Guests mill about at the grand opening of Brenda’s House Family Center.

Brenda's House Family Center on Tuesday celebrated its grand opening.

The center –– which "provides services for children in the care of Mississippi Child Protective Services and their families" –– is the first facility of its kind in the state of Mississippi, Brenda's House Family Center Director Lisa Wilbourn said.

The center originally opened as Brenda's House Children's Emergency Shelter and is housed under the umbrella of the Hancock County Human Resource Agency.

Back in March, HCHRA Executive Director Lora Mederos informed the Hancock County Board of Supervisors of the upcoming transition.

"Brenda's House opened in 2014 to meet the needs of approximately 380 children in the custody of the Mississippi Child Protection Services Agency," Mederos told the board. "Today, there are less than 170 children in care and a strong commitment by the Mississippi Department of Human Services to place children with relatives first and then licensed foster homes as a secondary."

Initially, Brenda's House provided congregate care, Mederos said. However, guidelines have changed with the Family First Prevention Services Act, and the state is moving toward "a strengthening families and protective factors framework," she added.

Hancock County is moving towards a "strengthening family approach," Mederos said in March. "Youth court has also conducted a field study of services needed to protect children and keep them safe in their homes or returned as soon as possible with the least amount of trauma to the children."

According to a release, as of June 4, Brenda's House now offers services including:

• "Family Time, a supervised visitation program for children, their parents, siblings, and/or others as approved my MDCPS. Family Time will allow the children to have more frequent or longer visits to remain connected to their family members after being removed from their homes. Brenda's House Family Center has three specialized visitation rooms. An older child room with access to a PlayStation 4 and other games; an art room with art supplies for all ages; and a younger child room with plenty of hands on toys and games. A serenity garden is also available for visits on site."

• "Limited respite services for children in need of a place while MDCPS finds a suitable placement, or a foster parent will also be available by referral from MDCPS."

• "Groups for school age children/teens to include yoga and coping skills."

• "Access to available resources for children and families."

There are four employees at Brenda's House, including Wilbourn, Social Worker Erin Kolb; Family Time Coordinator Krasinda Cuevas; and Transportation Coordinator Tynisha Johnson.

Brenda's House also plans to implant "Takeout Tuesdays," a program to provide a hot meal to the families who visit at least once a week, Wilbourn said.

Staff are seeking sponsors for the program in the form of recipes, groceries, or a donation of $20 to $25 per week to feed about 20 to 25 children and family members.

Donated art supplies are also welcome.

Future plans include: "Infant parent training classes for new parents; Parent Cafe's (support groups); Family Time visits for divorce/custody cases; and training for social service agencies/foster parents."

Hancock County Court Judge Trent Favre said the staff at Brenda's House, in conjunction with CPS staff, will determine the number of visits that will suit a particular family's needs.

Prior to Brenda's House transition, Favre said, visits transpired at CPS's offices.

"Brenda's House provides a family-friendly and home environment," he said. "They can do what families do."

While CPS staff will continue to participate in supervised visitations, the majority of observations will be completed by the staff at Brenda's House, Favre said.

In addition to visitations, Favre said, families can meet with counselors prior to the child's arrival and also after the visit to discuss how the visit went.

"Visitation is a key part to successfully restoring the family," Favre said.

For more information contact Wilbourn at 228-467-2446 or BHFCDirector@gmail.com.

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