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Foster care ‘sanctuary’ prepares to open in Pierce County

Emergency sanctuary will provide safe transition for foster kids

A look inside Pierce County's first emergency sanctuary, where children entering the foster care system can receive up to 72 hours of temporary care before being placed in a permanent home. It's empty now, but by December it's expected to take in
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A look inside Pierce County's first emergency sanctuary, where children entering the foster care system can receive up to 72 hours of temporary care before being placed in a permanent home. It's empty now, but by December it's expected to take in

Many children who enter the foster care system in Washington state end up spending the days before their permanent placement in their social worker’s cubicle.

At night, they can end up in homes that provide little more than a bed, then head back to the cubicles the next day.

But Amara, a Seattle-based foster care nonprofit, has a home in Tacoma where children will be able to go those first days and nights before they’re placed.

It’s empty now, but by December it’s expected to be ready to take in up to five children at a time, with a full-time therapeutic child care specialist on hand and a rotating armada of volunteers helping out.

“I’m so pumped about it,” said Maureen Sorenson, Amara’s Pierce County director. “My biggest nightmare is getting this house ready.”

Before the home can open as what Amara calls an “emergency sanctuary,” it must meet Tacoma city code, then be fully furnished before getting local and state approval from the state Department of Social and Health Services as a foster home.

Contractors and volunteers have helped get the house into shape at no cost. On Thursday, decorators from a local furniture retailer were on hand, donating their time — and products — to help furnish the home.

It will have two bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, a large basement, a kitchen, an office for house administrator Ross Hiranaga, and a room for the volunteers and other employees.

On Friday, staff members from the Children’s Museum of Tacoma came by to help Sorenson and Hiranaga design a learning-friendly environment for the children.

“I fell in love with the idea of the name ‘emergency sanctuary,’ ” said Hiranaga, who joined Amara to lead the sanctuary project after more than three years as a CPS investigator. “The word ‘sanctuary’ implies a safe haven, a place where you can be yourself and be safe.”

When Hiranaga was an investigator, he had children in his office space until 8 p.m., when he’d drive them as far away as Port Angeles for a bed for the night. Then he’d be back in the morning to pick them up.

The trips will be much less frequent for CPS investigators with a home in Pierce County, which had about 1,300 children in foster care earlier this year.

Children can stay up to 72 hours in temporary care before DSHS is legally obligated to find them a long-term home, with their parents, their family members or a foster home.

The new home is close to the Tacoma DSHS office and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, where Amara takes children for head-to-toe checks as soon as they enter the system. The News Tribune is not disclosing the location of the sanctuary because of privacy concerns for children entering the foster care system.

It’s also within walking distance of a city park, where employees and volunteers can take kids to blow off steam.

“It’s been very rewarding to build the sanctuary from the ground up,” said Hiranaga, who is in the process of hiring the child-care specialists.

The sanctuary is funded through philanthropy. Amara planned a $150,000 initial investment in the program and an annual operating budget of $525,000.

Amara has run a similar emergency sanctuary in King County since December 2014. Aubree Guertin, 26, of Tacoma, is among the volunteers there, but will be volunteering at the Tacoma sanctuary when it opens.

“Last time I drove up there, it was 6 in the morning,” she said. “I’m super excited for the Tacoma one to open so I don’t have to drive all the way up there.”

Sorenson said she’s looking for about 70 volunteers to help run the sanctuary — at full staffing, everyone would work one four-, six- or eight-hour shift per month. Fifty people already have committed.

“It’s been really exciting as people have been hearing about it,” she said.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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