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COVER STORY : Helping Families Heal : 90044 Project Aims to Reduce Child Abuse and the Strain on the Foster Care System by Delivering a Message of Hope to Parents


Overwhelmed by the escalating number of minority children in foster care because of abuse or neglect, Los Angeles County officials are moving to tackle the problem before it reaches the courtroom.

Project Los Angeles 90044 is the county's latest effort to reduce the foster care caseload by simplifying the bureaucracy and helping lower-income parents better care for themselves and their children.

The three-year pilot program, started in September with the help of a $1.2-million federal grant, was named for the South-Central ZIP code that is home to the county's highest number of child abuse and neglect cases. Social workers say the majority of cases in minority areas involve neglect due to substance abuse and the stresses of poverty.

"There was a time when children were removed from parents while (the parents) were getting over their substance abuse," said Charles Louise Edwards, who heads the project. "We're leaning more toward working with the families now in their homes and on their problems."

The project targets parents with histories of substance abuse who live within the 5.3-square mile area bordered by Slauson and El Segundo boulevards and Normandie and Western avenues. With smaller caseloads--a maximum of 25 per social worker, half the county's normal caseload--workers can more closely monitor families through regular home visits.

The 90044 project currently has 45 cases and three social workers.

By creating one office with representatives from four county departments who work on child abuse and neglect cases, the project aims to make it easier for parents to navigate the system.

"This is a new approach to delivering services," said Saundra Turner-Settle, director of the county's Black Family Investment Project.

"90044 doesn't mean that children won't be taken out of the home if it's necessary, but this is a preventive measure and something that's well-needed in the community," she said.

Marcia, a 25-year-old recovering drug addict, is one of the project's cases. Her month-old daughter was born with traces of cocaine in her system.

In her small New Hampshire Avenue apartment, Marcia rocked her daughter as she chatted with social worker Stephanie Saint-Louis during her weekly visit. Saint-Louis updated the young mother on the status of her entry into a substance-abuse program.

"Miss Saint-Louis and the program have really put me back on my feet. I look forward to her visits. They give me confidence," said Marcia, who had tried quitting her cocaine habit on her own. "Without this program, I think they would've taken my daughter away."

Marcia said that each time she tried to quit during the four years she smoked rock cocaine, a problem would arise that sent her back to the drug. After her baby was born with drugs in her system, Marcia decided to get professional help. "I wanted to turn my life around and knew I couldn't do it myself. I needed more help than that," Marcia said.

Marcia is hopeful that once she starts a drug-treatment program, her other child, a 9-year-old girl, will want to come back and live with her. The girl asked to live with her father because of Marcia's drug problem.

"Each case is different and none of them is easy because all of the parents are struggling--either to resolve their problems or to figure out how to get help for their families," said Saint-Louis. "Every time we get a parent into drug treatment, we're happy."

Linda, a 37-year-old cocaine addict, has been part of 90044 since October, after the child abuse hot line received an anonymous call about her. Linda is a difficult case, Saint-Louis said, because she is reluctant to get help for her addiction, a habit she once supported with welfare checks. On a recent Friday afternoon, Linda hesitantly went with Saint-Louis to a Watts-based drug-treatment program.

"This is an OK program for me, I guess. They're trying to help me," Linda murmured as she sat in the lobby of the drug-treatment center pondering the six months she would live there.

It was the last chance for Linda to kick her 10-year drug habit and avoid losing her children to the system. She lasted two months at her last drug-treatment center before quitting in December. Not participating this time would mean losing custody of her 15-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, who live with Linda's mother.

When Linda was using cocaine, she said she neglected to enroll her son in school or make sure her daughter attended class. Her children had not visited a doctor or dentist in years.

As part of 90044, the program's probation officer has enrolled Linda's son in kindergarten and her daughter in a community day school that instructs students half of the day and teaches them work-related skills the other half. For the first time, her teen-ager has begun receiving A's and Bs and sees some hope for her mother.

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