Center offers hands-on approach for CPS requirements

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Berni McDonald, left, and Kim Kearney, right, sit in front of their permanent space for Two Bears Center at the Gateway Community Center in Kalispell. They hope to occupy the space within the next few weeks. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

The recently launched Two Bears Family Center in Kalispell, named after co-founders Kim Kearney and Berni McDonald, or the two “mama bears,” offers a very hands-on approach to helping families meet Child Protective Services reunification requirements by building more personal relationships with clients.

The two bring decades of experience to the table, having worked in child welfare, with foster families in Flathead County, and in other capacities — experiences that have shown them there is a definite need for more services in the county dedicated to helping families in crisis.

Last year, when Kearney and McDonald began brainstorming ideas for Two Bears, they knew they wanted to incorporate the therapeutic skills they honed during their time as employees of Intermountain, a behavioral health nonprofit that provides multiple therapeutic services for children and their families. They saw their breadth of experience in therapeutic services as being something that could be cohesive with the Child Protective Services-required drug and alcohol testing, often required for reunification, by also offering parenting education opportunities during supervised visitations.

“With mental health and drug addiction, sometimes you don’t know what came first. One usually drastically impacts the other so it’s difficult to treat them as separate from one another,” McDonald said.

They say a drug test is a jumping-off point. After they are able to diagnose an addiction, they can begin moving toward reunification by focusing on the mental-health side of families. Two Bears places a lot of emphasis on moving away from conventional visitations among foster parents, biological parents and the children.

“We stopped traditional visitation, which is usually eyes-on, observing, and talking to the family at the end and telling them what they could have done differently or better,” Kearney said. “That creates its own anxiety within the visitation bubble. It makes for an inauthentic environment.”

That traditional environment is one that can make it difficult to create a foundation for moving forward in building parent and child relationships. Often times, when a child is removed from a home because of drug and alcohol abuse or other means, the state will require certain measures be taken before reunification. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, they said. Parents are most times required to attend therapy sessions, take parenting classes, submit drug tests and accomplish other tasks that can be seem daunting when struggling with addiction.

McDonald and Kearney say they hope by striving to build more personal relationships with their clients, they will feel more comfortable discussing those struggles — an obstacle that must be tackled in order to address other challenges the families facing.

The partners have worked toward creating a familial atmosphere at Two Bears in their temporary space at the Gateway Community Center in Kalispell. Within the next few weeks they plan to move into their permanent location just a few doors down, also in the center.

The project has been a labor of love for McDonald and Kearney and their excitement is obvious as they peer through the windows of their soon-to-be-occupied space.

They’ve designed it to be an inviting area where struggling families can rekindle parenting skills in a laid-back environment. They have brought in a toy area, a kitchen and other offerings. What you won’t find is a cubicle or a wall dividing the space.

“You’re not just visiting your kids here, we are providing parenting opportunities,” said McDonald, who has also been a foster parent. “We have some parents who come in here who have never put their kid in a high chair.”

Sometimes immersing parents into real-life situations means starting from ground zero and putting them into everyday parenting scenarios they may not be accustomed to.

“We sometimes take a parent to Sykes where someone can ooh and ah over their baby because they’ve never had that experience,” McDonald said. “Her time with her child is relegated to those few hours spent here, so we want her to really experience guardianship over her baby.”

Creating a cozy environment is part of Kearney and McDonald’s approach to helping clients feel accepted and Two Bears feel approachable. They have prioritized having personal relationships with families.

“We want them to feel comfortable with interacting with their child in front of us,” Kearney said. “If we have a relationship with them we can better coach the parent without them feeling anxious or like we’ve stripped their dignity.”

But McDonald was quick to add that having relationships with clients does not equate to a lack of professionalism or softness.

“We give high marks to accountability and we have a tendency to be tough,” McDonald said. “We give them the blueprint, and they have to do the work. They can choose to either pick it up or not, but at least we have provided these opportunities.”

McDonald and Kearney currently work with about 10 families each on top of providing drug testing. Through their hands-on approach, the two “mama bears” strive to be a place clients can come back to even when drug screening and visitation requirements have been met.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.

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