WATERBURY — For typical welfare recipients or families netting a yearly income below or near the poverty line, daycare and preschool are simply out of reach. The prohibitive cost of such programs, which rivals college tuition in some states, prevents unemployed parents from seeking work and thrusts them into a perpetual cycle of destitution.
But Family Services of Greater Waterbury, a private, not-for-profit institution that works closely with the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), is trying to make a difference in poverty-stricken families’ lives by offering a free daycare and preschool program to DCF children, ranging from infants to kindergarten-age children.
Nancy Winslow, director of the Therapeutic Child Center in Waterbury, said the center is in the process of undergoing accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which she said is one of the highest accreditations available to the center. Every member of her staff is either degreed or working toward a degree.
But the children they serve come from troubled, dysfunctional homes. At least half are from foster homes and are typically on welfare. Winslow said she’s seen children without winter coats on icy winter days, mothers living in shelters, hungry kids with nothing and no one to turn to. Many DCF children have undergone some degree of emotional trauma and are detached, listless, antisocial, sometimes violent. In many cases, the two clinicians on staff need to work quite hard with children who previously “did not have the ability or opportunity to socialize with other children.”
“These are the people and families that get swept under the rug,” Winslow said. “And these are the people who want to make a change in their lives”—but they can’t, because without assistance from programs like Family Services, mothers need to stay home to tend to their children, instead of seeking work.
Winslow wrote off the common stereotype that social programs like hers do nothing but encourage bad behavior by giving handouts to drug addicts and welfare abusers who are capable of working.
“I don’t think we’re looking to support people who are on a bad track,” she said. “We want to help people who are willing to step up to the plate. … If they don’t step up to the plate, they lose the benefit.”
In addition, Winslow said, her program mostly benefits children, who don’t have a say about the situation they’re born into.
Winslow related the story of one woman, whose name could not be released, who managed to find a job and secure an apartment after receiving help with her child from the Therapeutic Child Center.
Nineteen-year-old Jarilyn Rivera, whose 3-year-old son Nyzaiah is in the program, has been involved with DCF for “as long as [she] can remember.” Her mother had drug problems, and Rivera was in and out of state custody throughout her childhood. Then in 2005, around the time Nyzaiah was born, she was imprisoned for four months for violating a DCF probation. Nyzaiah became a ward of the state, a status he holds to this day.
He’s involved in the Family Services program, and Rivera said the Therapeutic Child Center’s program has turned him from a relative stranger whom she could only watch from a distance to a close relation, someone she’s “tight with.”
Indeed, Winslow confirmed that the two now “have a bond,” and that the program was the “catalyst” to that change.
Rivera gladly anticipates the day her child can come home. “I don’t regret giving him up for a time,” she said, because he received better care. “But I’ve got to get him used to feeling like my home is his home.”
Nyzaiah currently lives with foster parents.
“[Winslow’s staff] is not going under instinct,” Rivera said. “They’re professionals. … I love this place, this place is great … not for the camera, not for anything, I’d recommend this place to anyone [who needs it].”
And the center is looking to up the ante by seeking NEAYC accreditation. But as it stands, the grant- and donation-funded program can hardly afford basic school supplies. It needs more donations from the community to achieve accreditation as grant funding has dried up somewhat during the recession. Donations don’t have to be monetary; in fact, the Therapeutic Child Center needs supplies like used books and toys, pens and paper more than anything else. Winslow said she and the staff do what they can by personally paying for supplies from thrift stores, but they don’t make enough money working for Family Services to put a real dent in the center’s need.
Anyone living in the Greater Waterbury area who has an open case with DCF is eligible for aid from the program, but transportation can be provided only within the city. Winslow can be reached at (203) 591-2387.