Once, Norm and Ellen Linder might have listened to people who blamed them for the violent outbursts of their behaviorally disturbed son.
"Even now that Marcus is living in a group home, we still get calls about the latest thing that he's done and people telling us what rotten parents we are," said Ellen Linder, walking along the corridor of the family's new Moorpark house and opening the door to her 16-year-old son's empty bedroom. "Their attitude is, 'You must have done something really awful to have a kid like that.' "
If the Linders have their way, that attitude will change.
Eight months ago, the couple realized that, with an estimated 2,500 children and adolescents in Ventura County who receive mental health services each month, they probably were not the only parents who felt frustrated, stigmatized and alone.
Encouraged by mental health professionals, the Linders called parents they had never met and invited them to join what several counselors and educators said is one of the first support groups in the state for parents of mentally, emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children.
Since its inception in June, United Parents' membership has grown to 30 couples, single parents and foster parents who meet each month at the Camarillo public library.
In the beginning, Ellen Linder said she thought the round-table discussions would simply be a place where parents could share their problems and listen to the experiences of others. The initial response of parents, she added, did nothing to change that view.
"One woman at one of the first meetings just burst into tears," she said, recalling what she described as a typical response for many families. "She said, 'You don't know what it means for me to be able to come here. How many people really understand when you tell them you're afraid of your 10-year-old?' "
But it soon became apparent that the group had the potential to be much more. Roused by repeated stories of confusion, intimidation and frustration, many group members said they realized that emotional support alone was not enough. To ensure that their children received the best possible services, they said, the group also would need to learn how to work more effectively within the public school and mental health systems, as well as become involved in state and national legislation affecting children's mental health issues.
That decision, many mental health officials say, led to a vitally needed advocacy group.
"This is brand-new. It's what's been missing," said Mario Hernandez, chief of children and youth services with Ventura County Mental Health. "There are all kinds of groups for handicapped adults and children, but until now, there really hasn't been anyone to speak up for these kids."
Hernandez said county mental health officials and social workers had wanted a parents' support and advocacy group for several years, especially when it became clear that many emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children had poorer outcomes and often required longer out-of-home placements when the needs of the entire family were not addressed.
Parental involvement also was a major consideration, he said, when the county developed a model children's mental health program in 1985, which was designed to identify emotionally disturbed children who were at risk of being separated from their families.
"The county's program basically took down the walls between the people in the schools, the mental health department and the juvenile justice system and told them all to talk to each other and work together for the benefit of the child," said Norm Linder, whose efforts on behalf of emotionally disturbed children recently earned him the distinction of being the first parent of a disturbed child to be appointed to the county's Mental Health Advisory Board.
"At the same time," added Linder, a Simi Valley marketing director, "one of the goals of the program also was to get more parental involvement, since a better-informed parent is like having a co-therapist for the child."
Although counseling services for parents of disturbed children are still limited, the county's program has had success. In recent years, California's cost for keeping emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children in group homes has skyrocketed to $36 million each month--up from $15 million a month in 1986. In contrast, Ventura County's nationally praised program has helped keep the most severely emotionally disturbed children with their families and has reduced out-of-home placements to the lowest in the state.
"But these are only the most severely disturbed kids," Hernandez added. "There are still plenty more kids and families who need help and haven't been getting it."
Hernandez said he suggested that the Linders form the support group because of their reputation within the mental health community for being "outstanding and informed."
But it was the couple's experiences, not their reputation, that attracted other parents to the meetings.