The Emerson House is a home, a parsonage in years past, on the UUFD property in downtown of Dubuque. The Fellowship uses this building for meetings and seven days a week from about 8:00 AM – 8:00 PM provides this home for interactions/working visits for families in the Child Welfare System.  The Emerson House has a kitchen, living room, large side room, and bathroom which the family uses. These are families where children have been removed from their parents’ care due to child abuse or neglect issues. To our knowledge the Emerson House is the only situation of its kind in the state of Iowa.  Evidence-based research shows that the quicker children can safely return to their parents, the better it is for the children, the parents, and the family. Our Fellowship viewed this service as a priority, an unmet emergency need for individuals throughout Dubuque County.

Most parents have interactions in their homes or apartments, but some do not have homes or apartments. Parents may live in shelters, couch surf (stay wherever they can spend a night or two), live at a half-way house, or with relatives who will not allow interactions at their home.

The Emerson House generally serves four to five families a week and sometimes double that depending upon the need. This home’s use ebbs and flows depending upon the need.  It is difficult to report the number of individuals served as every family is different. A family may have one to five or six birth parents and/or one to eight children. For instance, if there are three fathers in a family, there are three separate interactions for the children with those fathers and then one with the mother.

Before the option of the Emerson House visits/interactions were held at libraries, agency offices, or businesses such as McDonald’s. These options gave little privacy to families and no semblance of a home setting where parents could make meals for their children; provide a quiet place for naps or a place to help their children with homework. These other settings did not provide the atmosphere for parents to easily learn or show their skills. So reunification between the child and parent could be and in some cases was stalled.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has provided the use of the Emerson House for fully supervised interactions with parents and children since 2010.  State and private agency staff supervise all these interactions. This allows the parent to learn parenting skills in a home setting and staff to report to the Juvenile Court the progress seen in these interactions. UUFD cleans and furnishes the home, pays for the utilities, insures the home, and provides a functioning kitchen, and toys for the families to use during their time together. We maintain a sign-up list so only one family has use of the home at a time so there is privacy for each family. We have off-street parking, lawn chairs and a side yard for outdoor activities.

In summary, the Emerson House provides the setting to build strong, healthy families, a building block for a vibrant, healthy community.  Children safely reunited with their parents have “roots” which help them grow to adulthood with positive connections. We provide the opportunity for “best practice”, a home-like setting, for families to work toward reunification. And, we have research on our side as evidence-based research notes frequent visitation/interactions in a home-like setting where parents and their children can do activities of daily living (making and sharing meals, playing games, washing dishes, doing homework, taking naps) are the best indicators for safe and timely reunification of children with their parents. About 75% of the families served in this program are reunited with their parents.