Family Matters

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Landover Hills, Md.

Playing on the floor of her family's two-bedroom apartment, 6-year-old Emerald Gonzalez looks pleased with herself as she runs her hands over her freshly plaited hair. "Only five more to go," she says, fingering the plaits that don't already have barrettes on them. Searching for missing ones, she rifles through a potted plant on the living-room floor, strewing leaves in a circle on the rug.

When her mother, Ingrid, emerges from the kitchen, she spies Emerald amid the scattered leaves and scolds her. "Why are you messing up the plant like that? Clean that up right now," she snaps.

Emerald tries to explain, but Ingrid has already moved on to the next problem. Courtnee and Inga, her two teenage daughters, haven't done the dishes well enough to suit her, and her 2-year-old son, Jos‚--known as Jo-Jo--is getting rambunctious again. As she scoots about the apartment stirring up and trying to settle squabbles, Ingrid runs down a roster of deeper worries with James Turner, a family therapist in an intensive family-preservation program here in Prince George's County.

In the four weeks he's spent with the Gonzalezes, Turner has tried to help them learn how to get along better, while using the re-

sources at his disposal to ease some of their stresses. He helped Ingrid get a better job, pay the rent, and get food stamps, and he's worked with the family to get ongoing counseling.

Turner has also spent a lot of time trying to help the family resolve one of Ingrid's biggest concerns--getting her teenage girls to come home earlier.

"I can't sleep at night when they come home late. I'm laying like a dog with one eye open," Ingrid explains. "I just want to see them do right and good. I want for them to say, 'I don't want to suffer like my mom."'

A lot of Turner's job is like trying to find the missing barrettes or put the leaves back on the plant. You can't waste energy worrying about what's been lost; you just try to put together whatever pieces you have and make them work better. Intensive family preservation is usually invoked at a point where child-welfare officials are seriously considering removing a child from the home but believe the family could safely stay together with an extra dose of support.

A family may be considered at "imminent risk" of placement for many reasons, including abuse, neglect, juvenile delinquency, emotional problems, disruptive behavior, or substance abuse by a parent. In intensive family preservation, a caseworker works with no more than two families at a time, spending from four to six weeks helping families solve day-to-day problems. Caseworkers usually spend from 10 to 20 hours a week with the family, but they're on call 24 hours a day.

The approach taken in Prince George's County is based on Homebuilders, a model dreamed up by behavioral psychologists in Tacoma, Wash., in 1974 as a way to stem placements and keep families together. Programs using this model operate in 35 states, 15 of which are moving toward expanding their programs statewide.

Some states and jurisdictions define family preservation in different ways, and some also offer longer-term, less intensive services than Homebuilders. But some critics don't buy the premise that most children do better with their families--especially when they're very troubled ones. And some highly publicized cases of children dying at the hands of abusive parents--although rarely associated with the most intensive models--have triggered a backlash against the concept. The debate has prompted experts to re-emphasize safety issues--and to stress that no one intervention can break the stranglehold of poverty and neglect.

"It is important to get off the notion that we can create simplistic solutions to complex problems," says David Liederman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. "Each family situation is so different--we need to be able to have a whole arsenal" of strategies, he says.

"It's a false dichotomy to say it has to be family preservation vs. other kinds of services," says Susan Kelly, who heads up an intensive family-preservation program in Michigan called Families First that operates statewide and has earned high marks among experts.

Although the connection between family-preservation efforts and schools may seem tenuous, there is nothing subtle about the impact on schools when families split apart. Studies on children shunted around in foster care suggest that the merry-go-round of displacement increases the likelihood of school and social problems, sowing the seeds for future generations of at-risk children.

Because children's school performance often offers the most visible signs of family strife, family-preservation workers inevitably cross paths with schools and spend some of their time consulting with teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators.

An unusual feature of Maryland's model is that its education system is part of the network of agencies that targets families for family-preservation services if children are at risk of residential special-education placements and could be served equitably closer to their families.

But it is in a broader conception of family preservation, experts say, where schools can play the most critical role--not only in detecting warning signs of abuse and neglect, but in helping coordinate and house services from child care to health care.

"If you define it more broadly and add prevention to it, schools are a natural place" to team up with a variety of social-service partners, says Alvin Sallee, a professor of social work at New Mexico State University and a co-editor of the Family Preservation Journal, a new biannual published by the university's Family Preservation Institute.

One thing that is clear is that the current system is ill-equipped to serve the rising numbers of children who need a secure place. An estimated 460,000 children are now in foster care. And some 30 states and the District of Columbia are involved in lawsuits based on allegations that their systems endangered children or let them languish too long somewhere in the placement process.

Although the bulk of child-welfare dollars has traditionally gone toward out-of-home placements, "there has been a very broad recognition that we need to intervene with families earlier and in a more sustained way," notes Carol Williams, the associate commissioner of the children's bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal Family Preservation and Support Act, passed in 1993, set aside $1 billion over five years to help states explore more preventive strategies. Although the ACT offers an incentive for states to channel placement money into family preservation, the planning process was designed to bring diverse groups, agencies, and communities together to rethink the way they serve families all along the spectrum.

