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Governor Holds Key to Children's Project : Funding for Program That Strives to Curb Abuse Depends on His Signature

June 22, 1989|IRENE CHANG | Times Staff Writer

For years, Toni thought it was OK to whip her two daughters, clip clothespins onto their tongues and put them in the corner of their room whenever they were bad.

Toni, 33, a single parent in Pasadena, had been abused as a child. Her mother had whipped her with switches, extension cords and, sometimes, razor strops.

"This is the way I was brought up," she said. "I was not conscious it was wrong or abusive whatsoever."

State authorities found out in April that Toni (a pseudonym) was abusing her children and threatened to take them away from her. When she pleaded with them to let her keep the children, the authorities said they would agree if she would enroll in a state-funded program in which a therapist would make regular visits to her house to help her stop abusing the girls.

She agreed and since then, Toni said, she has not abused her daughters.

"They seem to enjoy me being home with them," she said. "If they had taken my children away from me without giving me this opportunity, I know things would have gone bad."

Toni's is one of the success stories made possible by a state pilot project at Hillsides Home for Children in Pasadena, which strives to keep abused children and parents together.

But state funding for Hillsides' In-Home Critical Care program, and seven others in California, will continue only if Gov. George Deukmejian signs a bill passed by both houses of the Legislature to extend each center's contract for another year.

"Funding from the state ends this month, which is part of our franticness," said Sylvia Levitan, director of the Hillsides in-home project. "We can hang on for another month, but beyond that we'll have to tell our staff to find another job."

Even if the governor approves the extension, the fate of the project beyond 1990 is unclear.

'An Innovative Situation'

State funds constitute 75% of Hillsides' $200,000 annual budget for its in-home project, which treats 100 San Gabriel Valley families each year and includes four full-time therapists, one part-time social worker and one full-time project director. The remainder of the money comes from the county.

"It is a temporary project, an innovative situation that was never meant to be a permanent thing," said Kathleen Norris, director of public affairs for the state Department of Social Services, which monitors the eight programs.

Norris said the state Office of Child Abuse Prevention is evaluating each project and, so far, "the comments from (the office) have been favorable."

The project, in its sixth year, has apparently worked well. Levitan said statistics show that the program is 89% successful in preventing further child abuse.

Hillsides' in-home therapists become involved in child-abuse cases after an incident is reported to the county Department of Children's Services and children's services workers determine that the child can stay in the home if the parent agrees to undergo therapy.

Levitan said past efforts to help abusive parents by removing the children from the home actually did more harm because siblings often would be separated from each other, "bounced around from relative to relative, and to different foster homes. We all recognize how traumatized they've been by the removal."

Abused After They Return

And when they return home to their parents after a long period of separation, the children are often abused again, Levitan said.

In-home therapists spend 20 hours a week for six weeks in the home, counseling the abusive parent and the spouse, talking with the children, and sometimes using program funds to give financial assistance. Sixty percent of the parents are single mothers, and many are drug addicts and alcoholics, according to Levitan.

Parents who complete the program are encouraged to attend regular group therapy sessions at Hillsides, and therapists often stay in contact with the families after the in-home part of the program is over.

Hillsides also houses and cares for children who have been abused so severely that they must be taken out of the home.

But a growing number of child-abusers can be treated with daily intervention in the home, according to Rosemarie Terbrusch, an in-home therapist at Hillsides. The in-home project treats children who have been sexually abused, beaten or hit, neglected, and very young children who have been force-fed or burned.

"The Department of Children's Services wants to know that the child is safe" before allowing Hillsides to start in-home treatment, Terbrusch said. "Sometimes that means the perpetrator has to be out of the home or the child removed temporarily."

Father Able to Return

Rick, an unemployed Arcadia resident living with his wife and three children in a small apartment, agreed to move out after the Department of Children's Services learned that he had sexually abused his 15-year-old daughter for years.

But after staying away for more than a year, Rick (not his real name) decided that he wanted to return, enlisted the help of Hillsides and was able to move back with his family.

Rick had structured, regular meetings with his family and a Hillsides therapist for six weeks, and started getting his life in order. He is now looking for a bigger home for his family.

Levitan said Rick's story strongly indicates that keeping families together is important for the recovery of both the parents and the children.

A Monrovia woman who enrolled in Hillsides' program after hitting her boyfriend's daughter near the eye, agreed.

"It saved us as a family," she said. "The No. 1 important thing was that Rosemarie (the therapist) was right here in the home, having dinner with us, watching us. It brought us a lot closer, and put us in the right direction."

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