Kathy had her third baby by the time she was 21. She had no job, no means of support. She could not pay her rent or other bills and her electricity had been shut off.
One day, she went over the edge. She lost control. Her children were acting up and she hit them.
Responding to a neighbor's report of screaming, the police came to investigate. They found that the children were being abused and neglected, and they removed them from their home.
Jackie Cole-Bansbach, 50, and Beth Naranjo, 42, believe that the breakup of Kathy's family and other families like it could have been prevented if there had been help before the crisis occurred. Their conviction led the two women to create a new crisis intervention program in the San Fernando Valley called "Keeping Families Together."
If parents had the skills to manage their anger better, the two say, their children would not be abused in the first place.
They speak from experience. Cole-Bansbach and Naranjo, who both live in Burbank, have seen their share of broken families. They have spent hundreds of hours over the last five years guiding children through the bureaucracy of the court system. As volunteers for the Child Advocates Office, operated under the auspices of the Superior Court, the two are convinced that a program such as theirs is desperately needed.
"The county spends a lot of money on foster care but little on prevention," said Cole-Bansbach, the mother of an adopted 11-year-old son who was once a dependent of the court. A foster-care placement can cost up to $4,000 a month, she said.
Children under court protection can end up in placement after placement, said Naranjo. "One kid I interviewed at MacLaren Children Center was going to be 19, and he had been in 19 foster homes."
Eventually, as young adults they are out on the street, she said, with no family ties of any kind. "A lot of kids say to me, 'if I had known that I was going to go through all this, I would have preferred to go through what I did at home.' Some went through terrible, horrendous, hideous things at home--and they even say that."
$25,000 a Year for Care
According to Los Angeles County Superior Court records, 30,000 children are under court supervision. Another 18,000 are expected to become dependents of the court by the end of this fiscal year. It costs the county about $25,000 a child for the first year of foster care, including court-related expenses.
"Foster care is not a panacea. There are children who need to be separated from their parents, but the majority do not," said Naranjo.
Keeping Families Together could be a first step in changing the system. It will be modeled after an intensive in-home crisis intervention program in Federal Way, Wash., called Homebuilders, which has been in existence for 12 years. Homebuilders officials report a 90% success rate in helping families deal with stress and anger that can lead to child abuse and neglect.
Naranjo and Cole-Bansbach attended a three-day training session in Washington, to observe the program. They accompanied Homebuilder's therapists on their visits to client families.
"When we got there, the door was open and this mother was almost on the street waiting," said Naranjo. "That's how desperate these parents are for the therapists to come.
"The mother had just had it that day. Her children were driving her crazy. The moment she saw the therapist, there was this relief in her face as if to say, 'Oh God, someone's here.' "
Their nonprofit program will work with the County of Los Angeles Department of Children's Services office in Panorama City on cases of abuse or neglect, not involving incest. There will be four therapists and a clinical director, all trained by the staff of Homebuilders.
The scenario for a typical case will begin with a visit by the therapist accompanied by a Department of Children's Services worker. "If for some reason it's just too dangerous, the therapist will pick up on it immediately," said Cole-Bansbach.
Usually at this point, the parents are aware that they could lose their children, said Naranjo. They are in a state of crisis and are willing to work to make changes in the home.
Follow-Up Parenting Class
They will be asked to sign a contract agreeing to an eight-week, intensive intervention program. It will be followed by a six-week parenting class with follow-up as needed.
"This eight weeks of intervention with the therapist is like two years of therapy because it's every day," said Cole-Bansbach. "The therapist is on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It's like having a family member living next door to you who you can call on the phone and say, 'I need some help.' "
The therapists will help parents develop control without using abusive methods.
"Say there's a problem with a young child before school," said Naranjo. "The therapist will get there before the child wakes up and demonstrate how to handle the problem. The mother is learning how to parent. This builds her self-esteem and self-worth."
Doesn't Always Work