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Disturbed Children Given a Chance at Singer Center

February 16, 1986|SUE HORTON | Horton lives in Los Angeles

By the time Josh Lane was 2 years old, his mother was convinced he had problems. His language was poor for a 2-year-old, and he had increasingly severe behavior problems, including serious attention problems. Then he became very aggressive, biting several children each day at his day-care center. But still nobody listened seriously to Sandi Lane's concerns.

"My pediatrician and Josh's teacher were telling me everything was fine," she recalled. When her son was 3, Sandi Lane had him tested by her local school district, and they found nothing seriously amiss. It wasn't until Josh was 4 and was given a battery of developmental tests at his nursery school that anyone really took Sandi Lane seriously. "They found him way behind in his fine motor skills and found he had visual perception problems," she said.

Lane, 34, and her husband, Mike, 38, had to decide what to do next. "We knew Josh wasn't ready for kindergarten, but we didn't know quite what to do." After much casting about for a place for Josh during the summer of 1984, the Lanes heard about the Julia Ann Singer Center, a treatment center for children and their families which is associated with the Vista del Mar Child Care Service.

After consulting with the Lanes and testing their son, the Singer center accepted Josh, now 6 years old, into its therapeutic school for emotionally disturbed and learning or developmentally disabled children.

"When I walked into the school, it felt like the right place," Lane recalled. "I was so relieved, because up to then, I had been handling the whole burden myself. I felt like I had finally found a place that knew what I was going through and that understood my son's problems."

The Julia Ann Singer Center has been treating children with problems and their parents since 1916 when it was founded as the Jewish Mother's Alliance. In 1935, the center's name was changed to honor Julia Ann Singer, who donated a building in Boyle Heights to house the program. The center was affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center until 1982 when it became part of Vista del Mar.

In 1985 the Julia Ann Singer Center treated about 600 children and families in a number of programs including the therapeutic school which has room for 14 children, a family stress program for abusive families, Project Success, a program which provides diagnostic assessment and remedial services for children, and a family therapy program.

Although most of the programs involve children with special needs, the Julia Ann Singer Center does not view child treatment as its only goal. "Our goal is to see that whole families gain a clear understanding of one another," said Susan Brown, a clinical psychologist and the center's director. "We can't help kids without working with parents."

For example, at least one parent of each child enrolled in the therapeutic school must volunteer to work in the classroom one day per week. In addition, parents must attend a parent group meeting on Friday afternoons.

"It requires a major time commitment," Lane said, "but it is one we're willing to make for our son." She said that the program, particularly the weekly parents' meetings, has helped the family cope with having a child with special needs.

"In the parents' group, we realize we all share the same feelings. We all wonder, 'Did I do something wrong? Did I make him like this?' We all have insecurities about being parents. But at the center, we're not in it alone, we're all there with the same goal--helping our children," Lane said.

Often, said Brown, parents come to the center "with a lot of denial. It's important for parents to acknowledge who a child is, and that the child may have special needs that other kids don't have. That can be hard."

Helping children with problems is tough for teachers as well as parents. The two classes at Julia Ann Singer's therapeutic school are limited to seven students each, and each class has a teacher, an assistant teacher, several trainees, and often a parent or two.

The staff of the therapeutic school, including the interns, meets daily after school to discuss what happened during the day. "People working with people with problems need to deal with their own reactions," Brown said.

For parents of children at the therapeutic school, the issue of leaving the school for another often looms large. Brown said children attend the school for an average of only one year. "Once we've helped parents and kids accept their situation and develop necessary skills, then we feel families are ready to be on their way," she said.

But parents and children are not simply shown the door, she added. "We encourage parents to go out and look at other settings. Then we go with them to look at the ones they feel are most appropriate. We do a lot of transition work."

Still some dilemmas are insoluble for parents of learning disabled or emotionally disturbed children. "I have no idea what the future is going to be like for Josh," Lane said. "I don't know whether he'll still be dependent on me when he's 25 or whether he'll be functioning out in the world."

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