Guardian House acts as a safety net for families in times of crisis
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that many of the young children who come to Guardian House already exhibit trauma-related behavior, ranging from being withdrawn to acting out.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.”
The program at Guardian House, on West F Street in Oakdale, is run under a Department of Education model for high-risk children.