Sometimes, all that stands between a child living in neglect and their safe placement in a foster home is the lack of a crib or a bed.
That’s why a group of volunteers has established James Storehouse, a nonprofit based in Covington that is a resource for children in foster care.
Kim Winston Bigler, of Covington, is spearheading the effort.
“There truly is a crisis where too many children are coming into the system and there are not enough families. Budget cuts have not helped the problem,” she said.
“Typically, every night in Louisiana, 5,000 children are without a permanent home,” said John Wyble, James Storehouse interim board president. “These are kids who have done nothing wrong themselves, but they have been neglected or abused by the people they trusted.”
In the two-parish area James Storehouse serves, 275 children in St. Tammany Parish and 225 in Washington Parish have gone through foster care in the past 12 months, he said.
Bigler said James Storehouse opened in January and is run by private donations.
She noted that a lack of support and resources can cause a high rate of burnout in both caseworkers and foster caregivers.
“I’ve had families tell me, ‘This might be my last placement,’ ” she said. “We really strive to help and support them.”
Giving them what they need
There are various points at which James Storehouse can provide vital resources to improve a child’s transition to foster care. When a child is removed from his home, every effort is made to place the child with family members, which is called “kinship care.” But an aunt or grandmother may not have, for example, a crib or the money to immediately buy formula and diapers the child will need, Bigler said. James Storehouse partners to provide cribs and items to meet these immediate needs.
The same situation might occur with a willing foster family that lacks specific resources. James Storehouse will help foster families, as well.
There is a high priority for keeping siblings together, and James Storehouse can make a bunk bed available to make placement easier.
Then there are the youths who age out of the system at age 18 and may still be in high school. James Storehouse seeks to help and mentor them to finish school, find an apartment and pay for college application fees and other needs.
Caseworkers also may try to reunite a child with his family, and one requirement will be that they have a working stove or refrigerator. James Storehouse can provide gift cards to the caseworker to help with that purchase.
James Storehouse responds to varied situations, Bigler said, to provide “resources that fill the gap in care for the child.”
“People ask, ‘Don’t the foster families get an allowance’ to provide for the children?” she said. They do, she said, but it is a minimal amount, and it may not be immediately available when the child is placed.
A child being removed from a home might bring very little with him. James Storehouse provides backpacks and other items to help the child in transition.
La. lags in reimbursement
Wyble said Louisiana “is at the bottom of what we provide as a daily rate” for a child placed in foster care. Wyble, who served for more than a decade with local and national Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, joined the board to help build awareness of youths in foster care. He said, “There are great people in child welfare doing wonderful things every day” on behalf of these children, and they want to give them support.
Bigler said James Storehouse also operates a “full-service boutique resource center” where foster children can come in and are treated like customers. They can “shop” among the “trendiest stuff in new or mint condition” that has been donated to the program. They go away with their goods in shopping bags, not plastic bags, she said. Volunteers help them find clothes and items to meet their style and age.
The Storehouse also has started a foster support group for the north shore. At its first meeting, more than 15 people showed up, Bigler said. The support group is open to foster youth, foster family members, youth in transition, caseworkers and others.
Bigler is from Covington but lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. That’s where she helped found the first James Storehouse after becoming aware of children in the foster system and the plight of foster families and case workers, who she said are often “overburdened.”
It was there she learned that sometimes, the thing that could “make it or break it for a child’s safe placement” was a crib or a bed.
Bigler got on the phone, got on social media and “mobilized the faith community until needs were being met and caseworkers were getting support, and that grew into James Storehouse.”
The daughter of former District 77 state Rep. Diane Winston, Bigler was noticed in Louisiana for her work. She was asked to speak at a state convention and, after talking to those involved in child welfare, saw the need was great in her hometown. She decided to move back home.
“I decided to plant another James Storehouse.”
She set up shop in January and has served more than 150 children and families in the first six months.
Her goal is to provide critical resources to caseworkers, families and the foster children themselves to help “keep the fire of hope in them.”
For information, visit jslouisiana.org.