The bathroom looks pretty bad.
Human waste is in a toilet with no running water. Cleaning supplies and cigarettes sit out in reach of the home's 2-year-old. A baggie of marijuana rests on the sink, and a bong is on the floor next to some cockroaches and cat feces.
The child, dressed only in a diaper, cries a lot. She has a bandage dangling from a gashed chin. She throws tantrums.
Mom yells and curses at the little girl, quickly changing mood from angry to jovial and back again. Morbidly obese, she can't keep up with the kid. Her questions are all about financial assistance she might get, but she's not interested in other forms of help.
OK, home visitor. Time to decide. Will you call child protective services?
The scenario is based on real conditions. But the bathroom is part of a revolving stage built and prearranged to train home visitors for Project Harmony, a child advocacy agency.
The 23 trainees in the packed room will soon find themselves in situations like this as they visit clients' homes. Each will have to decide whether to make that call to child protective services.
In this case, the consensus was to make the call. But other scenarios resulted in heated debate.
Project Harmony's cutting-edge, hands-on training will help them recognize and record signs of abuse and neglect, walking them through the five steps of assessment.
Trainer Nick Zadina, a local actor who uses improv theater to teach these home visitors, wrote the bathroom script and scenario based on information gathered from police and caseworkers at the Nebraska Department of Social Services.
Zadina calls Project Harmony, a large L-shaped building near 119th and Q Streets, a one-stop shop for child-abuse help.
Under one roof, sharing information, are the offices of police, lawyers, medical examiners, mental health therapists and family support-service providers. Turf wars have given way to dialogue among competing interests.
In the past, Zadina said, it wasn't unusual for a family involved in an abuse and neglect investigation to have to visit seven to 10 different agencies in separate locations as their cases unfolded. Shifting stories, told multiple times, became a roadblock to prosecution.
Training home visitors depended on lectures, handouts and maybe a photo or video feed.
The revolving stage, paid for with $50,000 from an anonymous donor, is a giant leap forward for practical training at Project Harmony.
Among more than 800 child advocacy centers across the nation, only Project Harmony uses a revolving stage and improv actors in training home visitors.
“I think we're going to be a national trainer,” said Deb Anderson, training director at Project Harmony. “We already present at international conferences in San Diego and Washington, D.C., every year. We don't think anybody does interactive training as well as we do.”
Soon the stage will revolve to reveal a kitchen with a different set of problems. Zadina will play a developmentally delayed father who suddenly has custody of his child. One by one, trainees take the stage and practice talking to the dad, as they're coached on how to stay warm, genuine and empathetic. Again they list the warning signs. They talk through the steps and decide.
“The big question is 'Is this kid going to be safe?'" Zadina coaches his students. The goal is early intervention, to prevent child abuse from happening. Paraprofessional home visitors are front-line observers of warning signs in the home.
Next the stage turns to a reasonably tidy living room and front porch. But the dad (Zadina again), an alcoholic, has fallen off the wagon after a long stretch of sobriety. The trainees take turns interacting with him, mindful of their personal safety. He's volatile, emotional.
Tension fills the room. The trainees are fully engaged.
“You have to pay attention to so many more details than with a video, where the camera focuses on what it thinks is important,” said Gene Klein, executive director of Project Harmony.
The revolving stage was the brainchild of Steven Williams, scenic designer at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's theater department. Anderson asked Williams to a brainstorming session at Project Harmony.
Williams built a small model to show how the turning stage would work. No need to shift walls and furniture around. It could all be preset, offering flexibility and new case scenarios at the push of a button.
“They were wide-eyed when I presented it, and immediately all of them were on board,” he said. “It took about seven months to plan it.”
He built it with the help of former theater students. His wife and children acted as set decorators, visiting thrift stores and garage sales to find props. The revolving stage went into use about 16 months ago. Last year more than 500 home visitors, caseworkers, nurses and police officers used it for training.
Since 2008, Project Harmony has trained 30,000 front-line workers about child abuse and neglect. The revolving stage will improve that experience.
“I'm just really proud of it,” Williams said. “I hope this idea catches on around the country. It can make a big impact on training.”
Tameshia Harris, coordinator for Lutheran Family Services' home visits, said she and her three staffers came to get an idea of what they can expect to encounter.
“This made everything so clear for them,” she said of the stage and the use of improvisation. “They can practice before encountering these situations.”
The stage turns again, and a woman with a black eye huddles under a blanket on a sofa. Her husband, fresh out of jail for spousal abuse, won't let the caseworker in. The wife either lies or won't answer direct questions. Their baby is nowhere to be seen.
OK, home visitor. What do you say to that angry husband? What about the wife who refuses help? How do you establish trust? Should you tell them you plan to call child protective services, knowing they might flee before help arrives? Who will volunteer to come up on stage and give this case a try?
Will you make the call?
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Nebraska child abuse and neglect statistics:
• 1 in 10 children is sexually abused before age 18.
• The vast majority of cases, 97 percent, involve neglect.
• 12 percent of cases involve physical abuse. Mothers are the most frequent physical abusers.
• 7 percent of cases involve sexual abuse.
• Nationally, 5 children die daily from child abuse. 75 percent of such child deaths are age 2 or younger.
• Child deaths from abuse and neglect are on the rise.
• Among professionals, teachers get the most reports of abuse or neglect. Next are nurses, then counselors.