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STRUGGLING TO PROTECT CHILDREN : A CASE STUDY : Learning to Parent : A Volunteer’s Visits Help Turn a Family’s Troubled Home Life Around

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was no way Dina Traylor could have been prepared for what she saw during her first assignment as a volunteer parent aide.

The four-bedroom apartment lived in by a mother, “Jane,” and her seven children was filthy. There was trash piled high and mold in the bathroom. The children didn’t have beds. There was barely any furniture. Most of it had either been broken or stolen by Jane’s estranged husband.

The children, who ranged in age from 2 to 14 and subsisted primarily on bologna, cheese and Kool Aid, ate and slept on the floor. The older ones frequently skipped school and were, as casework manager Robin Beskind says, “running rampant.”

Conditions in the home--labeled “severe neglect” in child abuse parlance--were discovered after a social worker visited the apartment the day after Jane took her 2-year-old daughter to a hospital emergency room for suspected sexual molestation by the father, who had been out of the house for two weeks.

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But as the social worker quickly discovered, not only were the living conditions filthy and the home environment chaotic, the children--and the mother--had been longtime victims of the father’s physical and verbal abuse.

And in disciplining her children, Jane says, she had fallen into “a pattern of behaving just like he was.”

But that was a year ago, before Traylor, a volunteer for the Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center of Orange County, stepped in to help the mother learn how to be a good parent.

Jane’s HUD-subsidized apartment in South County is still no candidate for the pages of Better Homes and Garden, but it is now much cleaner, and the children have beds.

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Those aren’t the only changes. The kids are eating nutritious meals, and for the first time, everyone sits down as a family to eat together. Jane, whose name and those of her children have been changed to protect their identities, is taking medication for the severe depression that kept her in bed and neglectful of the children virtually all day.

“There is tremendous change in this house,” Traylor says, “and Jane embraced that. She wanted to change. I mean, she used to just sit there sometimes and say, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ ”

Jane calls Exchange Club volunteer Traylor her “surrogate mother.”

The 11-year-old Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center of Orange County, one of 80 centers sponsored by the Exchange Club nationwide, trains and supervises community volunteers who work as in-home parent aides to families suspected of or at risk of child abuse.

Volunteers make weekly home visits, teaching parenting and communication skills and problem-solving techniques.

The Orange County center receives about 90% of its referrals and about 60% of its funding from the county. It lost $50,000 a year and two employees when cuts were made because of the county’s bankruptcy.

Last year, about 50 Exchange Club volunteers worked with 293 Orange County families. Of those families, 83 successfully completed the program: The parents met the goals set for them such as improving their parenting skills and living conditions and availed themselves when necessary to medical, job training and day care resources and drug or alcohol treatment.

“The Exchange Club is heaven-sent, because I don’t know where I’d be without it,” says Jane, 34, wiping breakfast crumbs off the dining room table.

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Jane is an outspoken woman who mixes laughter with tears in telling a story that child abuse experts say is all too typical of abusive families. Jane, who receives Aid to Families With Dependent Children and food stamps but no child support, is in the process of getting a divorce through Legal Aid and has a restraining order against her husband of 15 years. His verbal abuse, she says, was like a tidal wave: “It would build, like swelling, and just waves of it would hit and subside.”

She says he’d spank the children--"in the wrong way.”

“You don’t spank a child out of anger, which is something I learned,” she says. “You conduct yourself in a teaching way to where they see what you’re making a point about, not because of anger or because of your frustration.”

When Traylor arrived on the scene last August, she was so overwhelmed by what she saw at first that she wasn’t sure where to begin. Clearing out more than a dozen Dumpster loads of trash was a start.

But during her first few visits, she and Jane just talked. Traylor, a mother of two grown children, wanted to first gain her trust.

Unlike Traylor, who grew up in a large, loving family, Jane was the victim of physical abuse as a child: Her father, she says, would punish her through humiliation, and her mother would whip her with a rubber hose.

“She was never parented,” Traylor says. “What I really feel like I’ve done with Jane over the past year is that I have tried to be the parent to her and teach her the skills that we take 18 years to teach our children.”

The first time Traylor heard Jane yell and call her children names, “I went home and just cried because I couldn’t believe it.

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“When I tried to teach her to make dinner and sit everybody down to the dinner table, she said, ‘You know, I don’t remember my mother ever feeding me a meal.’ ”

Jane says she had no concept of what proper parenting meant. She thought she should be a friend to her children.

Traylor says she had to convince Jane that the more structured and disciplined their daily lives became, the easier it would be on the children. “They would crave that kind of behavior. They didn’t want all the freedom she was giving them.”

As Jane clamped down more and set her expectations higher, the kids responded. “I was really surprised at how quick they came around,” Traylor says. In situations where Jane had previously had no control over her children and couldn’t even get them to stay in the house, Traylor says, they now mind her. She can even get them to sit down and do their homework.

“They show her respect,” says Traylor, who also encouraged Jane to let her children talk about the past--the more they can talk and put a voice to their pain, the better.

Parent aide volunteers normally put in 16 to 24 hours a month, but Traylor logged 140 hours her first month. She’d arrive at Jane’s home in the morning and often stay past midnight.

When Traylor wasn’t at Jane’s home, she was on the phone, calling to make sure the kids were up for school in the morning and to make sure they were in bed at night.

“I have one real sense of frustration still to this day that makes me crazy,” Traylor says, “and that’s that these kids are not in school every day. I’ve gotten in my car many times and driven down here and gotten them dressed and took them to school because I somehow cannot make Jane understand the importance of it.”

Traylor has been working with Jane for nearly a year now. But this month, Traylor says, with a laugh, “I’m supposed to cut her loose. One of the kids asked me, Am I still going to be their mom’s friend? And I said I would probably be there to see them graduate from college.”

There’s another dramatic change in the home: weekly family night, a time where Jane and her seven children are physically close. Jane calls it “cuddle-bug night.”

“There were so many times that there just wasn’t affection in the house,” Jane says, holding her 3-year-old daughter in her lap.

In May, Jane received a call from her husband, who now lives in Arizona. She refused to speak to him. But after avoiding his repeated calls she finally phoned him back.

“I said in so many terms--and was not very nice about it: ‘Stay away; leave us alone. We have a life now.’ ”


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