Advocates are hopeful that the program will survive the welfare-reform debate in Congress.

Fourteen-year-old Inga Gonzalez is determined to get off on the right foot in school this year so she can graduate with her class on time and fulfill her dream of going to college and starting her own business. The perennial honor-roll student slipped badly in the 9th grade and knows she has a lot of catching up to do. "I got too wrapped up in my friends and made friends who were into skipping school," she says. "It's not that the work was hard--it has always come easy to me. But I would be lazy and not pay attention and missed too many classes."

Inga says she doesn't spend so much time out with her friends to "be bad"--she's just restless and bored and tired of the arguments; it seems to her that no one is really listening. Inga gets angry when her mother launches into a tirade of accusations she doesn't think are warranted, but she understands her mom is under stress.

"She doesn't always talk about money, but I can tell by her face that she thinks about it all the time," Inga says. "I've told her she can't keep expecting me to fail because she did. I'm not going to drop out of school, and I'm not going to have kids before my time. I want her to know that I know how to say no if I don't want to do something."

Inga has tried to make amends when she has upset her mother--like the time several weeks ago when she and her boyfriend shared a "40"--a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor.

"I felt really bad, and I apologized," she says.

Turner tries to help Inga think through steps she can take at school and at home to show her attitude has changed. He also encourages her to talk to her mother about her career goals, and he even makes a stop at the mall with her to buy her construction paper she can use to create a collage laying out her career options. His ulterior motive is to help open up the lines of communication.

"Ask your mother to help you with this," he suggests.

Turner became involved with the Gonzalezes, Ingrid says, when she got reported to social services for hitting Inga with a belt. She didn't realize it had a studded end that would sting so much; the welts were visible when Inga went to school. She was angry because Emerald and Jo-Jo's father found Inga and some boys at home and smelled marijuana. Ingrid had to leave work in the middle of a shift, and her boyfriend was threatening to take the younger children away.

When social-service workers came to investigate, Ingrid says, Inga assured them her mother had never beat her before.

The philosophy behind Turner's approach is that families have a better chance when they get help solving problems close to home from people who understand their circumstances, treat them as individuals, and help them tap their own strengths and make use of community resources. Many states, including Maryland, have used these principles as the basis for making major changes in the way they work with families.

In 1988, Maryland launched an effort to reform its child-welfare system under a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Prince George's, which was the pilot site, used the Casey money to launch its family-preservation program and other community-based services. The county now pays for these services itself using money it saved on placements and redirected from other sources, such as Medicaid.

The plan also paved the way for a number of mechanisms to coordinate services, including a state-level subcabinet for children, youth, and families and local governing boards that have substantial power to plan and direct community programs.

As part of a group of agencies that has pooled funding for children's programs, the state education department has tried to shift more money to school and community services so the state won't have to send so many children with severe emotional problems to expensive out-of-state treatment centers. The commission for children, youth, and families, the local governing board in Prince George's County, has worked extensively to pinpoint the needs of the community and fill the gaps so that more forms of help--some linked to schools--are available before and after placement is warranted.

Thirteen-year-old Courtnee has been trying to hold up her end of a compromise Turner helped the family work out. If she doesn't make her 11 p.m. curfew, she will at least call and let her mother know where she is.

Like Inga, Courtnee still feels stung by Ingrid's verbal outbursts, but she says Turner has helped Ingrid see their side. "He's trying to give us better ways to handle things--to do things that please each other, to discuss things," she says. They also tell each other, "I love you," more often.

Using the image of a thermometer rising to boiling, Turner has helped Courtnee chart steps she can take when sorrow or anger start to engulf her--like listening to music, talking to friends, drawing, or writing out her thoughts. He's also arranged for a counselor to start meeting with her.

Recently, Courtnee's been seeking solace in church. "I don't have religion, but I went to church and asked God to help me with things--to help me understand things," she says. "I'm not going to believe in something I can't see, feel, touch, or hear. But if I were going to believe, I'd want to know, 'Can you help me with my family?"'

When Courtnee was 7, her father, whom she and Inga were living with in New York, was shot and killed during a robbery while they were home. The robbers had tied up her father, and he beckoned to Courtnee to free him. But the intruders were lurking, and the little girl was understandably frozen by fear.

This year, the anniversary of his death fell on a Friday--the same day he died--and Courtnee says she woke up right around the time he died. She thinks about death, too, but she grasps that "something like that is not going to help anything."

Turner focuses on strategies to help her bounce back from low moods. He also urges her to air her feelings with the counselor and to fix her eyes on what the future may hold if she stays on track in school. Finally, he reminds Courtnee she can always call him. She smiles nervously. "I know," she says.

Helping families like the Gonzalezes get along better is part of a broader strategy to decrease placements and channel more money toward other community services. The absolute number of children in out-of-home placements in Maryland has increased since 1990. But a fiscal 1994 report shows that relative to the population, fewer children are entering out-of-home placement than projected in jurisdictions that have taken part in Maryland's "system reform" efforts. The state has also been able to redirect $3.3 million in placement dollars to neighborhood initiatives.

