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Safe Space You Can Go Home Again

Safe Space You Can Go Home Again

New York Nonprofit Press 11/22/2011

Safe Space was founded in 1919 as the Queensboro Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (QSPCC). As the name implies, it was focused on child protective services and firmly rooted in the borough of Queens. Over time, QSPCC evolved, first shifting its focus to child abuse prevention programming and foster care, then adding mental health services, afterschool activities and programs for runaway and homeless youth. In the process, QSPCC – later known as the Center for Children and Families — grew to become more of a Manhattan-based agency. Its executive and administrative offices were housed there as were close to one-third of its overall programming.

Approximately two years ago, under the leadership of new Executive Director Christine Molnar, Safe Space made a decision to return to its roots. “We decided to close all our Manhattan programs and focus exclusively on the high needs communities of Southeast Queens,” she explains. “It was a big decision, the board felt we needed to move to where the need really was.”

Child victimization rates are through the roof – 20.3% in Jamaica and a staggering 27.3% in Far Rockaway. “The communities themselves are sort of functioning on their own levels of neglect,” says Molnar. “There are failing and underperforming schools. More than half the kids at Jamaica and Hillcrest High Schools do not graduate. Very few have the skills they need to be able to succeed in college or beyond.” In 2006, almost one in four Jamaica adults aged 25 and older had not completed high school and one in ten had less than an 8th grade education.

And, while the communities of southeast Queens might be high in needs, they were relatively low in programmatic resources. “As opposed to other communities in Manhattan, some parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx and even other areas of Queens, there are very few service providers out here – very few places for young people to go after school,” says Molnar. “Right here in Jamaica, there are 8,000 young people on the street in the after-school hours with no place to go.”

Safe Space began by moving its executive and administrative offices back into Jamaica. “We created a new headquarters here – three stories, 22,000 sq. ft.,” says Molnar. The agency also brought together all of its Jamaica-based programs into the new building. “We consolidated six different locations into one. For the first time, we can really seamlessly deliver an integrated set of services to our families because they are all co-located.”

The goal was to create a “hub” offering a range of family support, community health and mental health services, youth programs, after-school activities and more, all in a single location which would make them easily accessible to clients in any one of the individual programs.

In addition to Jamaica, Safe Space has consolidated existing programs to create two more service “hubs” – one in Far Rockaway and another in Richmond Hill which would also serve South Ozone Park and Howard Beach. Eventually, each “hub” would offer all of the various services that Safe Space provides.

Family Support Services

Prevention of child abuse and neglect is at the heart of Safe Space’s programming. “We are the largest preventive agency in Queens and the fourth largest in the City. We serve over 900 families a year,” says Molnar. The agency operates general preventive as well as a number of specialized programs. The Family Treatment Rehabilitation program serves families dealing with substance abuse issues and features a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) to provide individual and group counseling in addition to case management services. The Family Rehabilitation Program (FRP) offers intensive supervision including frequent home visits to address high-risk family situations including domestic and child violence issues.

“Over the last couple of years we have been developing a capacity to provide different evidence-based preventive service models, including Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST),” says Molnar. “We have seen incredible results and we are really excited about the possibilities. We are hoping to expand the program into our Far Rockaway hub.”

Molnar believes that the highly structured treatment protocols of MST provide a framework which staff find extremely supportive. She also believes that the agency’s experience with MST may be helpful as Safe Space moves towards the shorter lengths of stay desired by ACS for all preventive services programs. “We are starting to see with MST that intensive, short duration interventions can actually make a big impact and change the ways families are functioning,” she explains. “However, we haven’t been doing it long enough yet to see the long term impact.”

Mental Health Services

Safe Space operates its own NYS Office of Mental Health-licensed Article 31 Community Mental Health Clinic. “The fact that we have an Article 31 clinic is part of what makes Safe Space so impactful,” says Molnar.

“We can amplify our contract services for preventive families and youth with additional mental health services for those who need them,” she explains. “Mental health issues are often the barriers that keep families from changing in positive ways – anger management, depression, substance abuse problems. The mental health service resources that we can bring to bear can have a great impact for these families.”

