After Robert Manwill: How strong is Idaho's safety net for children?

Hungry nights and uncertain futures for many Idaho children

December 27, 2009 

In the weeks following Robert Manwill’s disappearance and death, the community asked what it would take to prevent another child from dying as he did. In this three-day series, the Statesman looks at the challenges — and opportunities — that lie ahead.

Eight-year-old Robert Manwill died, abused to the point of what prosecutors described as torture, in a state that nearly everyone calls a great place to raise children.

The reputation lands Idaho cities on best-places-to-live lists, year after year.

But while Robert occupied the same physical space as other Idaho children, he lived in a place where guardians were unpredictable and violent, money was tight, and safety was fleeting.

His highly public death was unusual. Much of his story may not have been.

Statistics indicate the lives of Idaho children aren't always easy.

If you're a young child in Idaho, you're more likely than young children in 40 other states to go to bed hungry.

If you're a teenager, you're more likely to try to kill yourself - and less likely to go to college - than students in other states.

If you're in foster care in Idaho, your caseworker may have less time for you than if you were in foster care in a nearby state.

Statistics don't tell the whole story, though. Some numbers show another fact: This community is uniquely engaged, particularly when it comes to children.

More than 2,300 "neighbors" came out to search for Robert when he was missing this summer.

Soon after - in the wake of Robert's death - child welfare advocates created two new coalitions aimed at improving the community's safety net.

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO LEND A HAND?

We may not know what really happened to Robert Manwill until his mother and her boyfriend face trial for his murder next year.

But we do know state officials were well aware of his family and its troubles.

Robert's mother, Melissa Jenkins, already had been convicted of injuring Robert's half brother. She was working with the state to regain custody of the younger boy when Robert came to visit last summer.

But even with the oversight of a child welfare system that appeared to be doing what it was supposed to do - plus the close proximity of neighbors, acquaintances and friends - Robert died.

Opinions differ on what could have saved him.

Some advocate more government involvement in children's lives through programs like early education, home visitation and crisis centers for stressed parents.

Only seven states spend less than Idaho on child welfare, including programs like foster care, child protective services, adoption, health and education.

Equally passionate are those wary of too much government intrusion into the private lives of Idahoans. They believe the welfare of children is the province of individual families and parents. Support, they say, should come from relatives, friends and faith communities.

Still others say that even if all the private and public systems meant to protect children were perfect, the record never will be.

"With all the tools in place, you still have to contend with the unpredictability of people," said Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower.

FILLING THE NEED

When the search for Robert ended in tragedy, several local child welfare groups - a mix of nonprofit agencies and the Department of Health and Welfare - came together to tap the wellspring of public interest in his story.

The agencies formed Our Kids: Our Business, an ongoing initiative to protect children.

It's modeled on an earlier effort with the same name in northern Idaho that started in response to the death of a Spokane child from abuse.

The local group's first project, "Say Hello on Halloween," enlisted neighborhood associations, businesses and nonprofits to build connections between neighbors on a night when people are normally out and about, interacting through parties and trick-or-treating.

A second group, Protect Idaho Kids, which was also formed in the wake of the Manwill case, has Olympian Kristin Armstrong as a spokeswoman and an ambitious goal: "making Idaho the safest state in the nation for children."

Protect Idaho Kids is raising money for Court Appointed Special Advocates - generally referred to by the acronym CASA - the Suicide Prevention Action Network, the YMCA and others.

But just as opinions differ when it comes to the balance between the private and public spheres in protecting kids, opinions differ in the nonprofit community about how much weight and responsibility are manageable in an economic climate where more and more young people need help.

Jim Everett, director of the Boise Family YMCA, said the Y is part of a mutually supportive network that shares the burden of looking after kids.

"We all know each other. We help each other out," Everett said.

The Y day care takes in kids from the Rescue Mission's City Light shelter and the Women's and Children's Alliance, for example.

"No one's turned away because they can't pay," Everett said. "It's not like we can put kids who live in a shelter on a waiting list."

The policy is expensive.

Many of the families the Y serves qualify for the Idaho Child Care Program through Health and Welfare that helps low-income working parents pay for day care.

If parents don't make their way through the paperwork, the Y makes up the difference so kids can stay in the program.

In October alone, the difference was $30,000, Everett said.

"We see kids who never held a book, never opened a new box of crayons, and they're 4 years old," Everett said.

"There are more kids out there like that than we think. É How do we make sure those kids get a fair shot?"

Even with the collaboration and backup between agencies, nonprofits are strained, Everett said.

"We're taking on more services and, in most cases, with less resources."

The Y is fortunate, he said, because of its large base of dues-paying members that provides a consistent stream of money for programs.

He worries about other child welfare nonprofits that don't have that resource.

"Government isn't the solution. The government can't do our programs as well as we can," Everett said. "But we do need some assistance."

CAN FAITH COMMUNITIES DO MORE?

Royce Wright, pastor at the Oasis Worship and Food Center in Caldwell, thinks the private community, specifically the faith community, isn't doing enough.

Oasis runs a summer feeding program for kids in nine towns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays for that program, which served 300,000 healthy meals to kids last summer.

All year, though, like many churches, Oasis has a private food pantry and soup kitchen where families can get hot meals.

Oasis feeds 130-140 families each week - three times as many as when it started serving meals in 2001.

"Churches were the welfare system before there was welfare," Wright said. "Then, during the Great Depression, government stepped up. We in the faith community allowed that to happen. We've become desensitized. Sometimes churches care more about their building projects than people."

The Salvation Army straddles the nonprofit and faith communities as it tries to fill the gaps government programs can't fill.

The organization's Youth Center in Nampa provides daylong services, including after-school programs, kindergarten and meals for 66 kids, almost all of whom are from low-income homes.

