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One woman's story exemplified the power of long-term relationships to help people heal

Jennifer Starkweather’s story of finding help through the Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Outreach Center exemplifies both how funding changes lives and the power of a personal testimony in telling of a nonprofit’s value.

Despite the stability of growing up in Wenatchee the daughter of a physician and a stay-at-home mother, she told donors attending the center’s Nov. 18 benefit luncheon that she grew restless and discontented, and started drinking and partying at 12.

“I made many bad choices and suffered negative consequences.  I would lie about where I was and be with friends,” she said, telling of blaming her family and friends for her misfortunes.

“My parents tried to help me with counseling and anti-drug programs.  Everything lost meaning.  While living in a van with my four children in 2004 in Spokane, I was arrested for drunken driving.  My girls were placed briefly with Child Protective Services.”

Martin Luther King Family Outreach
Sherri Louis and Candace Greene are family intervention specialists for the program

The public defender referred her to the Martin Luther King Center.  She began meeting with Sherri Louis, family intervention specialist with the center’s Family Care Program, supported with Continuum of Care funds through the Department of Social and Health Services.

“I believed and trusted Sherri,” Jennifer said.  “She said I could turn my life around for myself and the girls.  July 4, 2004, was my personal independence day.”

Jennifer became active in a support group, working to learn who she was.  She completed the six-month residential substance abuse treatment program at Isabella House to address her addiction. 

Sherri met with her there and helped her transition as she moved back home with the girls’ father.

“Now I am a loving and active mother,” Jennifer said, noting that her father, who came to the luncheon, told her he is proud of her.  “That’s my reward, too.”

At the close of the event, her father unexpectedly asked to speak.  He praised the program for reaching his daughter.

“We went all over the state,” he said.  “My wife and I sponsored her in six different programs.  After the police stopped her in Spokane, the community did something and changed her life.”

Funding cuts for the program from which she benefited, however, were already in the works.  They take effect in January.

Suzanne Kolbe, family services program director at the center, and Sherri described the program, which has provided long-term assistance for families to prevent child abuse and neglect.  It has served about 70 families a year.

“Continuum of Care funds have provided for home visits, hands-on parenting training, on-call crisis intervention and cultural consultation for sensitivity by other service providers,” said Suzanne, who came from Transitions three years ago to oversee the 12-year-old program.

“We have served high-risk families whose children are not in CPS protective custody to prevent abuse, and families who are reunified after children are released home from CPS to prevent relapse,” she said.

The $72,000 provided by the DSHS has been cut completely. 

“We have helped identify problems and alert CPS if there is a relapse or a return to violent relationships,” Suzanne said.

“Many say they succeeded because of long-term support,” she said.   “We will continue fee-for-service contracts with CPS to do family preservation, but we will be limited to three-months with the possibility of extension for another three months.  We will look for other sources and will urge the state to restore funds.”

Sherri, who has been with the program since it began, said it is particularly effective for families of color and biracial families.  The center started it to assure cultural needs are met and respected.

As the mother of two biracial sons and an Anglo daughter married to a Hispanic man, she knows cultural differences in parenting.

“My parenting styles differ from those of my husband, who is African American.  We teach our children to be proud of who they are and to celebrate both of their cultures,” Sherri said.

Through the Continuum of Care, her background has helped her elicit and sense issues that help her form relationships as she works with families.

“Even if I have had to go to court to testify against parents having their children back, they continue to work with me, because we have a trusting relationship,” she said.   “When some who completed the program eight years ago call me on occasion, they remind me why I am committed to the program.”

Trust is the key reason three- or six-month limits impede progress for many families, Sherri said.

“Although there is cultural training for service providers,” she said, “often in the daily work of implementing all the requirements of their jobs, they can lose sensitivity to those issues.”

Sherri reminds those providers, so their expectations and actions respect each family’s culture.

Most of her work in parent education, support and case management is about life-skills mentoring, particularly related to drug abuse, another reason why long-term follow-up is critical. 

“It’s easy for the parents to give up, but I refuse to let them give up,” Sherri said.  “That does not mean I don’t challenge parents who cannot parent.  I’m upfront, telling them I will testify against them in court if I have to.”

As she continues with the center’s family preservation services, she expects that the short-term case management will mean more terminations of custody and more stress on the foster care system.

“There are few foster families now,” she added.  “The alternative of CPS intervening but leaving children in the home with no prevention services also has limits.  We pay either now or later.”

Sherri believes children benefit by staying in their own homes while their parents work to change, rather being taken from their homes to live with strangers.  For children to stay with their parents, she knows the families need support.

“It’s tough work,” said Sherri, a member of Morningstar Baptist Church, “so my faith helps.  Not a day goes by that I don’t pray.  As I’m riding to work, I ask God to give me wisdom to pass on to families to make them healthier.”

She relies on God’s wisdom, her life experiences, her background with the program and her readiness to love the people.

For information, call 455-8722.

Funding cuts undermine Partners with Families and Children's program to treat abuse and neglect

Partners with Families and Children, operating with state funding for 18 years, treats more than 1,000 neglected and abused children each year.  As of Jan. 1, it faces a 54 percent reduction as the state cuts $304,000 from Continuum of Care funding under the Department of Social and Health Services.

“Most children are in families with multiple generations of poverty.  Many parents had tragic childhoods and are struggling to do better,” said Mary Ann Murphy, director, who started the program through Deaconess Medical Center as the Regional Center for Child Abuse and Neglect.

In 1997, it was renamed Casey Family Partners, based on a 30-year agreement with Deaconess and Sacred Heart Medical Centers.  That foundation lost money on the stock market, she said, and withdrew from the agreement in 2003.  The program was then intentionally renamed Partners with Families and Children to reflect that a team of professionals, family and friends works with each family to develop practical solutions so families can meet criteria of court orders.

“Families are more likely to follow a plan they help make,” Mary Ann said.  “We are part of a national study that shows this approach works for families and costs less.  Partners employs physicians to diagnose abuse.  With the hospitals’ support and grants from other private and public sources, we have stretched state dollars well.”

While the Children’s Administration may pay Partners on a fee-for-service basis, Mary Ann said the program cannot sustain the family-centered holistic care on that basis.

“What we do should be a model for the state.  It should not be dismantled,” she said.  “Many community leaders are joining in advocating that the state retain the funding.” 

For information, call 473-4810.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © January 2006