PARENTING : Breaking the Mold : As relationships get more complicated, the traditional nuclear family is less common.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes regularly for Valley Life

Family portraits in the San Fernando Valley are constantly changing. More and more families are breaking the two-parent, 2.3-kid mold. It's not uncommon to have a father in west Van Nuys who is moving his plumbing business to his home so he can care for his two girls. Or a grandmother in Lake View Terrace who has custody of her granddaughter. Or a Sylmar couple who are struggling to raise 11 children--although many aren't their own. Or a lesbian couple in Woodland Hills who are bringing up a family of five children, two born through artificial insemination.

Every one of these parents was brought up in a traditional nuclear family. But today, family relationships are more complicated.

"It's surprising to see a so-called 'normal' family anymore," said Kay Hinchliffe, mental health coordinator for the Latin American Civic Assn. based in Van Nuys. Alternative families are becoming the norm, she said.

"For most of these families, it's not a choice to live like they do, it's their only way," Hinchliffe said. The association, part of the Head Start program, helps families at 26 Valley facilities by providing food, counseling and other services.

It is common for grandparents in the Valley to take care of their grandchildren, said Terry Shajirat, coordinator of the Family Friends program in North Hollywood, which helps senior citizens care for the children.

"Sometimes the grandparents are the only ones who can take care of the children," Shajirat said. "There's a lot of stress."

Despite their economic, political or ethnic backgrounds, they are still families, doing what families have always done. "They may have it hard," she said, "but they still provide morals and motivation for their children."

The Fultz Family

From one night to the next, there's no telling how many children will be staying over at the Fultz house in Sylmar. The three bedrooms and converted den could be filled with as many as 11, and sometimes the living room is covered with sleeping bags as well.

But it's no slumber party.

The Fultzes take in children who need families. Some are abused, some are estranged from their parents, some just need a temporary place to stay until they move back home.

"Sometimes my sisters will come by and leave their kids and when I call them to pick up their kids they're nowhere to be found, so what do you do?" asked Priscilla Fultz. "I take care of them until someone picks them up."

Priscilla, 34, and her husband, Stephen Fultz, 40, are struggling with their ever-growing clan. When they were married six years ago, he had four children, and she had a daughter and legal custody of her half-brother, who had psychiatric problems. Since then, they have had two children of their own.

They also take care of nieces, nephews, cousins and family friends. Two parents have given up custody to the Fultzes. They say no one has offered money to take care of their children, and although they are just barely able to make ends meet, they are not eligible for welfare.

Presently, their core family is made up of Priscilla's daughter, Chavon Gladden, 13; Stephen's daughter, Ahgist, 11; their children, Stephen Jr., 4, and Jonathan, 3; and Cleopatra Marable, 14, Priscilla's cousin. In addition, he has three children and a stepdaughter from a previous marriage that have all moved out. For four years they took care of a neighbor child who is now in jail. And Priscilla's half-brother has been institutionalized.

"When we have three apples and nine children, we make applesauce," said Stephen, the only one who works outside the home. He's been an air-conditioning and heating repairman for 16 years and is trying to buy the house they live in.

Each child has chores six days a week, and on the seventh day they have a big family outing. They take no-name sodas and chips to the beach, have barbecues with some of the children's birth parents, or take money from recycling household trash and eat at Taco Bell or McDonald's.

The newest addition to their family is Cleopatra. The Fultzes have become her legal guardians while problems at her home are worked out.

"It's nice to have new sisters," said Cleo, who made a chicken dinner for the whole gang recently with the help of Chavon and Ahgist.

"But there's no way I'd ever have a family this big," Chavon said.

Priscilla and Stephen come from two-parent families, and Stephen had 17 siblings. At first, their families were against the couple's marriage because they had so many children going into it.

"I'm born to be a mother," Priscilla said. "Sure, I resent sometimes that their mothers are out having a good time and their fathers are spending money on themselves when I'm the one putting shoes on their child's feet. But these kids could be homeless or into drugs or into pimps."

