Sheila Brand, executive director of Sally Kate Winters Family Services, talks with two sisters, ages 8 and 9, who are playing with Play-Doh at the organization's facility in West Point. The foster sisters are two of almost 3,000 children who have found temporary shelter at the children’s home since it began in 1990. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
Sally Kate Winters Family Services Executive Director Sheila Brand chats with two foster children, one 15 and one 16, outside the children's home in West Point. Both children have found a temporary home with the organization that's been serving Golden Triangle children since 1990.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
July 14, 2017 10:55:52 AM
Not long ago, a woman showed up at the doors of Sally Kate Winters Family Services in West Point with her own children in tow.
"She said, 'I just wanted my kids to see where I grew up ... as a child'," said executive director Sheila Brand.
The woman was one of nearly 3,000 children to come through Sally Kate Winters' emergency shelter program since the organization started in 1990. The shelter, now a 12-bed residence complete with a playroom and a backyard play area, began as a place where children in the Golden Triangle, who suddenly found themselves in the foster care system, could have a bed and a home while the Mississippi Department of Human Services looked for another relative or a foster home that could take in the children on a long-term basis.
"Because we've been open now 27 years, those first kids are adults," said Brand, who has been with the organization since it started. "They do come back to us. They bring their children to see where they grew up.
"It's amazing to me, in the middle of their crisis, what they remember," she added. "One young man who works in offshore drilling now ... came by to see us. And he remembered which bed he slept in, what time the train came by and could call the staff by name. And it was 10 (or) 15 years since he'd been here."
Programs for Kids
Since those beginnings, when Brand herself worked as an administrative assistant typing the organization's first policies and procedures manual, Sally Kate Winters has grown, adding beds, buildings and programs to reach out to more children.
Up to eight foster children can live at the emergency shelter at a time. As a shelter, the center provides a home for up to 45 days, though children have stayed longer. Staff members have taken in children as young as 2 days old, Brand said while remembering one of the newborn's mothers had checked out of the hospital without checking the baby out with her.
In 2009, the organization began two voluntary programs specifically for teenagers and young adults. One program allows runaway and homeless children ages 12-17 to stay at the organization for up to 21 nights. While the teenagers stay there, they have access to counseling, therapy, job training, education support and referral services so they can eventually be reunited with their family or find stable living arrangements.
Kids in the program are often "couch surfers," Brand said, going from friend's home to friend's home without staying in one place quite long enough for any of those friends' parents to realize the teen isn't at home. It's not a program for foster children, necessarily, Brand said, just one for teenagers who don't get along with their guardians or don't feel safe in their home. Even law enforcement officers have recommended teenagers spend some time in the program when they get a call about the teens and parents fighting. Other times parents themselves have dropped off the kids.
"A lot of time, families need a respite," Brand said.
Staff members work with the teenagers to identify whatever issues led to them being homeless and either reunite them with their families or find some other stable living condition -- a relative they haven't seen in a while or a biological parent they don't know, for example -- Brand said.
"That program is more about providing immediate safety, as well as building support systems, for youth so that when they find themselves in crisis or when they're having an argument at home, they have more people to call and garner support," she said.
The same year that program started, Sally Kate Winters began a transitional living program for homeless youth ages 16-21. Youth in the program have to be doing something 40 hours a week, like volunteering, working, going to school or job hunting, Brand said. Meanwhile, they have free shelter, food and transportation while staff work with them on everything from job preparation and college applications to how to do laundry or cook for themselves.
It's a program particularly handy for foster kids who have just turned 18, Brand said, since they're out of the foster system but can't rent an apartment until they're 21.
"We just realized there was not a lot of resources for that population of kids," she said. "And if you think back, I know for myself, when I was 18 or 19, I still received a lot of support from my parents. And so if you don't have that relationship or that support system, it's very hard for you to be successful.
"We have seen several kids graduate high school, have completed (programs) at East Mississippi Community College, have gained some work experience," Brand added. "And then we help them transition from that program into an apartment where they can kind of become self-sufficient."
The newest of the organization's programs is the Children's Advocacy Center. Started in 2014, the center works with victims of felony child abuse during the investigation.
It was the program research assistant Morgan Colley spoke about extensively at the Columbus Exchange Club's Thursday meeting.
The center's primary function is to interview children about crimes in a safe environment, while investigators watch a live feed of the interview.
Before the center began, child victims would speak multiple times with law enforcement officers, social workers, investigators and therapists at the district attorney's office about what they went through, Colley said.
"When child advocacy centers are created in counties, all of these people come together and work as one team," Colley said.
That way, the children aren't "re-victimized" over and over, she said.
It's also a good way to get the child's story straight the first time, Brand said. Small children have a hard time sequencing events. Forensic interviewers are trained in how to work with children, and they know which questions to ask to help the child get the who, what, when and where of the crime -- or if a crime was committed.
The interviewers begin by asking the children general questions to build a relationship and rapport, Brand said. Then the interviewer asks the child if they know the difference between "good touches" and "bad touches."
From there, the child can go into whether or not someone has done anything to them that hurt them or made them uncomfortable, Brand said.
The center has seen 461 children from Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Choctaw counties since opened three years ago, Colley said. Of those, 346 of the children have been victims of sexual abuse alone. Another 23 were victims of sexual abuse along with another type of abuse or neglect.
She also broke down the numbers for the Exchange Club -- 222 children who've been through the center are from Lowndes County, while only 44 are from Clay.
But that's actually better news for Lowndes County, Colley says.
"(People in Clay County think I'm) crazy when I told them the low reporting numbers were a bad thing," she said. "They said, 'That means child abuse isn't happening in our county.' That's not true. Child abuse happens in every county all over the United States. So when you have higher reporting number like Lowndes County ... it's a good thing because people who work with children ... are paying attention to their children, their children's behavior, their body, what's happening and they're actually reporting if that abuse has happened. So it's not that Clay County has less abuse ... it's just that people aren't reporting the child abuse."
Colley and other staff plan to go into Clay County schools and talk with administrators and teachers about what to look for and how to report child abuse to hopefully help more kids, she said.
Colley herself is training to be a forensic interviewer. It's challenging, she said, but she can't imagine herself doing anything else.
"I hear a lot of sad stories. We hear a lot of horrible things that people have done to these children," she said. "It's usually their caretakers. About 90 percent of the time, it's somebody who takes care of them -- usually a parent or a legal guardian. You just have to remember that you're helping them, and without people who work with children in Children's Advocacy Centers, children and families would not be getting the services that they need. So you just have to keep that in mind."
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