Safe Havens in Times of Need: The Role of Crisis Nurseries

Written by Amy Kendal, Program Director of Maryville Crisis Nursery, and Chris Perille, Maryville Crisis Nursery Advisory Council member.

Right Image: Amy Kendal, Program Director with Charlie (age 4) and Child Care worker, Brittany.

On a rainy day in May, the Maryville Crisis Nursery’s 24-hour helpline received a call from a mother—we’ll call her “Claudia.” Claudia, who was crying hysterically and feeling utterly overwhelmed, told the Family Advocate on the phone that she recently moved from Florida with her 2-year old son, David, after escaping an abusive relationship. She had left her mother, her brother, and her job behind to find a better and safer life in Chicago. Claudia’s living arrangements suddenly changed shortly after moving to Illinois, when her niece kicked her and David out. In addition to dealing with the trauma from the domestic violence, moving to a new city, and her unexpected homelessness, Claudia was concerned about David’s development. At two years of age, he was still non-verbal.

While staying in a shelter, Claudia heard about the Maryville Crisis Nursery and called the helpline. She asked for help in finding an adoption agency, because she was feeling hopeless and helpless. The Family Advocate listened to Claudia’s story and provided her with crisis counseling and the support she needed to calm down. The Family Advocate sent a cab to pick up Claudia and David and bring them to the nursery, since Claudia was unfamiliar with using public transportation in a city new to her. The Crisis Nursery Family Advocate team helped Claudia apply for jobs, and childcare staff cared for David while she attended interviews and took care of other personal matters. Claudia landed a job and found an apartment, and the Crisis Nursery gave her a monthly bus pass to get to and from both work and David’s daycare center.

After meeting Claudia’s immediate needs including shelter, employment, and transportation, the Maryville Crisis Nursery provided her with referrals for early intervention services for David. The nursery connected her to the Illinois Department of Human Services for a medical card for David and to a home visiting program for follow-up services to ensure that she and David were safe and doing well.  Staff members even helped Claudia obtain her son’s medical records from the Florida pediatrician. David was finally able to see a doctor and was prescribed an inhaler for his asthma.

With the assistance and support of the Maryville team, Claudia realized how capable and resilient she is. She found strength and motivation in her son. Her life has stabilized – she is living in an apartment and saving money to buy a home for her family. Claudia is deeply grateful to the Maryville Crisis Nursery for helping her get through a very difficult time in her life.

An Urgent Need for More Safe Havens, More Child Care

While Claudia was able to find support for herself and her child, there is an urgent need across the country for child abuse prevention programs and safe havens for children. For many families faced with poverty, joblessness, homelessness, domestic violence, mental/physical health issues, and parental stress, there are few places to turn for support and resources. The effort to get through each day can overwhelm parents and place their children at risk of abuse and neglect. Research indicates that child abuse and neglect harm a child’s physical and mental health, jeopardize school readiness and academic performance, and can result in a lifetime of problems.

Another critical challenge for parents raising young children is affordable and accessible childcare; it has become a burden for both single-parent and two-parent households. Many parents work non-traditional hours, such as evenings, overnight, and weekends, and require childcare coverage. Some families earn too much to qualify for financial assistance, but struggle to afford childcare in addition to meeting basic needs such as housing, food, and medical care. Data from the National Survey of Children’s Health indicates that in 2016, nearly two million parents of children under the age of six had to quit a job, turn down a job, or change jobs because of issues with childcare. In Illinois alone that year, nearly 62,000 parents were impacted by the lack of accessible, affordable, quality childcare.

Image above: Debbie Davis, Child Care worker with Ronald Jr. (age 13 months)

Crisis Nurseries Are One Significant Response

The Maryville Crisis Nursery is licensed by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. It is one of only seven crisis nurseries in Illinois and the only crisis nursery in the entire Chicago metropolitan area.

First developed in the early 1970’s “to provide temporary childcare (respite) for children at risk of abuse and neglect,” “[c]risis nursery programs were also designed to offer an array of support services to the families and caregivers of these children.” (ARCH Factsheet No. 1 Jan. 1992, available at

As described in the ARCH Factsheet, there are several different crisis nursery program models. The Marysville Crisis Nursery is a “Center-based Model-Crisis Nursery Facility.” It provides services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in a facility specially designated as a crisis nursery.

Crisis nurseries seek to reduce and ameliorate risk factors endangering child safety. Specifically, their goal is to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect, increase child safety, and strengthen family functioning and stability by providing respite, counseling, parent education, social support, and referrals to resources to families in crisis. The programming stresses safety, permanency, stability and well-being for children by providing them a haven in a safe and secure facility during times of family stress and crisis, while at the same time providing parents and caregivers with a non-threatening and non-punitive community resource. These comprehensive and effective services are provided at no cost to the family. Nurseries also provide respite care and assistance to families to help ensure the situation does not escalate and to avoid future crises.

