When Karen's son, William, did something to upset her, her anger was overwhelming. A knot tightened in her stomach. Her fists clenched. Blood rushed to her head, her heart beat faster.
Sometimes she yelled at the 13-year-old boy. Sometimes, she slapped him.
"I was so angry I just didn't care," she said. "I just wanted to hit him. I just wanted him to shut up."
The frustration built even more quickly in her husband, Robert, who occasionally grabbed for his belt.
"I'd rake him over the coals and make him cry," he said. "Then I'd feel like crap."
The couple, both in their late 40s, finally realized they had gone too far and decided to seek help.
Now, Karen and Robert are learning to control themselves through an abuse prevention program called SafeFamily Services. They meet with a case manager each week who teaches them ways to discipline without hitting.
Offered by Camarillo-based Interface Children Family Services, SafeFamily Services has worked for 24 years to prevent child abuse and neglect in Ventura County homes. Although critics say the program is too lenient and puts children in danger of further abuse, supporters argue that it helps keep more families together and assists parents in raising their children better.
"Just removing a child from a parent is not a panacea to child abuse and neglect," said Cezanne Totton, program assistant for the county's Human Services Agency, which contracts with Interface to provide the abuse prevention services. "It would be wonderful if we had a crystal ball and we could say that parents are definitely dangerous or definitely not dangerous. But we don't have that. So we try to keep families intact so we aren't doing any more damage [to children] than what they have already experienced."
Nearly 100 physically or emotionally abusive parents are participating in SafeFamily Services, according to program manager Bob Young, but on average 170 families are served by the program each year. About 40 families are currently on a waiting list. And Human Services officials say they are currently handling between 700 and 750 active child abuse or neglect cases in Ventura County.
Some families are referred to SafeFamily Services by schools or medical clinics and are considered "voluntary" clients. Others are sent to the program by child protective services and ordered by the court to participate or risk losing their children. Still others have already had their children temporarily removed from the home, and are trying to regain custody.
During the program--which usually lasts six months--caseworkers visit the homes to observe how parents interact with their children and offer parenting advice.
Often, the parent training is in conjunction with more intensive family therapy to understand the origins of the abuse. Caseworkers also teach parents about child development stages and help them develop appropriate rules and consequences depending on the ages of their children and on the behavior.
For example, an appropriate consequence for a teenager staying out past curfew could be an earlier curfew the next night, rather than a punishment of having to clean the bathroom.
Robert said he still struggles to demand less from his son. Rather than making William keep his room clean, for example, Robert and Karen only require him to keep his stuff out of the living room and kitchen.
"You have expectations, and when those aren't met, it results in disappointment," he said. "And the disappointment turns into anger."
He used to think that spanking William was the only way to change his behavior. But it didn't work. He thought hitting William would make him feel better. But he just felt worse.
SafeFamily Services workers stress that parents should always be calm before responding to a child.
"If you deal with your child when your emotions are high, you are not going to do what you were taught," Young said. "You are going to do what was done to you."
And often that means repeating a cycle of physical or emotional abuse.
When 31-year-old Laura was a little girl, her mom worked and left her with an aunt who screamed and hit her. Sometimes, even though she was afraid of the dark, Laura would be locked in the house by herself at night as punishment.
So when Laura had her own kids, she said she only knew one way to control them--through harsh discipline.
"No one told me how to be a mother," Laura said. "No one knows how to be a parent until they have kids."
For almost two years, Laura has been meeting with a SafeFamily caseworker. Now when she gets angry with her three children, she first counts to 10 or retreats into her bedroom. Then, instead of hitting them, she sends her children to their rooms for about 10 minutes before doling out a punishment, such as a night without television or Nintendo.
Critics worry that SafeFamily Services may put children at risk of more serious abuse and neglect. They point to 2-year-old Joselyn Hernandez, who was fatally abused by her parents in 1996 after social workers had placed her in protective custody and then returned her to them 18 months later.
Joselyn was originally removed from her home at 6 weeks of age after suffering nine broken ribs and two broken ankles. After her parents completed classes, she was returned to them. That's when she was burned and beaten to death.
The parents' trial resulted in a first-degree murder conviction for the father and a second-degree murder conviction for the mother, and long prison sentences for both, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona, who prosecuted the case. Both parents were convicted on several counts of felony child abuse.
Corona, who supervises the district attorney's family protection unit, said caseworkers need to be vigilant during home visits to make sure parents aren't lying that abuse has stopped.
In some situations, Corona said, children should be removed from a home and not reunited with their parents. But if the court decides that the children should stay, she said, involving experienced and trained home-care workers can only help.
Totton and Young both maintain that removing every child from a home with abuse or neglect would be counterproductive and costly. A child in protective custody can cost the county up to $32,000 annually, but a child served by SafeFamily Services costs only about $2,000 per family, Young said. And often, there is more than one child in the home.
"From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, you can't solve society's problems by pulling every child out of the home," Young said. "And from an emotional standpoint, a child needs a sense of belonging, and he's not going to get that in a foster home."
Totton said placing a child in protective custody could actually be considered more of a punishment for the child than for the parents. Sometimes, children removed from their parents suffer from separation anxiety or attachment disorders, affecting their ability to form bonds with people as adults.
"It's not that we aren't concerned about risk," Totton said. "We are. But children have significant ties with their families, and when they are removed it is seriously traumatic."
Even if children were removed from every home where there was abuse or neglect, there wouldn't be enough places for them to go, Totton said. There simply aren't enough foster or adoptive parents in Ventura County.
So unless the child is at risk of serious injury or death, the county and the courts will do everything they can to keep families together, Totton said.
But SafeFamily Services isn't the right solution for every family. If parents do not meet the most basic rules--like always keeping their children clean, fed and healthy--the agency may recommend that the child be placed in protective custody.
Parents with substance-abuse problems often have the hardest time making it through the program, Young said.
"We don't require them to be perfect parents, but we have some minimum standards," Young said. "We have to protect the child first. And if we feel the parent can't protect the child, we'll give up."
Both Robert and Karen say the program is helping them. Robert is learning not to make a big deal out of minor situations, and Karen is learning to talk out her frustrations.
During a recent meeting, the Camarillo couple talked with their case manager Gale Albright about healthy communication and reviewed their family rules and consequences. Some of the family rules include no swearing or use of physical force, and being patient, kind and responsible. And consequences include cleaning the toilet, sweeping the patio, writing an apology letter and having a "time out."
Finally, they took turns reading through a work sheet called "Why Yelling Doesn't Work."
"Yelling is scary for a child," Robert read. "Yelling at your child teaches him the best way to solve a problem is to lose control," Karen read.
Robert said he is trying to be a better dad to William. "I would like my son to look back and say, 'I had a pretty good dad.' I don't want him to look back and say, 'I had a dad who was a creep and all he did was put me down.' "