SEATTLE — An emergency sanctuary is a soft-catch for children in foster care. It’s a temporary place that gives a child’s social worker and family a better opportunity to find the best long-term solution for the child.

In King County, there has only been one such place, run by Amara, a non-profit geared to help kids in foster care.

“They may be sitting in a police station for hours, sitting in a social worker's office, hearing that social worker called foster homes to try to find a placement and understanding that foster homes are saying no,” said Jen Kamel, Amara chief clinical officer. “We want to create a safe, stable place where we can provide trauma-informed care to those children while their social workers and their families sort out the best long-term options for the kids.”

Amara runs emergency sanctuaries in King and Pierce Counties and serves roughly 450 kids each year. The children who need it are coming in at no fault of their own and often on their family’s worst day. It’s often the result of a crisis – sometimes it can be because of drug abuse or mental health. Other times it can be because the family has no support system and might be dealing with illness or injury. 

Amara’s Seattle sanctuary was most recently in a rental home in Beacon Hill. The group wanted to find a more long-term solution, so it raised private funding to build a new emergency sanctuary on its Columbia City campus. As soon as the permits are approved, the sanctuary will be able to take in children, which as Kamel says, could be any day or time. 

Most of the time, the children stay for about five days before returning to their families, though sometimes a foster family is needed. In the meantime, the children continue normal activities like going to school or the park and making cookies and having playtime.

Another attribute for an emergency sanctuary is the fact it keeps sibling groups together. The sanctuary gives social workers and families more time to find a home that can take them all in because 68 percent of the kids Amara serves come with a sibling. If a sibling group needs to be placed at 3 a.m., an emergency sanctuary is often the best chance to keep the kids together.

Ultimately, it’s about keeping kids safe and helping them feel secure.

“We’ve had kids who come into our program only wearing a diaper or the clothes that they wore to school that day,” said Kamel. “We want to make sure when they leave our program that they have 3 to 5 days worth of clothes that are theirs--that they can take with them to the next place that they go. Not only does that give the child dignity, but it helps the next placement because then they are not scrambling to make sure they have clothes for that child.”

Kamel says she has served 2-day old newborns to 17-year-old teens in the emergency sanctuary. Around 9,000 kids are in foster care in Washington state and 2,000 are awaiting adoption.

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