The phone rang that Thursday night just as Roberta Ellis arrived home after a long day at work and then a night class at Trident Technical College.
How to help
HALOS helps abused and neglected children in DSS protective custody and the family members who have stepped up to care for them.
Child psychiatrist and pediatrician Dr. Eve Spratt founded the nonprofit in 1997 after realizing, through her work at MUSC, that young victims of abuse or neglect often suffered a severe lack of resources.
Among HALOS' biggest needs today are donated cribs, beds, new car seats, furniture and baby supplies such as diapers and wipes.
HALOS also provides free support groups for kinship caregivers. They meet at 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at Morris Brown AME Church in downtown Charleston and at 6 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at Armory Park in North Charleston.
Family Services Inc. is offering free financial literacy discussions at the next several meetings.
For more, call 953-3714 or go to www.charleston halos.org.
With her youngest child off to college, hers was an empty nest, her time finally free to pursue her own dreams and goals.
Until the phone rang.
It was the mother of her older son's 5-month-old boy. The state Department of Social Services was placing the baby into protective custody due to neglect.
"I'll take him," Ellis said.
With those words, the divorced grandmother offered little M.J. a chance to remain with his biological family, with someone who already knew and loved him, rather than enter the foster care system.
However, Ellis had no crib, no diapers, no car seat, no clothes, no formula, no diapers, nothing that raising a baby requires - and DSS requires.
In stepped a local nonprofit called Helping and Lending Outreach Support, or HALOS. It helps abused and neglected children, and the caregivers who support them, to survive sudden crises like the one Ellis faced.
"Most people have nine months to get ready," Ellis says.
She had eight days.
The phone call that night in 2009 was shocking and traumatic. But it was just the door opening.
Before she could bring M.J. into her home, Ellis would need to seek temporary custody of her grandson in court and pass a background check and an inspection of her Cainhoy home.
Her boss let her take a few days off. Her court date was scheduled and rescheduled. Finally, she called her pastor in tears.
"I have nothing for this child. Nothing!" she says.
But then HALOS helped her get a crib, baby clothes, furniture and other items she needed right away. Eight days after getting that call, Ellis was granted temporary custody.
She drove to the foster home where M.J. had been living. She had been crying for eight days. So had M.J.
"He just looked at me and squeezed me like he'd been rescued," she recalls. "I just held onto him."
Together, they drove home and started over.
Unlike Ellis, many people who embark on what is called "kinship care" agree to take in multiple children who have been deeply wounded by years of abuse or neglect, and who often struggle with behavioral and emotional issues.
"They learn what they witness," said Toree Buford, program coordinator for child protective services at Charleston County's DSS office.
Add to that vortex of emotions the caregivers' sudden day-to-day struggles like figuring out where to find child care, not to mention how to pay for it.
Or navigating a legal maze of custody and adoption issues.
Or just figuring out how to get the child's birth certificate.
"It's so much more complicated than they thought it would be," says Kim Clifton, HALOS executive director. "They are parents again when they didn't expect it."
To ease that crisis-filled transition, HALOS helps more than 200 local families a year connect with a wide range of resources, from counseling to financial and legal help to baby furniture and clothes, so that loves ones who step up can meet children's basic needs.
"These are people without support," Clifton said. "Many don't know where to start. Suddenly, a woman on social security has five mouths to feed."
Along with filling immediate critical needs, HALOS also helps children who have been abused or neglected gain ongoing access to summer camps, holiday gifts, school supplies and clothes, among other assistance.
"They provide a lot of support for people thrown into caring for children they weren't able to anticipate," Buford says. "It enables them to be more stable and more permanent."
Most often, those who step up are lower-income grandparents and aunts or uncles. Today, more than 55,000 children in South Carolina live in the full-time care of grandparents or other relatives who have kept them from entering the foster care system.
They tend to be people like Ellis.
They do not receive the stipend that foster parents get even though most are grandparents on low or fixed incomes, Clifton said.
"Why can't we get the same?" Ellis asks. "We are actually saving the government a lot of money. We're the ones working and trying to make ends meet. If I wasn't able to take M.J., I don't know where he'd be."
Too little, too much
With M.J. in her care, Ellis put her education on hold and embarked on a quest for immediate full-time day care.
The weekly bill: $175 a week.
Ellis, a jobs coach for special needs students at Wando High School, earns the salary of a Charleston County School District teaching assistant. It's barely enough to live on, much less while raising a child alone, especially one whose daycare alone cost $700 a month.
"We're going to be homeless if we keep this up," she quickly realized.
She qualified for state childcare assistance, which helped with daycare costs but not enough to keep them afloat. Instead, she found an in-home child care provider whose fees were much lower.
However, she earns barely too much to qualify for food stamps or for M.J. to enroll in Head Start.
When workers at Daniel Island Academy heard his story, they offered M.J. tuition assistance. Today, he's learning Spanish, making new friends and preparing to start elementary school next year.
Along their five-year journey together, HALOS has continued helping with things like offering M.J. access to summer camps.
"They have been a tremendous help," says Ellis, who just turned 50. "If they hadn't been there, I don't know what I would have done."
Ellis, who long ago received full legal custody of M.J., also faithfully attends HALOS support groups in North Charleston where she meets other kinship caregivers who share her life's unique joys and struggles.
"We come together," she says. "We can vent and feel each other's caring."
'We made it'
Today, that baby is 5 years old. He loves his karate classes and just received his first trophy. He's learning to write his name neatly. He loves karaoke.
"He's an exceptional young fellow," Ellis says, beaming. "He keeps me going, I tell you."
Although his mother cannot have contact with him, M.J.'s father still takes part in his life.
Ellis is thankful she doesn't have the problems other kinship care families face, namely, complicated struggles between the parents who have lost custody and the family members who now have custody.
She's grateful that M.J. is bright and thriving. She's grateful she has had a reliable job and been able to provide.
"The struggle was hard, but we made it through. I'm just grateful to God for allowing me to have the ability to take care of M.J.," Ellis adds.
She's even begun to think past their immediate needs to ponder the future again.
This summer, she plans ti return to school herself to work on a social work degree. Why? She wants to give back.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
M.J. Ellis, 5, is growing up under the watchful care of his grandmother, Roberta Ellis.×
Roberta Ellis and her grandson, M.J., shortly after he moved in with her.×
Roberta Ellis helps her grandson, M.J., 5, with his homework in their Cainhoy home.×
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