Special Reports

2,300 people helped search for Robert Manwill. Local groups want to channel that energy to make kids safer.

"Nothing we do now brings Robert back, but we're asking what we can do as a community to prevent this happening again," said Roger Sherman, director of the Idaho Children's Trust Fund.

Inspired by the case, local child welfare agencies already are working on ideas from 10 groups that met in Boise last week.

"A lot of people say we have a thriving community for kids, but there are obviously holes," Sherman said.

Sherman helped organize the meeting, which attracted representatives from the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program, Idaho Voices for Children, former Idaho first lady Patricia Kempthorne representing the Twiga Foundation, St. Luke's Prenatal Care, Head Start, Idaho Health and Welfare and others.

Everyone from PTA presidents to U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo says now is the time to channel the community's energy to improve the lives of local children. They are talking about ideas like:

® Adopting a version of the Harlem Children's Zone, a 35-year-old nonprofit program that has supported children in one of New York City's toughest neighborhoods.

® Finding ways to offer help to extended family, neighbors and others who seem to be in need, without being intrusive.

As thousands devoted time for Robert this summer, others have rallied for kids in Canyon County, too, inspired by the case of 14-year-old Zachary Neagle, accused of killing his father earlier this year - perhaps, as is alleged in court, after years of abuse.

It seems to organizers that the Treasure Valley is uniquely energized to take action on behalf of kids in trouble.

"But there needs to be leadership," Sherman said. "And it's still unclear what that action might be."

By coincidence, the groups met on the very day Robert's mother, Melissa Jenkins, and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick, were arrested, charged with his murder.

"Over 2,000 people will pull together to search for a young boy, even when the search seems hopeless," he said. "Can we also figure out how to pull together on a daily basis to find kids like Robert with no place to turn?"

CAN WE TRACK EVERY SINGLE CHILD?

Nicole Sirak, director of the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program, said she and the others are looking at how one child welfare model, the Harlem Children's Zone, might be put to use locally.

The program, which has been going on for three decades, works with every child in a 97-block area of the city, overseeing not only kids but the welfare, education and health of their families. The program cares for kids from "cradle to college" with a "whatever it takes" philosophy.

The program has been getting attention lately. President Barack Obama is a fan. "This American Life," a program on National Public Radio, aired a story on the nonprofit just last weekend.

Sirak said the meeting attendees talked about how an urban program might take a more rural form in Idaho.

"We were trying to decide what our version of '97 blocks' would be," she said. "Is it all Title One schools (with lots of low-income families)? Is it the 4th Judicial District (Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties), where 730 kids come into foster care each year? Is it families who are on the radar of courts and social services who have struggled in the past?"

In Robert's case, he and his younger half-brother, Aidan, were allowed back into their mother's home months after she was convicted of fracturing the younger boy's skull. State Health and Welfare officials haven't released any information about how Jenkins regained custody.

Sherman said already existing programs might also offer good models, including an anti-violence campaign at Mercy Medical Center in Nampa. Programs at United Way, including a kindergarten-preparedness program, also support kids and their families.

Liberty Elementary PTA members want to set aside money in their budget for monthly family nights at the school, with the sole purpose of making sure parents know other parents and parents know kids in other families, said Stacey St. Amand, interim director of the nonprofit Idaho Voices for Children and PTA president at Liberty.

The group is aiming for 100 percent participation.

"Because we're seeing more and more need in our school, more kids who need help paying for lunch and free breakfasts, more of a need for donated clothing, more parents who don't have jobs or are working two jobs, which can create even more need in kids," she said.

MAYBE IT'S TIME TO INTERVENE

Sherman said that while child protection programs are suffering from underfunding, the issue reaches beyond programs.

Sometimes, helping kids comes down to "making a cultural shift that increases the sharing, neighbor to neighbor," he said.

The trick is to work out the balance between giving families their privacy and stepping in to take action when it looks like someone's in trouble.

"As private citizens, we can be aware of our surroundings," St. Amand said. "If you see, or suspect child abuse, you need to report it. It's a simple process. You call the Idaho Care Line at 211.

"My feeling is you're morally bound as a human being to do that. It sounds corny, but it does take a village. In my own neighborhood, I've seen kids abusing BB guns and airsoft rifles against each other. I intervene, because it's just wrong, and I feel it's my duty. Then again, I grew up with a father who was always yelling at speeders on our street to slow down."

In a column this week, Crapo called on the community as well.

"Pay attention to what is happening around you and don't hesitate to help someone who you suspect might be in trouble," he said. "Vigilance demands that we speak up, point out, notice our surroundings and listen to our instinct. It is always better to err on the side of caution."

Patricia Kempthorne, who now advocates for children through the Twiga Foundation, said she was reminded recently of this need when she saw a woman struggling to cross a street.

The woman had two children and a baby in a stroller. She was obviously having a hard time, losing her temper. People were nearby, watching her, but didn't speak to her. It reminded Kempthorne of an incident in her own past.

"I was sitting in my car at the post office, having one of those days," she said. "My kids were in the back seat, and I was yelling at the steering wheel. A man came and tapped on my window and asked if he could help. Just that offer defused the moment. That happened about 25 years ago, and I've never forgotten it.

"I wondered why I didn't have the same courage to walk up to that woman the other day, the way that man did for me. Maybe all she needed was to know that someone cared," Kempthorne said.

By the end of the Tuesday meeting, she said, she was thinking of the volunteer searchers who came to look for any trace of the missing child as "2,300 neighbors" - people who were willing to get involved in the life of someone they didn't know.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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