Child Enrichment forced to continue mission without emergency shelter

This is to the citizens of Burke, Columbia, Richmond and surrounding Georgia counties.

Child Enrichment has served the abused, abandoned and neglected children of the region since 1978, when the first child was accepted into the emergency shelter. Then the Child Advocacy Center was established in 1986, and the Court Appointed Special Advocate program was established in 1995.

On Friday, the Child Enrichment board of directors voted to suspend emergency shelter operations. This decision was made after experiencing a year of reduced referrals of children to the shelter. In the six months from July 1 through Dec. 31, only 10 children were admitted to the shelter, as compared to 49 children being admitted during the first six months of 2005.

The specific reasons for this very difficult decision are:

- Children have not been referred for emergency shelter services in adequate numbers to keep the facility open.

- Maintaining 24-hour staffing, 365 days a year, is not financially feasible, nor responsible, considering the numbers.

- Financial losses that will compromise the overall operation of Child Enrichment, the Child Advocacy Center and CASA must be avoided.

- The mission of Child Enrichment is best served by concentrating on programs serving the greatest number of abused, abandoned and neglected children.

We need you to know that Child Enrichment has diligently pursued all possible avenues to continue to serve abused, abandoned and neglected children through the shelter program. In addition, please note the huge numbers of children being served by the Child Advocacy Center and CASA programs, which are presented below.

While the shelter has experienced a drastic reduction in children to be served, during the previous fiscal year the Child Advocacy Center provided 381 forensic interviews for children suspected of having been sexually abused, and provided services to 302 of their nonoffending caregivers and siblings. The CASA program served 467 children in the same time period, giving them a voice in court, and finding them safe permanent homes.

From July 1 through December 31 of this fiscal year, CASA has served 310 children, and the Child Advocacy Center 166, representing 97.6 percent of all children served. The shelter has accounted for just over 2 percent of the children served by Child Enrichment.

While it appears that the state is making drastic changes to the foster care system, it also appears that increasing relative placement and building foster home numbers may save the state millions of dollars annually. The state is investing in this plan, and they are communicating that children will be safe. We are cautiously optimistic.

The state's new plan in addressing child abuse and neglect, and in serving the foster children of Georgia, includes diversion, placement with relatives, and foster home placement. Diversion is a program that offers the state an alternative to taking custody of children alleged to be abused or neglected. The program emphasizes investing resources to keep families together. The state is communicating that every child needs a family. Child Enrichment's shelter is categorized as an institution.

Over the past year, the board of directors researched and investigated all aspects of the reduced use of the shelter and conducted dozens of meetings; hundreds of telephone calls were made and scores of letters and e-mails sent. Since last February, the director and board members have sought answers to the question: Why are children not being referred to the shelter?

Those answers did not come quickly. We have met with B.J. Walker, state commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, twice; Mary Dean Harvey, state director of the Department of Family and Children's Services, twice; and written Gov. and Mrs. Perdue, who responded through Abel Ortiz, human services policy advisor to the governor. We have had six meetings with the local DFCS director, and we also met with, and provided a tour to, the regional DFCS director. We have clearly communicated that without children, maintaining the shelter operation would not be possible. In addition to this, letters have been written to state officials and legislators about the DHR/DFCS policy and procedural changes through the Georgia Emergency Stabilization and Assessment Centers for Children.

For those of you who know us well, you know that this has been a very difficult decision, and the entire process has been painful. Literally, we have experienced the various stages of grief as we first pursued a solution to the reduced use of the shelter; then tried program revisions to serve more children; and finally came to acceptance of the reality. The state does not intend to use emergency shelters as it once did. It would be irresponsible to incur additional financial losses, and it is obvious that services provided through CASA and the Child Advocacy Center are needed much more at this time. The mission of Child Enrichment is best served by concentrating on these programs.

Child Enrichment is fortunate to have a long, rich history of providing excellent services to the most vulnerable and victimized children of the region. These programs and our employees have saved the lives of hundreds of children, and have made the lives of thousands of others much better and safer. Your knowledge of this program change is important to the organization moving forward. Your continued support of Child Enrichment, specifically for the Child Advocacy Center and CASA program, is needed.

Please address any questions about Child Enrichment's suspension of shelter operations to either of us.

Editor's note: The writers are, respectively, the executive director and board president of Child Enrichment.