In February 1993, Joseph Femiani, then chairman of the Canonsburg (Pa.) General Hospital Foundation Board, was raising money for the hospital's LifeLine program for senior citizens. Lifeline provides free transmitters to notify the emergency room if homebound seniors have a medical problem.
But after watching a television program on child abuse, Femiani was inspired to do something similar to help troubled children in his community of 10,500, located about 20 miles from Pittsburgh.
"It dawned on me that with a little change, a monitoring system could be used by children," Femiani said.
His idea evolved into the Watchful Shepherd program, winner of the Marriott Service Excellence Award for Values Integration.
Encouraged by the program's success, Femiani, who is chairman of Watchful Shepherd U.S.A., is now trying to expand the concept internationally.
In cooperation with local children and youth services, protective custody agencies and dozens of police departments throughout Washington County, Watchful Shepherd is a round-the-clock monitoring service for abused children who still live at home.
The monitoring device can only be placed in the home by local family services agencies or by court order. Canonsburg General cannot recommend a child for the program.
The device is connected to a phone line. The child wears a pendant or wristband at all times in the home, and, if threatened, can press the button to alert the emergency department of 97-bed Canonsburg General. Once the system is activated, a nurse monitoring the system sees the phone number and history of the child appear on a computer screen. The nurse is then instructed to call the home to attempt to defuse the situation. If that doesn't work, the police are contacted.
Anita Gretz, coordinator of Watchful Shepherd and board member of Canonsburg General Hospital Foundation, said the program works.
"It is a deterrent," she said. "Some families don't like the intrusion, and we reassure them that we are just concerned about the child."
Gretz and her four volunteers contact each child on the program every seven to 10 days. They seek to convince the children that someone is always watching over them.
The program receives no government money and is fully supported by the hospital foundation. Each monitoring unit costs $500, and the program has an annual operating budget of $5,722. Femiani, president of an electric company, donated the start-up funds of about $5,000.
"The program is really very cost-effective," Gretz said. "Most of all, it makes everyone stop and think first."