To make sure that these resources are made available where appropriate, every family in Safe Space’s Family Support programs is now screened for mental health issues. If they need services, they are referred to the mental health clinic. “We are really emphasizing integration of service,” says Michael Blady, Vice President of Clinical Operations and Quality Assurance. “We want to wrap services around these families. We are working to have a primary person in each hub who connects the mental health and ACS services.”

Molnar also believes that the clinic’s mental health services are a way in which Safe Space can effectively provide “aftercare” for individuals and families with behavioral health diagnoses who may have graduated from contracted preventive service programs.

In addition to its primary Jamaica location, Safe Space’s Article 31 clinic has a licensed satellite in the Far Rockaway hub. “We have a pending application in with OMH to create an additional satellite in the Liberty Avenue location in Richmond Hill,” says Blady. Safe Space already operates a school-based mental health program at MS72 through which it can serve children and parents in that community.

Seen and Heard

Over the years, Safe Space has developed considerable expertise in providing mental health services for younger children.

“Services for children under the age of five are not typically available at a lot of clinics,” says Natalie Brooks Wilson who recently joined Safe Space as Director of the Jamaica Mental Health Clinic.

Launched in 2006, the Seen and Heard program has served over 350 families to help young children aged zero-to-five who have been physically abused or witnessed acts of extreme violence, resulting in traumatic symptoms and behavioral issues.

The prevalence of violence in the communities of southeast Queens makes the Seen and Heard program critically important, explains Molnar. Typical cases include a four-year-old who watched his father beat his mother into unconsciousness; a three-year-old who felt his father choke his mother while being held in her arms; a two-year old who saw her father beaten by police officers to the point of hospitalization. By intervening early, Seen and Heard can help to reduce traumatic symptoms in children and prevent serious problems later in life. By working with family members, the program also can help to heal damaged relationships between parents and children as a result of shared experience with violence.

For the past several years, Seen and Heard has received support through the NYC Council’s Children Under Five Mental Health Initiative. The funding has supplemented typical clinic reimbursement and allowed Safe Space to do expanded community outreach and consultation, hire a community educator and work with undocumented families in need of the service.
Earlier this year, Seen and Heard received a grant from the NYS Health Foundation, the goal of which is to develop a secure and sustainable model for continuation of its valuable services.

Youth Services

During the 1990s, Safe Space expanded its programming to include a variety of services for runaway and homeless youth. Among the programs it offered at the time was a drop-in center near Times Square from which the Safe Space agency name is derived.

With the move back to Queens, Safe Space now operates a similar program at the Jamaica headquarters as part of its new youth center, The Space. “Kids can drop in and access any of our resources,” says Greg Norman, Acting Director of Youth Services. “We have case management. They can shower, wash clothes, eat, and get referrals to shelters and other programs. We are open from 9:00 to 9:00 during the week and have hours available on weekends.

The Space, itself, is available to serve a broader community of young people ages 13-21 in Jamaica for whom there are few opportunities to find safe after-school environments in which to participate in constructive recreational and youth development activities.

“We modeled The Space based on what we consider to be the best-in-class programming offered by The Door,” says Molnar. “We are borrowing some of their concepts including a membership model and full intake process for young people so we can meet their various needs.”

Arts programs, like Express Yourself!, are one way in which The Space attracts youth who might not otherwise be drawn to traditional youth development activities. With support from Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, The Space now features a brand new Media Arts Center complete with iMac computers, music production equipment, keyboards, digital video camcorders and TV monitors. Introductory instruction is available in graphic design, digital photography, music/video production and editing skills.

In addition to introducing the possibility of careers in these fields, the center offers young people the opportunity to explore and express their feelings and emotions through music, poetry and visual arts. “We don’t see this just as a place for them to record music,” says Norman. “It is a place to dig into topics and issues that they are dealing with in our other programming.”
(A formal dedication of the Media Arts Center is scheduled for December 8th.)
Possibilities Prep, another program at The Space, is a three-tiered curriculum that introduces participants to higher education, career and personal finance options and develops the real-life job-readiness skills they need to establish and reach their goals.

