'Crisis nursery' to fill gap in services, open next year

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Not every parent has a place to go in crisis: Even Mary and Joseph struggled to find a place to house their newborn.

To give parents a place to take children in time of crisis when they have no safe options is the goal of a trio of local women who are working to open a "crisis nursery" in Pittsburgh.

Some 70 such nurseries exist in the United States and Canada, but the closest to this area are in York, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

The nonprofit center, to be called Jeremiah's Place, is set to open in the new year in East Liberty, a neighborhood that planners say is widely accessible by public transportation.

Its mission is to be a temporary safety net for children who are at risk for abuse because either a parent is under severe stress or has a family emergency but no place to leave children under the age of 6.

Plans call for the nursery to be open 24/7 throughout the year to provide temporary care for up to three days.

"While the children receive love and care, staff will work with parents to ... get connected with services in the community and be ready to parent again," said Jeremiah's Place founder Eileen Sharbaugh of Mt. Lebanon, a former preschool teacher. She and her husband David have four grown children and have been foster parents.

To raise awareness as well as funds, an art auction and sale called Art of Love will be held from 5:30 to 9 p.m. today at the Pittsburgh Market between 16th and 17th streets in the Strip District.

In their meetings with other agencies, co-founders of the nursery - Tammy Murdock, who is an obstetrician, and Lynne Williams, a pediatrician, said a wide "gap" in service exists here.

"There are lots of agencies and some do provide childcare, but there is no emergency childcare," Dr. Williams said. She is a former missionary and single mother who has fostered three children, two of whom she has adopted, and she is in the process of adopting the third.

She explained that the name of the nursery reflects the Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

"This is not baby-sitting for a few hours but a resource for parents who have depleted their resources and are in crisis," Mrs. Sharbaugh emphasized.

A crisis, she said, can include a medical emergency, emotional issues, drug or alcohol issues, domestic violence, incarceration or arrest of a parent or the risk of child abuse because a parent is just "at the end of their rope."

Dr. Williams met Dr. Murdock a year ago when a colleague suggested they talk because each had an interest in developing a crisis nursery.

Mrs. Sharbaugh left St. Paul's Preschool in Mt. Lebanon in the spring in hopes of working to help children. When a friend mentioned crisis nurseries, Mrs. Sharbaugh searched online for "Pittsburgh crisis nursery," found the new website for Jeremiah's Place and sent an email requesting more information. The site had gone live just moments before Mrs. Sharbaugh pressed the send button.

The three have been working together since and have spent months meeting with social services agencies here to determine need, raise awareness and start a pilot project while continuing to raise funds for a stand-alone location.

Each co-founder has reasons for opening the nursery.

As a pediatrician and internist, Dr. Williams is motivated by the knowledge that "children exposed to tremendous amounts of stress early in life are more prone to develop medical issues later, and research has shown that high levels of stress changes the makeup of the brain," she said.

For Mrs. Sharbaugh, it is the daily news. "Each time I see a story about an abused child, I think 'we need to open now.' "

Children age 6 and younger are the target age for the nursery because they are the most at risk for abuse and/or neglect since they are not "plugged in" anywhere, Mrs. Sharbaugh noted.

As an obstetrician, Dr. Murdock said part of her joy is handing newborns to families who have such hopes for the child.

"But when things become too much - a job is gone, or a partner leaves - then the stresses of parenting can push parents to the edge. If I'm not doing something about this, then I'm part of the problem," she said, noting that more than 85 percent of the fatalities of abused children are under the age of 4.

Dr. Murdock and her husband, Alan Murdock, also a doctor, live in Squirrel Hill and have four children.

She added that once a family enters into government services, its members often admit defeat. "When children are removed from a home, you are removing that one source of light from that family. I think that's a breaking point," Dr. Murdock said.

Parents will not lose their parental rights when they come to Jeremiah's Place.

"I believe parents want to do their best for their kids but don't always have the resources. Extended families are often far away, and neighborhoods aren't what they used to be. We will be there to provide a safety net," Mrs. Sharbaugh said.

Pam Schanwald, CEO of the Children's Home of Pittsburgh and Lemieux Family Center in Friendship, is working with the group.

"There is definitely is a gap in services. For a family voluntarily looking for emergency help, this is the perfect place. This gives them an opportunity for respite," Ms. Schanwald said.

Jeremiah's Place is seeking funding through individuals, foundations and corporate grants. When the pilot program begins, Dr. Williams said the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Child Development will conduct evaluations of the crisis nursery model.

Details: www.jeremiahsplace.com.

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Jill Thurston, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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