December 03, 2012 5:53 am  •  by Betsy Cohen – The Missoulian

If year-end giving is on your mind and charity is in your heart, know this: Watson Children’s Shelter has hit full capacity.

In other words, there’s no more room at the emergency shelter for children who are in need of a safe place to live.

“Both of our children’s shelters are completely full – all 16 beds in each house are taken and that is our capacity: 32,” said Fran Albrecht, the shelter’s executive director. “We have been experiencing high numbers of children in need for some time now, and I was hopeful we would not hit full capacity because we don’t want to be turning children away.”

So far, the shelter hasn’t had to turn a child away, as a few children stay for just a few days and there is a little bit of turnover, Albrecht said.

Nevertheless, the emergency housing is in high demand and the costs associated with taking care of two full shelters are significant.

Albrecht is unclear why the shelter’s monthly average of 24 children has surged to full capacity.

“I don’t know what is going on, but what I can guess is that essentially this is a delayed reaction to our community and the stress families are experiencing economically and otherwise,” she said Sunday.

Studies show that parents facing excessive financial stress, limited family support and poor decision making are often what lead to child abuse or neglect.

“It is not uncommon for an average of 30 percent of children in our care to have a parent who is incarcerated,” Albrecht said. “That is true today.”

In these trying times, and as the holidays inch closer, Albrecht said she is grateful that Watson Children’s Shelter has the ability to welcome all these children in need.

Because Watson is an emergency shelter, there is no waiting list. Should a child be in need of a safe haven and the shelter has no room, other options will be explored, such as reaching out to relatives of that child or finding temporary foster care for the children.

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“We have a contract with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which licenses us and provides fees for service for us to cover basic care,” Albrecht said. “But that covers only 60 percent of the actual cost of caring for these children, and we are continually making up the remaining 40 percent difference in order to provide for the children.”

“The biggest and one of the largest sources of help comes from the people in our community – especially with year-end giving,” she said. “Five dollars to $25 from a lot of individual people really adds up, and that’s how we cover our remaining expenses.

“And the reality is, these children have nowhere else to go.”

The shelter takes in children ages 15 months to 14 years old, and the average length of stay is around 50 days.

“That length of time gives families and child protection services the opportunity to look at the bigger picture and the time to find longer-term placement for the children,” Albrecht said.

While the increase in the number of children in need is troubling, the timing of the need couldn’t be more poignant.

“We are preventing children from further abuse and neglect and giving them a chance in the safety and care of our homes,” Albrecht said. “But it makes it emotionally more difficult knowing how close we are to Christmas. When most of us think of Christmas, we think of family.

“We will provide a wonderful experience for these children – thanks to the community. But the reality is that there is a void in every child’s heart when they aren’t with family, and that’s not by choice.”