- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - Until Brina Rodriguez was 14, she slept on a couch in her own house. She took care of her two younger siblings, fixing their meals and helping them get to school. Her mother was absent, depressed, was taken to the hospital for suicide attempts.

“My mom did the best she could, giving me food, clothes and shelter. But that’s not home,” said Rodriguez, 27.

Her volatile household situation left her filling emotional needs by putting herself in dangerous situations, lashing out at teachers and being sexually promiscuous. At one point, she ran away from her parents. They couldn’t find her for more than two weeks.

“I had these deep wounds that nobody knew how to address,” said Rodriguez.

She said she learned what a home was when she was admitted to Kids in Crisis’ emergency shelter in Greenwich, which offers 20 beds to children up to 17 years old. She stayed there for about six weeks, and it turned her life around.

“I come here and it’s home,” Rodriguez said, sitting in an office at the agency, one floor above the shelter where she once stayed.

Kids in Crisis has helped thousands of young people like Rodriguez since the first youth shelter opened in Greenwich almost 40 years ago. Today, however, the agency is facing the possibility of turning kids away for the first time in its history.

The Department of Children and Families rescinded its contract with Kids in Crisis this fall, a consequence of swooping state budget cuts. The nonprofit lost $750,000 and will no longer receive children referred to them by the state. That cut comes on top of a $900,000 loss in state aid three years ago.

“It’s just not right,” said Rodriguez. “How do you justify that?”

“Our focus is on staying alive,” said Shari Shapiro, executive director of Kids in Crisis.

The agency is the only one in Fairfield Country that provides emergency shelter for children, and it is the only emergency shelter in the state that accepts children placed by parents or other community members, instead of exclusively taking children referred by the state.

“If we end up eliminating emergency beds, because of funds, there’s no doubt we’d have to turn kids away,” said Shapiro. The beds currently have an 80 percent occupancy rate at any given time.

In addition to the state funding loss, agency’s grant from the United Way fell from to $116,000 last year to $85,600 this fiscal year, part of a steady decrease in United Way funding to all nonprofits in town.

The financial situation would not be as dire if the need for Kids in Crisis’ services- which also include counseling and an emergency hotline -were decreasing as well. But the opposite is true.

The agency served more than 6,000 children and families last year. Urgent crisis counseling meetings increased by 20 percent this year and the number of emergency bed-nights at the shelter increased 16.5 percent.

But Department of Children and Families spokesperson Gary Kleeblatt said the state hasn’t had a need for Kids in Crisis.

“We have not used Kids in Crisis for any children that we’ve served by the department for this entire calendar year,” said Kleeblatt.

“We can’t really justify the expense for a service that we’ve not used. These are tough fiscal times and we have to be responsible with taxpayer money. We can’t fund a program that we’re not using. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Shapiro said it is true that the state has not directly referred a child to Kids in Crisis since last December.

“They may not be making referrals to us but their children are receiving our services,” she said.

The agency continues to partner with DCF caseworkers to provide care to children the department serves. Shapiro said she doesn’t want that to go away.

Kleeblatt said the focus of the department has shifted away from putting troubled kids into group environments and toward placing them directly into foster homes.

“Kids do better in families and we’re focused on doing what’s right for kids,” he said.

Shapiro said a dire need remains for both types of services.

“(Foster) care is where children live. Children don’t live at Kids in Crisis,” she said, emphasizing her agency’s use as a temporary home, as opposed to a more permanent foster home.

At one point, the state funded 14 of the 20 Kids in Crisis beds. Three years ago, the department canceled funding for eight of the beds. Now, it has quit funding the remaining six.

DCF continues to fund 54 beds for children throughout the state, none of which are in Fairfield County.

Shapiro said that reflects a statewide bias, the perception that children in Fairfield County don’t have serious needs like children in other areas of the state.

“It’s like, do we not exist here? Is this the Land of Oz?” she asked, adding she has reached out to the department with hopes of reaching a compromise, but to no avail.

“I was told there’s no money so it’s a waste of time. I don’t think it’s ever a waste of time to talk about the needs of children and how to make sure they’re safe,” said Shapiro.

Finding more than a shelter

When Rodriguez returned home after running away, her school contacted her mother and arranged for her to meet up with a Kids in Crisis staff member.

“I thought, this lady is lying to me, I’m gonna go to jail,” she said, vividly recalling meeting with the staff member at Dunkin’ Donuts when she was 14.

But what she found was everything but a jail.

“I walked in like, ‘This is a house?’ I didn’t picture it to be so warm,” she said.

The Kids in Crisis emergency shelter does not look like a shelter. There are no barracks, no beds in a row. It has a large living room, bedrooms branching out from it, attached to a community kitchen. Homemade flags of different nationalities hang near the windows. Crayons and markers spill out of the designated arts and crafts cupboard. There’s a television with couches, pillows and rugs, a long dining room table and a stocked bookshelf.

For the six weeks that she stayed, Rodriguez had group and individual counseling. She and her mom attended weekly therapy together.

“The conversations centered around that her desire wasn’t to hurt me, and my desire wasn’t to hurt her, and that we were both hurting,” said Rodriguez.

She was also surrounded with kids like her.

“That’s what inspired me when I left the house, that there are people that have it worse than me . I think that stuck with me- I got it bad, but not that bad,” she said.

At Kids in Crisis, Rodriguez had her first-ever sit-down dinners with the other children at the shelter, which still start promptly at 6 p.m. every night. She was held responsible for a variety of chores around the house. She participated in the House Meetings the staff still holds every Sunday.

“I really benefited from the structured setting,” she said. “There were people at home, I had a routine, we had things we all did together.”

When Rodriguez returned home, she didn’t change overnight, she said, but her mother approached her differently, and she never felt compelled to run away again.

“It inspired me to be a home for other kids,” she said.

Now, Rodriguez lives two blocks away from her mother in Norwalk. She is also a Foster mom to two children.

“A lot of what I do today at home … I learned to do here,” she said.

Every day, she, her husband and her four children (and soon, her newborn) have dinner at 6 p.m. They each have assigned chores. And every Sunday, they have family house meetings.

“I’m on the other side of it now,” she said. “I can’t say my story without Kids in Crisis. I can’t say it without having found my home.”

___

Information from: Greenwich Time, https://www.greenwichtime.com

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