Crisis nurseries ready to help support parents in tight spot

Children's drawings on the wall
Children's drawings on the wall at the Ivy House in New Ulm.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Rosa cares for her three children while juggling a full-time job. She says she feels overwhelmed. 

“Hundred percent struggling, to be completely honest,” she said. Rosa is also a survivor of domestic violence, so MPR News is not using her real name.

“I haven’t paid my rent for this month, because I had to pay for child care. That’s exactly why I did not pay my rent this month. I’m counting down the days till all my kids are in kindergarten, straight up.”

The single mom turned to the Mankato Area Crisis Nursery. It’s a free emergency child care program through Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota offering support in Blue Earth, Le Sueur, Nicollet and Waseca counties. It connected her with short-term child care by licensed providers while she searched for a permanent arrangement. 

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Rosa calls it “a lifesaver.“  

“It takes a village to raise children,” she said. “Well, I don’t have that village or like the little village I do have isn’t as reliable, or they’re working too.”

A four-year old boy plays
A 4-year old boy plays with a toy car on the floor at the Ivy House in New Ulm.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Crisis nurseries can be essential for parents who suddenly need help with looking after their children because of an unexpected situation. 

It might be a call-in to work, medical appointments or even sudden homelessness. Sometimes, parents just need a break. 

Kate Hengy-Gretz, facilitator of the Mankato Area Crisis Nursery, said the program is open to all parents regardless of income. She said the nursery is receiving more calls nowadays from parents who need help. Many don’t have a strong support system such as families who can help babysit when providers fall through. 

“When you’ve got a family that’s really struggling, and they reach out for care, and it’s like ‘I just need an afternoon by myself, I have not been to the bathroom without my one-year-old or two-year-old with me for six months, I just need a break.’”

The Mankato Area Crisis Nursery has about 30 providers. They are a mixture of family-based, center-based and foster care providers. They are able to care for children ages 12 and younger for a couple of hours up to 72 hours. The services are free. 

Kari Paul of Lake Crystal picks up toys
Day care provider Kari Paul of Lake Crystal picks up toys at her home at the end of the day with help from her daughters Naomi and Kalista.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

In rural Lake Crystal, Kari Paul picks up the toys in her basement and resets for the next day. She has been involved as an in-home provider with the Mankato Area Crisis Nursery for almost a decade. 

“It’s just a circle of how does this all fit together?” Paul said. “So, a crisis nursery program can allow for that one-time option. Maybe it’s a one-week option for a family to get the care they need, so they can go in the next direction.”

Hengy-Gretz said about 40 percent of placements are employment-related, about 24 percent  are related to parents being emotionally exhausted and another 16 percent are associated with mental health and chemical health issues. About 80 percent of children  being placed are under the age of six.

Crisis nurseries feel the strain of not having enough licensed providers Hengy-Gretz said, mirroring  current child care provider shortages across Minnesota. She hopes more volunteers and licensed providers will join the network so they can serve a larger area. 

“We try to be as flexible and accommodating as we can,” she said. “But, there are times when I have to tell people, I’m sorry, I can’t provide care. And that’s frustrating for the family and it’s frustrating for me.”

A large closet
A large closet at the Ivy House in New Ulm is sorted between boys and girls clothes and by size. Most of the clothing is donated.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The Minnesota Department of Human Services said it did not have specific figures on crisis nurseries because the facilities can take different forms and so fall under different provider licenses.

In New Ulm, the nonprofit Ivy House was only the second residential crisis nursery in Minnesota when it opened in 2017. It can also provide up to 72 hours of care for kids 12 and younger. Founder Amber Collins used to volunteer at the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery and saw the need for a similar facility in southern Minnesota. 

“We really wanted to take away that word ‘crisis’, because there’s a stigma that goes along with that thing, ‘Well, I have to be in this extreme situation to be able to ask for help,’” Collins said. “We truly want anyone who just needs help with their children, caring for the kids, supporting their family, to reach out and ask for help.”

Two people talking
Founder of the Ivy House Amber Collins, left, listens to Executive Director Trisha Homan talk during an interview with MPR News.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Ivy House serves children from all over Minnesota relying on donations and grants. Executive Director Trisha Homan said the experiences children have coming to stay with them is important, especially during their early developmental years.  

“Some of the families that come to us, the kids, have never lived in a home,” Homan said. “So, they live in motels or their cars or campers. So, it’s good for them to see what a family home looks like. We practice sitting together at meal times, eating family style just to show kids that’s kind of what families do.”

The Ivy House is also a model for a new facility  in Ramsey County. A new crisis nursery called STAR House will open this spring for children aged seven and younger.  The founding members are composed of former volunteers of the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. 

Sarah Ellefson is board president and co-founder of STAR House. She estimated that Ramsey County averaged about 800 kids being placed out of their homes annually by child protection. Many, she said, didn’t belong in the system. 

The inside of a home01
From left to right: STAR House Vice President Sarah Anderson, Executive Director Rochelle Gianino and President and Co-Founder Sarah Ellefson, welcome volunteers and supporters to the soon-to-be newest residential crisis nursery in Ramsey County.
Courtesy of STAR House

“Just talking to Children and Family Services, a lot of those families just needed support with their children,” Ellefson said. “There were no other options for most families who are introduced into the child protection system and we really want to help families rely on their own resilience without having to go through that method.”

STAR House plans to start taking children on Fridays, and discharge them on Sundays. As the year goes on, they hope to add additional childcare services on other weekdays .

Ellefson said it is  important to have these types of care settings and options for families who are trying to figure out their next steps. She and the other organizers want STAR House to be a home away from home. 

“It’s really nice to have it in a home because it just increases the feeling of safety,” she said.  “I think for the families, maybe it helps the children sleep a little bit better.”

The inside of a home03
STAR House volunteers celebrate their opening with a "nursery warming."
STAR House