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Emergency sanctuary opens for kids in South Seattle

In South Seattle this month, children taken from their parents by the state, often because of suspected abuse or neglect, will get a new temporary home — an emergency sanctuary that offers a desperately needed assist to an overwhelmed system.

The privately funded, $2.3 million Grandese’s Place, run by the nonprofit Amara and housed in the Harnish Building, will be able to serve five children at a time in those first days away from their parents as the state scrambles to find foster homes.

“We’re eager to utilize Amara’s new facility for emergency placements for our children,” says Debra Johnson, a spokesperson for the Department of Child and Youth and Family Services.

That eagerness stems from a foster-home shortage that last year led King County to house 100 foster children in hotels because there was no other place to put them. Last November, a report by the Washington Family and Children’s Ombuds, which oversees the state’s child-welfare departments, showed children in the state collectively spent 1,000 nights in hotels last year.

Grandese, where kids will typically stay three to five days, will help buy social workers and law enforcement time to find a suitable foster home, pending a court hearing for the child’s case, said Jen Kamel, Amara’s chief clinical officer.

“The reason that the sanctuaries started is because we recognized that kids were coming into foster care and having a really unstable experience,” Kamel said.

With its brightly colored bedrooms and storage space, Grandese provides pajamas, toys, play areas and a medical exam through a partnership with Harborview Medical Center. Additionally, because the sanctuary may be near the home the children were taken from, parents — with state permission — might be able to visit.

But trauma-informed care might be Grandese’s most essential offering.

The approach emphasizes treating the emotional and psychological blows the children have endured.

“I always like to say that the experience of entering foster care is a trauma. Our expectations for kids experiencing trauma need to be different than for typical kids,” Kamel said.

Grandese, which supplants a rental home Amara used for a temporary shelter in Beacon Hill, will also highlight another issue facing Washington’s child-welfare system, Kamel said.

Like the foster-care system as a whole, nonwhite children using Amara’s sanctuaries, particularly black and Native Americans, are overrepresented compared to the population at large. In four years, 54 percent of the nearly 1,700 children Amara has served have been nonwhite. King and Pierce counties, from which the sanctuaries draw most of their children, are 65 percent and 75 percent white, respectively.

It is often harder to find permanent foster placements for black children than for white kids, and they stay in the system seven months longer than the average foster child, according to a report by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.

Kids of color face a difficult time finding placements, especially black kids who make up 16 percent of the state’s foster-care system. Only 6.5 percent of foster parents are black.

In adoption, the problem of nonblack families not taking in black children was so pronounced that nationally some agencies have taken the controversial step of charging a reduced cost for adopting African Americans relative to white children.

Grandese, named to honor local philanthropist Louise Jones McKinney, will also welcome young foster children. More than 83 percent are between a few months to 12 years old. “Grandese” was a nickname coined by McKinney’s grandson.

Grandese’s rotating staff, usually one trained clinician and a volunteer, will guide a newly dropped-off child through staff photos on a wall, telling him or her that, “I might not be here when you wake up but this person will,” said John Morse, Amara’s CEO.

Currently, the organization is seeking more faces to populate that wall.

“We’re really in need of volunteers,” says Kamel. “People who want to be on the front lines of making a difference in a kid’s life during a vital time should contact us.”

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