The Fultzes spend time with each child individually, whether it's a short walk, a Bible reading, watching a video or even taking the girls out for a manicure. Because of their low income, they are eligible for free therapy through the local Head Start program, and they often use it for the children.

"There's a lot of pressure on all of us," Stephen said.

"Once in a long while, we'll decide to let one bill slide and he and I will go out to dinner alone," Priscilla said. As part of their Catholic ministry, the couple talk to children at the Sylmar Juvenile Hall.

"People look at us and see the kids with different last names, different complexions, different schools and they wonder why we do it," Stephen said.

"Sometimes I don't know," Priscilla said with a sigh.

But sometimes, when the wind howls, the girls will be scared and come into their bedroom. The next morning, Ahgist may write a note saying thanks, or Cleo may slip and call her cousin, "Mom."

"That's when I know it's worth it," Priscilla said. "And I know I'd take in more."

The Ramsey Family

Each morning before school in their West Van Nuys home, Randy Ramsey and his two girls have a fashion show. That's what he calls the tedious half-hour it takes to choose the girls' clothes before breakfast.

"It's tough for a guy to raise two girls on his own," Ramsey said. "You have to get them dressed up and do their hair just so. They haven't even hit the makeup stage yet. Oh boy!"

Five years ago, Ramsey, 35, won full legal custody of his daughters, Julia, 8, and Kristina, 6.

"Too bad it's so rare for a father to have custody. Some do a good job," Ramsey said. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about dead-beat fathers. Child support isn't anywhere near what it takes to raise children."

Ramsey moved to a larger three-bedroom home across the street from where he lived when he was married. His ex-wife visits the girls regularly, but he's looking for a nanny to help on a regular basis. His mother and sisters live nearby to answer the "female questions."

"I don't know anything about infections that girls get or anything like that," he said, a bit embarrassed. "I can't pass down any motherly things, like how to make jam or homemade spaghetti. I can teach them how to plumb or how to hang shingles."

"He's not a great cook," Julia chimed in. "But he makes a killer French toast."

They shop for clothes or earrings, go to Brownies on Saturdays, play basketball in the driveway and catch polliwogs at Balboa Lake. They have a rabbit named Roger, two cockatiels, goldfish and frogs.

On Friday nights, Ramsey plays volleyball on a Parents Without Partners team.

"It's very lonely. I have little time for a social life," Ramsey said. "If I meet a girl I'm interested in, I don't have time to get it going. I certainly don't have time to stop for a beer with friends."

Ramsey said his friends think he's a lunatic for even trying to parent on his own, especially since he's just started his own business, Ability Plumbing, out of his home so he can spend more time with the girls.

"It's not a good time to start a business in the middle of a recession, but it's working out," he said. "And my customers understand if I have to schedule my work around the girls' school."

He doesn't recommend single parenting. "Anyone who's still married should stay married. I wish my marriage would have worked out. It's too easy to get out of marriage and the kids are the ones who are hurt."

The Morris Family

Alberta Morris has five great-grandchildren, seven children and 24 or 25 grandchildren. "I keep losing count," she said, as at least a dozen children ran through her Lake View Terrace house.

Now, at 60, Morris finds herself raising a child all over again. She's adopted her late husband's granddaughter from another marriage--a child who isn't even a blood relative--and taken her in as her own.

"It's a different day and age to raise children nowadays," Morris said. "I don't let them out there because there's trouble out there. I warn about things to avoid and people to avoid, but it doesn't always work."

Tamaya, 13, said she doesn't mind being raised by her grandmother, whom she has lived with since she was very young because her mother had problems caring for her on her own. But she thinks her grandmother may be a bit too strict.

"No, I'm more lenient than I was with my own children," Morris said. "I don't spoil kids, but they must obey. And if they need a spanking now and then, they'll get one."

Morris, a retired electronics worker, lost her husband in 1987 and has raised Tamaya since. The girl's mother still visits once in a while. Morris was very sick last year, but she credits the youthful vitality of Tamaya and her other grandchildren--as well as a lot of praying--for her quick recovery.

