HOWE — One Sunday morning nearly two years ago, Howe resident Marge Malone picked up her morning paper and was shocked by what she read.
That Sunday, The News Sun carried a front-page story with the headline “The Hidden Faces of Meth,” an account of children swept up in the system when parents are arrested for methamphetamine-related offenses.
The story told how police officers sometimes find those children living in deplorable conditions, sleeping on nothing more than a pile of clothes, often hungry and dirty.
If the parents are arrested and taken to jail, police call the Indiana Department of Child Services, which is tasked with making sure the children find a safe home. Sometimes that means foster care.
Malone worried about the psychological trauma those children experience when they see their parents being arrested. Research supports her concerns.
In 2010, a paper published by the New York-based Barnard Center for Research on Women found that “almost 70 percent of children who were present at a parent’s arrest watched as that parent being handcuffed, and nearly 30 percent of children were confronted with drawn weapons.”
The paper suggests the trauma children experience when a parent is arrested may set the tone for their relationship with the criminal justice system later in life.
But Malone also had what she called an “aha!” moment when she put the newspaper down. One of the founders of Ark, the nonprofit animal protection organization that operates the no-kill Ark Animal Sanctuary south of LaGrange, she thought animals might just hold the key to helping those children deal with their trauma.
Her idea was to build a a neutral setting where police officers, Department of Child Services workers and health care professional might be able to take a child to help him or her peel back some of the trauma caused by watching a parent be arrested.
Malone hopes The Farm, as she calls it, will include a barn that houses several animals, such as horses, cows, sheep, goats, dogs and cats.
“It was like a light bulb went off, and I thought, ‘I know how we can help — with the animals,’” Malone said. “DCS has the problem of finding a place for the child, and then trying to undo some of the trauma that they’re being put through. Of course, animals might be the answer, helping children to get through some of that trauma.”
It didn’t take Malone long to form a committee to explore and expand upon her idea. The committee includes LaGrange County officials, foster parents, police officers, church leaders and child health care professionals. In addition, the members of the group have met with counselors and child services advocates.
The First Presbyterian Church of LaGrange took project under its umbrella and made The Farm part of the church’s children’s ministry. The Farm now is considered a “faith-based mission” created to “provide a safe, nurturing and restorative place for children.”
First Presbyterian Church Pastor Ken Weaver said The Farm is a perfect fit with goals set forth by his church.
“It fits so well into our mission of what it means to embody Christ to the world,” Weaver said. “Historically, one of the great purposes of the church is to the provide for the nurture, shelter and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. And we thought this is just a wonderful way to provide for the nurture and shelter of children.”
The committee’s current plans are to purchase a 10-acre site just outside of LaGrange, which will become The Farm. The group already has raised nearly $44,000, but must raise an additional $120,000 by mid-December to purchase the property it has selected.
Once purchased, the second phase of the project will be to start raising funds to build a cabin and barn on the land, and make them — and the animals — available to child services groups.
“It’s something that we could use, and other counties could use it, too,” said Wendy Petty, director of the Department of Child Services in LaGrange County. “How they want to set it up is have visitation with parents there, counseling sessions with parents could be held there, maybe have learning sessions, too.”
Petty described The Farm as a nonthreatening setting that might help put both children and parents at ease.
“We have visitations other places. Sometimes when people come in here (the DCS office), it’s not a comfortable environment,” she said. “But I think ultimately if they can use The Farm, it’s something new. It’s fresh and we can find new ways to use it.”
Petty said DCS workers go to great lengths to keep families together, but often that requires children meet with health care professionals to help them process traumatic moments of their lives. She said working with children around animals might be another tool professionals could use to knock down emotional barriers and help children understand their trauma.
“Going to a counselor’s office isn’t always the best,” Petty explained. “They are at a desk and he’s at a chair, trying to talk about their issues. It would be more of a relaxing atmosphere to carry on counseling sessions.”
Weaver said a health care worker could spend several minutes with a child in The Farm’s barn in an attempt to overcome any reluctance to talk. He said a friendly dog or cat, or even a goat, might provide children with a distraction to their emotional pain, so they can start down the path of healing.
“One of the principles in psychotherapy is to distract from the pain so the pain can be handled in doses, and so that pain doesn’t just overwhelm a person,” Weaver said. “I see the animal companionship as a way to help a person dose the pain.”
Petty said people sometimes question whether, since DCS has been operating without The Farm, it really would make that big of a difference for a child.
“I think you have to be fresh and think of new ways to get to children. This is something new that we want to try to see if we can make a bigger difference. We’ve done the same thing for so many years.”
For Weaver, it’s just the right thing to do.
“Given that our children are most vulnerable in terms of needing to depend on others for care, we thought this would be a great way to provide sort of a safe haven for children who are really in need,” he said. “And we anchor back into the scripture whenever we do a kindness for even the least person, you do it for Jesus himself. We are serving our Savior when we serve anyone.”
Donations may be sent to the First Presbyterian Church of LaGrange, 200 W. Michigan St, LaGrange, 46761. Weaver asked that checks include the words “Farm Project” on the memo line.
For more information, contact Malone at 562-3655 or email@example.com.