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Program Targets Abusive Parents

Prevention: Keeping families intact is goal of county effort, which focuses on anger control. Detractors say it puts children in danger.


When Karen's son, William, did something to upset her, her anger was overwhelming. A knot tightened in her stomach. Her fists clenched. Blood rushed to her head, her heart beat faster.

Sometimes she yelled at the 13-year-old boy. Sometimes, she slapped him.

"I was so angry I just didn't care," she said. "I just wanted to hit him. I just wanted him to shut up."

The frustration built even more quickly in her husband, Robert, who occasionally grabbed for his belt.

"I'd rake him over the coals and make him cry," he said. "Then I'd feel like crap."

The couple, both in their late 40s, finally realized they had gone too far and decided to seek help.

Now, Karen and Robert are learning to control themselves through an abuse prevention program called SafeFamily Services. They meet with a case manager each week who teaches them ways to discipline without hitting.

Offered by Camarillo-based Interface Children Family Services, SafeFamily Services has worked for 24 years to prevent child abuse and neglect in Ventura County homes. Although critics say the program is too lenient and puts children in danger of further abuse, supporters argue that it helps keep more families together and assists parents in raising their children better.

"Just removing a child from a parent is not a panacea to child abuse and neglect," said Cezanne Totton, program assistant for the county's Human Services Agency, which contracts with Interface to provide the abuse prevention services. "It would be wonderful if we had a crystal ball and we could say that parents are definitely dangerous or definitely not dangerous. But we don't have that. So we try to keep families intact so we aren't doing any more damage [to children] than what they have already experienced."

Nearly 100 physically or emotionally abusive parents are participating in SafeFamily Services, according to program manager Bob Young, but on average 170 families are served by the program each year. About 40 families are currently on a waiting list. And Human Services officials say they are currently handling between 700 and 750 active child abuse or neglect cases in Ventura County.

Some families are referred to SafeFamily Services by schools or medical clinics and are considered "voluntary" clients. Others are sent to the program by child protective services and ordered by the court to participate or risk losing their children. Still others have already had their children temporarily removed from the home, and are trying to regain custody.

During the program--which usually lasts six months--caseworkers visit the homes to observe how parents interact with their children and offer parenting advice.

Appropriate Rules

Often, the parent training is in conjunction with more intensive family therapy to understand the origins of the abuse. Caseworkers also teach parents about child development stages and help them develop appropriate rules and consequences depending on the ages of their children and on the behavior.

For example, an appropriate consequence for a teenager staying out past curfew could be an earlier curfew the next night, rather than a punishment of having to clean the bathroom.

Robert said he still struggles to demand less from his son. Rather than making William keep his room clean, for example, Robert and Karen only require him to keep his stuff out of the living room and kitchen.

"You have expectations, and when those aren't met, it results in disappointment," he said. "And the disappointment turns into anger."

He used to think that spanking William was the only way to change his behavior. But it didn't work. He thought hitting William would make him feel better. But he just felt worse.

SafeFamily Services workers stress that parents should always be calm before responding to a child.

"If you deal with your child when your emotions are high, you are not going to do what you were taught," Young said. "You are going to do what was done to you."

And often that means repeating a cycle of physical or emotional abuse.

When 31-year-old Laura was a little girl, her mom worked and left her with an aunt who screamed and hit her. Sometimes, even though she was afraid of the dark, Laura would be locked in the house by herself at night as punishment.

So when Laura had her own kids, she said she only knew one way to control them--through harsh discipline.


"No one told me how to be a mother," Laura said. "No one knows how to be a parent until they have kids."

For almost two years, Laura has been meeting with a SafeFamily caseworker. Now when she gets angry with her three children, she first counts to 10 or retreats into her bedroom. Then, instead of hitting them, she sends her children to their rooms for about 10 minutes before doling out a punishment, such as a night without television or Nintendo.

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