In 2008 Sonoma County received 10,051 calls to their child abuse hotline. 2,638 reports were serious enough to require investigation. 174 children were removed from unsafe and abusive homes.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month in the United States. One organization that works directly with families and children on this issue is the Santa Rosa based non-profit California Parenting Institute (CPI). Lydia Stewart has been on the Board of Directors for the past 8 years and board secretary for a year. A recipient of the CPI Volunteer of the Year Award, Lydia lives in Sonoma County with her husband and three boys. Lydia started off by admitting she’d just recently stopped referring to CPI as a non-profit agency, but a “social profit” agency. By the end of the interview, I understood what she meant, given CPI’s array of community class offerings from Teen Parenting to A Star is Born to Parenting with an Ex-partner.
How did you become involved with the California Parenting Institute?
When my first son was 6 months old, I took an infant massage class offered by CPI. I was interested in taking parenting classes, but I noticed they were all listed to run for times during the day. So I said, “Why don’t you call yourselves a stay-at-home parenting organization? How are working dads or moms ever going to be able to take your classes?”
The instructor I made the comment to said, “Why don’t you join our board? We could really use someone with that kind of direct input…” And so I did (join the board). Making weekend and night classes available was my first focus-and now we offer night and weekend courses.
And while I’ve always loved being a stay at home mom, I’ve noticed that one’s focus is limited. You still want to feel like you’re able to do something and be able to broaden your focus. Volunteering at CPI makes me feel I’m making a difference in the whole community and in the world at large.
Can you talk about some of your favorite projects you’ve been involved with?
We started a program called “Open Closet” with the understanding that we served a broad spectrum of families from the wealthy to the homeless. For awhile we had a 1000 square foot warehouse our parent educators could walk into and pick and choose items from high chairs, strollers and books to toys and pacifiers for families in need. A family, for example, might be just about to get their children back from foster care and need furnishings or equipment for the children or even clothing for the parents.
At the end of the year we’d have a garage sale, earning up to $2000 dollars we reinvested in CPI to broaden our offerings. “Open Closet” not only gave people the opportunity to give, but provided relief to families in need. We no longer run open closet because two years ago we merged with another non-profit, Children’s Care Counseling, and found we needed to use that space for offices. Now in addition to parent classes, we are able to offer therapy. We have 12 licensed therapists ranging in cost from free to a sliding scale. We get many referrals for severely abused children. We have the ability to send licensed therapists for in-home visits for parents and children in a variety of traumatic situations. For example, in a recent incident involving a car accident in which both parents were seriously injured while the children looked on from the back seat, CPI was able to send a therapist to the home.
We also have a literacy program, work with the Boys and Girls Club at Southwest Health Clinic, and provide space for the Breastfeeding Coalition of Sonoma County (which does advocacy work and employs lactation specialists). Some of our classes include Dad’s classes for teenage Dads, and Raising Daughters, Raising Sons; we also host Teen Mom classes at Southwest Health Clinic in Santa Rosa. In addition, we provide supervised visits for parents who do not have custody of their children so they can visit in a safe, supervised space. Our “Star is born” program helps families with their newborn infants up until that infant has become 2 years old. You can take a class at 0-3 months, bring your baby and get to know other moms while you learn about ages and stages and child development. Classes continue for 3-6 month olds, 6-12, and 12-18 month olds, and you can form your relationships with other moms. As we all know, it is those relationships that help you get through motherhood.
We do a lot of advocacy work, lobbying for children’s rights. Birth certificate fees are the only monies in California earmarked specifically for preventative care for children. Our Executive Director, Robin Bowen, presented at the legislature and drew attention to how important it was to reserve this money for preventative care like the classes offered at CPI. Grace Harris, Director of Programs, is also a part of the Sonoma County Mental Health Coalition on behalf of children’s mental health.
How do most families come to be served by CPI’s programs?
Some are court ordered. Some come on their own; they may have lost their kids, or be a family going through divorce, or simply struggling with one particular issue (positive discipline, sibling rivalry, tantrums; maybe they have a new baby and want information on how to be a better parent). Most of the Sonoma County judges will order parents filing for divorce to take one of our courses, such as Parenting with an
Ex-partner which helps people learn how to parent as divorced partners. Through the Kid’s Turn program, therapy is available to everyone in the family.
A good number of women come our way via The Living Room, which is a Women’s Day shelter, as part of getting back on their feet. The Living Room opens at 6 a.m. to provide breakfast, then offers lunch as well, since most shelters aren’t able to offer much past a bed to sleep in. Computers are on-site for the women to use while they put their lives back in order.
Where do you see CPI heading?
Given the economy, we’ve had to lay some people off and cut some programs. Donations are down. But the backbone is here-I mean, CPI has been here for over 30 years. We are able to still offer services. And here’s an interesting fact: 80 percent of all donations come from people who make less than $50,000 a year, so often those with money don’t donate. And you have to think about the trickle down to families and children: as the economy goes bad, the need for our services becomes greater. When the money is gone, parents have less patience and there’s likely more yelling, more temper flares. So it is sad we actually have more kids we need to see and less money to pay the caregivers.
Can you share an inspiring story or two with us?
As you know, April is Child Abuse Awareness month. Once we invited Victor Rivers to speak to a room full of health professionals, sheriffs, detectives, etc. Rivers, an actor well known for his role as the Hulk, spoke about his childhood during which he was severely abused (tortured, hidden in the closet, his food withheld). His message was that it takes only one person to change a child’s life. For him it was a teacher who told him he was valuable. Today he is a father and a successful hero.
