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Contributed photo by Lisa Baker Photography / The sitting area of the original Isaiah 117 House is shown in Elizabethtown, Tenn. Intended to make the transition into state care less stressful for children, Isaiah 117 House provides a comfortable place for children to wait as their caseworkers find them a foster placement.

The Chambliss Center for Children is planning to open an Isaiah 117 House on its campus, with a goal of making the transition to state care a less stressful experience for children in Hamilton County by giving them a comfortable place to wait for foster placement.

"It is a place for children to go the moment they are taken into state custody," Chambliss Center for Children President Katie Harbison said.

When children are taken into state custody, their assigned case manager removes them from their home or picks them up from school and typically takes them to a state office.

"You can imagine how warm and fuzzy a state office is — a gray, kind of sterile environment with cubicles," Harbison said. "Those kids sit in that cubicle while their caseworker starts calling and basically begging foster parents to take them. It's not really a great situation."

Finding a placement sometimes can take as long as 24 hours, during which time the child is listening to the caseworker make calls or sleeping on the floor.

"If you think about removal already being a traumatic event, we're almost retraumatizing kids by bringing them into this," Harbison said.

The idea behind Isaiah 117 House is to provide a place that looks and feels like a home where children can wait in a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere as their caseworker makes calls in a separate area of the building to find them a foster placement.

Volunteers greet children as they arrive and play with them or assist them with whatever they may need or want, such as taking a bath, ordering a pizza or baking brownies. Children can change into clean clothes as volunteers wash the clothes they arrived in using the on-site laundry facilities, and kids can cuddle up in a blanket and watch TV, nap in a bedroom or play on the playground as they wait.

"It's a totally different environment, and it really changes the dynamic of the child welfare system," Harbison said.

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Contributed photo by Lisa Baker Photography / The original Isaiah 117 House is shown in Elizabethtown, Tenn. Intended to make the transition into state care less stressful for children, Isaiah 117 House provides a comfortable place for children to wait as their caseworkers find them a foster placement.

Children stay at the house until a placement is found, and are then picked up there by their foster family. That allows the child to meet and get to know the family in a comfortable environment, Harbison said.

The house also supports foster families by taking care of the child's immediate needs, such as a backpack for school or a car seat.

The Isaiah 117 House at Chambliss Center will serve all Hamilton County children entering the foster care system, with capacity to serve up to 10 children at a time.

Founded in 2017 in Elizabethtown, Tennessee, by former foster parent Ronda Paulson, Isaiah 117 House is a nonprofit organization operating in 19 counties in Tennessee and seven counties in Indiana. Most are in rural areas, and Hamilton County will be the most populous county served by the organization so far.

Chambliss Center plans to repurpose its former group home that closed in February into administrative offices, and the current administrative building will be converted into the Isaiah 117 House. Like all Isaiah 117 Houses, it will be a white house with a red door.

Harbison said the name of the organization has two meanings: Isaiah is the name of Paulson's first foster child, and Isaiah 1:17 is a Bible verse reading "Defend the cause of the fatherless."

Chambliss is the first nonprofit organization to partner with Isaiah 117 House to provide services, and the two organizations are also working together to raise the funds for the operation of the house.

Communities typically spend about six months raising awareness and the funds necessary to establish an Isaiah 117 House, Harbison said.

"We're hoping that because of the size of our agency, our reputation in the community and what we're already doing, that we could speed up that timeline a little bit," said Lesley Berryhill, director of special projects and events for Chambliss Center.

The cost to operate the house will be about $75,000 per year, and officials don't yet have an estimate on the cost of remodeling the building, Berryhill said. Aside from one paid staff member, the house will be operated entirely by volunteers.

Berryhill said she anticipates the house will open toward the end of 2021.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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