A Velvet Hand Stays Parent's Iron Glove : Child abuse: In tactful visits at clients' homes, social workers help distraught parents avoid physical force in managing their children.


When Cheryl was a teen-ager, she was removed from her home because she was being abused by her father. Then, at age 22 and as a parent herself, she found herself in a disturbingly similar situation.

Abandoned by her husband, Carlos, 27, in an El Monte trailer park last February, she was deeply depressed and was using physical force to discipline her 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

"I was afraid of doing the same things as my parents. I wanted a better understanding of my kids," Cheryl said recently, explaining why she finally sought help from the Children's Bureau of Los Angeles' Family Connection Program (FCP).

Cheryl, whose last name was withheld to protect the privacy of child-abuse victims, was so distraught at the time that she could barely recall how she ended up at the bureau's El Monte FCP office. She had called several agencies before being referred to the El Monte office.

Unlike some of the other agencies, the bureau sends social workers to the clients' homes. Hortensia Muniz came to Cheryl's home, sparing the young mother the task of finding transportation or child care.

Muniz counseled Cheryl on how to handle her depression. She improved the young woman's relationship with her children by matching Cheryl's expectations to the youngsters' developmental capacities.

And the social worker demonstrated alternate methods of managing behavior by getting down on the floor herself and showing the young mother how to interact with the children.

Since 1983, FCP has been sending licensed social workers into homes to provide free, comprehensive counseling for parents in the early stages of child abuse.

The program started as a pilot project in the agency's oldest regional office, a cheerfully decorated storefront on Tyler Avenue, across from El Monte High School.

It has since expanded to six locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and is one of the oldest and largest prevention programs of its type in Southern California.

The private program is financed by a combination of state-funded, county-administered contracts; United Way; foundation and corporate grants, and private contributions.

The bilingual El Monte staff--a director, three licensed social workers and one social worker's assistant--serves about 100 San Gabriel Valley families a year, officials said. And at least 40 families are on the waiting list.

The staff concentrates on families with children under 12, whose members have not become locked into destructive behavioral patterns, Muniz said. But occasional exceptions are made, especially if a family has a small child with siblings older than 12, she said.

"The philosophy of the agency is to work with the family around their needs," Muniz said. "We don't believe there's one way that families ought to be. Each family's strengths and weaknesses need to be addressed."

The social workers set goals with the parents and spend from two to seven hours a week with each family, visiting them once or twice and offering hands-on experience.

Whether taking a family to the park, chatting with the mother about her problems, or accompanying a parent to a clinic, the social workers are encouraged to try whatever they think will help.

Individualized parent education, counseling, role modeling and coaching are keys in the process. Social workers teach by setting an example rather than giving direct advice.

"It's a lot more offensive if you direct them, because it's coming from an authoritarian position," Muniz explained.

For example, during a recent session with Cheryl, Muniz stopped the conversation when she noticed the woman's son gesturing toward a shelf and repeatedly asking for something. The boy has difficulty articulating, and Cheryl plans to have his developmental skills tested when he enters preschool.

Muniz held up objects on the shelf, trying to identify what the boy wanted. Then she asked Cheryl to continue the process. Even though no one discovered what he wanted, Muniz explained the importance of actively engaging with the children.

Cheryl is nearing the end of the process. Muniz said the young mother had improved in several areas: maintaining the house, seeking information on child development, playing spontaneously with her children and avoiding physical discipline.

"I've learned how to be consistent with them," Cheryl said. "I've learned there are lots of ways (short of violence) to discipline them--like making them sit in the corner, or hugging them until they ask to be released."

Cheryl and Carlos reunited in May, but the program continued to focus on Cheryl, who sought help.

Carlos, who has a temporary, part-time job as a truck driver, participates in the sessions and assists in role-playing exercises.

The family now lives in a studio apartment in Duarte. They sleep in the same room in two separate beds. Although small for a family of four, it is the nicest home they have had.

The Children's Bureau is currently involved in a four-year research project, in conjunction with the USC School of Social Work, comparing families who receive in-home services with those treated by facilities outside the home.

To evaluate, guide and track cases, the bureau created the Family Assessment Form, a tool which is now being used in similar situations by other child welfare agencies.

The 100-item questionnaire is designed to study multiple aspects of family life. Caseworkers complete the form to set goals before beginning treatment.

Three months later, the process is repeated to judge how successful they have been. If the family fails to show adequate progress, treatment can continue for another three or four months.

Preliminary research by USC, based on results of the questionnaire, has shown that three-fourths of the families in the in-home program functioned more smoothly after treatment. And at least half showed dramatic improvement in such areas as building neighborhood support systems, making child-care plans, learning about child development, providing discipline appropriate for children, and assisting children to follow parental rules.

Previous studies have evaluated home-based programs by tracking whether children were eventually removed from their families. But the current project seeks to measure the level of family functioning up to a year after treatment.

Although final results will be unavailable until 1994, Jacquelyn McCroskey, a USC professor who is conducting the research project, is a strong supporter of home-based services.

"Going into people's homes rather than having them come out to an office is important, because it places the responsibility on the parents," McCroskey said. "It tells them we are coming out here to help you , because you want us."

McCroskey said many social workers feel they can better understand a family's situation if they see it, rather than just hear about it.

FPC social workers say they enjoy the challenge of being role models in often chaotic situations.

"If a child is having a fit, the parents will look at how you will handle this," said Rosie Mercado, a former Head Start teacher, who now works as a social worker assistant out of the El Monte office.

"If you've told them not to use a belt, you have to demonstrate what (else) you can do. We're being tested all the time."

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