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'90s FAMILY : Police Officer, Parent . . . and Expert Juggler

October 19, 1994|SUSAN JAQUES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like thousands of other Los Angeles police officers, Sgt. Donna Roller heard a broadcast call to duty shortly after the Northridge earthquake. But there was just one tiny problem--or, rather, three tiny problems--that Roller had to attend to first: Rachel, 9 months, in diapers; Zachary, 2, sucking a pacifier, and Tyler, 4, clutching a teddy bear named Marshall.

"I remember dropping the children off in their pajamas at the baby-sitter's, who had a tent pitched in the front yard of her house," said Roller, a single parent from Santa Clarita. "I thought to myself, how can I leave my kids in a place like this with glass and debris everywhere, the Earth shaking every 15 minutes and no running water, gas or electricity?"

Roller's dilemma illustrates the double dose of stress many officers cope with: an ever-more-dangerous job combined with trying to fit flexible, affordable day care into an unpredictable work schedule.

The problem for officer-parents was exposed during the city's recent string of disasters, when traditional day-care centers and baby-sitters could not handle the increased demands brought about by the riots, fires and earthquake.

This prompted the Los Angeles Women Police Officers' Assn. to take action. Supported by Chief Willie L. Williams and Mayor Richard Riordan, the nonprofit support group is sponsoring a celebrity benefit on Saturday at Union Station in hopes of raising $150,000 to launch a 24-hour child-care center.

It is hoped that the pilot Downtown center will be the first of four facilities that will serve children of LAPD employees as well as those of the Los Angeles City Fire Department during public emergencies.

Child-care horror stories abound within the LAPD. After the Jan. 17 earthquake, some employees sent children out of state to stay with relatives; grandparents were flown in to baby-sit. Single parents have accepted reductions in responsibility and rank in order to care for their kids. And when baby-sitters suddenly take ill or have transportation problems, police employees frequently have no choice but to miss work.

Officer Lorrie Bostic of the Southeast Division quit the force to take care of her three small children. But recently, when her youngest entered preschool and she was ready to resume working, she found herself back at the Police Academy undergoing training as a rookie.

Bostic's experience prompted her husband, Cmdr. Michael Bostic, to volunteer for the child-care project committee. "Everyone sees this as a women's issue and it's really a parent issue," said Michael Bostic, who is in charge of juvenile operations. "I honestly believe that we are losing a lot of good female officers because of a lack of child care."

These losses come at a time when the LAPD is under pressure to recruit and keep more female officers. On-site child care is seen as a way to achieve those aims, as well as cut absenteeism and even improve productivity. "You can't do your best when you are worried about your family," said Lt. Paulette Herman, president of the women officers group.

On the first weekend following the 1992 riots, Sgt. Lita Abella took her then-toddler, Christian, along to the Wilshire Division station, where officers watched him for an hour while she worked as watch commander. There have been other "totally desperate" times when Christian has spent eight-hour shifts at his mother's station, playing at the computer or typewriter or sitting at the front desk.

Before Christian's birth four years ago, Abella, a 14-year LAPD veteran, had worked patrol assignments throughout various metropolitan divisions. Motherhood, she said, forced her to make a drastic career change and transfer to an administrative position with more stable hours.

Anita Hernandez, meanwhile, leaves her Riverside home at 4 each morning and travels to Orange County to watch her 15-month-old granddaughter, Katie. The grueling commute allows Katie's mother, Officer Joanna Linfield of Internal Affairs, to be in her Downtown office by 6 a.m. "If it weren't for her, I really don't know what I would do," Linfield said.

During the riots, Linfield was sent out to work at a command post in South-Central during the day while her husband, Sgt. Don Linfield, worked the Central Division night shift. "We literally passed each other on the road," Linfield recalled. "We would toot our horns at each other and wave out the window and that was the only contact we had for two weeks."

More recently, Joanna Linfield helped coordinate nearly 100 witnesses for acquitted Rodney King beating defendant Theodore Briseno's disciplinary hearing, in which he was ultimately terminated from the LAPD. Some of the sessions, Linfield said, went on until midnight. Such unpredictability creates a challenge for employees who need day--and often night--care for their young families.

"During the riots, I didn't see my kids for 21 days straight," Roller said. "I would leave the house at 4:30 a.m. before they woke up and wouldn't get back until 8:30 p.m. With a child-care center, I'd be able to take my lunch and visit. If one of the kids wasn't feeling well, I could bring them their medicine."

The LAPD plans to dedicate its first child-care center to Officer Tina Kerbrat, mother of two young children, who was killed in the line of duty in 1991. "She symbolizes the sacrifice of the women and mothers who put the needs of the community first," said Herman, of the women officers association. "We need to support these families."

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