By Laurie Dunklee
The need is elevating. In 2017 we had more than 211,000 cries for help,” says Brandon Young, chief advancement officer at the Tennyson Center for Children, referring to the number of calls made to Colorado’s child abuse and neglect hotline. Child welfare referrals have increased 46 percent over the past 10 years, according to the Tennyson Center’s website.
The Tennyson Center, at 29th Avenue and Tennyson Street, helps kids ages 5 to 18 who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect.
“These kids have experienced a lot in a short time, but they will change the world if we can help them reintegrate into society,” said Young.
Residents and 29th Avenue commuters recognize the Tennyson Center’s grassy campus with its two-story building and small cottages. This fall, several cottages on 29th got new roofs and other upgrades following 2017’s destructive hailstorm. Beginning in October the buildings were wrapped with plastic during the construction to prevent curious children from climbing the scaffolding. Upgrades included new paint, windows and patio shelters. Approximately $15,000 in materials and labor was donated, according to ACK Construction, the project contractor.
The Tennyson Center’s neighbors might not know about its rich history or its diverse programs. Begun in 1904 as the Colorado Christian Home orphanage, the Tennyson Center now addresses the needs of kids and families through both residential and day-treatment programs, which include an on-site school. The nonprofit’s largest program is Community-Based Services, providing in-home therapy and support to children and families.
Tennyson’s model of care is changing rapidly in order to meet the challenges facing children in Colorado.
“Our approach is to get further upstream from the issues, to keep families together and kids safe, rather than removing them from their homes,” said Young. “We see about 175 kids in their living rooms and schools every month, helping to stabilize homes and help families in their healing journey.”
Community-Based Services is the Tennyson Center’s fastest growing program and has expanded to El Paso and Weld counties. Families remain in the intensive in-home program for three months to one year.
New this year, Tennyson began providing one-on-one support to specific children in Denver Public Schools classrooms. Specialists from Community-Based Services help teachers to interact with the child effectively; specialists also attend meetings as liaisons between parents and the school.
“Our intent is to keep children in their school, to keep them a part of the school community,” said Young. “If that can’t work, we bring them into our school at Tennyson Center for a while and then they go back to their own school.”
Tennyson’s on-site school serves both residents and students who live at home. The kindergarten-through-12th-grade school offers individual instruction in academics and social skills so that students can return to a public-school setting.
Another new program is No Kid Waits, providing immediate support for children and families in need.
“The challenge has been that kids typically wait six to eight weeks for services,” said Young. “No Kid Waits responds within 24 hours to stabilize families and provide resources. A family in freefall might have been evicted or had their utilities turned off; they might be hungry. At a high level of crisis, we might get our SAFE team involved. But sometimes the family just needs support and stability for 30 days. The program brings community support around them.”
Residential treatment at Tennyson provides 24-hour treatment to children ages 5 to 18. The children stay in three cottages with kitchens and private bedrooms. Resident children have typically experienced abuse and neglect, mental health and/or developmental issues. They have faced challenges in other programs and homes including their biological family home, foster homes and group homes.
Young said that of the children who grow up in the child welfare system and are emancipated, 50 percent are incarcerated and 50 percent become homeless.
“Twenty-five percent suffer post-traumatic stress disorder — that’s a larger percentage than veterans. Our goal is to get further upstream so kids don’t fall down the rabbit hole.”
He said Tennyson is working on the problem at all levels.
“We’re hitting at all echelons and tying connections together to either keep kids out of the child welfare system or be the last residential place they’ll be. We follow through as they grow up and age out,” Young said.
In October 2018 Tennyson Center began Stand in the Gap, a series of live Facebook broadcasts featuring frank discussions on child welfare issues with both experts and children.
“Colorado has a great system to support kids and families but there are still gaps,” says the Stand in the Gap Facebook page. “All of us need to work together in a fundamentally different way to fill them.”
Young said the purpose of the broadcasts is to “shine light on where the gaps are and bring understanding to the needs of these kids and families who are so often unseen. We believe in the community’s charitable nature, that people will join with us.”
The first Stand in the Gap episode podcast is on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/embed/-vwr5LbH258. Episode I talks with a group of young adults who have aged out of the child welfare system. The challenges they discuss include being separated from their family and feeling invisible.
Future topics of Stand in the Gap broadcasts include: the unique challenges faced by children of color and LGBTQ youth within the system (watch Episode 2 on this topic on Feb. 26, 2019); the tangled legal web surrounding the child welfare system; and mental health crises commonly encountered by families and kids in the system, including increased rates of suicide.
Stand in the Gap broadcasts can be seen live at www.facebook.com/groups/StandInTheGapCO/.
For more information see tennysoncenter.org.