"Children around me keep me young. I don't keep my mind just on myself," said Morris, who is active in the Grady Community Missionary Baptist Church in Pacoima. She is involved in Tamaya's Calvary School, president of the church's General Missionary Society and lectures about self-esteem at church and youth groups in the area.

On any given day, Morris is swamped with about a dozen grandchildren until their parents get home from work. Tamaya helps out, from diapering the 4-month-old to entertaining the 5-year-olds. At night, Morris reads the Bible with Tamaya. "I don't think I'll ever have a big family like this," said Tamaya, who is a serious basketball player planning to get on her high school team.

Morris said her friends criticize her for taking care of so many children. "If I'm taking care of them at least I know they're being taken care of," Morris said. "When I need some time to myself, I just go to my room and close the door. Excuse me now, I'm going to a parents-teachers meeting."

The Cole-Olson Family

Eleven-year-old Jon Cole tells only his closest friends: "You know, my mom is gay."

Usually the friends retort in a disbelieving, "No way!" Then, Jon proves it by getting a casual confirmation from one of his four siblings, or from one of his mothers.

"After that, they believe me and they usually don't ever bring it up again," Jon said.

Jon and his siblings, Katy, 9, and Christopher, 19--who's away in Iowa at film school--have gained two new stepsisters, Chrysta, 7, and Kaitlyn, 3, since moving into their Woodland Hills home four years ago.

Their mothers--Kay Cole, 45, and Debra Olson, 43--are a lesbian couple raising children together.

"We're real comfortable in our relationship," said Cole, a real estate sales manager. "We're confident who we are. We are just a different type of family."

"Parenting doesn't change just because you're with a same-sex partner," said Olson, a mortgage broker in Beverly Hills, who is now volunteering full time on the Ross Perot presidential campaign. "The child must feel that there's love, and the greatest lesson we can teach is that we be true to ourselves."

Cole, who was a Catholic nun for a short time before she got married, said she determined she was a lesbian after 20 years of marriage. "My oldest son took it well when I told him five years ago," she said. "He was very supportive."

Jon, however, didn't care to share it with the world at first. "I just thought she had a roommate, but then I found out that she was gay," Jon said. "It was hard at first because it isn't something you see every day."

Olson had two children after being artificially inseminated by the same man. Cole and Olson met just before Cole gave birth to her second daughter. They fell in love, and raise their children with supportive fathers--Cole's ex-husband and the semen donor who has become a family friend--who visit regularly.

"They need some male role models, and we have some great people here, including their fathers," Olson said. "We are not radical feminists who don't want men involved in our lives."

The couple hasn't experienced hostility from neighbors, children's friends or school. Olson's children attend a private Northridge school where a surprising number of other parents also happen to be gay, and Cole's children go to a Catholic school.

"All their teachers know the situation and are very supportive," said Cole, who lost a few friends after she came out. "Fear comes from not knowing us.

"People who spend two hours with us and meet the children always ask us how we do it," Cole said. "It's very hard work, but I wouldn't give it up for anything."

Kaitlyn, the youngest, interrupted by calling for "Mommy-Kay."

Then Katy came up with a potentially difficult homework assignment. "I have to do a family tree."

QUOTED

"Sure, I resent sometimes that their mothers are out having a good time and their fathers are spending money on themselves when I'm the one putting shoes on their child's feet. But these kids could be homeless or into drugs or into pimps."

PRISCILLA FULTZ, 34, mother to her own children and an ever-growing clan of others

"Too bad it's so rare for a father to have custody. Some do a good job. I'm sick and tired of hearing about deadbeat fathers. Child support isn't anywhere near what it takes to raise children."

RANDY RAMSEY, 35, father of two daughters

"It's a different day and age to raise children nowadays. . . . I don't spoil kids, but they must obey. And if they need a spanking now and then, they'll get one."

ALBERTA MORRIS, 60, mother to seven, grandmother to 24 or 25, great-grandmother to five

"Parenting doesn't change just because you're with a same-sex partner. The child must feel that there's love, and the greatest lesson we can teach is that we be true to ourselves."

DEBRA OLSON, 43, mother to five

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