Breaking a Tradition of Child, Spousal, Drug Abuse

Most repeat offenders at Orange County Jail are there as a result of what are called "family crisis situations"--a Sheriff's Department euphemism for child abuse, spousal abuse, child endangerment and substance abuse.

They are people, male and female, who live in a revolving door. They batter each other or their children, are convicted and sentenced, serve their time--then go out and do it all over again.

It is a pattern they learned very early in their lives because it was the way their parents lived.

"The difference was that the parents probably weren't jailed for it," says Larry Bartosiewski, 42, correctional programs supervisor at the jail, "and one of their biggest problems is understanding why they are being jailed for it."

To "enlighten them," as Bartosiewski says, the jail is offering parenting classes through Rancho Santiago College, taught by trained family therapists.

The goal, he says, is "to show them some alternatives (to abuse), to show them what is and what is not acceptable behavior and to inhibit their potential for coming back. The frosting on the cake, of course, is that if we're successful, we're also saving some children out there from future harm or even death."

Bartosiewski says one of the first messages instructors must impart to the inmates is that while their actions are wrong, they don't make them "bad people . . . or their parents bad people."

And once they begin comparing experiences, he says, "emotional chords are struck to the point that many of them will actually break down and cry."

For a prisoner "to shed tears in front of another prisoner, to drop the incredibly important machismo stance, is absolutely astonishing," he says.

If inmate interest in the weekly sessions is an indication, the program is assured of success. Bartosiewski is already struggling to accommodate waiting lists for both male and female courses.

"What still amazes me," Bartosiewski says, is that despite all the safety devices that new cars contain, from seat belts to air bags, "you must pass a written examination to qualify to drive.

"Yet to be a parent, all you have to do is perform a natural act."

As a society, we concern ourselves greatly--as we should--with all the medical aspects of childbearing and bemoan--as we also should--the disgraceful shortage of prenatal care.

But we virtually ignore preparation for child-rearing, apparently believing that basic animal instincts will steer us. Consequently, our children become us, just as we became our parents, warts and all.

The good news is that if we had parents who hugged and kissed and loved us and laughed with us and cried with us, we will probably perpetuate that--and an emotionally stable family line will continue.

The downside is, if our parents beat us, we will beat our children . . . and the odds are that they will beat their children. And if our parents were aloof, unloving types--too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to us--we will most likely be the same way, and so will our children.

Unfortunately, the experts say, the latter group is in the majority.

Irvine psychologist Zena Polly deals in her private practice with the core problem faced by Bartosiewski in jail: breaking the conditioning of our parents.

While she applauds parenting classes, whether in County Jail or those proliferating in schools, she says a more concentrated effort may be required for those most negatively affected.

"All the cognitive training in the world can fall apart under emotional stress," she says, "and that is the very time when we are most apt to revert to conditioned behavior.

"This phenomenon (of adopting out parents' behavior) is triggered at an emotional level. What we must do is to examine them carefully before we have a crisis.

"We should examine those traits we don't like, flush them out, become explicitly aware of them and deal with them."

Like parenting itself, she said, the process must be an "unending commitment."

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