Another speaker we featured once was the father of a son murdered in a gang execution. The son, while delivering pizzas as a college student, was killed by a 14 year old gang member. At first, the father, a world banker, was angry. Then he started thinking about it: “You know it was my responsibility too…what am I doing to help these kids who feel they have no other opportunity. I am just working and giving my kids what they need…We are actually responsible for all children…” And this father eventually became best friends with the grandfather of the 14 year old who killed his son and the two of them lecture together on forgiveness. The 14 year old was the youngest boy ever tried as an adult. The father has forgiven him and made it clear the day he gets out of prison there is a job waiting for him in his firm.
You can take a tragedy and make it joyous, and make something good of it. You get to choose when something bad happens to you how you want it to play out.
Can you share a story or two about individual client successes at CPI?
I can refer you to Director of Programs Grace Harris, MFT. Here are two stories from her files:
1. One mother we visited earlier in the year after referral from a medical provider seemed anxious and worried. She said she was losing patience with her son and he wouldn’t listen to her. It turned out that this mother was grieving after the death of her own mother in [another country]. She had wanted to go see her, but was in the process of getting her permanent residency papers and was told she could not leave the country. Our parent educator referred her to a Spanish speaking hospice provider to help her deal with her grief and the mother found that quite helpful. The mother later admitted she was not playing with her son as much as she did before the death and she felt guilty about that. Our parent educator told her about going to the library with her curious son and also gave her ways she could let him help her around the house. It really helped their relationship improve. As the mother began to feel better she was encouraged to participate in our Kindgergym classes. This gave her an opportunity to meet other mothers. By the time the holidays arrived, she was feeling a lot better and was able to bring a traditional dish [from her country] to the Kindergym Posadas celebration and to tell everyone how much she loved that dish when her mother made it for her.
The case that most touched me this year was that of a mother who had been an addict from the age of 13. She became pregnant when she was 27 and although she was very bonded to her daughter, she struggled to overcome her addiction to drugs. Her daughter was placed in foster care and then in kinship care with an aunt. The mother continued in her recovery program and began to take classes at CPI. She has been clean and sober for 2 years and requested extra help with her now 7 year old daughter. The mother felt very guilty about the years her daughter had spent in alternate care and thus, had a hard time setting limits with her when she behaved badly. She wanted her daughter to know that she really loved her. The mom benefited by viewing [a video] about Positive Relationships. She did not have a model of affection and positive attention. She learned to really pay attention to her daughter when she wanted to tell her something. She loved learning to praise the positive things her daughter did and said it was easy to find those things. “She is polite to other adults, she gets herself ready for school in the morning on time and she helps me pack her lunch.” She also was “getting used to” sitting close to her on the sofa when they are watching movies together. Mom also bought some board games they could play together and found out that her daughter still enjoyed being read to.
Mom also learned that she could guide her behavior by giving clear and calm instructions. She learned how to think of consequences that would fit misbehavior and how to apply those consequences consistently. When her daughter really misbehaved, she enforced time outs in her room. Mom continues to be committed to being clear about her directions. She said she now understood that being a mom meant “being the one who makes the rules.”
This mother and her young daughter are doing amazingly well. They have a close and affectionate relationship. The daughter feels safe in her home with her mom and the mother feels more confident in her role as a parent. The mother is grateful that she was given more than one chance to be in a recovery program and feels that parenting support has let her turn herself in to a good mom. Our parent educator described this mom as “very caring and responsive to suggestions and feedback.” She believes this mom and her daughter will continue to have a happy and fulfilling life together.
–Grace Harris, MFT
Director of Programs, CPI
Any personal experiences for you Lydia, with your work over the years you’d like to share?
I had an experience once with Open Closet. This family got their kids back, and I helped them move in their furniture. I felt that sense of one degree of separation. This mother had started using drugs at 13, got pregnant at 15, made a few bad choices. I just felt how close it was: I could have been her. That was really hard. But it sure made me happy to come home to my husband and my kids and my duplex.
What is your vision for you?
Every time a paying job position comes up I consider it, but I still have young children. In two years maybe I’ll be ready! I feel like as a stay-at-home, you don’t always see the opportunities. But let me end with a quote which hangs in my kitchen above my sink where I can see it and remember it, not only about my child, but all children. Every year we have a Harvest Dinner and Live and Silent Auction at Rodney Strong Vineyard to raise money for CPI where we give out a 100 Year Award, which consists of this framed verse: A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, the car I drove, the kind of clothes I wore, but the world may be much different because I was important in the life of a child.”
Lydia Stewart will be speaking at The Twin Hills Union School District Faculty Meeting and the PTA to present all the upcoming activities for the month at CPI and will be hosting an informational outreach table at the 2010 Non-Profit Conference by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County: March 26, 2010 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel. For more information on the conference: call the Volunteer Center: 573-3399
For Child Abuse Prevention Month, CPI will be offering a number of free events, such as Disciplining without Spanking, Grandparents Parenting Again Luncheon, and the Toolbox Class. Speaker Robin Karr-Morse, author of Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence, “offers a shocking but empowering message: to understand violent behavior, we must look earlier, before adolescence, before grade school, before preschool-to the cradle.” For more information on Karr-Morses’s presentation, email email@example.com.
CALIFORNIA PARENTING INSTITUTE “Happy Childhoods Last a Lifetime”
Grace Harris, Director of Programs
3650 Standish Avenue
Santa Rosa, CA 95407
(707)585-6108 x 103