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HEALING THE CHILD : Hathaway Gives Understanding, Therapy, Survival Skills to Victims of Abuse and Neglect

<i> Greengard is a Burbank free-lance writer. </i>

She wasn’t old enough to drive a car or go to a high school prom, yet every day her mother would carefully dress and groom her, then send her out to turn tricks. Prostitution, her mother figured, was the perfect way to make easy money. And, for a while, the plan worked. Eventually, authorities found out what was going on, and the girl was taken from her mother.

The girl, psychologically distraught, wound up at Hathaway Children’s Services, a privately run social service agency in the hills above Lake View Terrace. It is a place where troubled children--those who are violent, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, even suicidal--receive the kind of support and attention that they need to get back on track.

The 126-bed facility on 300 acres offers a haven where youngsters not only receive professional attention and understanding from a staff of 100 child-care workers, 40 teachers and 20 therapists, but learn some of the life skills that they will need if they are to survive in the real world. In addition, a community services program offers a wide range of outpatient services to families.

“All of these children have been through a lot. Some of them have been cycled in and out of the system. Nobody wants them, and nobody knows what to do with them. We’re trying to do what we can,” said Brian Cahill, president of the facility, which operates on a budget of $10 million a year, funded by government grants and private corporate donations.

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Widespread Abuse

Abuse and neglect are problems of catastrophic proportions. According to Cahill, more than 2 million cases of abuse and neglect are reported in the United States every year. In Los Angeles County, 20,000 children live outside their own homes, and about 1,400 juveniles are removed from parental custody each month, according to the county’s Department of Children’s Services.

Hathaway, which is licensed by the state’s Department of Social Services, contracts with various county and social service agencies to receive these children. “Hathaway is a long-standing agency we have used very successfully for abused and neglected children. They have an outstanding record,” said Mary Hayes, director of specialized placement resources for the Department of Children’s Services.

About 40% of the children come from the San Fernando Valley. Most have a great deal of difficulty socializing with other children when they first arrive.

“Some of them are so withdrawn they don’t know how to approach someone else,” said Hathaway’s director of community services, Lyn Kobosa-Munro. “Others are extremely aggressive and verbally hostile.” Thus, fistfights, temper tantrums and self-destructive binges are common. Authorities say they must frequently confiscate weapons and drugs brought onto the grounds.

Ages 5 to 18

As a result, the children--who range in age from 5 to 18, but are mostly adolescents--are closely supervised. At least one staff member watches over them all the time. Each is assigned a cottage, where eight boys or girls live, each sharing a bedroom with another youngster. All must keep their rooms clean and participate in regular chores such as vacuuming, emptying trash and doing laundry. They are paid an allowance and rewarded for good behavior.

During the day, the children attend school in one of 16 classrooms on the site, and afternoons and evenings, they participate in football, volleyball, swimming or other activities--as well as individual and group therapy sessions. Frequently, the children are taken on field trips to malls or basketball games or on whale-watching expeditions.

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“Their life is very structured here,” Kobosa-Munro said. “They don’t have a lot of free time because most of them have no idea how to handle it. There is an incredible amount of energy here, and some days there is an incredible amount of pain.”

Typically, children stay at the facility from six months to three years, at a cost of $6,000 per child per month, during which time many of them pay weekend visits to family members.

“Most of the time, when a child leaves here, he or she still isn’t fully ready to live in the real world,” Kobosa-Munro said. “But, hopefully, the foundation has been laid so that they can function adequately and continue to grow.” Usually, they still need counseling and therapy.

Outpatient Support

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To help ease the transition, Hathaway provides continuing therapy and counseling for the children. In fact, parents and siblings are often asked to sit in on sessions so that everyone can better cope with the situation and know what to expect once the child is released and begins to readjust to the family.

Hathaway’s outpatient clinic is also available to the community, serving about 200 people a month--all of whom come voluntarily. Most are referred by schools, doctors or the county’s Department of Public Social Services. Fees are based on a sliding scale.

For those who cannot or will not come to the facility--either because they fear being in a clinic or lack transportation--community outreach workers do home counseling. The 12-week program can include therapy sessions, help in getting children into day-care or after-school activities, assistance with immigration problems or teaching parenting skills. About a dozen families are taking part in the home program.

Similarly, Hathaway offers special parent education programs in the community. Last year, for example, it held six hourlong classes in English and Spanish at a major manufacturing company in Pacoima. About 40 people attended each session. The program has also attracted parents at several schools in the area.

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“Parents can come and listen, and they don’t have to admit to any problems,” Kobosa-Munro said. “They can participate as little or as much as they want to. The idea is that they will learn better parenting skills--something that’s possible for anyone who is raising kids.”

Early Intervention

More importantly, Cahill noted, the outpatient programs provide a mechanism for early intervention. “If children and families don’t get treated as soon as possible, the problems get worse, and the whole situation eventually explodes. That can cause more damage and cost a lot more money.”

Getting the attention that’s needed for the children isn’t always possible. Funding problems are frequent. Government agencies often create a bureaucratic nightmare for emotionally disturbed children by passing them off from one social service agency to another. Parents often resist the idea of getting help.

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“There are an awful lot of parents who do not want to cooperate,” some from poor families, Cahill said. And with 20% of all children in the United States living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, “there are a lot of kids in a heap of trouble,” he added.

Donn Conner, an investment counselor who has served on Hathaway’s board of directors the last five years, says the programs make a big difference. “Hathaway is a high-quality organization in terms of the people and the service provided. It gets kids functioning in society.”

Jean McIntosh, director of the Western office of the Child Welfare League of America, who has worked with Hathaway for 20 years in various capacities, said, “They are a super facility. They have shown a willingness to look at the whole child as well as the child’s family. They have made it possible for many children to go back home successfully.”

Progress Cited

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Sherie Griffin of Sylmar, a mother of four children--one of them emotionally disturbed--became involved in the home program. “A few months ago, I was in a desperate situation,” she said. “Hathaway really helped me cope and helped my son adjust. It got him involved in activities and offered therapy for the family. He still has a long way to go, but he has made a tremendous amount of progress.”

“These kids are usually working very hard to try to grow and change,” Kobosa-Munro said. “They will set goals for themselves; they will talk about the progress they are making. Sometimes it’s a major achievement for them to be able to play a board game with another child without smashing it over the other kid’s head. That can take six months.”

And some of them succeed. Cahill and Kobosa-Munro spoke of one boy who came to Hathaway with severe emotional problems--and often seemed to be on the verge of having a complete mental breakdown. He was eventually able to pull things together.

At the age of 18, he recently left the facility and has managed to do well on his own. He is working part-time, finishing high school and has an apartment of his own. He remains in touch with a therapist at the outpatient clinic. He recently told staff members of Hathaway that although he often disliked the facility and its discipline while he was staying there, many of the things he learned have kept him going, through some pretty rough times.

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“The problem is very immense. It’s difficult work,” Cahill said. “But when you see the progress or hear the story of a kid who looked hopeless and made it, you feel fulfilled.”


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