HELENA - The play room at Intermountain Children's Home is full of the kinds of toys that may not seem appropriate for deeply troubled children.
Toy pistols and rifles, fake snakes and baseball bats rest on the toy shelves next to jigsaw puzzles and coloring books.
"Some of these children can't tell us what's happened to them. They need these toys so they can show us," said Maggie Long, a development assistant at the children's home.
Many of the Intermountain children were physically abused in their early childhood. Some of that abuse happened with weapons, some with locked doors.
It is not uncommon for these children to have been locked in closets or chained to their beds for hours at a time by their parents. One small girl was forced to live in a tent for about two years - a place where snakes could easily frighten her.
At Intermountain Children's Home in Helena, snakes are not allowed on the well-kept play yards, and weapons - other than the toy guns - are banned.
Intermountain has come a long way from its early mission as a home for displaced children. Ninety years ago, children came from families too poor to care for them, or perhaps from homes where the caregiver was in jail or in the hospital for an extended stay.
Nowadays, the home takes in severely emotionally disabled children, many of whom have been legally removed from their parents because of abuse and neglect.
"From a very early age, birth to 2 years, these children haven't been able to trust adults at a very fundamental level. If they haven't done that, they act out in ways that are beyond average behavioral problems," Long said. Children who start fires or harm themselves and others come here.
Intermountain uses "attachment theory" therapy. Each child has two primary adult care givers, a man and a woman, who work closely with the child to develop a trusting relationship.
"It takes about nine months to get to the real kid," Long said.
Although "attachment therapy" is unique program, only used by a few facilities across the country, it has captured national attention. In 1997 the ABC show "Prime Time News" featured the program.
"We're slowly but steadily getting national recognition," said John Wilkinson, IMCH administrator. "We enjoy a robust referral pattern from around the country, which from a purely business point of view is good. But it certainly is a signal about what is happening to children in the U.S. when a program that occupies the niche we do is getting this amount of referrals."
The newest service at Intermountain is the Permanent Adoptive Treatment Home, or PATH, program.
"About 80 percent of the kids we serve won't be reunited with their biological family. Part of realizing our vision is to see to the permanency needs of the children," Wilkinson said.
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"The underlying attachment disorder prevents the children from being placed in just any family. Through PATH, we have specially selected and trained supportive families with whom we believe children can obtain permanency," Wilkinson said.
The residential program is at a comfortable level right now, Wilkinson said.
"I'm really very excited and continue to be excited about the progress we as an organization continue to make with the group of youngsters we're serving," said Wilkinson.
He said there are no plans to increase the number of children served in the residential program. The agency is hoping to begin partnership arrangements with other community organizations.
"We're moving towards replicating what we do in community-based settings," Wilkinson said.
Negotiations are under way to develop two small group homes in Missoula in partnership with the Missoula Youth Homes.
Intermountain is also exploring joint programs with Head Start agencies.
"We see ourselves being able to marry missions between ourselves and other organizations and combining our competencies," Wilkinson said.
Paula Clawson is a reporter for the Independent Record in Helena.
n Intermountain Children's Home is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, kicking off wit
h events this weekend.
A reception at the home's Helena campus is scheduled for Friday and will include a children's art show, presentation of current programs, refreshments and entertainment. Call the home at (406) 442-7920 for more information and to RSVP.
Saturday events will include a 3 p.m. graveside service at Forestvale Cemetery to honor the home's founder, the Rev. William Wesley Van Orsdel, better known as "Brother Van." A Saturday dinner and program also are scheduled for St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Helena. Call the church at (406) 443-4218 for more information and to RSVP.
Intermountain provides residential and day treatment for severely emotionally disturbed children, aged 4-12. Over the last five years, 23 percent of the home's children have come from western Montana, including 11 percent from Missoula.
Wednesday - 6/2/99