Jennifer Tillotson, the center's director, said her program, like other youth services in the area, is "busting at the seams, with as many kids as we can handle."

Many families who come to the center are in a working-poor limbo, she said, making too much - sometimes as little as $5 - over the limit to qualify for food stamps and other assistance.

"That's where the private sector comes in. We say, 'OK, let's see what we can do,' " Tillotson said.

It's been a struggle this year, she added. The center was at a "sink-or-swim point," when a private family foundation came through to help keep it going. She's uncertain about the future, she said.

"If something doesn't give, I can see a breaking point come in the next year."

MINDING THE BASICS: FOOD AND SHELTER

Economic downturns hit a community's most vulnerable people hardest - and that means children, said Jean Lockhart, director of the City Light Home for Women and Children.

More than 175,000, or nearly half, of Idaho's approximately 400,000 children live in low-income families.

As bad as that sounds, Idaho actually ranks near the middle among U.S. states when it comes to child poverty.

But recently, some school districts have seen homelessness among students increase between 30 and 230 percent in the last two years, according to state and local school officials.

That may be outpacing national numbers.

Barbara Duffield, a policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth quoted in a New York Times article in September, said many districts across the country have seen increases of 75 to 100 percent during the same time period.

In Idaho in 2008-09, 2,700 students were identified as "homeless" - not necessarily living on the street, but in shelters or with other families or friends.

"When I started at the shelter a year ago, five kids lived there full time," City Light's Lockhart said. "About 10 more were coming in regularly with their mothers for emergency services, including overnight lodging. The numbers have nearly tripled since then."

Public programs are helpful. The Idaho Child Care Program through Health and Welfare helps low-income working parents, or parents in school, pay for day care.

"I have one City Light resident with two preschoolers. Without this program, how could she look for a job, or go to school?" Lockhart said.

Roger Sherman, who was a community organizer and a progressive lobbyist before joining the Idaho Children's Trust Fund as its director, said the intentions of that kind of program are good, but it's too small, and income levels to qualify are too low.

"Many working families aren't eligible," he said. "On the other hand, they can't pay the $5,000 to $6,000 a year that child care costs, either. That's not just a Treasure Valley problem, or an Idaho problem, of course, but it is a problem."

Another thing working to undermine the stability of families is a lack of Section 8, or low-income, housing, said Andrew Ellis, who works in the child protection division of the Ada County prosecutor's office.

"You can get drug counseling fast and parent education fast. But families can sit for two, three years on a waiting list for subsidized housing," he said.

Deanna Watson at the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority said her office has 4,500 active applications from individuals and families seeking housing assistance.

Still, Lockhart has seen the private community step up to fill in gaps where the public safety net is weak.

One woman in the community, Chyrisa Quincy, raised more than $2,000 in memory of her son who died in an accident - enough to pay for the entire summer program at the shelter for 15 kids - by herself.

Adults and high-schoolers from Cole Valley Christian School come every Saturday to spend time with the kids at the shelter.

"I always know they're there when I drive up, and hear crazy yelling on the playground," Lockhart said.

CHILDHOOD HUNGER IS AN IDAHO ISSUE

When it comes to hunger, one of the most urgent fallouts from poverty, it's hard to separate kids' needs from families', said David Proctor from the Idaho Foodbank.

Families' need for food assistance is up 27 percent across the state in the past six months.

According to a Feeding America study based on USDA numbers, 65,500 kids in Idaho are classified as "food insecure."

Twenty-three thousand of them are under age 5 - the 10th highest percentage in the country for young kids.

In August alone, mobile pantries fed 716 children in Ada, Elmore, Canyon, Gem and Owyhee counties.

The Idaho Foodbank's backpack program is another program trying to stem childhood hunger.

School counselors and teachers identify students in food-insecure households. Those students get a backpack of food to take home over the weekend when they can't get school lunch. The food is nutritious and easy to prepare.

Just over $6 pays for six meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days.

Statewide, 1,400 elementary-age kids are enrolled, 265 of them in the Treasure Valley.

"But we're not even scratching the surface when it comes to kids who could use that service," Proctor said.

The program got some recent good news, though: a cash infusion of $30,000 from the Wal-Mart Foundation and the Idaho Advisory Council that will pay this year's bills. The food bank will enroll 200 more kids in Southwest Idaho in the program in January and will continue raising money to pay for them.

As several new reports have noted this year, Idaho is also one of the top states in the country when it comes to increased demand for food stamps.

There's actually a silver lining in that number, Proctor said, because it means that people who need government food aid are getting it.

A growing number of Idaho women are using the Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC.

It provides food for low-income, pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children up to age 5 - which is key in Idaho, where the national ranking for food insecurity among the very young is so high.

More than 46,000 women, infants and children are served each month by WIC, a 10 percent increase in the last year, said Emily Simnitt, Health and Welfare spokeswoman.

Still, Proctor says more can be done to educate people about getting help from the public and private spheres.

Word does seem to be getting out about the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's statewide CareLine (reached by dialing 211 or 800-926-2588), founded in 1991.

The CareLine, which can connect people to 3,400 government, community and faith-based assistance programs across the state, fielded just under 30,000 calls for help in fiscal year 2000.

That number grew to nearly 214,000 calls in 2009.

Alberto Gonzalez, CareLine program director, is already anticipating a 10 percent increase in calls in 2010.

The types of calls that are coming in reveal something about the lives of Idaho families and children.

The largest portion come from people who need help paying their rent and utilities.

Next in line: people who are trying to enroll themselves or their children in Medicaid, or who are looking for low-cost medical clinics.

The third largest number of calls concern child care, Gonzalez said - parents who need help paying for it, or providers who need assistance themselves.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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