In Prince George's, the share of children entering out-of-home placements fell by about 19 percent between fiscal 1991 and fiscal 1993 but rose again last year. One reason residential placements are up, officials say, is because school enrollment is increasing, and schools are identifying an increasing pool of children who need treatment services not available in the community.

The county has set up sophisticated data systems to evaluate its efforts, and officials say they will take steps to place a child if a family's not cooperating and a child is still at risk. But success still rests on "the degree to which you can accurately assess" a family's capacity, notes Winifred Wilson, the director of the county's commission on children, youth, and families. And that's not always easy.

It's her day off, and Ingrid is exhausted and has a splitting headache. "On the job, I'm an actress," she says. "I can smile, but I feel like I'm eating away inside."

Although the apartment is attractively decorated and impeccably neat, Ingrid scurries around sweeping as she rehashes old and new hurts.

At one point, she grows impatient enough with Jo-Jo's exuberant interruptions to give him a few quick slaps. Over their protests, she chastises the older girls for everything from hanging around with older guys to not using their time constructively this summer ("I have not seen them read a book," she complains). But she wants them to know she appreciates the ways they help her and that she's proud of them.

"You're not bad kids, you're great kids," she tells the girls. "Our biggest problems are financial problems."

After working sporadic hours as a hostess, with Turner's help she recently landed a better job as a cashier. She's working nearly full-time, but it's still hard to budget the $670 a month she needs to pay the rent, and she's worried about buying the kids clothes and school supplies.

Her ex-boyfriend, who is Emerald and Jo-Jo's father, has agreed to give her $200 a month in child support, but he often comes up short. Ingrid talks about taking him to court but hasn't.

Ingrid was no stranger to sorrow when her former husband was killed. The two had had a stormy relationship ever since they married in their native Trinidad when she was 17. One day, he announced he was leaving her and moved to the United States. After a long hiatus, she made her way over and eventually they got back together. But their battles continued, and they had divorced the year before his death.

Although the insurance money helped Ingrid buy the family a house in Maryland, the bank foreclosed when they fell on hard times. Inga and Courtnee's school performance suffered after the move and the change in schools. Ingrid worries that they fell in with the wrong crowd.

She also worries that the girls, who look mature beyond their years, try to ACT the part and aren't guarded enough. "They don't know what people think," she says.

"My morality is from the Third World, from the islands," she says.

But her fears also have their roots in painful experiences she's lived through with her older children. She has a 20-year-old daughter who's now pregnant and has nowhere to turn, and a 28-year-old son who has done time in jail.

Her immediate concern now is finding a new apartment in a quieter neighborhood, with fewer avenues for trouble, better schools, and easier access to her job. She has to ride the bus an hour each way and has been called on the carpet a few times for being late.

Despite her frayed nerves, Ingrid has well-honed survival skills. She is slim and attractive, has dabbled in modeling, sews all her own clothes, and rides a bicycle to do her errands and burn off tension.

Turner tries at every turn to rechannel that tension into constructive action. When tempers flare, he says, "we try to stay as long as we can to diffuse the situation."

Ingrid feels despondent at times. "I feel so drained. Sometimes, I wish I could just disappear." The comforts she can't provide her children daunt her.

"I feel like I'm letting them down," she says, "but I can't do more than I'm doing because I don't have the education."

Turner patiently shifts the focus to problem-solving. They go over phone numbers and sources of help she can use to try to get various forms of aid. When the children are out of earshot, he offers advice about dwelling more on the positives with them and setting aside time for family projects.

On his way out, Turner offers to drop Ingrid off at the market. In the car, Ingrid zeroes in on how Turner's presence has helped. "He just took control of the whole situation. If not for him, I'd be in a madhouse." When she gets out, Turner is quick to shuck off the credit. "I didn't try to control anything. I was just there every day," he says.

The period of intensive services for the Gonzalez family is over, but Turner will check in with them every three months for a year. Their future, like Emerald's plant, has a lot of missing pieces, and no one can predict how they'll all come together.

Turner gets a lot of satisfaction in seeing the little steps a family like the Gonzalezes can take. But in some families, there are few signs of movement. He recently closed another case, for example, and it didn't go well. "They had their own agenda," he says, and he couldn't satisfy it. In that case, Turner made a report to child-protective-services officials suggesting that they investigate.

So far as Turner knows, none of the 30 or so families he's worked with has had a child removed from the home, and he's never recommended that a child should be.

When Ingrid couldn't pay the rent in August, her landlord told her she had to be out by Sept. 30. She's been waiting to hear if she'll get the apartment she applied for in a nearby town, but she's looking into other arrangements just in case.

In spite of the uncertainty, Ingrid is sounding a lot calmer and more in control. Things have quieted down with the girls, and she's grateful. Inga got promoted to 10th grade after all, and both teenagers are making the earlier curfew Ingrid has set now that school is in session. Ingrid's been laying off the girls more and trusting them to learn their own lessons.

She has also been working extra hours and is making progress paying off bills and buying household necessities. She even managed to buy Inga new sneakers for her 15th birthday.

"I'm just trying to get my life together and do the right things for my children that I wasn't doing before," she says. "I'm trying to be a good mother and provide the things they need.

Vol. 15, Issue 05

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