Each family comes with its own unique circumstances, and success is determined on a case-by-case basis. There are commonalities among client families, however: many parents seek assistance to address a job or school issue, physical/mental health issues, a home crisis/homelessness, parental stress, and/or domestic violence. There are also similarities in the demographics of the client families – primarily families headed by single mothers living below the federal poverty level and struggling with unemployment or low-wage work, housing issues, and lack of affordable and accessible childcare.

A Comprehensive Approach To Helping Families In Crisis

In order to support both the children and their parents, the services and support offered by crisis nurseries across Illinois are wide-ranging, starting with a 24-hour crisis helpline staffed by experienced and dedicated childcare professionals, 24-hour crisis childcare in a safe and secure facility, and 24-hour crisis counseling. For parents, referrals are made for housing, medical care, dental care, employment assistance, job training, parenting classes, other educational services, substance abuse treatment, and domestic violence prevention.  In addition to shelter, clothing, food, and basic medical care, children have access to play areas, libraries and educational programming, as well as Ages & Stages screenings to identify possible deficits in their developmental milestones.

Crisis nurseries assist families in preventing housing crises by providing childcare services that give parents the time they need to apply for jobs, attend interviews, and participate in job training. Parents are provided with referrals for daycare or other childcare services and in-kind gifts of bus and train passes to ensure they continue to work and can pay their rent and meet the basic needs of their families.

Image above: Elane Fields, Family Advocate with a Marquise (age 2 months)

The Maryville Crisis Nursery also works closely with other care agencies to meet the needs of these families. One such collaboration has been with The Night Ministry, an organization providing services to youth experiencing homelessness, including youth who are parenting. Through this partnership, we provide a monthly Baby Talk Class held at the Open Door Shelter, geared toward the teen parents residing there. The goal of the class is to nurture healthy parent-child relationships that positively impact child development during the critical early years. A particular emphasis is placed on the importance of early childhood literacy and reading with a child, and participating families are provided with age-appropriate reading materials for their children. These classes give parents the opportunity to address needs or questions that they may have regarding their child’s development, or parenting issues with which they may be struggling. Parents are supported through informal conversations with various “Baby Talk” professionals, as well as discussions with other parents. These interactions have led to additional referrals to the Maryville Crisis Nursery, as young parents in the shelter seek support as they work on more stable living arrangements and ways to continue on in school.

Maryville has also collaborated with domestic violence shelters throughout the city, as well as family shelters like the Salvation Army. Social service and housing experts are increasingly recognizing the benefits of the children being in a child-friendly environment, enabling them to better heal and allowing their parents to better focus on their goals regarding long-term living arrangements, healthcare, employment and/or education.

Call to Action: A Crisis for Crisis Nurseries

Supportive services for at-risk, under-resourced families and children are vital to creating healthy and safe communities. From emergency childcare and developmental screenings to parenting education, social support, and linkages with community resources, crisis nurseries address the needs of disadvantaged parents and children and help them attain the necessary skills for success in health, school, career, and life. 

But as of the most recent census, there are only 48 crisis nurseries located throughout the U.S. Over the past nearly 40 years, seven have been established in Illinois– most recently in 2017. If the number of facilities in Illinois is nowhere near the demand for the critical services they provide, how much greater is the gap nationwide with the other 41 crisis nurseries scattered across 49 states? It is not surprising then that many programs report having to turn families away and lengthy waiting lists for needed care.

The crisis nursery facilities that exist also face resource gaps, including funding to support full-time staff and facility overhead. More volunteers are needed to provide their expertise and capabilities to improve and expand programming. Also, there is a steady demand for direct and in-kind donations of bus tokens and gas cards to increase family access, as well as everyday items including diapers, wipes, hygiene supplies, baby formula, baby food, clothing, gift cards, toys, books, toothbrushes, strollers, and other items used in the daily care of children.

Investing in our children and families yields outstanding long-term results. Find out if families in your community have access to a crisis nursery. If not, ask what can be done to get such a critical safety net for family integrity in place. If there is such a nursery, look for a way to give of your resources, time and talent to help advance their critically important mission.

There is no national organization for crisis nurseries, just an informal network for the sharing of care expertise and programming ideas. If you want to learn more about respite care in general, we recommend exploring the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource CenterThe Crisis Nursery Coalition Of Illinois would be happy to share information about the support and collaboration they created. You can reach the Night Ministry here.