Guardian House acts as a safety net for fam­i­lies in times of cri­sis

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DEKE FAR­ROW jfar­[email protected]­bee.com

Warm pan­cakes per­fumed the air one Oc­to­ber morn­ing at Guardian House. Tod­dlers in high chairs ate as older chil­dren who’d al­ready had their snack played in a spa­cious back­yard.

As Chil­dren’s Cri­sis Cen­ter of Stanis­laus County Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Colleen Gar­cia walked among lit­tle kids climb­ing on play sets or zip­ping along walk­ways on tri­cy­cles, sev­eral greeted her with hugs and hel­los or ex­cit­edly shared the news of their day with her.

To the ca­sual ob­server, it looked no dif­fer­ent from a preschool or day care, with the great ma­jor­ity of the chil­dren be­ing un­der the age of 6.

But the re­al­ity is that many of the young chil­dren who come to Guardian House al­ready ex­hibit trauma-re­lated be­hav­ior, rang­ing from be­ing with­drawn to act­ing out. Be­cause Guardian House is one of five chil­dren’s shel­ters the Cri­sis Cen­ter op­er­ates for abused, ne­glected and high-risk youths from in­fancy through age 17. The oth­ers are Verda’s House in Tur­lock, Mar­sha’s House in Ceres, and Au­drey’s House and Sawyer House, both in Modesto.

Like the oth­ers, Guardian House is a safety net for fam­i­lies, Gar­cia said. “Our pur­pose is to pro­vide a safe place for chil­dren dur­ing crit­i­cal times of fam­ily strife or con­flict or chal­lenges that would ei­ther put the chil­dren in a risk sit­u­a­tion or dis­tract the par­ents from the needs of the chil­dren.”

Many of the chil­dren at Guardian House come from fam­i­lies in which par­ents are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ad­dic­tions, men­tal health prob­lems and/or home­less­ness. More than 75 per­cent have parental sub­stance abuse as a fac­tor putting them at risk, Gar­cia said.

“Most par­ents us­ing our serv- ices have had dif­fi­cult or trau­matic events from their own child­hood, so a lot of those is­sues are be­ing brought in to their own par­ent­ing,” she said. “It’s al­most au­to­matic that as par­ents, we tend to re­peat at least some of how we were par­ented.”

Chil­dren are of­ten in need of a bath, some­times in di­a­pers they’ve worn far too long, or in clothes well past need­ing wash­ing. Some have lice; once in a while, staff will en­counter cases of sca­bies.

The big­gest of the Chil­dren’s Cri­sis Cen­ters five houses, Guardian has a ca­pac­ity of 38. It opened smaller in 2002, but ex­panded. Overnight stays — kids only, par­ents may be in adult shel­ters — are more com­mon in the cold, wet months. In fairer weather, chil­dren are dropped off and picked up through­out the day and evening, as par­ents take classes, go to ap­point­ments, un­dergo sub­stance-abuse treat­ment or oth­er­wise seek as­sis­tance to im­prove their sit­u­a­tions.

The chil­dren typ­i­cally are hun­gry. So pro­grams and ac­tiv­i­ties at Guardian House tend to oc­cur be­tween break­fast, morn­ing snack, lunch, af­ter­noon snack and din­ner.

The Cri­sis Cen­ter runs its pro­gram un­der a De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion model for high-risk chil­dren, Gar­cia said, and de­vel­op­men­tal spe­cial­ists put to­gether a child’s ac­tiv­i­ties plan based on a thor­ough as­sess­ment of his

or her needs and abil­i­ties. For the kids, learn­ing at Guardian House should feel like play­ing, she said. “Through a child’s eyes, it’s a fun place, a com­fort­able place. That’s why all of our shel­ters are in homes.”

At the Oak­dale shel­ter, that warm, homey feel­ing is cre­ated in part by beau­ti­ful mu­rals painted by vol­un­teers through­out, and by bed­rooms and ac­tiv­i­ties rooms with themes in­clud­ing horses and ocean life.

Work­ing di­rectly with chil­dren is, eas­ily, the most re­ward­ing job at Guardian or any of the Cri­sis Cen­ter’s homes, Gar­cia said. The most dif­fi­cult is be­ing a case man­ager, work­ing with par­ents to as­sess what’s hap­pen­ing in the fam­ily and putting to­gether an im­prove­ment plan.

It can be tough to hold par­ents ac­count­able for change, she said. In many cases, fam­i­lies are di­rected to the Cri­sis Cen­ter be­cause law en­force­ment and Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices al­ready have been in­volved.

Some par­ents are more co­op­er­a­tive and open to chang­ing their ways. But some come only be­cause a so­cial worker has told them that if they don’t, their chil­dren could end up in fos­ter case, Gar­cia said. It’s not hard for staff to em­pathize with the par­ents they deal with, many of whom went through ter­ri­ble things as chil­dren, she said. “But now they’re in a sit­u­a­tion where they’re mov­ing from vic­tim to per­pe­tra­tor.”

So it’s im­por­tant for par­ent clients to know they can bring their kids to Guardian House not just when they have a class, treat­ment ses­sion or other ap­point­ment, but any time they’re at their wits’ end and think they’re “los­ing it,” Gar­cia said. “We want them to bring their chil­dren here when they feel like they can’t han­dle it, be­cause that’s when chil­dren get hurt.”

The bulk of the Chil­dren’s Cri­sis Cen­ter fund­ing — 75 per­cent to 80 per­cent year to year — comes from govern­ment grants, pri­mar­ily the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, Gar­cia said. The rest comes from char­i­ta­ble dol­lars.

What the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion pays doesn’t fully cover the cost of serv­ing a child, she said, and that’s in­ten­tional. It wants par­ents to be charged a small amount to make up the dif­fer­ence. But “we don’t charge our par­ents any­thing,” Gar­cia said. “We are re­mov­ing all bar­ri­ers that may pro­hibit them from uti­liz­ing our ser­vices.

“And, sadly, some par­ents would rather spend that money on a pack of cig­a­rettes than a place for their child. Or if they’re drug ad­dicted, that’s where the fam­ily re­sources are go­ing, into sup­port­ing their sub­stance abuse.”

JOAN BAR­NETT LEE [email protected]­bee.com

The pro­gram at Guardian House, on West F Street in Oak­dale, is run un­der a De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion model for high-risk chil­dren.

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