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Health Horizons : PSYCHOLOGY : Family Preservation : A growing movement is targeting families on the verge of having their children removed from their homes. Adherents aim to stem the growing tide of foster-care placements.

March 21, 1993|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a Times staff writer for the View section

Clete Menke remembers one of his first days on the job in Orange County.

He drove to the home of what county social workers said would be a family on the edge.

This was what he hoped for, what his B.A. in psychology, his M.A. in counseling, and his own personal values had prepared him for: helping troubled parents keep their family together.

About to ring the doorbell, he was surprised to see a man storm out the door and past him, with a child under each arm. Their mother ran out after him, shouting at the man who was apparently the children's father, her ex-husband. As Menke watched, the mother managed to wrest the children away, put them into an old car, and drive off, yelling threats of suicide.

Menke decided to wait at the house. When she did not return, he gave his home phone number to her current husband and went home. At 11 p.m., his beeper went off. Menke drove back to the house, asked her to sign a pact not to kill herself and eventually persuaded her to seek counseling.

As one of a rare, new breed of in-home counselors, Menke sees more than most therapists or social workers--sometimes more than he bargained for--but believes it is the only way to really help them.

"It's a difficult thing to do, going into people's homes," he says. "You uncover a lot more than you were told was there. . . . What people tell you goes on and what really happens are rarely the same. People can put on masks, but after a certain point, they can't hide too many things."

In his job, it is essential to see families at their rock-bottom worst. "In order to teach them how to deal with the major issues," he says, "I have to see one (an issue.)"

In-home counselors like Menke make up a small, growing movement called "family preservation," which targets families on the verge of having their children removed and aims to stem the growing tide of foster-care placements.

A significant number of children who are now placed in foster homes would be better off, even in marginal families, if only their parents knew more about parenting and homemaking, says Menke, a counselor with Boys Town, one of two organizations that provide in-home counselors to the County of Orange. Los Angeles County uses the Children's Bureau, the Exchange Club, Bienvenidos Children's Center and the Black Family Investment Project among others.

As the numbers of children being removed from their parents surge upward, and the money to support them declines, many others are starting to agree. At least 10 states other than California are aggressively pursuing family preservation programs with mandates and hefty budgets.

Currently there are about 500,000 children in foster care in the United States. In California, where 80,000 children are in out-of-home care, it costs almost $1 billion to provide substitute care for them.

No one questions that children should be placed when they have been abandoned, or are at risk of serious physical harm. But most are placed for reasons of neglect, a byproduct of poverty, according to the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, which grants $4 million each year to family preservation programs.

Once in foster care, three of every 100 children are abused, according to the foundation. New studies by the National Assn. of Social Workers show that, in California, nearly half of the children who wind up in runaway shelters had been in foster care during the previous year. One advocate of family preservation is author Maya Angelou, who was sent away from her parents after a divorce, and was once advised to give up her own son on the grounds that the life she then led as an itinerant cabaret singer might harm him. Every child torn from his parents asks, "If I wasn't good enough for my own family, which they say is no good, how can I be accepted here?" she has written. "Tragically, the question is unanswerable and perseveres under the skin, in the viscera through the days, hours and years into adulthood. . . .

"When a child is protected, but its family is shattered, we are forced to question if indeed our process has succeeded. Or are we, in fact, living the cliche that 'the operation was a success, but the patient died?' "

Counselors in family preservation programs are on call 24 hours a day to families referred by county social workers. They they work with only one to three families at a time, 15 to 40 hours a week, for an intensive six- to 12-week period.

Variously called "family consultants" or "teaching demonstrating homemakers," they use behavior intervention, not psychotherapy. "We don't spend a lot of time on 'How does it feel?' " said Mike Riley, site director for the Boys Town branch in Anaheim. "We know how it feels."

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