Play time for the children at the Bay Area Crisis Nursery can mean watching Toy Story, playing with flashing light-up toys, or sliding down the play escape outside.
It also means a break from the stresses the kids and their families have experienced at home, in the hope that such breaks can prevent tension spilling over into abusive or neglectful situations.
The Concord, Calif.-based nursery offers free emergency services to children ages 0-11 whose families are experiencing stress and crisis. Children can stay up to 30 days while nursery staff help their parents figure out solutions to their crises.
It also provides respite care for parents who need a break throughout the year. Families can schedule time once a month to leave their children at the nursery for up to two days.
For a single mother who’s working, going to school and raising children, it might mean enough time to get her final papers in, study for tests, said nursery Founder and Executive Director Sister Ann Weltz.
“This program allows the parent to have a break from the child that they otherwise would not have,” said Weltz.
The nursery operates with a budget close to $1 million dollars, and several thousand dollars of in-kinds donations, including diapers, clothing and food, from individuals and partnerships with local food banks. They have the capacity to serve 26 children at a time, along with their families.
“We have been very fortunate along the way,” said Weltz. “We need funding, we need support from the community. And we are constantly struggling with that.”
The nursery is only one of over 100 crisis nurseries nationwide that provide emergency services to families, according to the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center (ARCH).
The first crisis nurseries were birthed from a 1960s grass-roots movement to provide respite care to families in need. Funding largely came from private donors, hospitals and family service organizations, according to the Children and Youth Services Review.
The Temporary Child Care for Children with Disabilities and Crisis Nursery Act of 1986, along with the Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Adoption and Family Services Act, provided about $10-12 million annually in federal funding for crisis nurseries. A total of 175 crisis nurseries and respite centers and two resource centers in 47 states received grants over ten years, according to ARCH. The act was eventually folded into the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1996, according to ARCH Program Director Jill Kagan, which meant the end of any dedicated funds for respite nurseries.
For additional funding support, Congress established the passed the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program as part of the Social Security Act which can fund crisis and respite centers for families.
Research suggests that the effect of crisis nurseries on the health of families has had positive results. Children whose families had received crisis nursery care and entered out-of-home foster care placements were twice as likely to be reunited with their families than children whose families never received help from a crisis nursery, according to a 2011 study of Illinois’ state-run respite nurseries done by The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In California, researchers found that counties with crisis nurseries had lower rates of substantiated claims than counties without the nurseries, according to ARCH.
“There is just a tremendous shortage for funding,” said Kagan. “Certainly there is evidence that crisis nurseries are effective, but it’s hard to convince lawmakers that there is a need to pay for it.”
Sister Ann Weltz says her nursery has difficulty convincing lawmakers about the policies that best serve crisis nurseries.
“I don’t think there is a politician alive that doesn’t says there is a need for preventative measures, but the way the rules are made, the way the regulations are written is completely separate from what’s happening in our facility or the facilities these rules are being made for,” she said. “And that is where the problem is.”
The California Department of Social Services regulates licenses and policies of crisis nurseries in the state, including mandatory training hours for staff, housekeeping requirements and financial organization. Weltz says the nursery works on building strong relationships with the state legislators to ensure the nursery can provide the best care for families.
“Our aim is that every time they come here, and they can come back, every time they come here they leave to a better environment than they left before. It’s not always what we want and it’s not always a finished product, but it’s a start in the right direction,” said Weltz.