The holidays mark the most popular time of year for gift giving, but for the children entering Montana’s foster care system, one clear box without paper or bows makes all the difference any time of year.
Following their removal from home situations deemed dangerous, children arrive at a government office building while strangers work to find a place to put them. As they wait, each child receives a Just for You box filled with goodies provided by their communities through Child Bridge, a nonprofit foundation based in Bigfork aimed at finding and equipping foster and adoptive families in Montana.
“Many times the kiddos wait for several hours while they’re at the department office, and the social worker’s trying to find a home or kinship home for that child for the night or for the day,” said Aaron Scofield, Child Bridge community director for the Flathead Valley. “These boxes are something for that kid to have and take with them.”
Filled with age-appropriate items such as games, puzzles, socks, hygiene items, accessories and snacks, the boxes give children not only a distraction from what often amounts to a stressful experience but also a substitute for the possessions they left behind.
“These kids sometimes come with literally nothing,” Scofield said. “For that brief moment in the horribleness of what they’re going through, in that crisis, they’re able to kind of get detoured into something that’s really kind of fun and unique and special.”
According to Scofield, many of the children entering foster care through the state Department of Public Health and Human Services offices have been removed from homes where there is substance abuse or drug addiction. Others, he said, come from abusive or neglectful homes from which they had to be removed in the middle of the night or on weekends.
They sometimes enter the department offices hungry, scared and unsure of what just happened or where they’re going.
“Those types of thoughts going through the mind of a little child or a teenager, and then all of a sudden, being able to be handed something that has toys and snacks and things to do and special, colorful socks and things like that, means the world,” Scofield said. “For that brief moment in the horribleness of what they’re going through, in that crisis, they’re able to kind of get detoured into something that’s really kind of fun and unique and special.”
Just for You boxes benefit more than the children, according to Amanda Creamer, Child Bridge community outreach coordinator.
She said the program also gives social workers a way to bond with the kids coming through their office and helps the kids feel comfortable with them.
“Just as much as it is for the kids, it’s something for the workers so they’re not being seen many times as a bad guy or bad gal,” Scofield said. “It really gives them something to connect and build a relationship with those children.”
Prior to the implementation of the Just for You boxes, most department offices had limited toys and snacks to offer the kids, Scofield said.
By drawing on a volunteer base, the program allows communities to relieve some of the burden put on the department by their limited funding and small staffs.
“These boxes are being used where they’re sitting in kind of a government office building that’s not very fun for a child to be in,” Scofield said. “This really does cater to the kid in their time of need and doesn’t require an already overburdened department to try and purchase those sorts of things.”
According to Scofield, a small team of between four and six workers manage around 30 or more cases each every month, with an estimated 30 to 40 of those investigations resulting in removals.
Approximately 200 children resided in foster care in the Flathead Valley as of June, either with kinship families or foster/adoptive families, he added.
Since the Just for You program began about a year ago, Creamer said the various state departments have gone through more than 250 boxes and are in need of more.
“They don’t really want to go back to the way it was, because it is such an impact and it is such a beneficial thing for the department,” Scofield said.
Child Bridge currently works with various churches, individuals, groups and businesses to get boxes filled and delivered and has a list of age-appropriate suggestions for each box and gender.
According to Scofield, families and individuals looking for a way to go above and beyond the boxes can partner with Child Bridge in a number of ways.
The nonprofit accepts both one-time and monthly donations and offers some volunteer opportunities.
One of the best ways to lend a hand, Scofield said, is to identify foster/adoptive families within the community and offer support and encouragement, whether that means taking them out for coffee or offering to babysit.
Finally, Scofield said, the state needs more families willing to foster/adopt either long term or short term for infants up to age 18.
In order to meet its goal of having more than enough families available, around 10 more families are needed in Flathead County to begin taking steps toward fostering by the end of the year.
Lincoln County needs 10 more, Sanders County needs six and Lake County needs 20, in order to meet the same goal by January 2019.
“We want to see our county departments having families who are sitting there twiddling their thumbs because they’re waiting for a kid,” Scofield said. “We want the state to have enough family options that they can find the right fit for that child in their time of need.”
For more information about Child Bridge or about fostering in Montana, visit https://www.childbridgemontana.org/.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.