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Counseling Center Helps Latinos Who Risk Its Use

December 24, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer

"I was always under the impression that only crazy people go to a psychologist."

Maria Sanchez (a pseudonym--she asked that her name not be used) never expected to end up in therapy. But then, the middle-aged San Fernando woman never thought she would be arrested for child abuse.

She sat on a couch at the North Valley Family Counseling Center, her husband and 9-year-old daughter beside her, and wept, recounting the incident and its aftermath. Mother and daughter had argued at a fast-food restaurant. The girl tried to run away. Sanchez grabbed her daughter by the hair and slapped her across the face.

Jailed for Five Hours

The restaurant manager called police who arrested Sanchez, held her in jail for five hours and placed the girl with a relative.

"I didn't go to work for two days, and that's not like me," the mother said. "I didn't talk to my husband. I just stayed in the house and cried. Here they'd taken my child away. I felt guilty."

A priest referred Sanchez to North Valley Family Counseling Center, one of the few agencies in the northeast Valley staffed by Latino therapists. Nena Maynez Castro, a marriage, family and child counselor, took the case and has counseled the family for two months.

A child-abuse charge against Sanchez has been dropped, but a child endangering charge remains pending completion of a probation report.

"Nena was a guardian angel for us," the mother said. "Being Latin, she understood our upbringing. We could confide in her."

Castro termed Sanchez "a loving mother, part of a loving family" who is not a child abuser.

'Smack the Kid'

"In the Chicano culture, you're brought up to smack the kid," Castro said. "It's one of several areas where the cultures are different. When I was raised, I didn't look at my mother eye-to-eye because that would be disrespectful. So we get to school and don't look the teacher in the eye and we're labeled as having learning disabilities."

The nonprofit center is in its fourth year and occupies a converted two-bedroom house a few blocks from the San Fernando barrio. It is run by Sister Una Connolly, an Irish-born nun in the Religious Sisters of Charity order.

"Latino people are private people," Connolly said in a soft brogue. "They like to keep their problems in the family. Many of them are Catholic, and it's hard to explain how fearful people are of going outside their own faith for help. We're nondenominational, not part of a church, but there's an interrelation that makes it easier."

Many of the center's clients learn of the counseling service in bulletins published by Catholic parishes. One such client is a 33-year-old San Fernando woman who asked to be called Susan. A junior at California State University, Northridge, she is struggling to become the first person in her Mexican-American family to graduate from college.

"I was doing terrible in school," Susan said. "I put all my efforts into it, and I still was doing bad. It seemed like I'd had my downs for so long, nothing mattered."

She was driving on a freeway one day when the depth of her despair became apparent.

"I just didn't care whether I hit anyone or not, whether I lived or not," she said. "I realized I was desperate."

Susan entered therapy with Connolly, going once a week for five months. She credits the nun with "teaching me that I have freedom of choice no matter what conditions I'm living under."

Although Susan says counseling has helped her immensely, she has not told her parents--with whom she lives--or her boyfriend that she sought help.

"They wouldn't understand," she said.

Arturo Fierro, a member of the California Hispanic Psychological Assn., said therapy is gaining acceptance among Latinos, but often carries a stigma.

More Women Patients

"There is still, especially among men, a feeling that there's weakness in seeing a therapist," said Fierro, who practices in Montebello. "Most of my patients are women. What makes them much more comfortable is having a therapist who is from their culture."

He estimates that there are no more than 50 state-licensed psychologists in California who are bilingual and bicultural. No agency collects such figures for the various types of therapists, which include psychologists, social workers and MFCCs, or marriage, family and child counselors.

"There is a shortage; there's no question," Fierro said. "The Hispanic population is growing fantastically, so there can never be a deficit of good mental health professionals."

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Services operates a counseling clinic in San Fernando. Psychologist Laura Span Bonitto worked there 11 years, the last six as director. Last spring she became director of the county mental health clinic in Canoga Park.

"Anybody feels uncomfortable about going to mental health services," Bonitto said, "but when people come, if the services are appropriate, if the language and cultural understanding is there, they'll be helped."

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