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Festival of Trees

Angela Walters of Alpha House decorates a tree for the 2018 Festival of Trees at the MetraPark Expo Center. Trees will be on display for this year's event on Dec. 6 and 6.

The Family Tree Center, 2520 Fifth Ave. S., works year round to prevent child abuse and neglect. Next week, the private, nonprofit agency will hold its biggest annual fundraiser: The Festival of Trees, on Dec. 5-7 at MetraPark Expo Center.

The festival is a family friendly event that reflects the Family Tree vision "to support, strengthen and educate children and families in ways that enhance their growth and well being to stop the hurt before it happens."

The risk of abuse and neglect is reduced when families are healthy and happy. To that end, Family Tree Center offers parent education and support programs starting with prenatal moms groups and home visits on request to parents of newborns.

Family Tree is a member of the Billings Best Beginnings Coalition, which has a goal of providing home visits to all parents of newborns who want contact from a trained professional to answer questions about child development, care and resources for families. With about 1,800 babies born each year to Yellowstone County residents, that's a tall order and definitely a work in progress.

As children grow, Family Tree offers free respite child care to parents who need time to go to a job interview or other appointment. Free child care is provided to parents taking classes at Family Tree, including classes sponsored by other local organizations at the Fifth Avenue South licensed child care center.

Family Tree Center is a certified National Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center. It receives ongoing support from the Breakfast, Downtown, Heights, West End and Laurel Exchange Clubs, including members volunteering to help with Festival of Trees.

Family Tree Center services are available free of charge to any parents who have questions or concerns about caring for their children. There need not be a serious problem to call Family Tree for help. In fact, Executive Director Stacy Dreessen encourages more parents to ask for information or visits before there is a problem. The center's trained staff will work with parents to avert problems and reduce parental anxiety.

"We're really trying to reach out to the community and families to let them know our services are for any families," Dreessen said.

Family Tree also works with families in crisis. Professional staff, including Dreessen, a master's level social worker, teach eight parenting classes at Montana Women's Prison where many inmates are mothers of young children. Family Tree supervises visits between inmates and their children, and provides support for those who are caring for children while their mothers are incarcerated. Dreessen and other staff members also lead prenatal and postnatal classes for pregnant inmates and accompany the women when they give birth at a Billings hospital.

Family Tree works with the Montana Division of Child and Family Services, supervising visits between parents and children who are in the foster care system due to allegations of abuse or neglect in their own home. Dreessen said Family Tree soon will be expanding its services to make home visits to children placed back with parents who have made progress on safety plans for reunification.

Family Tree is a small organization with only half a dozen full-time employees. It relies on several part-time employees and many volunteers to serve families with children.

If you are concerned that more than 400 Yellowstone County children were found to be neglected or abused in civil court filings this year and that more than 800 are in the foster system now, consider helping Family Tree Center reduce that number for next year and beyond. Visit the Festival of Trees, make a cash donation if you can't attend and consider volunteering to help this small, but mighty, nonprofit give children the best possible start on life.

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