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Nicole Sirak

A family's advocate

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Nicole Sirak loves her job, although that's not to say she isn't heartbroken at times. As executive director of Family Advocates, Sirak oversees a handful of staff and hundreds of volunteers making a difference in the lives of thousands of Idaho children. Family Advocates has two primary pillars: A guardian ad litem program (court-appointed guardians for foster children) and Families First, the only early education home visiting program in the Treasure Valley. But Sirak is facing a pending crisis: the elimination of federal funding for Families First.

Is it fair to say that most people probably know Family Advocates through the guardian ad litem program?

Yes. Technically, it's known as the Court Appointed Special Advocate program. CASA is primarily managed through volunteers, assigned to 600-700 foster children in Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties.

Our other program is Families First. We go into homes to work with families struggling with pre-kindergarten children.

How do those families come onto your radar?

A lot of referrals. In some cases, police may have visited a family where there may not have been a good reason to take the children into custody but there is certainly great reason for concern. We serve about 100 families and 200 children a year in Families First.

But Families First is at risk because of lack of funding.

We had a 10-year federal grant that came direct to us: the Parent Information and Resource Center Grant. It shuts down in September.

How come?

Massive federal funding cuts; $400,000 came to Idaho with $200,000 of it funding Families First. Now it all goes away.

What are your options?

We'll probably scale back the budget for the program to about $100,000, but we still need to raise that money. We get about $25,000 from the United Way, so we're going to need to raise the rest. Do you know how difficult it is to raise $75,000 nowadays?

Even if you raise those funds, will you still need to scale back the program?

We're pretty sure that the volunteer method is the way to maintain the services, so we're going to need to borrow what we've learned from our volunteer CASA program.

But will you still have to make cuts?

I haven't notified staff yet. [*Note: Sirak was scheduled to meet with her colleagues this week.]

What's at stake for the families you service?

I look into the eyes of these families and I know that we are the only thing between them and disaster.

Can you speak to Idaho lawmakers' lack of commitment to this program?

You know what it is? Let families be families. Don't do home visiting. Don't tell people how to be a better parent. It's a private matter.

Are legislators not sympathetic to the cause?

It's pretty interesting to note that a few legislators are raising their grandchildren. There are 20,000 grandparents as parents in Idaho. But that doesn't mean that they're voting to support the program.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the Robert Manwill case. What are your thoughts as you read the testimony coming from that courtroom?

[Long pause] The system failed a little boy.

No matter the verdict, won't there be volumes of unanswered questions?

From reading the testimony, a lot of people who lived nearby sensed that there was some trouble there. Why are we so afraid to intervene? There are so many ways to prevent child abuse. People know when their neighbor is struggling with a child.

Not too long ago, our homes had front porches. Now, we have back decks. Why are people so hesitant to offer to babysit? Or tell a neighbor that it's OK to call if they're about ready to snap? We simply don't live in a society where it's OK to say, "I don't know how to be a better parent."

With so much pain and abuse in these cases, where do you find the joy in your work?

It's in 250 people volunteering 15,000 hours. Extraordinary. Our team is so dedicated. But mostly I love that we're both intervention and prevention. CASA is wonderful, but it's a big Band-Aid. Families First is prevention. I'm heartbroken that we might lose that prevention. I love CASA and it's wonderful, but we need to see if we can keep these kids from coming into the system.

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