Just a 10-minute train ride from Manhattan, the Lutheran Home for Children in Jersey City, N.J., is a safe and welcoming place for teens who have known some of the worst that life has to offer.
Next door to St. Paul Lutheran, the home (also known as St. Paul’s Home) once served as the church’s parsonage. Today the Arts and Crafts building is an emergency shelter for up to eight children aged 13 to 17 who have experienced abuse, neglect, exploitation and homelessness. Some may be victims of human trafficking or prostitution. The shelter is made possible through a partnership between the congregation and Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSMNJ), which operates the home.
Here youth find a protective, structured place to live while they await placement in a foster home or while parents or caregivers pull their lives together (which can include seeking substance abuse treatment).
It’s an unusual program, said assistant manager Sherri Graham. State caseworkers, she explained, “can’t get a placement in the middle of the night [except here].”
They are placed in the home by the Department of Child Protection and Permanency, which funds and licenses the program. Its caseworkers take the youth on home visits and pick them up when it’s time to leave. The maximum stay is 30 days.
The pain these children carry is evident. “Lately we’ve [seen] children who are depressed, bipolar and [who cut themselves],” Graham said. Some are already in therapy and continue meeting with a therapist at the home.
“The [kids] we have now — they’re very dependent on us,” she said. “We are like mother figures to them.”
Some of the young people open up — particularly those new to the child welfare system — while others are hardened and don’t want to be told what to do. “If they come from a home where there [are] no rules, it’s a challenge sometimes,” Graham said.
On a typical weekday, the children come in after school, do their homework and use the computers. They also wash their clothes and clean their rooms. The staff make meals and take the youth grocery shopping.
Graham does their hair. “Helping them makes me feel better,” she said.
Weekends are a time for outings. Graham said many have never eaten in a restaurant, adding, “We show them things they haven’t seen before.”
“When I first started, it was a 90-day program for 7- to 12-year-olds,” Graham said. Three or four years ago, it was cut to 30 days due to a law restricting the time children can spend in a shelter. The youth are also older now.
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