As a priest, I am called to respond and advocate, pray and be present to communities – all communities, not just the faith community. I am humbled to shepherd. Then, as a social worker, I was trained to look for signs of neglect, in homes of families, in neighborhoods. A child or adult in dirty diapers day after day (or with no diaper at all) certainly would raise a red flag. But I have come to understand that the real neglect is in federal and state policies that do not allow needy families to use aid money to buy diapers. And I believe it is important to advocate for policy reform so that diapers are included in the definition and provision for the “basic human needs” of families.
There is no safety net program of any kind, at the federal or state level – including the Women, Infants and Children program – that provide diapers or money for diapers. And as any parent or adult who is incontinent can tell you, diapers aren’t cheap.
Providing diapers for needy families is a relatively low-cost initiative that could contribute to reducing neglect and abuse for children and adults, and in the process, connect people in poverty to education, jobs and eventually self-sufficiency.
Not surprisingly, a baby crying from spending hours in a soiled diaper may be at greater risk for physical abuse. Children who are dirty get reported to social service agencies more often and their families are accused of not caring for them.
I’ve also seen how the lack of diapers can spiral families into failure. For instance, most day care centers, even free and subsidized facilities, can’t admit a child who arrives without a day’s supply of diapers (infants need up to 12 per day; toddlers up to eight). If parents can’t bring their kids to day care because they lack diapers, they can’t work or attend school or job training.
Last September, after many months of research and discussion, St. Paul Episcopal Church in McHenry began the first Diaper Bank Partnership in Illinois. We work on a food bank model. We collect donations of diapers and funding for buying diapers. We develop contracts with social service agencies, food pantries, and shelters. The agencies connect with families who may need further social services, and they distribute diapers directly to them.
Today, just three months after we opened our doors, we have distributed more than 43,000 diapers for infants and adults to our McHenry County community through our partnerships. Our goal was 10,000 a month. The need has been greater than was thought. But the wonderful people and groups such as Crystal Lake Dawn Breakers Rotary Club, local chambers, high school and elementary schools, service organizations, other local churches, The Raue Center, Medline Medical Supplies, Huggies, Northwest Herald, McHenry Savings and Home State banks, Kwik Copy of Crystal Lake, and Centegra Health System have donated diapers, as have other individuals who have sent $5 to $25 a month, to name just a few.
We’re pleased with this success and grateful for the support and recognition, but the truth is we’d like nothing better than to go out of business.
Many people ask me why such an obvious human need such as diapers is on the food stamps “taboo” list along with alcohol, tobacco, and pet food. The simple answer is that diapers and other hygiene products – including toilet paper; toothpaste, and tampons – are not food items. Our mission is to ensure that families living in poverty have an adequate supply of diapers for their infants, toddlers and adults. And to raise awareness that “basic human needs” include diapers and that those needs are not being met for children and adults living in poverty.
Even with reformed government policies, it is likely that many of our families within our county, towns, and neighborhoods still will need assistance in affording hygiene products, the same ways that families on food stamps sill suffer from food insecurity. The St. Paul Diaper Bank Partnership is committed with its partners to building longterm support for these essential needs. But until policy-makers start addressing these issues, we probably won’t be going out of business soon.
• The Rev. Jim Swarthout is pastor of St. Paul Episcopal Church in McHenry.