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PARENTING : Breaking the Mold : As relationships get more complicated, the traditional nuclear family is less common.

October 09, 1992|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes regularly for Valley Life

Family portraits in the San Fernando Valley are constantly changing. More and more families are breaking the two-parent, 2.3-kid mold. It's not uncommon to have a father in west Van Nuys who is moving his plumbing business to his home so he can care for his two girls. Or a grandmother in Lake View Terrace who has custody of her granddaughter. Or a Sylmar couple who are struggling to raise 11 children--although many aren't their own. Or a lesbian couple in Woodland Hills who are bringing up a family of five children, two born through artificial insemination.

Every one of these parents was brought up in a traditional nuclear family. But today, family relationships are more complicated.

"It's surprising to see a so-called 'normal' family anymore," said Kay Hinchliffe, mental health coordinator for the Latin American Civic Assn. based in Van Nuys. Alternative families are becoming the norm, she said.

"For most of these families, it's not a choice to live like they do, it's their only way," Hinchliffe said. The association, part of the Head Start program, helps families at 26 Valley facilities by providing food, counseling and other services.

It is common for grandparents in the Valley to take care of their grandchildren, said Terry Shajirat, coordinator of the Family Friends program in North Hollywood, which helps senior citizens care for the children.

"Sometimes the grandparents are the only ones who can take care of the children," Shajirat said. "There's a lot of stress."

Despite their economic, political or ethnic backgrounds, they are still families, doing what families have always done. "They may have it hard," she said, "but they still provide morals and motivation for their children."

The Fultz Family

From one night to the next, there's no telling how many children will be staying over at the Fultz house in Sylmar. The three bedrooms and converted den could be filled with as many as 11, and sometimes the living room is covered with sleeping bags as well.

But it's no slumber party.

The Fultzes take in children who need families. Some are abused, some are estranged from their parents, some just need a temporary place to stay until they move back home.

"Sometimes my sisters will come by and leave their kids and when I call them to pick up their kids they're nowhere to be found, so what do you do?" asked Priscilla Fultz. "I take care of them until someone picks them up."

Priscilla, 34, and her husband, Stephen Fultz, 40, are struggling with their ever-growing clan. When they were married six years ago, he had four children, and she had a daughter and legal custody of her half-brother, who had psychiatric problems. Since then, they have had two children of their own.

They also take care of nieces, nephews, cousins and family friends. Two parents have given up custody to the Fultzes. They say no one has offered money to take care of their children, and although they are just barely able to make ends meet, they are not eligible for welfare.

Presently, their core family is made up of Priscilla's daughter, Chavon Gladden, 13; Stephen's daughter, Ahgist, 11; their children, Stephen Jr., 4, and Jonathan, 3; and Cleopatra Marable, 14, Priscilla's cousin. In addition, he has three children and a stepdaughter from a previous marriage that have all moved out. For four years they took care of a neighbor child who is now in jail. And Priscilla's half-brother has been institutionalized.

"When we have three apples and nine children, we make applesauce," said Stephen, the only one who works outside the home. He's been an air-conditioning and heating repairman for 16 years and is trying to buy the house they live in.

Each child has chores six days a week, and on the seventh day they have a big family outing. They take no-name sodas and chips to the beach, have barbecues with some of the children's birth parents, or take money from recycling household trash and eat at Taco Bell or McDonald's.

The newest addition to their family is Cleopatra. The Fultzes have become her legal guardians while problems at her home are worked out.

"It's nice to have new sisters," said Cleo, who made a chicken dinner for the whole gang recently with the help of Chavon and Ahgist.

"But there's no way I'd ever have a family this big," Chavon said.

Priscilla and Stephen come from two-parent families, and Stephen had 17 siblings. At first, their families were against the couple's marriage because they had so many children going into it.

"I'm born to be a mother," Priscilla said. "Sure, I resent sometimes that their mothers are out having a good time and their fathers are spending money on themselves when I'm the one putting shoes on their child's feet. But these kids could be homeless or into drugs or into pimps."

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