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Placer’s invisible children have very visible challenges

KidsFirst working for innocent victims of drug epidemic, household violence
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Child Protective Services can take kids away from their parents when a house becomes too dangerous, but what happens next? When families are split apart, other family members have to step in — leaving no shortage of problems for children with lingering trauma and uncertain futures.

KidsFirst is working on this problem with its Kinship program.
 

KidsFirst will continue fundraising efforts by hosting its15th Annual Putting Children 1st Awards Luncheon during Nation Child Awareness Month in April. The lunch will be held April 4 and honors special community members who have had a positive influence in the lives of children. Sacramento Kings announcer Scott Moak will emcee the event, at which attendees are encouraged to wear blue ties. The keynote speaker is Michael Pritchard, a winner of the California Probation Officer of the Year. Pritchard’s presentations have been praised by the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Time magazine. His April 4 talk will focus on themes of working together to keep kids safe and families strong.

WHAT: KidsFirst 15th Annual Putting Children 1st Awards Luncheon.

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, April 4

WHERE: Rocklin Event Center, 2650 Sunset Blvd., Rocklin

COST: $100 per seat

INFO: www.kidsfirstnow.org

California is rife with bleak statistics around the failures of its foster care system, though a Roseville nonprofit is at the forefront of keeping endangered and at-risks kids from ever being exposed to those potentially tragic cracks, giving the family members of drug addicts every tool to care for a child who’s been taken away from a biological parent because of abuse, neglect or the chaos of a criminal household.

KidsFirst calls this special support its Kinship program. But don’t be fooled by the special anthropological name: This mission is nothing less than a battle for the psychic health and realistic futures of some of Placer County’s most traumatized little ones.

In 2011, Placer County’s Child Protective Services worked on more than 3,500 cases of child abuse or neglect. Many are linked to living conditions and safety risks posed by parents addicted to methamphetamine, heroin or pharmaceuticals. Other cases involve extreme alcoholism. When any investigation results in CPS workers deciding a child must be legally taken from a parent, a judge attempts to put that child in the custody of a responsible family member, rather than directly into the foster care system. There are statistical reasons for hesitating about foster care. According to a 2011 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, while numerous California foster homes have good “achievements” to report, teenagers coming out of the state’s foster care system are at an usually high risk for becoming unemployed, homeless and drawn to criminal behavior.

During a recent court case in Placer County, it was revealed that two teenage victims who were allegedly being controlled with drugs and “pimped” for sex by adults in Roseville were both products of the region’s foster care system.

Oftentimes, when a judge tries to place an at-risk child with family members, it’s grandparents to which the court turns.

“A lot of times, when a CPS investigation lands a child with family members it comes as a complete surprise to them,” said Monika McDonald, a case manager at KidsFirst who supervises the Kinship program. “It can be very overwhelming, especially for grandparents who haven’t been raising kids for decades.”

McDonald has noticed that everything from the rapidly expanding role of advance technology in schools to generational differences in parenting styles has a dizzying effect on most grandparents and older family members suddenly thrust into being parents again.

“If a child is coming from a crisis situation — drug home or being exposed to domestic violence, they are going to have an even harder time adjusting,” McDonald observed. “That makes things even more challenging. That’s where we come in, to provide support in the process, so we can help alleviate the stress for family members and they can in turn focus more on the child.”

When a family comes to KidsFirst looking for help, McDonald and her co-workers start with a comprehensive needs assessment. Often they provide separate counseling to both the child and newly appointed parent. They also offer parent-child interactive therapy, which allows the family member to do activities with the child while a parenting coach watches through an invisible window and gives directions in an earpiece.

Jessica Waterford of KidsFirst has supervised parent-child interactive therapy and thinks it goes a long way in helping new parents identify a child’s disturbing emotions. It is also meant to establish boundaries and guide children out of unhealthy behaviors.

“A lot of times, a school teacher will see these kids acting out in class, but they don’t see everything that happened before inside the child’s former home that caused all of these issues,” Waterford said. “When a child is constantly engaged in embarrassing behavior in public, it can be very isolating to the grandparent or family member. That’s one thing we try to address with parent-child interactive therapy. It’s also why we get the parents into support groups, so they can talk to other new parents who are going through the same thing.”

Another element of the Kinship program is the Homework Club. Run by KidsFirst’s credentialed teacher William Burns, the club helps kindergartners through sixth-graders develop fundamental skills to succeed in school while working on the challenges of socialization. Children in the club also create weekly art projects.

“The homework club is a time for the kids to be themselves — it’s a kind of safe haven,” Burns explained. “It’s amazing to see what they are capable of when they get someone helping them with their drive and showing them a rewards system for their hard work. The other advantage is that if they need that one-on-one attention, they can get it here.”

All services connected to the Kinship program are provided by KidsFirst free of charge. KidsFirst’s main office is in downtown Roseville, though it provides services for all of Placer County, as well as Citrus Heights.

Lisa Velarde, chief executive director for KidsFirst, thinks with the approach of April — National Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month — it’s a good time to reach out to the public to offer insights to services like the Kinship program.

“Programs like Kinship are about breaking a cycle,” Velarde said. “It’s about working with these families in a way that can lead them into a new future.”

For Linda Clarey of Rocklin, the Kinship program has done exactly that. Clarey continues regularly make trips to KidsFirst’s office, where she and adopted daughters Alyssa, 2, and Eliana, 4, are rebuilding their lives in the wake of a mother’s drug addiction. Clarey is relative of Alyssa and Eliana, though not the girls’ biological grandmother. Clarey took responsibility for the girls because she didn’t want them to be raised by strangers in foster care. But at first good intentions did little to slow the daunting challenges around raising these sisters. Eliana was born addicted to heroin, methadone and cocaine. Clarey has had custody of her since she was released from the hospital. The child’s first two years on earth were marked by storms of aggression and unsafe behavioral tendencies. Clarey eventually turned to KidsFirst and its Kinship program.

“The program was a life-saver,” Clarey told the Press Tribune. “I was at a point where I thought I was going to go crazy. She would have rages that were uncontrollable. I had never heard of Kinship before, but once we were here, the KidsFirst staff not only helped me, they helped her. Her behavior is like night and day now, and she gets along great with her sister. They have a good bond today. I’m a strong believer in KidsFirst and especially the Kinship program, because it’s really been amazing.”