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Picking Up the Pieces : Parents on the Brink of Abusing Their Children Learn to Cope and Rebuild Their Lives


Rose felt alone and trapped. Her marriage had fallen apart, and she was left with three toddlers and an 11-year-old who kept her so busy that she rarely got out of the house for anything but necessities.

Each day was so overwhelming that she couldn't wait to put the kids down for a nap. Sometimes she made them go to bed right after breakfast. Then she knew they wouldn't push her--and she wouldn't hurt them.

She had told her abusive, alcoholic husband to leave and was planning to get a job that, with child support, would enable her to pay the bills. But he failed to make child support payments, and she wasn't able to find a job that paid enough to cover the high cost of child care.

So Rose, a 37-year-old Orange County resident who asked to remain anonymous, found herself collecting welfare and food stamps and spending nearly every waking moment trying to keep the kids under control.

She was exhausted all the time and full of anger. And she could see that each day she was getting closer to losing the small measure of self-control that kept her from seriously injuring her children when they pushed her too far.

"I screamed at them all the time. I'd grab them by the arms and shake them or throw them against the bed, and I was constantly spanking them. I was at the end of my rope," Rose says.

She called the Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center in Orange because, she explains, "I didn't want to take my anger out on the kids anymore."

That's just what the center's staff wants to hear, says co-assistant director Denine Ellis, who answered Rose's call for help.

"When we first went to see her, she was unglued and she was about to lose it," Ellis recalls. "She said, 'I know what I'm doing isn't right, but I don't know how to change. I want someone to show me.' She was very depressed and had low self-esteem, but she was really motivated."

You have to be to get help from the Exchange Club center, which has assigned volunteers to support, educate and guide some 600 Orange County families since 1984. The center is one of 61 across the country that Exchange Clubs have established as part of a national child abuse prevention project.

The nonprofit center in Orange is primarily funded through private donations raised by local Exchange Clubs and depends on volunteers who are willing to make a one-year commitment to the program. They devote that year to one family only, Ellis says. After being trained to work with abusive parents, they visit the family at home at least once a week and respond to day-to-day problems by phone under the supervision of the program's professional staff.

A case is closed when it appears that the cycle of abuse in the family has been broken, Ellis says.

Most of the parents who seek help from the center--or are identified as "at risk" and referred by social service agencies--have been abused themselves.

"They can't seem to get out of that rut," Ellis says. "But the family has the potential to stay out of the system if they have support and are taught positive parenting skills. These are parents who've had bad luck in life, and they just need someone to care."

The changes that occur when parents are eager to be helped are often dramatic.

For example, there was the single mother whose five sons were severely abused by her parents while she was serving a two-year prison sentence. The Exchange Club volunteer helped her start a new life with her children after her release.

It wasn't easy because the kids blamed her for the abuse they had suffered and struck back by refusing to obey her. The volunteer helped the mother gain control so she wouldn't repeat the pattern of abuse in her family.

She learned how to discipline her children, and the volunteer helped her find activities that would keep them out of trouble. Gradually, she regained their respect--and their love, Ellis says.

Equally satisfying was the case involving a "failure-to-thrive" baby who was suffering from a lack of nurturing. Georganne Bruce, assistant co-director of the Exchange Club center, says the 4-month-old's mother simply didn't know how to show her love, and the father didn't even try because he believed that caring for a child was women's work.

The Exchange Club volunteer taught the mother how to hold and talk to her baby. And she made it a point to visit in the evenings when the father was around. He resisted at first but slowly got involved.

Today, Bruce says, the baby--who was once so withdrawn he rarely cried or showed any emotion--is an active, talkative toddler. Mom has gone to work to support the family. And dad, who was recently laid off from a high-paying job, has become "Mr. Mom."

These are the types of cases that keep volunteers going when they first start working with a family and results seem a long way off. They are taught to help parents deal with stress by breaking down their problems into small, manageable pieces and addressing them one by one.

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