Two years ago, Linda Bagwell of Irvine, a stay-at-home mother of two, was thrown by the news that she would soon become a divorced mother of two.
She was without single friends or job skills. It was exactly the sort of problem that city officials had just decided they wanted to help solve.
Bagwell, now 32, became one of the first participants in For Families--a novel city-sponsored program aimed at helping troubled families before a crisis turns into such problems as substance abuse, truancy or delinquency.
“It’s apparent to virtually everyone that if we fail to provide appropriate support to families, then we bear the costs of family breakup, which are community costs as well as devastating, personal costs,” Mayor Larry Agran said.
“There’s a lot of talk about the importance of families in American life. What we have found in Irvine is, the talk has to be backed up with real community support.”
On an annual $75,000 budget, For Families uses a staff of five to offer free peer counseling, self-help groups and an information and referral system for problems ranging from isolation to finances, drug abuse to custody.
The paid peer advisers, who live in the city and work part time, are hired for their experience in raising families, said For Families Director Stephanie Broderick.
Considered by its creators to be a national pioneer in public intervention, the program has grown dramatically the past 18 months from five families a month to near capacity at 90. Irvine residents receive top priority. No one pays a dime.
“In Southern California, you have a lot of families who have to deal with a lot of pressures without a great many social services available to them. Especially families with limited funds,” said Marsha Burgess, superintendent of the city’s Family Services Section. “In agencies that deal with human services, many are backlogged and people are on waiting lists.”
In county mental health programs, there is a wait of at least six weeks for children with non-emergency problems, according to Bernard Rappaport, deputy director of Children’s Mental Health Services. “My guess is that many of those are not seen” by county workers, he said.
For Families was based on the assumption that the family-oriented, planned community of Irvine is not unlike the rest of the country, in which one in three families is dysfunctional in some form, said Maureen Robbins, superintendent of the Family Services Section.
It evolved from a city Substance Abuse Task Force three years ago that recommended prevention programs, and from studies that showed that children from divorced families, or those in conflict, have a much higher incidence of conduct problems.
It was modeled after a four-year research study at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which showed improved coping skills among divorced families that were given peer counseling and group support.
The city also surveyed 500 parents at random on their family problems and then modified the Colorado program, using the parents’ responses. The survey indicated that Irvine residents wanted help with parenting and discipline, general stress, communication and relationship issues.
Seventy percent of the For Families participants are working women with one or two children. Half are separated or divorced.
Many want to stay in Irvine because of its reputation for high-quality education, but then encounter extra pressure to meet the high cost of housing, staff members said. In addition, Irvine residents have high academic and success expectations for their children, which can add to the stress, they said.
Also, about 20% of city residents belong to an ethnic group, many of them immigrants or foreign workers who have trouble adjusting to the culture.
Meanwhile, city residents move on the average of every two years and few have the chance to form traditional neighborhood friendships.
Many single parents come with custody or visitation issues, but clients have also included young couples struggling with marriage, stepfamilies with conflicting loyalties, families facing eviction, immigrant families with acculturation problems, gay and lesbian families and even one prostitute concerned about her life style, said Family Service Coordinator Marie Polhamus.
About a third of those who come to the program are referred to professional therapists or lawyers, but many of those come back just to talk.
“A lot of people are afraid to say something to a neighbor out of fear they may be judged or appear to not have it together,” she said. “We need to find that extended family, to talk in a safe place, to share.”
At first, unable to even utter the word “divorce,” Linda Bagwell said she has gained so much confidence that she feels she can now advise others in the single-parent group she still attends.
She said she learned to find time for herself as well as her two children, April, 7, and Beth, 9. Now a student at Irvine Valley College, she plans to become an elementary schoolteacher.
In other cases, the staff has encouraged a woman to confront her abusive husband, and helped her write a list of alternative responses to his reaction to receiving divorce papers.
They also helped start a Japanese newsletter explaining U.S. law to Japanese families. Several Japanese families had come to the program baffled and upset by local traffic laws.
In addition to a self-help group for single parents, a group for parents of disabled children will start in January, followed by another for parents of teen-agers, Polhamus said. More consideration will be given to helping Persian, Japanese and Chinese residents deal with their specific issues, she said.
The program is still evolving, and the staff is collecting data from schools to determine whether those who come into the program have improved their coping skills.
For now, they are judging the program’s success by its usage, which is expected to double next year, Broderick said.