‘A Source of Hope’

Melissa Gonzalez, second from right, worked with Family & Children Services foster care specialist Natalie Kennedy, second from left, to regain custody of her children, from left, Michael Carney Jr., Madison Carney and Makayla Carney.
Family & Children Services helps families put pieces back together

Poverty isn’t just about lack of money. It’s a condition that disrupts people’s lives in profound ways.

Picture a single mother who is a victim of domestic violence and has to manage a low-paying job and take care of her three children on her own — without adequate transportation. Whatever she faces next — an unexpected illness or bill — can bring her to the breaking point.

Those breaking points can become extremely detrimental for a family, create obstacles for healthy parenting, impair workplace performance, initiate violence, child abuse or neglect, and lead to depression and substance abuse.

“The people we work with haven’t had a lot of breaks,” says Family & Children Services CEO Rosemary Gardiner. “It’s about people being so overwhelmed by a lack of resources that they don’t know what to do. If they have mental health issues or lack social and emotional skills, they have an added burden of holding a job or taking care of their family.”

That’s when Family & Children Services can help families. For more than a century, the agency, which offers behavioral health and child welfare programs and services, has worked to preserve and reunite families as well as to provide them with skills to help prevent greater dysfunction. The agency has begun construction on a $5.1 million expansion that will enhance its work with families in identifying and reducing the obstacles they face while providing them with tools and resources for everything from effective parenting to dealing with behavioral health issues.

Many of the agency’s clients are individuals and families who are asset limited, income constrained and employed, or ALICE, an acronym coined by the United Way to describe the “new poor.” They are the mechanics, home health aides, day-care workers, kitchen workers and office assistants who do essential, low-skill work in our communities but still struggle to make ends meet. Most Family & Children Services’ clients fall into an even lower category of poverty — 79 percent have a total income that falls below federal poverty guidelines. Many times the stressors for adults in these situations far outweigh their coping skills.

“When I first came to Family & Children Services 40 years ago, there were only 14 staff,” Gardiner says. “Now we have nearly 200 staff who serve 9,000 clients each year on-site in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties and off-site in Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties, in client’s homes and at schools, community organizations and respite houses. During that time and throughout our 112-year history, our mission to serve the community has never changed.”

And that mission is to be “a source of hope” for people who need counseling, foster care or adoption, mental health services, youth development or parenting support.

“People walk in with baggage, and we help to unwrap it with them,” Gardiner says. “We sort out what needs to be worked on with our clients and stand with them to offer the tools for them to help themselves.”

Poverty, along with family violence or substance abuse issues, is devastating for children, she says.

“Most of the oldest kids soldier on to help the younger kids because the parent or caregiver can’t manage the household,” she says. “Sometimes these children feed the younger ones, change their diapers and find safety.”

Gardiner tells how one older child found the closet was the safest place for his siblings to survive when violence erupted in his family’s meth house.

“The tragedy of all of this is the amount of trauma children have experienced and that we’re surprised when the child cannot perform in school,” Gardiner says. “Many times it is an issue of ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences), where their brain function is affected.”

Gardiner says children learn about coping with life’s challenges and parenting by observing their own parents. Negative coping skills are likely to be repeated in subsequent generations — unless the child or parent learns different, more effective methods of coping.

“The best thing we do is to interrupt family dysfunction,” Gardiner says. “It’s like bringing a little light into the darkness. We share with our clients that there’s a way other than the automatic reaction of yelling and hitting children.”

Alternative methods may be as simple as turning off the television and getting on the floor with the child when the parent needs the child to respond. Coached family visitation at Family & Children Services gives birth parents and their children who have been removed from their homes a chance to practice new behaviors and, ultimately, to change together.

Gardiner says 59 percent of the agency’s clients are youth under 19 years old, and, through a community system of safety nets, staff at Family & Children Services help their clients take advantage of available services for the good of their families.

The aim of the child welfare services is to provide safe, permanent homes and well-being for children without parents or without any family members able to take care of them. Family & Children Services currently licenses nearly 115 foster homes for more than 250 children annually. However, more homes are always needed.

“Our staff creates a plan that helps to stabilize the child’s home and visits with his or her birth family,” Gardiner says. “We also support our foster parents and, with them, check on the child’s school progress and medical and dental care while the child is in our care. It’s also our job to partner with the court system, where there are many checks and balances mandated by the state’s foster-care system. And, if there is no chance for reunification with a birth parent or a relative appropriate to care for the child, we move toward adoptive placement.”

It would seem that the agency’s staff would be discouraged by the weight of responsibility they carry, but staff members say they make sure to celebrate their successes and maintain a caring and supportive culture.

What attracts people to such difficult work?

“Family & Children Services staff are very interested in the human condition, the challenges and strengths people have, and they have the passion and vision for how people’s lives could be improved,”
Gardiner says. “This is the source of hope for them in their work, and we transfer that hope to our clients.”

In October, Family & Children Services broke ground on $5.1 million in improvements to its Lake Street campus to be able to more effectively work with families. The expanded facility will have bigger and more family visitation rooms and outdoor space, where birth parents and children spend time together working to learn new, more functional behaviors. In addition, existing space is being repurposed to expand youth services to provide social and emotional skill-building groups. Construction of the new facility is expected to be completed in late summer.

“Family & Children Services has remained responsive to changing community needs over time, which has resulted in unwavering community support for the agency,” Gardiner says. “During our recent capital campaign, businesses, foundations and private donors alike understood the agency’s need and vision and responded as partners in building community. They joined us because they too care deeply about strengthening families and reducing childhood trauma. This outpouring is incredibly humbling for Family & Children Services.”

For Family & Children Services staff, the most rewarding thing at the end of the day is helping people find a new direction that gives them hope, Gardiner says.

“We can’t take families out of poverty, but we can help them parent or have their children returned from foster care, reduce the amount of fighting at home and help them engage more with school.”

For information on Family & Children Services, visit fcsource.org or call 344-0202.

Olga Bonfiglio

There was no better writer to take on our story about the economic redevelopment of the Northside than Olga. She has taught urban development at Kalamazoo College for several years and was the host of Public Voice, a Community Access Center show interviewing local urban redevelopment leaders. She has previously written for the Huffington Post, U.S. Catholic, Planning (the trade journal for urban planners) and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

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