EVERETT, Wash. -- A unique shelter is now open in Snohomish County so kids don't have to spend hours in the back of a social worker's vehicle when taken into state protection.
"If a social worker removes a child at night, they drive around in cars or take them to Denny's or sit in a parking lot sometimes," said Todd McNeal. "There just isn't a place to take them."
But on East Casino Road, inside what looks like an old office building, is McNeal's sanctuary for at-risk kids 12 and younger, a bridge between home and foster home they call Safe Place.
"I hope the kids feel loved on, snuggled, at ease, safe," said Mary McNeal, Todd's wife.
Six years ago the McNeals took their first foster child into their home, they said, and they never stopped. They've also adopted and taken guardianship over several of their foster children.
"If my heart doesn't break for the kids who come in and out of my home, whose heart is going to break for them?" Mary said.
"We work with foster kids, with poor kids, with immigrant families, " Todd said. "It is our passion to care for children and for those with no voice."
But Saturday's grand opening of Safe Place takes the McNeal's passion one step further. It's their state licensed but volunteer-run and donation-funded shelter for young kids caught in emergency situations.
When police and social workers take kids from dangerous situations, like homes with domestic violence or drug activity, it can often take hours to find proper foster homes for the children, said the McNeals.
"Due to the shortage of foster homes, that can be time consuming," said Todd. "Many times, sibling... are split up, you're just shopping for an empty bed over the weekend. There just simply isn't time at 1 o'clock on a Saturday night to find the right home."
"We would get calls in the middle of the night, usually from frantic social workers who had just picked up a child from a drug bust," Mary McNeal. "It's hard for the kiddos too that get pulled, when they're in the back seat of the social workers car and they hear, 'Can you take Johnny and Susie? Oh, you can't."
Located in a renovated medical clinic, Safe Place contains beds, games, toys, clothes and food for the kids. It also has an office space where social workers can continue a search for proper foster placement.
About 10,000 foster kids are in Washington, Todd said, and he hopes Safe Place can eventually serve those in Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties. The McNeals said they and a few other foster families will run Safe Place as volunteers, thought with enough funding, they hope to hire staff.
"We would love to see this open 24-7... but we would also love for people to copy this," he said. "We're an open book."