College student Monique Butler says the stress of being homeless for a time while raising two children, ages 5 and 6, has often brought her to tears.
But worse, she says, is a fear that her frequent hospital stays will prompt the countys Social Services department to take her kids.
Its a concern shared by hundreds of single mothers, who moved to Charlotte for a better life but ended up jobless and homeless during the economic downturn.
No agency in Mecklenburg County has responsibility for taking in homeless kids when their mom is hospitalized.
Thats about to change, however.
Thanks to a new partnership between local charities and Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, homeless women will soon be provided with temporary child care during a hospital stay.
Its called the NeighborCare Project, and organizers say it will also help low-income women who have a home, but no family or friends in the area to take their children during a health crisis.
Butler, 35, is an example of both. She moved here from another part of the state, ended up homeless and has lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that has sent her to the hospital multiple times this year.
I have no one to take care of my kids when I go to the hospital, says Butler, who is now in a Salvation Army housing program. I worry where theyll stay, what theyll eat, and if anybody will be there when they get off the school bus.
Novant Health and Mecklenburg County were among the first donors, giving a combined $30,000 to help launch the project. Organizers say the goal is to raise $284,000 to cover expenses for the first three years.
The partnership expects to help about 60 homeless kids a year, which will save the community tens of thousands in tax dollars, organizers say. Those savings will come from keeping kids out of foster care, which costs an average of $19,600 per child each year, officials said.
The Salvation Army Center of Hope is a key partner in the effort, as the countys chief advocate for homeless mothers.
Shelter Director Deronda Metz says hospitalized women leave her scrambling to place an average of eight children a month.
Most of the mothers are frightened and will do almost anything to keep from losing their kids, she says. This includes one pregnant woman who went to the hospital to deliver her baby, and was back in the shelter within 19 hours, to keep her two preteen kids from going into foster care, Metz says.
Sometimes, medics will let children go with the mom in the ambulance, Metz says. If they stay here, we typically call child protective services but theres no guarantee the children will go back to the parent.
Other partners in the project are the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, The Relatives (a shelter for teens) and the Childrens Home Society.
Carolinas HealthCare System is not yet a partner but was involved in helping to identify the problem and has been meeting regularly with the organizers to discuss possible solutions, said Kevin McCarthy, a Carolinas HealthCare spokesman.
The hospital is reviewing details of the program to determine its next step, he added.
Under the new proposal, children will temporarily be placed with a caregiver, then returned to their mother when she is discharged from the hospital. Caregivers will be licensed and must also go through background checks, officials said.
Novant Health officials did not have statistics on the number of homeless parents who are admitted with children in tow but said it has been an ongoing problem. It has also dealt with intact families, where the wife and kids are in one shelter and the husband in another.
Sometimes, we wont know when the woman is admitted, but then at night well realize the children are still there, said Kimberly Barker, manager of the hospitals community care service department.
We question how good it is for children to see their parent in that fragile of a state. It can be quite scary for them. We felt there had to be a better way to deal it.
It was Novant that first pitched the idea and made clear that the program should go beyond helping the homeless to helping moms with no family in the area.
Hospital officials said they discovered hospitals across the country face the same issue, but there was no established way of dealing with families in crisis, said Ashley McGurkin, a clinical social worker at Novant Health.
That means Charlotte could be creating a model for other cities, she says.
This is such a hidden problem, says McGurkin. Our community can solve this. Its not farfetched. We have the resources but just hadnt put them together in the right way. We just needed to work together as a team.
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