McKenzie Heads ER Of Social Work

March 24, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Though business is booming and his staff is working overtime, Marvin McKenzie Jr. isn't happy about it, because "business" is the flow of vulnerable children to KidsFirst.

KidsFirst is Kent County's emergency shelter for youngsters from infants to teens. McKenzie is the program's designer and executive director.

McKenzie said 70 percent of the cases of abused and neglected children coming to KidsFirst arise from substance abuse in one form or another.

Working with vulnerable children comes naturally to McKenzie, whose brother is developmentally disabled. "In school, I was always watching out for the kids who got bullied. Later, when I coached inner-city kids during summer vacations from Boston College, I knew I'd found my calling."

The 40-year-old South Haven native came to St. John's Home in 1996 as a therapist after a professor in his master's program at Grand Valley State University recommended him. Two years later, St. John's asked him to design and head up a new shelter care program that became KidsFirst.

This year McKenzie expects about 700 children to come to KidsFirst, a big, beige home adjoining the 25-acre campus of St. John's Home, 2355 Knapp Street NE. They arrive 24/7, leading McKenzie to call KidsFirst "the ER of social work." In fact, the lower level of the house has a medical suite where many kids get the first complete health screening of their lives. McKenzie and his staff fed and bathed the half-starved teenager who had been chained in her basement. They also comforted the 10-year-old who had lived alone several weeks with the body of his dead mother.

The homelike atmosphere, the comfortable upholstered furniture and separate bedrooms are the result of donations of money, plus gifts of labor and materials by the Home Builders Association, Rotary East, Ronald McDonald House Charities and ParamountProperties.

"KidsFirst is much more than a convenient place to drop off a child in an emergency situation," he added. "A short stay here gives our counselors and therapists time to observe each youngster before recommending a placement that we hope will be permanent."

McKenzie said elsewhere in Michigan, rescued children often must spend the night in the back of a police car or a welfare agency lobby while caseworkers search frantically for a safe place to house them.

"Under that kind of pressure, caseworkers often place a child in any home that's available," McKenzie said. "This leads to a lot of broken placements and kids getting bounced around from one foster home to another. By taking time to get to know each child, we reduce the likelihood of broken placements."

Evaluation begins the moment children arrive at KidsFirst. "Kids get a home-cooked meal and a staff member is assigned to them," McKenzie said. "They often get a bath, a teddy bear or a handmade blanket. A lot of kids are puzzled that complete strangers would take such an interest in them. My staff says the response they get from kids is the best part of working for KidsFirst."

Children 10 and under are referred to emergency foster homes the same day through Bethany Christian Services, DA Blodgett Services for Children and Families, or Catholic Social Services. Older children and teens may get an immediate referral to a variety of foster homes and residential programs.

McKenzie said youngsters who are runaway risks or who pose a danger to themselves or others are referred to a secure facility at Wedgwood Christian Youth & Family Services to be monitored around-the-clock.

He admitted it's hard to find placements for teens. "It's a sad fact that placements are scarcer for older kids, so sometimes we have to wait for the right one to become available. That's why it's so important to have the house. We don't have to rush a child off to a second-best situation just to get them a bed."

McKenzie said being located by the St. John's campus is a big advantage for KidsFirst. "Our kids participate in many of the therapeutic programs and activities offered to the kids in residential treatment there like sports and field trips. They even got 2nd place in the annual Black History Month Quiz bowl tournament right here on our campus.

"If we find there's a substance abuse problem, we can refer teens to the Discovery Program right next door. St. John's Home is a great environment for kids to rest and begin to heal."

But McKenzie cautions against thinking of KidsFirst as a homeless shelter. He terms it the gateway to the Kent County child welfare system, comprised of a dozen programs and agencies with whom, he added, cooperation is "exceptional."

After five years, his biggest struggle is dealing with the sheer numbers of children who need emergency services.

The house's 14 beds are usually filled, with "overflow" kids sleeping in a house next door at St. John's. One night last fall, KidsFirst took in two big sets of siblings: a family of five and a family of seven. McKenzie said the staff was up all night getting the children settled.

"The laws of supply and demand don't really work in the child welfare business," McKenzie said. "I can never turn a child away when the house is full. My staff just deals with the extra children and does a great job. If the day comes we decide we may need a bigger facility, we'll look to the community for help in getting that done."

Ironically, KidsFirst's overcrowding is due in part to its reputation among child welfare workers. "Our numbers spiked practically as soon as we opened," McKenzie said.

"We were pretty puzzled until we discovered that caseworkers and police personnel were removing more children from questionable home situations because they felt so good about the treatment the kids were getting at KidsFirst."

Stories of the program's success have attracted visitors from several counties and as far away as California. Ingham County's proposed "Angel House," still in the planning stages, is modeled after KidsFirst.

Although Kent County funds the program, McKenzie says private support allows him to offer important "extras."

"Besides the teddy bears and handmade blankets, we get donations of toys and games, toiletries, backpacks, new clothing and sporting goods. We get complimentary tickets from all the area semi-pro teams and the kids just love going. They go to the Civic, the Opera, the arena shows and the Symphony."           

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