The Girl Talk, Boy Talk, and LGBT-focused Spectrum workshops are facilitated by a trained MSW and individually tailored to address specific interest groups in a safe and non-judgmental environment. “Surprisingly 60 percent of women coming to The Space identify themselves as lesbian,” says Molnar. “We don’t see the same numbers in the young men. That may be because boys are at personal risk to come out in these communities. We are working really hard to make our space open to everybody, regardless of how they identify themselves.”

Already, The Space is filling an important void for young people in the Jamaica community. “The word has spread,” says Molnar. “Our numbers have tripled since we opened. There is an incredible demand by young people for a productive place where they can do exciting and interesting programming.”

Youth Shelters

Safe Space operates two residential shelters for homeless and runaway youth. One is a 12-bed DYCD transitional living program where kids can stay for up to 18 months as they develop skills to live independently. The other is one of the only homes for 16-21 year old young people who are HIV positive. “HIV/AIDS is a huge problem in this community,” says Molnar. “We have some of the hightest rates of infection here in southeast Queens, both in terms of African American women infection rates and men who have sex with men (MSM).”

School-Based Programs

Safe Space operates Out-of-School-Time (OST) programs in six local schools in Jamaica and Far Rockaway. “Six years ago we started to use a program called MicroSociety,” says Molnar. “It is a nationwide model which sets up a miniature society inside the after-school program. There is a judge, a mayor, a library, bank, restaurant, etc. Students self-select their jobs and they have an opportunity to practice the skills they are learning in a real life context. It has been incredibly successful in the schools where we have programs.”

Now, Safe Space is hoping to expand its OST presence through a recently-issued DYCD Request for Proposals. “We want to have OST programs in each of our three hub areas,” says Molnar, who applauds the new RFP’s strong focus on programming to develop social and emotional learning. “Developing inner resources and resiliency is exactly the right focus for these communities.”

Community Health

Safe Space also is committed to strengthening health outcomes for the communities which it serves. “Our Healthy Families Jamaica home visiting program serves 300 families a year and helps achieve positive outcomes from birth through age five,” says Molnar. “We are also a lead agency in Queens for enrolling individuals and families in Child Health Plus, Family Health Plus and Medicaid.”

The Vision Takes Shape

For many nonprofit executives and boards, the thought of giving up existing programs in Manhattan in order to re-focus on underserved communities of southeast Queens might seem almost foolhardy — particularly at a time of when governmental and private philanthropy was declining sharply. “No question that it was aggressive,” acknowledges Molnar. “But the board and staff really felt that, given the need here, there were going to be more opportunities for impact – and frankly for growth – by focusing very concretely on these geographic communities.”
Now, Safe Space is working to fill out the missing pieces of its programmatic puzzle – finding funding to provide a full range of services in each of its three “hub” locations. “While we have a vibrant youth program here in Jamaica, we don’t have a youth center in Far Rockaway or in Richmond Hill yet,” says Molnar. “That is one of the greatest challenges for the families we serve.”

If anything, the strength of Safe Space’s new vision has drawn significant interest from foundation, corporate and government funders. Particularly helpful has been Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on Jamaica, Far Rockaway and South Ozone Park as communities of high need during the roll out of his new Young Men’s Initiative. “It is unprecedented in my experience to have this kind of interest from grantmakers,” says Darla Pasteur, Vice President for Strategic Development. She sites significant support for the transition from the Clark Foundation, the New York Life Foundation and the Sirus Fund. “Borough President Helen Marshall has also been a big supporter,” says Pasteur.

The Safe Space vision covers more than just geography, however. “We believe that children should have the opportunity to grow up in a safe and supportive environment with caring adults in their lives,” says Molnar. “Sadly, many families living in southeast Queens have been plagued by generations of poverty. We at Safe Space may not be able to turn the economy around or create the new jobs they need so desperately. But, through our clinical work we can strengthen those children and their families, helping them to develop the social and emotional resiliency they will need in order to grow up healthy and happy and not repeat the same cycles of destructive behavior so prevalent in families experiencing multiple generations of poverty”