well as physical, medical, educational or emotional neglect.

    CASA deals with a lot of these issues in the cases they work with; however, the most dominant issues are domestic violence and substance abuse.

    “The way that domestic violence impacts a child emotionally and mentally is so much more damaging than what people realize,” Stapf said. “It’s amazing how much a young child can be affected by arguing, fighting and physical altercation and how it impacts them.”

    At the Crisis Nursery, children are protected from these types of abuse and neglect. The facility provides a 24-hour “island of safety” for children whose families might be experiencing a crisis ranging from a medical emergency to parental stress.

    “One of the largest reasons why we do serve families and why families are calling us is parental stress,” Jessica McCann, Crisis Nursery program coordinator, said. “When we provide care and reduce stress for families, we can be that extra support system for families.”

    During their stay, children ages 0 to 6 are fed, bathed, provided with basic needs such as diapers and clothing and are engaged in developmental learning activities.

    As of July 2017, Crisis Nursery has served about 860 children.

    Although CASA and Crisis Nursery are active in the community in trying to prevent child abuse and neglect, it’s up to community members to spread awareness and report child abuse and neglect.

    “It’s important that we are all advocating for children,” McCann said. “Many times they are not the ones with the voice, and if we can provide a safe place for them and become a voice for them, we can help families find that answer that helps them provide safe parenting.”

    Sally Warnick, a local community member, calls for the advocacy of child abuse after she experienced the issue firsthand.

    “My oldest son was sexually abused by my boyfriend at the time and it was the worst thing I have ever gone through,” Warnick said. “Children are so helpless and it’s difficult for families to afford decent childcare and get the help they need.”

    McCann urges families to call the Crisis Nursery hotline at 1-217-337-2730. Both organizations urge those who suspect child abuse or neglect to report it immediately to the DCFS hotline at 1-800-252-2873.

    “I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to get into someone’s personal life,” Stapf said. “If we make it totally uncomfortable and people don’t want to talk about it, then kids aren’t going to say ‘Someone is hurting me.’ It’s important for the adults in their lives to speak up.”

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