Sandy (not her real name) had been sexually abused as a child. Her parents divorced when she was young. She had a very difficult relationship with her mother, whom she described as “sarcastic and disrespectful.” Then at 16, Sandy had a child of her own.
“I didn’t know any other way of parenting other than how I was parented,” she said, and those lessons weren’t helpful. “You learn what you live with.”
By her early 20s, Sandy had dropped out of college and was a married mother of four. And then Sandy’s mom called child protection on her, saying her home was unfit for children. Child protection didn’t open a case, but referred Sandy to St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development.
St. David’s is one of several programs supported by Hennepin County’s Family Focused Program, which serves young families with multiple risk factors such as poverty, mental health problems, chemical dependency, domestic violence or unstable housing. The goal is to reduce the risk of future child abuse and neglect.
The county contracts with other community-based agencies for Family-Focused Program services, such as Washburn Center for Children, Fraser, and Rueben Lindh Family Services. St. Paul has a similar called Families Together.
While Sandy doesn’t believe it was her mother’s intention, the child protection call was a blessing in disguise. St. David’s provided her with the individual therapy she needed for her depression and therapeutic early childhood education for her children (meaning very low student-adult ratios). The program staff also did home visits to teach Parenting 101, such as healthy approaches to discipline.
“They gave me somebody who was able to help me open my eyes to all these unhealthy attitudes that I had grown up with,” she said.
There is lots of stigma with getting that kind of help. Consider that Sandy started the program in the late 1980s. Her youngest child is now 18. She still doesn’t want her name used.
No big picture
There are other success stories like Sandy’s and those are to be applauded. But it’s difficult to gauge the current level of parent and family support in the community. How many families like Sandy’s need help, how many are getting help and how many are just going to repeat the cycle?
As the experts are fond of saying, parents are children’s first and most important teachers. Yet the parent system, if there is such a thing, is not scrutinized like the school system. In schools, students are tested in reading and math. Schools are evaluated. There are easily accessed reports on the web.
Families are more complicated. Parent supports are not a single system but a complex network of extended family, friends, civic institutions and government-funded programs. While we know how many schools don’t make adequate yearly progress, we don’t know the State of Parenting.
Changes to parent supports can fly under the radar. As one small example, Hennepin County used to spend approximately $5 million a year for the Family-Focused Program. That was a few years ago, in better budget times. In 2009, the budget is $4.1 million. That’s a 20 percent drop.
There is lots of political pressure to preserve K-12 funding. Money often comes out of human services. Yet if young parents with lots of problems don’t get help, it means more pressure for schools in the long run.
Kay Tellinghuisen, Reuben Lindh’s In-Center Director, said the Family Focused Program goal is to get the kids ready for kindergarten—and get the parents ready to be a part of their kids’ ongoing education. The program is seeing more families with chemical dependency and mental health issues, she said. Her sense is that things are getting worse.
“We could send the kids to preschool all day long and they would learn a lot,” she said. “But if you can’t make a difference in what is going on at home, there is still going to be trouble when they go to school.”
Intensive family supports that try to break generational poverty cost a lot of money. St. Paul’s Families Together program has a $1 million budget, cobbled together with United Way, Ramsey County, federal funds and other money. At any one time, the program can serve 48 children. That’s a cost of about $20,000 a year per child.
Georgia Boehlke, early childhood and family services director for Families Together, said the program provides 3.5 hours of preschool three days a week. There is one adult for every four children. It provides mental health services and speech, occupational and physical therapy as needed. It has a psychologist and social worker on staff. It provides door-to-door transportation. All staff does home visiting.
The participating families average five risk factors. For example, Boehlke recalled one mother who had chemical dependency and other problems. Her three-year-old daughter was never sure where she would be living or who would be taking care of her. She learned not to trust grown ups.
“Domestic violence, homelessness and frightening encounters with the police were all part of this girl’s early experience,” Boehlke said, a scenario typical for about half the children in the preschool.
With funding challenges, Families Together is testing a program that would focus on home visiting, and would not include the more expensive center-based early childhood education and therapy programs. It is an attempt to see what results they could get from a less costly program.
How do programs measure success? It varies.
In Hennepin County, they check to see if the families end up in the county child protection system within two years after leaving the Family Focused Program. Programs have a 90-plus percent success rate, said Kristin Hays, a county planning analyst.
To measure school readiness, the county requires programs to use a tool called: “Ages and Stages Questionnaire: Social-Emotional.” Yet by that measure, it’s tough to tell how well the program is doing. Hayes said in an email that she hesitated to infer too much from the data. Children might qualify for special education or have a disability, she said.
Family support programs also promote intangibles. As Boehlke said: “Our work is to help these parents recognize the love they have for their children, celebrate the growth and advancement of their children and show them how they can have a part in that growth.”
Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.
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