Against the Odds, St. Louis Crisis Nursery Continues to Grow

Hershel Sarbin and Harvey Chipkin
March 8, 2010

Part of the Who’s Doing What That Works series

It’s a bold statement to make at the top of a homepage: “99 percent of children whose families remain involved with us do not experience abuse; 99 percent of Crisis Nursery children remain in their natural home.”

Those are the impressive claims of the St. Louis Crisis Nursery (SLCN), a 24-hour center in Missouri that offers a safe place for children whose families are facing an emergency, and longer-term counseling to help families after the crisis is over. Child Advocacy 360 first wrote about this program in 2007, and continues to track its progress.

So just what's behind those numbers? And how has SLCN managed to not only sustain its work, but continue to expand it despite the economy?

Some background: SLCN started 24 years ago with one nursery aimed at children from birth through age 6 and has expanded to five nurseries in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. That makes it the largest undertaking of its kind in the country and the only one with five locations, according to the National Respite Coalition. In addition, it now serves children up to 12.

“When we extended our age range to 12, we closed a gap,” says executive director DiAnne Mueller. “There are teen shelters but there was no place for those in between.”

SLCN has helped more than 64,000 families with programs including: child care for children in families who find themselves homeless; art and music therapy; wellness education; parent support groups; a 24-hour helpline; an emergency fund for families to help pay rent, food and other necessities; and a transportation fund. Its annual budget is $3 million -- a mix of foundation grants, corporate support from local companies like Monsanto, Nestle and Emerson, and funds raised through special events.

DiAnne Mueller has led SLCN since 1994 and is a passionate spokesperson for both children and for her organization. In an interview with Child Advocacy 360 Senior Writer Harvey Chipkin, she talked about the achievements and plans to expand the work.

Here are highlights of our interview.

Expanding while Staying on Mission

For the first time, SLCN began reaching across state lines in 2009 to East St. Louis, Illinois -- “a very poor, underserved city" according to Mueller. Working with the local Christian Activity Center, SLCN has established a staff person in East St. Louis to help with crisis intervention, referrals, parenting groups, and other services. And, says Mueller, “one day we might have a nursery there.”

Even as SLCN grows, it works hard not to lose sight of its original concept; here is how Mueller describes it: “When we wrap our arms around a family they know better and do better. Each nursery is small (the largest houses 11) and very homey and cozy. Four nurseries are actually in homes. It’s like coming to your auntie’s or grandma’s. In terms of family dynamics, the bottom line is they need a safe place, and people who are non-judgmental.”

The Hallmarks of SLCN's Approach

Says Mueller:

  • "Within 24 hours of getting to a nursery, children get a complete physical and about 28 percent of them have some kind of illness, whether it be a respiratory infection or a skin disease. We can take care of all.”
  • “Within 48 hours of discharge, we call the parent and review what we have found. Since it is usually the parent who brings the child to us, they do tend to stay with us. We ask what they need – whether it’s utilities turned back on, a homeless situation, or whatever.”
  • “We don’t want to be a Band-aid; we want to offer long-term change. Much of our success lies with our people. It is critically important to hire the best staff who feel passionately and are committed to us. What sets us apart ... is the training our staff has.”
  • “We do most of the work in their homes – as part of our Family Empowerment Program. They don’t have to travel which is beyond the means of many. When we’re in the homes, too, we can do a complete assessment of the living conditions – we might find, for instance, that a baby is sleeping in a laundry basket; or there is no food in the refrigerator.”
  • “We continually listen to the community. We look for gaps in community services. Each nursery is in partnership with the community; each has an affiliation with a hospital.”

Building Community Relationships

“There is a two-pronged approach to getting the word out. One is to potential funders and volunteers. The second is to the community,” says Mueller.

"It’s a truly grassroots situation for the nurseries,” she says. “We put on blue jeans and sweat shirts and go door to door in the highest-poverty areas with the highest rate of abuse. We use a KidsCount report from the Annie. E. Casey Foundation that tells us what zip codes have the highest rates in poverty and abuse. Then we talk to community leaders like principals and police departments. We canvas as large an area as we can. It’s not unusual for us to go out with 15 or 20 people – staff, student and volunteers. In our car trunks, we carry diapers, formula food and other basics. It’s not unusual for a young mother to open the door and start crying and saying it’s a miracle because she has no food. This is how we build relationships."

“It’s scary to turn your children over to strangers. That’s why we’ll use community leaders such as ministers. We do lots of meetings in the basement of a Catholic church. On a recent Saturday, 100 people had registered for a family party – focused on fun,” she says.

Local media. SLCN has relationships with local TV station which cover their events. Also, if a national report on child abuse is released, says Mueller, “I get three phone calls from the major TV stations. That in turn makes the phones ring in the nursery from people who need help or want to help. That has happened as we reached out to the stations over the years whenever something happened that affected us or our mission.”

Mueller and her staff have also developed relationships with magazine publishers who will do in-kind donations, including full pages ads to publicize events.

Looking Ahead

"We have been pioneers,” says Mueller proudly, “we have found what works and want to share it with others.”

Yet despite all the media success, “there are still people in St. Louis who don’t know about us," says Mueller. "It breaks my heart when I read that a child was injured by their parents. I won’t quit telling our story until every person knows about us.”

Hershel Sarbin is the founder and publisher of the Child Advocacy 360 news network, and Harvey Chipkin is a senior writer for the organization.