By Jim Wogan
Four bedrooms and a lot of love. That might be the best way to describe the newest ministry of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.
The Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids is a recently opened haven for children who have come into custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, giving the youngsters temporary shelter while the state navigates the legal process to place them in foster care or with other family members.
“It’s just a safe, warm place for these kids to be under the care of DCS while they’re getting placed,” said Lisa Healy, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, moments after the official ribbon-cutting on May 13.
The idea for Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids arose out of conversations initiated by Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin, state DCS officials, and Catholic Charities. The need for a comfortable, home-like environment, some place children could be situated other than an austere office, while cases are settled, appealed to Judge Irwin.
“There are not a lot of placement options out there,” he said. “This is what happens when a faith-based organization sees something that needs to be done and steps in and does it. It’s a problem for myself and my magistrates when we must place a child in custody, and we know in our hearts that is going to mean a stay in a room on Western Avenue…it made it tough on us. To know this place is here now and these children, while waiting on placement, have a place to go…and they will be safe. It means a lot.”
“I want to thank you for stepping up, Catholic Charities. I am Catholic, and you make me very proud to be Catholic,” the judge added.
Judge Irwin was joined by Mrs. Healy, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services commissioner Jennifer Nichols, Knox Regional DCS administrator Charles Baumgardner, deputy regional DCS administrator Ashley Westaway, Tennessee Child Protective Services (CPS) director April Osborne, CPS team coordinator Jeff Olkowski, DCS foster team coordinators Greg Freeman and Heather Schad, and Knox County Juvenile Detention Center superintendent Richard L. Bean.
Representing Catholic Charities of East Tennessee were CCETN board of trustees president Barrett Simonis, CCETN program director Paul Ritter, CCETN facilities manager Lisa Ingle, CCETN program manager Michelle Kitts, and CCETN program leader Marcia Klukken, along with other CCETN staff members.
Commissioner Nichols traveled from Nashville to attend the ribbon-cutting and cited the unique role of Columbus Home Safe Place for Kids.
“We have 95 counties, and we only have 17 spaces like this across the whole state,” she said. “Having this in Knox County, in one of our urban areas, is huge. It is my honor to travel here; I wanted to be here; I wanted to see it. I wanted to say thank you to the people who made it possible. I think it’s important for all of us who work for and with this population to make sure to tell people how much we appreciate it.”
Fulfilling the Safe Place dream took hard work by volunteers and financial support from donors.
Construction of the facility took about six months and was supported financially by the Crumley Family Trust. Ms. Ingle, who also is CCETN’s operations administrator, worked on and oversaw the project and was an integral part of getting the facility ready for service. Knights of Columbus Council 16523 from Holy Ghost Parish donated time and talent to provide some much-needed painting, according to Mr. Ritter.
The living space occupies 1,100 square feet and includes four bedrooms, an office for DCS staff,
restrooms, closets, and a large living room with areas that include toys, games, televisions, and furniture. There is a fully stocked kitchen for the children and staff.
“This mission represents an opportunity to extend a helping hand to some of the most vulnerable people of our community: our children,” Mrs. Healy said. “The mission here specifically is a safe place for kids. While these kids are in the custody of the Department of Children Services, they have a place here and an appropriate age-designed place where they can wait for their case managers to get them into foster care, or wherever they are going to be placed. If they must stay overnight, they can stay here. We provide hospitality.”
Mrs. Healy commended community partners and CCETN supporters for helping make the Safe Place project succeed.
“Advocates like (Knox County) Juvenile Court, DCS, Child Protective Services, United Way of Greater Knoxville, the Roddy Foundation, and the Crumley Family Trust. There are just so many people that care, and we are fortunate to receive this support so that we can provide much-needed services and continue to provide them as the needs continue to arise. Catholic Charities of East Tennessee will always be here,” Mrs. Healy said.
The Safe Place for Kids occupies one side of the Columbus Home building on Division Street in West Knoxville. The other side houses the Children’s Emergency Shelter and Assessment Center (CESAC)—a CCETN ministry that provides shelter for children removed from their home due to allegations of neglect, abuse, or other issues, who are not specifically in DCS custody. Children may be housed at the CESAC for up to 10 days. Catholic Charities sheltered 125 children for various lengths of time at the Children’s Emergency Shelter last year.
“I work with Judge Irwin a good bit, of course, and I know his support for Catholic Charities,” Commissioner Nichols said. “I was already familiar with what is on the other side of this building (Children’s Emergency Shelter) because it keeps kids from coming into custody. They can go there and wait sometimes while Judge Irwin is navigating perhaps (having the child join) a family member that is out of state. So, I kind of feel like this is full circle.”
Responding to a media question moments after the ribbon-cutting, Mrs. Healy said that the effort to rebuild the fire-damaged Catholic Charities headquarters on Dameron Avenue in North Knoxville continues to move forward. Architectural plans are being finalized, and construction should begin soon. The CCETN building was badly damaged in a fire on Nov. 28. Arson investigators said the fire was intentionally set.