A Safe Place to Land

On a cold Thursday night in March, Kelley Carter and her small team provided aid and comfort to a staggering number of children arriving at the Triage Center—15 children and youth—all removed from their homes by police or caseworkers due to abuse or neglect.

All were suffering from varying degrees of trauma. Some of the children also struggled with serious developmental disabilities. Others struggled with emotional issues and needed constant supervision to keep them from harming the other children. All were scared, sad, and confused. A former caseworker at the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services, Kelley isn’t new to the gritty realities of child abuse, but she admits her role as Triage Supervisor sometimes shakes her.

In addition to the severity of the cases she’s encountered, Kelley is shocked by the sheer volume of children in our community who have been physically, sexually, and psychologically abused. In 2015, the Triage Center provided nurturing care for 1,040 children—almost double the 565 children admitted in 2014.

Child Saving Institute manages this ground-breaking Project Harmony program. In operation since 2008, the Triage Center provides welcoming care for children in immediate need of alternative family placement. They are greeted by professionals like Kelley and her team and provided with a light meal, clothing, a medical examination, and other items as needed. Most importantly, caseworkers immediately begin the process of “family finding”—researching relatives, family friends, teachers, someone known to the children who would be willing to take them home rather than send them to an unfamiliar foster home. “I love that I get the opportunity to interact with the children and advocate for what the child wants,” Kelley says. “I enjoy working at giving the child a voice.”

One day Kelley was caring for a young group of siblings who had ended up in Triage due to neglect. The children’s mother, who had a history of drug abuse, had gone missing, and the little trio, all under the age of 6, spent several hours with Kelley while a caseworker searched for a family member.

“In my experience, kids who are placed with relatives—even if they didn’t know the relative before— struggle less with mental health issues because someone can tell them who they are and where they came from. They feel a sense of belonging,” Kelley explains.

Later that day, a 17-year-old boy came into the Triage Center. Kelley was familiar with the youth. “Jesse” had been in the system for two years and had bounced from place to place because he was a “runner.” He would stay a short time at his foster home, and then he would go on the run—and eventually end up in Triage until other housing arrangements could be made. Jesse’s caseworker said the boy had no known relatives so he was awaiting placement with a new foster family.

But Kelley noticed something different in Jesse this time. Usually sullen and defensive, she was surprised to see him soften and go right to the little sibling group to start playing. He called them by their nicknames and the children responded to him.

Kelley asked Jesse how he knew the kids, and he said they were his cousin’s children. Shortly thereafter, the sibling strip’s caseworker reached out to the children’s grandmother, who agreed to pick them up later in the day. The grandmother was Jesse’s aunt.

Kelley kept watching Jesse and his little cousins and realized how close they seemed. Relaxed and playful, Jesse fed the baby dinner and his whole demeanor was different from his previous visits to Triage.

Kelley asked Jesse if he might go with the children to his aunt’s home. His face clouded as he muttered, “She’d never take me. She knows I’m bad news.” Kelley insisted the caseworker call the aunt to ask her if she might be willing to take Jesse, too. The aunt immediately said she’d be happy to have him—on the condition he not run away.

Jesse smiled after being told the good news and responded, “If I’m with family, I have no reason to run.”