Warren County Children’s Shelter is far more than just a building

Published 4:21 pm Monday, November 11, 2019

When people think about the Warren County Children’s Shelter, it brings a vision of a building where children are sent to escape abuse or to await a new foster home.

“We are emergency crisis service, but we are so much more,” Shelter Program Director Mark McNeil recently told members of the Port City Kiwanis Club. “We are more than emergency care; we are figuring out the ‘why’ (what is causing the behavior problem) coming in the door. We are creating this feeling of healing from the minute they walk in the door.”

McNeil said it is the staff’s mission to show the children love and compassion the moment they arrive.

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“The moment those children come in the door, our staff wraps themselves around those kids to make sure that we can get to work to figure out what’s going on, because they have to survive someone past us,” McNeil said. “We try to teach them the skills so the next foster placement doesn’t fail; the next foster home doesn’t fail. If they go back home, they have the skills to survive there.”

McNeil said the problems of the children they deal with involve two categories — physical abuse and neglect or sexual assault.

But the Children’s Shelter provides other services to children and the community.

“We can provide six months of free family counseling for families in crisis,” he said. “If there’s a family out there that’s in need, they need to contact us.”

McNeil, who is also the shelter’s therapist, said he has an outpatient office at United Way where he can meet with families and children as they need it.

“If there’s a child in that home who is acting up for whatever reason, we can take that child at the shelter for up to three weeks and let that family system relax, and we can figure out what’s wrong so we can get that child back into the home,” he said. “Then after that, we provide six months of aftercare services for the child and the family for six months free of charge.”

The shelter is also working to develop a runaway/homeless program to get runaway children to call the shelter.

“We had a child from Jones County with an ankle bracelet, not because she had committed a crime, but because she kept running away and they (authorities) wanted to make sure she didn’t wind up in a sex trafficking situation,” he said. “We’re trying to get that here; that’s forward-looking.”

And while McNeil said there has been minimal experience with sex trafficking locally, “We’re looking at the problem. We see kids run away; they think they’re trying to discover their independence, but they could meet some smooth-talking individual and wind up in Iowa chained to a bed in a hotel room. That is the reality.

“Unfortunately, I learned my first day on the job that there are monsters under the bed and things that go bump in the night. Television doesn’t come close to portraying what we see,” he said.

McNeil also uses canine therapy with his border collie Archer. When a child is removed from its family or a foster home, he said, there is a break in the attachment that was built up over time.

“We need to create new attachments. Archer is designed to be the cool kid everybody wants to be with. He’s establishing a new attachment of trust. Something that loves them,” he said. Archer, he said, “Isn’t performing for food; he’s performing to please me and to please the kids.

“Imagine how long it’s been since any of those kids have felt ‘I have somebody that wants to be here for me.’”

He said the shelter is one of three children’s shelters in Mississippi and serves the entire state. It is the only one that will accept children “from 0-17.” It has six full-time and six part-time staff members and four people in administration.

Presently, he said, the shelter is getting a lot of calls about taking older children aged 16-17 that are in failed foster homes. Most of the children presently at the home, he said, are 16-17.

He said the staff works with children coming to the shelter with behavioral issues to help them learn to make it at the next place once they leave the shelter.

“These kids have been through a great deal, and their behavior is starting to reflect what they’ve been through,” McNeil said. “We’re going to be the place that can work on these things so that when they leave us, they have the skills to survive in the next place.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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