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Crisis nursery steps in for stressed parents

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Dr. Lynne Williams (from left), Eileen Sharbaugh and Dr. Tammy Murdock, co-founders of Jeremiah's Place, have found a location for their Crisis Nursery which will accept children 6 and younger for as long as 72 hours without involving the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families. The space they plan to renovate is inside the Kingsley Association in Larimer.

When a mother needs a break and has nowhere to turn, two doctors and a former teacher hope she will bring her child to Larimer.

They are co-founders of Jeremiah's Place, a family support nonprofit that plans to open Pittsburgh's only crisis nursery in January in the Kingsley Association building on Frankstown Avenue.

“We're going to do the job of taking care of the kids for a bit of time, to relieve the stress, but our real work is with the family,” said Dr. Lynne Williams, a pediatrician. “We don't want to duplicate services already in Pittsburgh; we want to connect the family to those services.”

Jeremiah's Place will provide 24/7 care for children 6 and younger for up to 72 hours, Williams said. Research shows that kids who experience stressful events such as physical abuse, witnessing domestic abuse or a parent with a substance abuse problem can develop mental and physical health issues as adults, Williams said.

“If you are a young child living in an environment where you're exposed to a lot of stress, that stress itself, if you don't have someone to help you cope, those high levels of hormones will alter your body,” Williams said. “That level of hormones is toxic to your body.”

Williams learned about crisis nurseries from a medical student in 2010, and surveyed 78 families in the East End to determine whether a need for such a facility exists in Pittsburgh. She found that 14 percent of parents, sometime during the past year, left their children with someone whose last name they didn't know, whose address they didn't know, who had an anger management problem or who they knew couldn't care for a child.

“To me, that's way too many kids being exposed to a dangerous situation on a pretty regular basis,” Williams said.

Co-founder Dr. Tammy Murdock, an obstetrician/gynecologist at a health center in Squirrel Hill, said watching families implode motivated her to research crisis nurseries.

“I can tell you that they don't want to hurt their kids, but I can tell they're going to fall hard and fast,” Murdock said. “There's no safety net. They have no resources, so when one thing happens, it blows up and they end up being around risky folks.”

The founders plan to work with parents to alter their routines, said Eileen Sharbaugh, a former teacher and third co-founder who works with mothers and young children.

“Sometimes it's just a little bit of time away from the child that will help the parent gain some clarity to determine what their goals are,” Sharbaugh said. “We want to work with the parent so the crisis doesn't just continue to re-occur.”

The founders looked to other crisis nurseries, including Providence House in Cleveland, for guidance. Nearly 7,000 children have stayed at Providence since it opened in 1981. A study showed that 82 percent of kids who stayed there did not end up in foster care even five years after leaving the nursery, CEO and President Natalie Leek-Nelson said.

“There's a belief that you can't help these families, that they're too far gone, the parents grew up in crisis, but we know that's not true,” Leek-Nelson said. “These are families that are desperate for help, but terrified to ask because the first thing that usually happens is their kids get removed.”

Jeremiah's Place received a $100,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation in May and is pursuing other donations, Williams said. She said the nursery will be licensed as a child care and residential care facility by the state Department of Public Welfare. Parents could drop off children without involvement from the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families, Williams said.

“We can give them a healthy alternative,” Williams said.

County Human Services Director Marc Cherna considers the nursery a child abuse prevention program: “I think it's a good thing that it's starting, and we'll see how it goes.”

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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