Members of 40 families, dressed in academic robes and clutching roses and certificates, graduated this week from a new county program aimed at holding troubled black parents and children together.
Pulled apart by poverty, drugs or other problems, the families were given a second chance by the Black Family Investment Project, a pilot program run by the county Department of Children's Services.
To stay out of court, parents had to join the project for at least six months. During that time, they attended parenting classes and support groups. Children's Services provided day care during the meetings.
"This is just like being reborn," said Audrey White, a 36-year-old mother of five. She and the others had enrolled in parenting classes and joined support groups after the county threatened to take away their children.
"I had to stop and take a look at myself and say, 'You're hurting yourself and hurting your kids,' " White said while clutching her 17-month-old son.
White started using crack after her husband began smoking it about six years ago, she said. A Children's Services employee came to her house for the first time last June. The social worker had heard that White's children were going hungry.
It was close to the truth. Two days after White would get her welfare check, the food money would be spent. The children would get by on rice, butter and sugar until the next month.
"The drugs came first, even though I kept saying, 'I love my kids,' " White said. After she started using drugs, "It seemed my relationship with my husband was better because we were laughing and talking. We were messing up our lives and didn't know it."
She signed on to the parent-help program right after the social worker's visit. She left her husband, moved in with relatives and stopped using drugs. Money she had spent on crack went for her children's food and clothing instead.
The Black Family Investment Project worked for White and the others, because it is designed for black culture, Director Sandra Turner-Settle said.
In 1988, a group of black professionals from South-Central Los Angeles asked Children's Services to deal with the large number of blacks in the county foster care system. More than 15,000 of the children under county supervision are black. That is about 44% of the total, even though black children make up only 15% of the population under age 18, Turner-Settle said.
Children's Services agreed to retrain 16 black social workers with help from experts in the Pan African Studies Department at Cal State Northridge.
"A lot of social workers do not understand child-rearing practices in black families. It's not just another family painted black," Turner-Settle said.
Corporal punishment is more common in black households, for example, and does not necessarily prove that parents are habitually abusive, she said. Some parents who hit their children too often or too hard can be taught not to. Making that kind of change where possible is the program's goal.
By contrast, county policy often pits the department against the parents, said Toni Ware, who briefly surrendered one of her eight children to foster care.
"The social workers were not supportive at all," Ware said. "They said you have to go to court about whether you can keep your children or not. Everything with them was negative. I felt as though they couldn't understand what was going on with me. They sent out a Caucasian social worker. It seemed like she was new and didn't have any knowledge about how black people raise children."
Outside of the Black Family Investment Project, "let's say the complaint is that there is no food, and the kids are hungry," Turner-Settle said. "The worker sees if it's true. If it's true, then we take the children."
Turner-Settle said the special program works differently. "If there's no food there, we begin at that point, and just get food in there if there's no other reason to take the children," she said. Should poor money management prove to be the problem, the social worker will help parents develop that skill.
Only sexual abuse results in immediately removing the children. In other cases, the county gambles that the children will not be harmed.
"I don't think anything is going to be totally safe, including foster homes," said Northridge Prof. James Dennis, who helped prepare the social workers. "There is some risk involved wherever the child is placed. It's better to take the risk in keeping the family together. Is the county in the business of destroying families or trying to keep them together?"
Families see their social worker weekly, at least twice as often as families not involved in the program. And a social worker's case load is reduced by a third.
In addition, sessions are not held at the department, but in neighborhood churches. "The church has a real symbolic importance for black families, whether they attend or not," Turner-Settle said. "The church has always been the leadership place, where you go to get help--neutral ground."
The 1-year-old program is initially more expensive per child than the prevailing system, but holds the promise of keeping children out of long-term foster care that costs the county about $12,000 a year per child.
So far, 62 families with 372 children have participated, a small fraction of the 35,000 children under county supervision last year.
Ware, 31, who entered the program for help, is now a parent volunteer. She believes it should be modified to serve other ethnic groups and made available before a crisis threatens a family's survival.
The project has given Ware hope that she can break her own family's cycle of unhappiness. Ware's mother left home to have her first child at 13, and died an alcoholic in her 30s. Ware, who never married, dropped out of high school to have her first child at 17.
"A lot of black women have babies because they need somebody to love, because they never had love as a child," Ware said.
Ware admits that the program is no cure-all. She still worries that her 12-year-old son does not understand the dangers of the street. Her 14-year-old daughter would live away from home if she had a place to go. That also frightens Ware.
Both youngsters walked with their mother in Monday's processional at the Ramada Hotel in Compton.
"The children get along better" than before the counseling, Ware said. "They were fighting among themselves. I can talk to them now rather than snatching them--grabbing them and shaking them up. It's a lot better."